Attestant of an era

The bustling Chowk in the old city of Allahabad — a witness to mass hangings of rebels and villagers by the British in 1857 — has somewhere forgotten its illustrious past

Published - June 23, 2013 02:12 pm IST

The lone neem tree: A symbol of martyrdom. Photo: Sarita Brara

The lone neem tree: A symbol of martyrdom. Photo: Sarita Brara

The Chowk is the busiest market area in the old city of Allahabad. There are shops lined up on both sides of the roads and a number of vendors on rehris sell groceries, eatables and other wares. Two-wheelers and other vehicles continuously honk their way through the never-ending stream of shoppers as well as residents of the lanes and by-lanes near the Chowk.

This area witnessed a gruesome historic incident: under the orders of General James Neill, the British army had crushed the rebellion of countrymen during India’s first war of independence in 1857. In the middle of the market, close to a church and the kotwali , stands a neem tree. An inscription on the monument standing next to the tree says that this martyrs’ memorial was built in the memory of 800 people who were hanged from seven trees in this area in June, 1857. Posters and hoardings have defaced the monument and it is difficult to read the fading inscription. There is another memorial in the shape of a foot stone which has also been defaced.

Of the seven trees, only this one has survived in the concrete jungle. Locals say that the tree was quite dense at one time but its branches were cut down to make room for erecting electric poles and building shops and houses in the Chowk. Nowadays, it is only on occasions like Independence Day or other national days that people come here to pay homage with flowers.

The mass hanging episode in Allahabad finds mention in many historical books and documents. Heather Street writes in The Rebellion of 1857 Origins, Consequences and the Themes , “After arriving in Allahabad on June 11, 1857, Neill was responsible for thousands of murders both of sepoys and suspected rebels as well as innocent men, women, and children. Describing the actions of Neill’s troops around Allahabad, one officer wrote: ‘Every native that appeared in sight was shot down without question, and in the morning Colonel Neill sent out parties of regiment [?]...and burned all the villages near where the ruins of our bungalows stood, and hung every native that they could catch, on the trees that lined the road’.”

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, in his book Discovery of India , has also referred to the cruelty of General Neill and the hangings in Allahabad. “In my own city and district of Allahabad and in the neighborhood, General James Neill (1810 - 1857) held his ‘Bloody Assizes’. Soldiers and civilians alike were holding Bloody Assize, or slaying natives without any assize at all, regardless of age or sex. It is on the records of our British Parliament, in papers sent home by the Governor-General in Council, that ‘the aged, women, and children are sacrificed as well as those guilty of rebellion’.”

According to some documents, nooses were hung on these trees and people were brought on carts to be hanged. Those who tried to escape were shot dead. Many of the nearby villages were burnt down.

There is an old library in the vicinity where Madan Mohan Malviya and other freedom fighters would gather to discuss their strategy. Madan Mohan Malviya lived in a house in one of lanes near the Chowk. This building, too, lies in shambles now. One part of it is littered with garbage and another room has cobwebs all over the place. Only a small temple inside the house has been maintained. Vivek Malviya, great grandson of Madan Mohan Malviya’s brother, says that every year on the birth anniversary of the freedom educationist and reformer on December 25, politicians make routine promises to convert the house into a memorial but nothing has materialised so far.

Shahidon ke chitaon par lagenge har baras mele

Watan par mitne walon ka yahi bas nishan hoga

This famous couplet has been inscribed on the memorial next to the neem tree at the Chowk. But today the tree, a symbol of martyrdom of hundreds of people during the first war of independence, stands all forgotten in the din and flurry of trading activities in the crowded and congested Chowk.

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