Should a memorial or a gurdwara be built in the honour of 282 Indian soldiers of the 1857 mutiny who were executed by the British at Ajnala, where their remains were dug out from a well last week?
This question has triggered a controversy with local residents, historians, politicians and Sikh clergy expressing divergent stands on the status of the rebel soldiers whose bodies were dumped into a well and remained under a mist of history for about 160 years.
Mentioned in the history books as “Kalianwala Khuh”, a reference to the dark skin of the killed soldiers, this forgotten spot of the First War of Independence came into the limelight recently when a group of locals led by intrepid history explorer-writer Surinder Kochhar undertook a voluntary excavation and unearthed tell-tale evidence of the British massacre. What they stumbled upon was an old well, located under a gurdwara , that threw up the soldiers’ bones and British-era coins and military badges.
While locals and some left-wing freedom fighters want that the dead soldiers be recognised as national martyrs and a memorial gurdwara be built in their honour, Akal Takht jathedar Bhai Gurbachan Singh and Sikh historian Kirpal Singh have opposed the demand. At the centre of controversy is the identity of the soldiers who had revolted from the Mian Mir cantonment near Lahore in the summer of 1857 and were on their way to Delhi when the British intercepted and killed them at Ajnala.
Kirpal Singh says that a gurdwara can’t be built in the soldiers’ memory because they were “Poorbias” (a term that the British had coined for the natives of central India) who had also fought against Sikhs in the Anglo-Sikh wars after the fall of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s empire in 1839. Akal Takht chief has expressed himself against dedicating the existing gurdwara that stood adjacent to the spot where the old well has been discovered. Even Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) chief Avtar Singh Makkar has expressed similar views, saying more research needs to be done on this incident before taking any final decision on the issue.
Historian’s views have shocked and angered the locals and members of the Left-wing Desh Bhagat Yadgaar Society, who held a protest in Ajnala and burnt Kirpal Singh’s effigies for giving communal overtones to the dead soldiers’ identity. They want that the remains recovered from the well be preserved in a memorial to the 1857 martyrs of Ajnala.
Satnam Singh Ajnala, a Left wing leader says: “For the jathedar, the terrorists who were killed in Punjab were martyrs but those who died fighting the British were not because they were not Sikhs.”“It is sad that we have brought religion into this whole issue. The fact is that the mutineers, who were brutally done to death by the British, were all Indian, no matter whether they were Poorbias or belonged to some other part of India,” says Kochhar.
He says that building a memorial gurdwara on the spot is not an issue. But, the government must at least recognise them as martyrs and erect a suitable memorial. He also wants the DNA tests conducted on the remains to find out the soldiers’ identity and trace their relatives.
Abhey Singh Sandhu, nephew of Shaheed Bhagat Singh, feels that the views of the jathedar have hurt the sentiments of a large section. “A number of Sikhs died while fighting against the British in West Bengal and other states. They were all recognised as martyrs. Today, the Pakistan government has recognised Shaheed Bhagat Singh as a martyr of Asia,” he added.
The state government has, so far, not taken a decision on whether or not to accord the 282 the martyr status. Director of tourism and archives NS Sandhu had visited Ajnala and said that after collecting all the facts of the tragedy, the government would give its decision. Another historian at GNDU says that the British had coined the term “Poorbia” as part of their divide and rule policy. “If we do not recognise them as martyrs, then we are playing into the hands of the British. Then why should other communities recognise the Jallianwala Bagh martyrs, most of whom were Sikhs or Punjabis. Indians who died fighting for the British during the two World Wars and at Saragarhi are still recognised as martyrs. But it is sad that we are not willing to accord this status to those who fought against the British,” he said.