Revisiting the half-forgotten episodes of 1857 when we almost embraced freedom

Today is May 12, the day in 1867 when the British fugitives from Delhi were hurrying on their way to Karnal or some other nearby town. “The four children of Captain William Wallace were spirited away by a faithful khansama and found their way to Meerut. The merchant James Morley, whose family had been killed in his house in the Kashmiri Bazaar, put on a petticoat and veil belonging to the wife of his old dhobi, and following the dhobi, as he drove a bullock laden with old clothes through one of the city gates, managed to reach Kurnaul road,” says Christopher Hibbert in his book “The Great Mutiny of 1857”. A lady, said a fellow-survivor, put on a pagri and, dressed as a villager, with a small hookah in hand, made her way out of town but was recognised by her ex-cook who wanted to make the amply-built memsahib his second wife. But she gave him the slip at night and somehow reached Flagstaff Tower on the Ridge. A girl, who had been disguised as a rustic boy was kidnapped on her way to Sonepat by a group of eunuchs who planned to sell the youngster to a gay zamindar. When the man discovered that the “boy” was actually a girl, he told his sister to take care of her until such time as he could secure ransom for her release. All this happened 157 years ago but still comes to mind as one wanders over Delhi to piece together quaint events of which the nikaah of a sepoy with the wife of a “sahib” he had killed is an amazing one, indeed. The cannonading marks on the walls of the Kashmere Gate and the fierce attack on Mori Gate, where the Maulvi of Faizabad, Ahmedullah Shah stayed before the outbreak on his arrival from Agra, are vivid memories. It is said that the tall, gaunt long-bearded Maulvi “with coarse hair falling on his naked shoulders” and the same hypnotic gaze as that of the latter-day Mehdi of Sudan, however, did not stay here for long and moved to the denser locality of Bara Hindu Rao and finally the Jama Masjid where, according to old-timers, he was seen in the evenings; vehemently trying to convince namazis to throw off the British yoke.

In Ballimaran the haveli of Hakim Ahsanullah Khan can still be seen with its old ambience preserved. The hakim was not only the personal doctor of Bahadur Shah Zafar but also his closest adviser. Some distance away at Lal Kuan is the Zeenat Mahal, ancestral home of the emperor’s youngest wife now turned into a school, and not far from it Mubarak Masjid built by the Bibi of Gen Ochterlony. An ex-dancing girl she later married a Mughal soldier, Wilayat Khan and took active part in the First War of Independence.

In Karol Bagh, Rao Tula Ram School is a reminder of the brave ruler of Rewari whose ancestor, Rao Tej Singh sided with Scindia at the Battle of Patparganj in 1803, which Lord Lake won for the British. After Tula Ram’s defeat at the battle of Narnaul in November 1857, the gallant ruler joined Tantya Tope and in 1862 escaped to Russia. Another hero of the Revolt was Raja Nahar Singh of Ballabgarh who blocked the road to Delhi. This “Barrier of Delhi”, admitted Sir John Lawrance to the Governor-General Lord Canning, was very difficult to break unless “we receive reinforcements from China or England”.

According to Purushottam Salvi’s book, “A Long Drawn War of Freedom”, Nahar Singh tried to persuade Bahadur Shah to take refuge in Ballabhgarh but the emperor refused and was captured at Humayun’s tomb. However, Nahar Singh avenged the death of Zafar’s sons and grandson at the hands of Hodson by killing a large number of firangi soldiers. Eventually Nahar Singh was captured and hanged on his 35th birthday, September 21, 1858.

One prince who escaped the vengeful British was Feroz Shah, who had been away on Haj when the Revolt broke out. On his way to Delhi on August 26, 1857, the troops in Gwalior pleaded with him to lead them. The prince agreed and captured Dhar but was later defeated and, after joining Tope, managed to escape to Nepal. His not so fortunate younger brother was Mirza Nasir-ul-Mulk who became a cripple and was reduced to begging. Besides the more famous events of 1857, these remain half-forgotten episodes of those tumultuous times when Independence was almost achieved by the rebel sepoys.