Myth and Reality
Punjab was not ‘quiet’
K.C. Yadav

“Siege Train to Delhi” near Ambala
“Siege Train to Delhi” near Ambala

A general notion persists at the level of both the historian and the layman that Punjab was “quiet” in the stormy days of 1857. The Punjabis, especially both the “dominant” communities, the Sikhs and Muslims, were, it is believed, absolutely loyal to the British, and helped them in their hour of trial.

The usual argument made for this typical behaviour of the Punjabis is that after the annexation of Punjab (1849), John Lawrence, and his band of dedicated and dynamic officers had not only turned the badly disturbed Land of the Five Rivers into the best governed province from 1849 to 1857 but had also given to its people peace, prosperity and happiness — something which they had not seen in their long history. Consequently, the “grateful” Punjabis stood by their benevolent rulers and saved their empire.

That’s untrue! Punjab was not “quiet” in 1857. Despite heavy deployment of troops (about 45 per cent of the entire Bengal army and about 60 per cent of its European troops), terribly tight bureaucratic grip over the people, and full preparation to meet any emergency on the part of the authorities, Punjab was afire, though in varying degrees. There were serious sepoy mutinies at Ferozepur, Hote Mardan, Jullundur, Phillour, Jhelum, Sialkot, Thanesar, Ambala, Hansi, Hisar, Sirsa, Lahore, Ferozepur, Peshawar, and Mianwali.

Some people underestimate these risings and negate the Punjabis’ role therein, by calling these risings as Poorbeas’ doings. This is also untrue: the regiments, which played a heroic role in these risings were the “mixed ones”. They consisted of Hindus (of high and low castes), Muslims, and Sikhs, Poorbeas and Punjabis. Through their concerted efforts, these people performed great feats.

There is yet another very interesting feature of these “mutinies”, which has remained hidden to a large extent. That is, the sepoys here did not rise anywhere without tacit understanding with and positive support of the local civil populace. Aberrationally, if they rose on their own anywhere, they did not succeed in their mission.

Ambala is a good example to prove the point. About nine hours before the outbreak at Meerut (10 May), the 5 NI, 60 NI and 4 LC regiments stationed there revolted. They attacked their regimental kotes, seized arms, and arrested their officers. They had no liaison with the civil populace in the city. Their rising failed! As opposed to this, the sepoys at Jullundur, Ludhiana, Thanesar, Hansi, Hisar, Sirsa, Ferozepur, Sialkot, etc., had leagued with their civilian brethren. They were successful.

Interestingly, we can see this phenomenon working even outside Punjab. The failure of the mutiny at Barahamur and Barrackpore, and its resounding success at Meerut, for instance, can be explained only in the light of this fact.

This revelation discredits the theory that the uprising of 1857 was a sepoy mutiny, pure and simple, and that it was started by the sepoys alone. The revolt was, at least in Punjab, everybody’s concern. Barring a few ruling princes and their hangers-on, the people belonging to different religions, castes and classes had interest - positive interest, to be precise — in it.

Surprisingly, even the poor, illiterate, the so-called outcasts were a part of it. For instance, when the “Siege Train” dispatched from Punjab to help the British forces fighting before Delhi to capture the historic city halted at Jagraon, the Sansis, Hermis, Bawarias, etc. counted the guns in the “Train” and, despite the best efforts of the district police to check them, supplied the intelligence to the rebel forces at Delhi.

“The lower orders and castes among the Hindus and Mohammedans” at his place, says the deputy commissioner of Ludhiana, “followed any casual leader that turned up and joined in promoting general disorder”.

According to the deputy commissioner of Sialkot, at his station “the menial servants were very generally implicated (in the revolt)”. At some places, where anti-Feringhee feeling was universally strong and deep, even such sections of the population who derived personal benefits from the British, and who were, for these reasons, on the side of the British almost everywhere, were not prepared to back their masters.

What about the Sikhs? They, too, were opposed to the British who had taken away their freedom, humiliated their Maharaja, and his mother, humbled their chiefs and sardars, insulted their religion and tradition, and ruined their economy and culture.

Even in the Sikh princely states, which were loyal to the British, the Sikh masses nursed a different sentiment, and, wherever they could, they sympathised with their countrymen fighting to destroy the Feringhee raj. The sentiment was so strong that, even some close kiths and kins of the Maharajas of Patiala and Nabha revolted against them for supporting “their enemies”.

On the north-western side, in the higher hills, the war-like Muslim tribes rose up and created a “people’s war” there. Most of these people did not know where Delhi was, but they stood under the flag of its Padshah, Bahadurshah and fought against the Feringhee fiercely. Their spirit was not the spirit of ordinary fighters. We saw them dancing in the face of certain death at Gogira and other places, report the British officials.

Contextually, there is an interesting story that brings home the truth clearly. There was a Swedish officer, Lieut. A.H. Lindin, who had taken part in suppressing the uprising for the British. He had no mind to write anything on the uprising. But when he saw the British writers circulating untruth, he wrote his memoirs to set the record straight. “It was not any lure of loot or attraction to lesser crime”, he wrote, “that prompted the Indians to participate in the uprising. Nobody can deny that the real stimulant of this uprising was with most people that most valuable, purest of all feelings, the love of freedom and of one’s own country”.

In this 150th year of the uprising, it seems appropriate that truth about the brilliant part of the people of Punjab in the uprising lying buried under the debris of falsehood be extricated, and presented in colours true to history.

The writer, a former Professor of History, Kurukshetra University, has written several books on 1857