Once again the Nicholson cemetery is in the news, bringing the ghost of the 1857’s much reviled, and also controversially acclaimed, British Brigadier General into the limelight. That John Nicholson’s spectre has the tendency to pop up unexpectedly, like Jack-in-the box (Dabba-ka-bhooth), is mainly due to the place where he is buried and named after him. The cemetery, say reports, is once more in a bad way. This is mainly because of the monsoonish weather when rain plays havoc with old tombstones and grass sprouts up everywhere, even covering up the epitaphs and obligating them from the view (like the pathetic ones of an infant English girl and the mother of a British soldier), while drug addicts hide in nooks and corners. Most of this damage, however, is undone when cemeteries all over Delhi are spruced up for All Souls’ Day on November 2.
One remembers that for many years, the Nicholson Cemetery had been lying in an even more neglected state until its plight was conveyed to some London newspapers, which started a regular campaign to save it. Eventually, the British Government asked its High Commission in Delhi to get the cemetery renovated. After three years and an expenditure of about ₹ 6 lakhs, the graveyard was completely restored by G4S, an international security concern headed in India by David I. Hudson.
The supervision was done by its executive, Lt. Col. A. S. Yadav, who got the undergrowth of wild vegetation cut and also chased away the monkeys, drug addicts and vagrants, who had encroached on the cemetery. There are many old and new graves in it, the most important one of course is of Nicholson, in front of which a plaque was unveiled by Sir Michael Arthur, the then British envoy, 11 years ago on Id day.
Repeating the story, Nicholson was the son of an Irish doctor, actually the eldest of five brothers. His father died when he was just eight and for his mother, who brought him up, he had a great affection. He came to India as a paid soldier who was soon idolised by men under his command. Some of them paid the penalty for prostrating themselves before the young sahib – three dozen lashes on the back.
When the revolt broke out and Delhi fell to the freedom fighters, Nicholson marched to the Mughal capital. On the way, he executed many fugitive sepoys with the utmost severity. When the order was given for the recapture of the city, Nicholson led his men waving his sword overhead, but was shot in the back on September 14 during the assault on the Lahori Gate. He died 10 days later at the age of 35 after learning that Delhi was in the British hands again.
A tall, silent man, with a flowing beard and piercing eyes, “Nicholson used to dine alone with a Pathan standing behind him – a pistol in one hand and passing the dishes with the order.” Reginald Wilberforce records that at Nicholson funeral, the members of the Multani Horse threw themselves on the ground and wept for the man they had followed into the plains. They refused to obey the order to march elsewhere to quell the uprising and went back to their beloved hills, picking up flowers from the grave of “Nicol Sen” they admired so much. Cruel no doubt, but a hero still.
The 150th year of the revolt stirred up emotions both in India and Britain. For us, it is the celebration of the First War of Independence and for the descendants of the erstwhile imperialists the commemoration of ancestors. Seven descendants of Nicholson attended a commemoration for him in 2007 at St. James’ Church, Kashmere Gate, built by Col. Skinner. Though Nicholson died a bachelor, his siblings did get married and it was their great-great grand children who came all the way to Delhi to mark the occasion. Some from their native Ireland and some from other countries. The commemoration was a solemn affair at which the dead of both the opposing forces were remembered. A visit to the Nicholson Cemetery, opposite the ISBT, was high on the list of the visitors who also saw the other sites – on the Ridge and elsewhere.
The Lahori Gate area, where Nicholson fell is no longer there but a marble tablet in Hindi at an innocuous place in Khari Baoli, under a peepul tree next to a small temple, marks the spot. But this is misleading because the actual spot is in the rear gali. One has to pass through a stinking refuge dump to reach it. Here the red sandstone tablet is in English and the hawkers who sit below for some strange reason keep it covered with a cloth. The houses around don’t seem to have changed much and one can visualise that shooting the Brig Gen in this narrow lane wouldn’t have been a difficult task for a gunman standing high up at a window.
Irony of history
While Nicholson is still remembered, it is an irony of history that the man who struck him down remains nameless. Had his identity been known, it would have been easier to eulogise the giant killer. The Brig Gen’s statue, which stood in front of the Kashmere Gate was removed in 1952 and shipped off to his native Ireland. But some say his ghost is still seen on certain nights near the Gate.