The people who dug out the 150-year-old remains of the 282 sepoy munity martyrs from a well at Ajnala now are building the memorial that the government promised but never delivered, while the researcher who guided them considers it against the archaeological laws.
Almost 11 months after Gurdwara Shaheed Gunj Managing Committee led the excavation last February, it laid the foundation stone of the memorial on Thursday, "Just as we had exhumed the martyrs' remains, on our own, and rebuilt the gurdwara that once stood over the well, we'll also build the memorial without any help from the government," said a member of the committee.
"The well is crumbling," said gurdwara committee president Amarjit Singh Sarkaria, "so we couldn't have waited longer for the government to start the work." Surinder Kochhar, whose research guided the villagers in excavation, has parted ways with the committee and accused it of violating the archaeological laws and usurping army land for building the gurdwara.
Sarkaria has said the locals would have located the well sooner or later without Kochhar's help. "We always knew it existed, and was going to be around the building that came up near the old gurdwara that was demolished," he said, adding: "There was a proposal to erect a memorial here, for which the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) had even sent a team over."
"The committee could have obtained the land legally by negotiating with the army and remained within archaeological laws," said Kochhar. In his opinion, since the Punjab government has failed to identify the martyrs and trace their descendants, it should seek help from the Uttar Pradesh government, since most of the martyrs belonged to that state.
On July 30, 1857, the disarmed soldiers of the 26th Native Infantry deserted the Meean Mir Cantonment. Sepoy Parkash Singh "Prakash Pandey" led the revolt party of nearly 600 soldiers, who before leaving the cantonment killed commanding officer major Spencer and another officer. Aided by a dust storm, they made good their escape but were intercepted on the banks of the Ravi.
Hungry and tired, some jumped into the swollen river, while the rest were caught. The British, later, shot 218 at Dadian Sofian village and took the decorations and necklaces off the remaining 282, whom they brought to Ajnala in batches and executed. Their bodies were dumped in a well.
In December 2012, the site of Kalianwala Khuh (black men's well) was located and renamed Shaheedanwala Khuh (martyr's well). The excavation began on February 28 last year and was completed in a few days. Then began the long wait for a decent burial and cremation for the martyrs, since the land required was unavailable.
The skeletons and other artefacts recovered from the well were put on public display. The samples stained with blood were sent for DNA testing, which is yet to be done. On April 13, last year, four trailers of mud stained with the martyrs' blood were immersed in the Ravi on the spot where 150 of their colleagues had drowned in 1857.
The cremation planned for them on August 1 last year was put off when two of the 282 martyrs were identified as Muslim. A tributes ceremony was held instead and the remains immersed in sacred river Ganga at Hardwar on August 24, 2014.