Landless in Bakkargarh: A village suffers for its role in Revolt of 1857
Bakkargarh is perhaps the only village in Delhi where almost 90% of the land is owned by people outside the village.
“Most people in our village have no or little land,” says Dharampal Singh,71, standing in the middle of agricultural fields in Bakkargarh village in southwest Delhi under the hot April sun. “This vast tract of land in our village is owned by the people in the neighbouring village. Do you know why?”
The former village council chief answers his own question: “Many of our men were hanged and almost all our land was confiscated by the British and transferred to the people in Issapur, our neighbouring village, as punishment for our participation in the mutiny of 1857. But today, no one in Delhi seems to know or care about our sacrifices even as we celebrate Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav (75 years of India’s Independence).”
Bakkargarh and Issapur are two villages in Delhi’s Najafgarh bordering Haryana’s Jhajjar district. Bakkargarh is perhaps the only village in Delhi where almost 90% of the land is owned by people outside the village .
Dharampal’s version of how people in his village were rendered landless finds support in Issapur, where residents admit the British gifted Bakkargarh’s land to them after India’s first war of Independence.
“During the mutiny, they set fire to the bungalow of a British officer in his absence and held hostage his wife and children. When people in our village heard about it, they rescued the woman and children and hid them in our village,” says Jagbir Singh, a native of Issapur. “ While our elders were supportive of the freedom struggle, they felt there was no reason to harm a British officer’s wife and his children. ”
Reward and punishment
The British, Singh goes on, confiscated their property and transferred it to Issapur as a reward. “My family also has land in Bakkargarh, perhaps a gift from the British. But we cannot be held responsible for the British depriving them of their land,” says Jagbir Singh, sounding defensive.
The area of Bakkargharh village is about 818 acres, out of which only 91.4 acres are owned by villagers and the rest by the people from outside the village, mostly residents of Issapur, according to the Delhi government’s revenue records available online.
Ravinder Kumar, a resident of Bakkargarh, says most people had fled the village after the crackdown by the British. The little land in possession of local residents was bought by them after Independence.
“The events of 1857 continue to affect our lives and livelihoods. We have been forced to rent agricultural land in our own village from the people of Issapur,” says Kumar.
Available archival evidence also supports Bakkargarh’s mutiny story. A digitized document from the late 19th century — Final Report on the Settlement of Land Revenue in the Delhi District, 1880 — by Oswald Wood and R Maconachie , settlement officers, makes a reference to the role of Bakkargarh and Issapur during the mutiny. The document is published by Franklin Classics Trade Press and is available on Internet Archives.
“Another instance of courageous humanity, which was no doubt founded on, and intended by, a personal liking for the officer concerned, was the help given by the zamindars of Isapur, or Ishakpur, in the Delhi Dabar, to the wife and children of Mr. Nunn, Assistant Patrol in the customs department. For three months the zamindars of the village hid them and fed them their own food--- this notwithstanding the known mutinous disposition of Nawab of Jhajjar in whose territory Isapur then was. The reward here was 10 biswas, or half of the village Bakargarh adjoining, whose zamindars had set fire to a Government Bungalow, and punished accordingly.”
About Bakkargarh, the report says under an order dated February 4, 1858, the land of rebel landlords was confiscated and awarded in November 1859 to landlords of Issapur and Luskar village, which is in neighbouring Jhajjar district today.
The story of two Delhi villages also finds elaborate mention in Gallant Haryana, a 2019 book published by Manohar Publishers in India and Routledge in the US and the UK. Written by CB Singh Sheoran , a former chief engineer of Haryana irrigation department , the book throws light on the contribution of rural Haryana during India’s first war of Independence.
“Baqqargarh and Issapur villages of Najafgarh tehsil of Delhi9 were part of Jhajjar State in 1857- 8, while the former was with freedom fighters, the latter helped the British. Half of the village land of Bakkargarh [Baqqargarh] was confiscated and conferred on the residents of Issapur because the following eight persons had protected and sheltered the wife of E.C. Nunn and his two children for two months and then carried them safely to Delhi camp on 31st July 1857. In addition, each one of them got ₹500 in reward along with the land. Edward C Nunn, Assistant Patrol, gave them the following certificate on 2 August 1857, ‘Hurlall, Hurdeall, Khoosheeram and Indruj Lumberdars of village Easapoor in the Nawab Jhujjur territory… Zalim, Lalljee and Dhuneeram, Todar Brahmin looked after the family,” says the book, citing several primary sources.
“The villages of Haryana, and those in surrounding areas, which are now in Delhi, witnessed some of the fiercest battles between May and September 1857. I visited over 100 villages in Haryana for the book. Confiscating the land was a way of punishing the rebel zamindars,” writes Sheoran, who researched the book for seven years. “It is based on several untouched primary sources such as reports of the British commanding officers, news reports of the time published in papers such as London Gazzette, Edinburg Gazzette, and several government files and publications.”
Demand for compensation
People in Bakkargarh have been demanding compensation for their confiscated land since Independence. In the 1970s, they formed what they called the Shaheed Committee, mostly comprising army men from the village. The committee wrote letters to various ministries of the Union government, including home and agriculture, demanding compensation for their land.
“They wrote back, acknowledging our letters and intimating us that our demands were forwarded to concerned ministries, departments, and to the governments of Haryana and Delhi for enquiries. But nothing ever came out of it. We gave up by the 1990s,” says Dharampal Singh, who has a thick file containing decades of the letters the villagers wrote and the replies received from various ministries.
While people in Bakkargarh feel their neighbouring village benefited at their cost, the two villages have been on the best of terms.
“There is there no doubt that the people of Bakkargarh contributed in a big way to the freedom struggle. I am willing to relinquish my one bigha in Bakkargarh if that helps,” says Tajchand Dagar, 65, a resident of Issapur, a much bigger and more prosperous village than Bakkargarh.
Moral high ground
Some of the villagers in Issapur, who do not own any land in Bakkargarh, take a moral high ground. “Our forefathers were among the few who had refused to take any land from the British as a reward. After all, the land belonged to our brothers in the neighbouring village,” says Rakesh Kumar, a resident of Issapur, where quite a large number of people are in government jobs.
“Bakkargarh is the only village in Delhi where most of the land is owned by people from outside the village. Apart from a primary school, the village has no facilities. The government should at least build basic infrastructure and a monument in the village in recognition of its contribution to the country’s first war of Independence,” says Paras Tyagi, co-founder of CYCLE (Centre for Youth Culture Law and Environment), a non-profit that works for enhancing the quality of life in Delhi villages.
As of now, the only sign of the village’s contribution to the freedom struggle is a signboard at the gate of the village saying, “Welcome to the revolutionary village Bakakrgarh.”
“We have suffered a lot and deserve better recognition of our sacrifices during the mutiny as we celebrate 75 years of our independence,” says Dharampal Singh.
“Bakkargarh indeed has small landholdings. The village made a great contribution to the country’s freedom struggle. The Delhi government will do whatever it can for the village,” says Kailash Gahlot, MLA from the area and revenue minister in the Delhi government.