Millennium Post

Fabled uprising that wasn’t one

Delhi has this tendency of living two lives at once, as several incidents, including the mutiny of 1857 and peoples’ agitations of the later years would show. Given that Delhi, in addition to being the political capital, is also the largest trading hub of north India, the residents of the city – specially the powerful merchant community – seldom show the untimely need join any uprising. It can rather manage to remain completely detached from the goings-on and stay within its own ambit.

Given its preoccupation with trade and commerce, the city can manage to remain absolutely indifferent to the building up of a peoples’ movement, which almost every time culminates in Delhi as it’s the national Capital. Nobody understood this intrinsic characteristic of Delhi better than Mahatma Gandhi, who never chose the city as venue for any of his agitations. These attributes of the city become very glaring when a very objective analysis of the mutiny of 1857 is done.


The rising in 1857 in the Mughal Capital of Shahjahanabad (today's Old Delhi) was not in the least spontaneous; it was rather forced on the people who were otherwise comfortable trading and living with British merchants and military officers. Till the time the mutinying sepoys actually arrived from Meerut, Delhi had remained aloof to the growing resentment against the spreading tentacles of British East India Company.

Ensconced within the high walls of the Red Fort, urban life in 1857's Delhi was an illustration of lechery, debauchery and mal-governance. The British resident, Charles Metcalfe, encouraged these trends, especially in the inner apartments of the royals. The rangeen culture also caught on with British officers and business agents, who made Daryaganj their little European quarter. There were many ‘white residents’ of Daryaganj who had never actually been to England. Some of them did not have enough to pay for the passage.

For the subalterns of Douglas' Guard, which secured the royal quarters, whoring with the young wives and daughters of gentlemen grown old was common. No surprise that Captain Douglas and the then commissioner of Delhi, Simon Fraser, were massacred by the mutineers who arrived unannounced on 11 May.

There are references to Fraser having ignored a dispatch carried by a rider from Meerut the night before the sepoys arrived. Having received it during an evening drinking session, Fraser kept the dispatch in his pocket and forgot about it. When the Mutiny riders crossed the boat bridge on Yamuna, they found the fort guard hardly prepared for battle. In fact, the opening in the walled city was found through Daryaganj, the epicentre of hip and happening Delhi.


The sepoys arriving from across the river did not have to walk northwards to enter through Kashmere Gate or southwards to Delhi Gate. The opening in Daryaganj provided proved costly. The gate had been opened early to allow the residents to go to the Yamuna for bathing. There was no warning whatsoever of the Mutiny sepoys having arrived on the eastern bank of the river, and resting there for the night.

So ill-prepared was the fort guard that Douglas was found ordering cannons to the ‘right’ position near Calcutta Gate when he was confronted by the sepoys. He ran towards Lahore Gate to secure his family quarters as the sepoys walked through Daryaganj, burning down European mansions and bungalows.

There is the account by an Indian police officer, Moinuddin, the inspector of the Paharganj police station. He escorted the joint commissioner of Delhi, Theosiphus Metcalfe, out of the walled city. Metcalfe had arrived at the police station in a shirt and underwear, riding a horse. He left wearing Indian dress, hoodwinking the crowds baying for his blood.

Contrary to popular perception, no battle was fought for the takeover of Delhi by the mutinying sepoys who arrived from Meerut. There was, though, great resistance to the East India Company reinforcements who arrived to seize power back from Bahadur Shah Zafar – who had been declared emperor by the sepoys.

An American staffer of the English daily Gazette was the lone white employee to survive the massacre which followed the takeover of the city by the sepoys on 11 May. He was spared because he embraced Islam. There are several such instances of the maulvis having a field day reading the Kalma to white children and women, who were promptly taken into the walled city's harems.


The Red Fort never quite fell to the mutineers. What did fall were the homes of defenceless white traders, the sort who raised guns only to kill partridges. After the recapture, the first thing the British did was to create a garrison inside the Red Fort. This garrison remained with the Indian Army till 2003-04, when it was transferred to the Archaeological Survey of India.

Writing on the capture of Delhi, Karl Marx, then London correspondent for New York Daily Tribune, wrote 'However infamous the conduct of the Sepoys, it is only the reflex, in a concentrated form, of England’s own conduct in India, not only during the epoch of the foundation of her Eastern Empire, but even during the last 10 years of a long-settled rule … There is something in human history like retribution: and it is a rule of historical retribution that its instrument be forged not by the offended, but by the offender himself.'

The British troops regrouped and were back on the northern ridge, overlooking the walled city, by June 8. Thereafter it was a long ordeal. It took the British forces, with Gorkha and Sikh reinforcements, nearly three months to overcome the resistance and re-enter the walled city through Kashmere Gate. On 12, 17, 20 and 23 June, the mutineers, now under the Mughal insignia, came out of the walled city and launched attacks on the British troops regrouping in the Bara Hindu Rao area.

On 23 June, 1857, it was the centenary of Clive's victory in Plassey. Soothsayers had predicted that on completion of 100 years, British rule would end. Short on strategy but motivated by the prophecy, the shahi troops launched their last big assault on the ridge on 23 June. It was a daylong battle. The British had been nearly forced into retreat when additional troops arrived under Nicholson.

The inability of the Mutiny forces, led by Mughal princes whom the emperor had appointed troop commanders, to evict the British sent the city into general depression. Markets shut and support for the sepoys started to wane. Sepoys resorted to looting Paharganj and Chandni Chowk.

In July, arrived the legendary Bakht Khan from Rohilkhand. He had led an uprising in Bareilly and was appointed supreme commander of the Mughal forces in Delhi. The direct fallout of the emperor's decision was rivalry and jealousy within the ranks. The princes encouraged sepoys to ransack the markets and disobey Bakht Khan. The British waited for the monsoon rains to recede. The sepoys lost the opportunity to attack when the British were weakened by malaria.


The British maintained a regular supply line for their troops from Punjab. They also opened dialogue with traders of Delhi for supplies. The traders were being forced into selling on credit or facing loot from the sepoys. On the other hand, they had the option of cash payment from British agents. It led to a direct loss of goodwill for the Mughal administration.

Bakht Khan made one last attempt to cut-off the British supply lines from Punjab. His plan was leaked, its allegedly by the business conscious citizenry. The British engaged him on the way, at Najafgarh. The Battle of Najafgarh eclipsed Bakht Khan's aura of invincibility.

After Najafgarh, the sepoys were on the defensive. It was now the turn of the walled city to come under heavy artillery fire. The defences started to crumble, and the British entered the city on 14 September with Nicholson at the head of the Gorkha, Sikh and Punjabi Muslim troops. That night they consolidated themselves around Skinner's Estate. The troops found an abandoned liquor godown and helped themselves. The officers had to order the blowing up of the godown to get the troops back on their feet.

By 20 September, Bahadur Shah had withdrawn from the Red Fort and taken shelter at Humayun's mausoleum. The recapture of Delhi was complete. The British did not want to lose the chance to stamp their authority. They did it with never-before cruelty.

The city for the next 90 years was to remain loyal to the empire. Whatever incidents of revolt or uprising against the British empire took in the coming years – Ras Bihari Bose's assassination attempt on Viceroy Hardinge and Bhagat Singh throwing a bomb in the central legislative assembly – were carried out by the revolutionaries who did not have any roots or connection with Delhi except for the fact that the city was chosen for being the symbol of the British empire.
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