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‘Slaughtered ten by ten’: How 1857 martyrs shot by British firing squad were found in Punjab well

DNA evidence has confirmed that more than 200 skeletons found in Ajnala belonged to soldiers massacred by the British in 1857. Historical records show what happened to them.

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New Delhi: It was 1 August 1857, the day of Eid Al-Adha, which gave Frederic Cooper, then deputy commissioner of Amritsar, what he later called the  “perfect excuse” to send his Muslim horsemen away. He could now carry out the execution of “Hindoostani” sepoys at leisure, with no one to object. As far as Cooper was concerned, these “mutineers” of the 26th Bengal Native Infantry regiment deserved it, since they had killed their commanding officer just two days before.

“Ten by ten the sepoys were called forth. Their names having been taken down in succession, they were pinioned, linked together, and marched to execution; a firing party in readiness,” Cooper wrote in his 1858 book The Crisis in the Punjab, from the 10th of May until the Fall of Delhi. It was, for him, a “spectacle”.

Now, an almost decade-long detective exercise involving historians, archaeologists and forensic scientists has pinpointed the final resting place of the murdered rebels of 1857. The discovery could help realise long-standing demands by Ajnala residents and historians for a memorial to mark the sacrifice of these early fighters against British imperialism.

First raised by the East India Company in 1757, the Bengal Native Infantry was drawn from across eastern India. Its soldiers were mainly upper-caste, raised from the Brahmans, Rajputs, and Bhumihars of Bengal, Awadh and Bihar. By the beginning of 1857, there were 74 regiments of Bengal Native Infantry, each with some 800 sepoys, 120 havildars and naiks, 20 subedars and jemadars — and, at the top, two British sergeants and 26 British commissioned officers.

A century and a half after the Ajnala massacre, in 2014, a team of villagers led by amateur archaeologist Surinder Kochhar unearthed the skeletal remains of more than 200 long-dead men from a well beneath a gurudwara in Ajnala, on the outskirts of Amritsar.

They were faced with a mystery. While Kochhar had long been on the trail of the ‘legend’ about the 1857 massacre, several other theories emerged in the next few years about the skeletons. Some said the skeletons were from the Partition era, or were the remains of murdered British men and women.

However, science has put all the speculation to rest. Using DNA and isotope analyses, a study, published in the journal Frontiers in Genetics on 28 April this year, has now established a link between the skeletal remains and the ill-fated sepoys executed in August 1857.

Conducted by J.S. Sehrawat, an anthropologist from Panjab University, in collaboration with the Hyderabad-based Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology (CCMB), Lucknow’s Birbal Sahni Institute, and the Banaras Hindu University (BHU), the study establishes that the DNA sequences of the skeletons are consistent with the historical evidence that the 26th Native Infantry regiment comprised people from the Indo-Gangetic plains. 

ThePrint’s Mohana Basu, in a separate article, explains how the work of these forensic scientists helped establish the truth about a massacre largely ignored by history.


Also Read: Armed with DNA, scientists find 1857 war link to skeletons discovered in Punjab well in 2014


‘Consigned into one common pit, by hands of village sweepers’

Winds of trouble had reached Punjab months before the massacre. On 13 May 1857, the 26th Native Infantry was disarmed as a preventative measure, after news of mutiny in Meerut reached Punjab. Despite this precaution, the regiment managed to execute their commanding officer, Major Spencer, on 30 July 1857.

According to Cooper, the sepoys’ fervour to break free was aroused by one sepoy called Prakash Singh, who apparently “came out of his hut, brandishing a sword, and bawling out to his colleagues to kill the firangees”.

While the sepoys were able to flee under the cover of a dust storm, their freedom lasted only a day. On 31 July, the regiment was spotted on the banks of the Ravi.

Going by Cooper’s account, the local villagers came to the aid of the British. “At the left bank of river Ravi, (the mutineers) met with unexpected opposition from a tehsildar who was supported by villagers,” Cooper wrote, claiming that 150 members of the regiment died right there, either by drowning or while battling the police and villagers.

However, 282 sepoys were captured, with 66 kept in a police station 10 kilometres from Ajnala and the others taken to a nearby tower or bastion.

Those who surrendered had hoped they might get away with a court martial, but as Cooper notes with some relish, the British had other plans.

First, ropes were ordered so that the mutineers could be hanged to death on the branches of trees if so required. Cooper then describes the well within 100 yards of the police station as a convenient solution.

“The well’s presence presented itself as a convenient solution as to the one remaining difficulty which was of sanitary consideration — the disposal of the corpses of the dishonoured soldiers,” he writes.

With the Muslim horsemen gone, Cooper felt secure: There were now no Indian soldiers to object and rise in rebellion. British officers were then called for a “spectacle”.

Excavation site in Punjab's Ajnala | Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology
Excavation site in Punjab’s Ajnala | Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology

The soldiers were shot to death in groups of ten — 237 of them, Cooper writes in his book, were executed this way. Others, 45 of them, captured at the Ajnala police station, all died of suffocation.

All were unceremoniously dumped in the same resting place. “Forty five bodies. Dead from exhaustion, fatigue, heat and partial suffocation, were dragged into light and consigned into the one common pit, by the hands of the village sweepers,” Cooper recalls.

By isotopic DNA study of remains of teeth, researchers have concluded that 246 bodies have been found, which is close to the number of 282 provided by Cooper in his book. In 2014, 90 skulls, 170 jaw bones, jewellery and medals dating back to 1857, were unearthed.

‘All honour to you for what you have done’

In 1857, the British were all praise for the actions of Cooper, and how the executions helped set an ‘example’ for Indians planning rebellion.

“I trust the fate of these sepoys will work as a warning to the others,” wrote John Lawrence, chief commander of Punjab, to Cooper on 2 August 1857.

For Robert Montgomery, the judicial commissioner of Punjab back then, the feat deserved even higher praise. “All honour to you for what you have done, and right well you did it,” he wrote in a letter.

In a 2022 research paper ‘The Ajnala Massacre’, Mark Condos, scholar with Department of War Studies in King’s College, London, writes that Cooper further established the righteousness of his actions by sparing the women and children of the sepoys, and also styled the killings as a response to a massacre in Cawnpore (Kanpur) which took place on 15 July 1857, where Indians had slaughtered European women and children.

Condos notes that the Ajnala massacre wasn’t an isolated incident but “a part of a much wider culture of imperial violence that emphasised the need for strong executive authority and swift, and exemplary spectacles of punishment during times of crisis”.

Complex legacy

Even though the rebellious regiments of the Bengal Native Infantry were dissolved, units that remained loyal to the East India Company survived. In 1861, the twelve surviving Bengal Native Infantry regiments were joined by new, hastily-raised units like the Allahabad Levy, which became the 33rd Bengal Native Infantry. Troops were also raised from Punjab, to form the 19th Bengal Native Infantry.  

Soldiers who did not rebel were also allowed to join formations like the Lucknow Regiment and the Loyal Purbiah Regiment.

Those ‘loyal’ forces are still embedded in the heritage of modern Indian Army formations, which retain the battle honours of their antecedent units. 

For example, the Jat Regiment can trace back its lineage to the East India Company’s Calcutta Native Militia, which became the 18th Regiment of Bengal Native Infantry in 1861. The Jat Regiment also traces its descent to the 43rd and 65th regiments of Bengal Native Infantry. 

The Sikh Regiment traces its lineage back to the post-1861 14th, 15th and 45th regiments of Bengal Native Infantry. The Punjab Regiment, similarly, descended from the 20th regiment of Bengal Native Infantry.

Respect for the fallen 

The unearthing of the well in Ajnala turned the urban legend of ‘Kaliyan Wala Kuh’ or “the well of Blacks” into reality.

The well in which the remains of executed soldiers were thrown became part of the military ground of Ajnala and a gurudwara was built over it. This was until 28 February 2014, when Surinder Kochhar identified the site and carried out an amateur excavation there, after reasoning with the gurudwara committee.

Skeletal remains excavated from Punjab's Ajnala | Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology
Skeletal remains excavated from Punjab’s Ajnala | Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology

In his paper, Condos points out that Ajnala residents have tried to get a memorial made for the fallen soldiers at the site, so that their sacrifice can be honoured, but haven’t had much success.

“Since unearthing the bodies, Kochhar, the Gurdwara Committee, and other residents of Ajnala have petitioned both the state and central authorities in India to honour these ‘martyrs, through various commemorative activities, including the construction of a memorial monument and museum,” Condos writes, in an attempt to “reclaim these sepoys from this commemorative neglect and integrate them into India’s national public memory”.

However, there were many difficulties, including “a lack of interest from government authorities who are reluctant to fund this endeavour, as well as disputes between Kochhar and the Gurdwara Committee,” Condos writes.

Speaking to ThePrint, J.S. Sehrawat, the anthropologist from Panjab University who conducted the study, now says the university is trying to locate the families of the sepoys.

“We are in touch with the British government and our peer research scholars there to get a list of the soldiers in the 26th Native Infantry regiment. With that, we’ll locate their families who will be able to cremate them with dignity,” he said.

(Edited by Asavari Singh)


Also Read: Don’t remember the 1857 Mutiny with Rani of Jhansi alone. You’re missing out on Uda Devi


 

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