Chaotic Delhi was reluctant party to 1857 siege

By Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS,

New Delhi : The Mutiny of 1857 against the British was a time of churning for a reluctant Delhi that found the presence of “sepoys” or mutineers insufferable because of the price the common man had to pay.

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For five harrowing months of “ghadhar” – the time of turbulence in 1857 when the capital was besieged from May 11 with soldiers from Meerut – resources sunk dangerously and civilian life was thrown off the rails.

“The initial turmoil created by the arrival of soldiers in Delhi and the widespread plunder had a dimension of class war,” says historian and traditional Urdu story-teller Mahmood Farooqui in his book, “Besieged: Voices from Delhi 1857” (Penguin-India) released Thursday.

“The soldiers’ mistreatment of the city’s elite, even of the person Bahadur Shah, had been well-documented.” Bahadur Shah was the Mughal emperor at that time.

The 458-page volume decodes a section of the “Mutiny Papers” – a body of letters, missives, orders and receipts written in Persian and Urdu – to reveal hitherto unpublished nuggets of information on the mutineers and the residents of Delhi who shouldered the burden of the Meerut uprising that spread through the nation.

For Farooqui, a former journalist and co-director of the film “Peepli Live”, “the first person to inspire him to take a look at the ‘Mutiny Papers’ was William Dalrymple” while the latter was writing “The Last Mughal”.

“But the 150th anniversary of the Mutiny roped me to it. I returned to the archives – the National Archives and the Delhi Archives. I began researching for a book in 2004,” Farooqui, a scholar of history from St Stephen’s College, Oxford and Cambridge, told IANS in an interview.

“In addition to soldiers, wars require material and labour. Most of the goods and supplies were processed through the police. Working sometimes through the ‘chaudhris’ (the headmen of clans of workers), the police arranged for labour…,” the book says.

In the process, police sometimes conscripted skilled workers for manual labour and vice versa. The services of the unpaid manual labour was never sufficiently acknowledged…This subaltern class was only mobilised through coercion.

People paid the price. An order issued Aug 8, 1857, by the British Army to Delhi Police said: “Please arrest as many water carriers of the city as can be arrested and dispatch them to the gunpowder factory so that the saltpetre that is there is saved. Please regard the order as urgent…”

Food was scarce for the garrison. On July 5, in a letter, the army subedars in Delhi complained that “sugar syrups were being inequitably distributed and it should reach all army platoons”.

The paucity of food forced the army to deploy police to collect food from civilians. An undated kotwali (police station) record reads “puri-kachauri, sobal, revari, sweets collected by the thanas for the army”.

The list reveals that “Thana Chandni Chowk – puri-kachauri, sweets, oil, grains; Thana Allahabad Road – puri kachauri, sweets; Thana Guzar Dariba – puri kachauri; Thana Lahori Gate – puri kachauri, revari, sohal and sweets; Thana Rajghat – sweets; and Thana Turkman Gate – black sugar”.

To raise money for the garrison, the army imposed a tax on Muslim noblemen. The Delhi nobles from whom levies were to be collected were listed as Nawab Syed Hamid Ali Khan Bahadur – Rs.500, Nawab Hasan Ali Khan Bahadur – Rs.500, Nawab Ziauddaula, son of Hakim Alimuddin Khan – unspecified, and Wife of Nawab Shamsuddin Khan – Rs.500.

Prostitution was rampant. In a letter, the officer in charge of Dariba Kalan June 30 alleged that a courtesan, Sundar, had brought soldiers, many of whom frequented her home, to fight her tenants and “it almost led to a near riot situation”.

Another courtesan, Vaziran, was charged with “disturbing the discipline of the police and the army”. A raid on Vaziran’s home yeilded “among other things one rifle, a bundle of cartridges, a magazine, four crackers and four lead bullets”.

Recalls Syed Nazar Ali, the “officer-in-charge” of Chandni Chowk in 1857, in the “Mutiny Papers”: “When I brought the said woman to the kotwali to record the written statement, Subhan, Nandan, Bahadur, Puran and Ajaipal, soldiers of the Bailey platoon, forcibly took away the woman”.

The volume captures the horror of the siege and how the capital waited “for the ridge to fall and the kafirs to go” to pave the way for the emperor to rule once more.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at [email protected])