After 157 years of anonymous burial in a well, 282 martyrs of the First War of Independence received last respects on Friday in an all-faith ceremony at Ajnala near here.
On August 1, 1857, the British colonial rulers had shot them and dumped their bodies in Kalianwala Khuh, from where skeletal remains were exhumed in February after the private research of excavation leader Surinder Kochhar. On August 24, these remains, because of being too difficult to separate, will all be immersed in holy river Ganga at Hardwar.
Friday's tributes ceremony was at the spot where the fighters were killed. As two of the 282 martyrs were identified as Muslim, Gurdwara Shaheed Ganj Managing Committee, which had led the excavation, dropped its plans for cremation. Also it did not have the government-promised land; and the alternative space that the Amritsar district administration had offered was not free yet.
Barring the cremation, all memorial events would be held as scheduled, said Kochhar. The motorcade carrying the remains to Hardwar will leave here on August 23 at 6am; but before that, on August 22, there will be a march in Ajnala.
In April, the gurdwara committee had started the process of giving the martyrs a decent farewell when it immersed four trolleys of the mud stained with their blood (which had been dug out from the well) in Ravi river, at the spot where nearly 150 of their injured colleagues of the 26 Native Infantry Regiment had drowned in 1857.
Too famished to fight
On July 30, 1857, the disarmed soldiers of 26th Native Infantry deserted Meean Mir Cantonment. Sepoy Parkash Singh "Prakash Pandey" led the revolt party, which records say comprised nearly 600 soldiers. Before leaving the cantonment, they killed commanding officer major Spencer and another officer. Aided by a dust storm, they made good their escape.
Avoiding the "normal route" (along present day national highway-1) which the British officers and their loyal Indian soldiers patrolling the main passage to Amritsar had fortified, they took the Bari Doab Canal path, moving along the left bank of the Ravi. Their aim was to enter the Jammu region, probably, and then take the hill route to Delhi and the plains of Uttar Pradesh.
The presence of mutineers in the village aroused attention, and Sultan Khan, chowkidar of Doodian, left for Ajnala to report it to tehsildar Diwan Pran Nath of Sowrian, since he was there then. The tehsildar alerted deputy commissioner Frederic Cooper and then moved in to intercept the fugitives, which he did effectively.
The sepoys were unlucky not to be able to board the only two boats available at Shapore Ghat along the Ravi. In a bloody struggle thereafter on the banks, nearly 150 wounded sepoys were drowned in the swollen river during their attempt to escape. They were in too famished to even fight the current, leave alone survive armed combat.
Around 5pm, Cooper arrived on the scene and by nightfall 282 sepoys had been taken prisoner and moved to Ajnala. Within 48 hours of the revolt, 461 had died: 150 drowned or shot by the police and the villagers, another 30 swept away in the presence of Cooper. Of the 282 brought to Ajnala, 237 were executed and 45 died of suffocation in the tehsil complex.
Heavens cried even then
History was repeated on Friday when it rained during the tributes ceremony, just as it had poured 157 years ago when the British officers had executed the sepoys. In spite of invitation, no administrative officials showed up at the function. Their disregard for the martyrs was similar eerily to that of the British rulers who had massacred them in 1857.