Rebellion in the hills

If the hill chieftains had supported the mutineers, independence of the country would not have taken such a long time, according to Vijay Saihgal

Kangra Fort
Kangra Fort

The first war of India’s independence in 1857 by the Indian soldiers of the British army was not limited to Simla Hill states alone. With the hanging of Ram Prasad Bairagi at Ambala in that year, the British must have taken it as an end to the struggle in Hill States. But this proved otherwise. There were alarming developments in the princely states of Kulu, Kangra and Rampur Bushehar also. Bairagi and others had inspired the native sepoys to revolt against the British through secret letters and messages.

The happenings at Kasauli and Jutogh in Simla Hills had made some of the hill chieftains to rise against the British and help the mutineers. They were very few in number. But their heroic deeds put fuel to the fire. This was the time when the danger of revolt emanated from Lahore, Jullunder and Peshawar as well. At most of these places Hindustani regiments known as Nussree Batallions were posted.

It was at Kasauli that a group of native sepoys had looted the government treasury and fled to Jutogh under the leadership of Subedar Bhim Singh. A police chowky was also burnt. Their aim was to attack the British officers and families at Simla. This operation could have been successful but for the treacherous behaviour of his fellows who had leaked the plan to authorities. Bhim Singh had refused to follow orders of the British to disarm his unit and proceed to Ambala, regional headquarters of British forces.

During the second week of May 1857, the news of mutiny at Meerut and Delhi had reached Ambala through a telegram. The message was flashed to Dharamsala and Lahore as well. Outbreak of mutiny at Lahore, the capital of Punjab, and elsewhere could be dangerous for the British. "The telegram saved the British", was the instant comment of the then British Financial Commissioner of Punjab,

At Kangra some of the native sepoys of the 4th BNI had planned to kill British Officers at Kangra Fort. Major Taylor, Deputy Commissioner of Kangra, handled the situation with difficulty. Kangra police chief Husband had handed over some secret letters to him so that proper arrangements could be made in the event of upsurge in the area.

There was fear of mutiny at Nurpur also which was taken care of by Major Taylor, again with the help of Raja of Chamba. The latter had rushed three hundred sepoys for his help. The British had taken over the fort to use it for their self-defence.

Kangra, Kulu and Rampur Bushehr too had their glorious role in the war of independence, so-called "sepoy mutiny". The then Raja of Kulu Pratap Singh had dared to revolt against the British misrule and inspire people for the struggle. Veer Singh of Baijnath, an adviser to him, had helped him in the campaign. This episode was short-lived. Both Pratap Singh and Veer Singh were hanged at Dharamshala on 3rd August 1857. Very few references are available to these happenings in the contemporary history, as the British used to see things through their tinted glass only.

Shamsher Singh, the Raja of Rampur Bushehr, had refused to pay the usual nazrana to the British in 1857. This made the then Hill agent Lord William Hey to think of using force against him. As Raja Shamsher Singh had a strong following the agent changed his plans. This could further trigger trouble there. State of Rampur Bushehr stood with the people fighting for independence at the time of crisis, while other princely hill states like Keonthal, Dhami, Junga, Koti, Jubbal and Balsan helped the British to win favours. Rana Keonthal, who had helped the British during mutiny days, was rewarded with Raja’s title.

The picture would be incomplete without the mention of happenings at another hill state i.e. Hindoor (Nalagarh) and tribal areas of Lahul-Spiti. In the second week of June 1857, a group of mutineers had secretly reached Nalagarh from Jullunder. They looted the treasury and some arms. Lord William Hey, Deputy Commissioner of Simla, rushed to Nalagarh to suppress the revolt. One Capt Briggs and Mian Jai Singh of Baghal came to his rescue bringing the upsurge to on end. As such mutineers could not proceed further.

A hotel has come up at the historical site at Nalagarh. One room of the old treasury is still intact and is used as a rest room by the hotel staff.

Even the tribal area of Lahul-Spiti (then part of Punjab Hills States) did not remain unaffected. Some Indian sepoys fled from Sialkot and entered the valley through Ladakh in Jammu. They could not get local support and the mission failed. Mutineers were taken in custody. In fact, these mutineers were sent by their counterparts in Punjab to Kangra for the help of Raja Pratap Singh of Kulu. The area remained part of Punjab Hill states at that time and was not easily accessible.

As in other cases if the hill chieftains had supported the mutineers, independence of the country would not have taken such a long time.

The writer, a former Editor of Dainik Tribune, has been researching the theme