Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Well of Sorrows at Ajnala, PUnjab: History Rediscovered, Martyrdom Reinvented

A look at the world of politics, statecraft, diplomacy and books

The ghosts of Punjab's bloodied past has the uncanny habit of raising up at the most inopportune time. History has to be accounted for and airbrushing inconvenient truths of the past may work in the short run, but finally History will have the last laugh. Just at the very moment that the Congress Party in India thought that it had exorcized the ghosts of the state sponsored pogrom which the party organized in 1984 after one of their leaders was killed, came the revelation that Indira Gandhi has sought the aid of the British Government in helping her draw up the plans for the attack on the Holiest of Holy shrines of the Sikhs, the Golden Temple at Amritsar. The discovery of the letters relating to this episode in India's recent past is bound to have a decisive impact on the Sikh vote in the Punjab. The British Prime Minister for reason best known to him came to the city of Amritsar and apologized for the "Jalianwallah Bagh Massacre" of 1919. One more ghost from the past seemingly laid to rest. Now just as things were beginning to quieten down, the discovery of the Well containing the bones of the soldiers who were summarily executed in 1857 has been uncovered not far from Amritsar, a place known as Ajnala. For some reason the Well was known as Kalion ka Kuan or the Well of the Blacks and now there is a clamor for the name to be changed to Shidon ki Kuan or the Well of Martyrs.

The picture given alongside shows some of the bones discovered during the course of a week long excavation at the local Gurudwara in which the well was located. Under nearly ten feet of soil the bones had been buried. More than 5000 bone fragments, 89 skulls, traces of clothing, metal coins and other artifacts were uncovered. The Congress Party ever eager to appropriate the past to its own political purposes sought through Amrinder Singh to have the place declared a monument to the Heroes of 1857 a proposal which was rightly shot down by the Akalis. The Akali position that the Sikhs were not involved in the Revolt of 1857, of course, raises the even more historically troubling question about the role of the Sikhs in the suppression of the Mutiny in 1858 along with the Madras Fusiliers under General James Smith Neill.

The Sepoys of the 26th Native Infantry who were stationed at Mia Mir Cantonment near Lahore revolted and headed towards Amritsar. The Deputy Commissioner of the town, Fredrick Cooper, had his European and "loyal" troops march against the rebels and a large number of them were killed. Around 282 men were captured and later killed and the bones discovered seem to be the remains of the rebels. The immediate provocation for the brutal suppression and summary execution of the 26th Native Infantry was due to the murder of their commanding officer, Major Spencer. 

The documents given above are from the Parliamentary Papers pertaining to the Revolt of 1857. The statement of Lt. Governor of the Province, Sir R Montgomery shows that the British Government was aware of the illegal and brutal suppression of the rebels and were also aware of the illegal manner in which the 282 were executed. One more ghost from the past

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