Ranjit Singh- Capture of Lahore


After the passing away of Aurangzeb in 1707, the Mughal Empire fell into a state of disarray with weak rulers and constant intrigues. Revolts broke out all over with the Rajputs in Western India, the Marathas in Central India, carving out independent kingdoms and empires of their own.  Punjab in the North West, saw the rise of the Sikhs with the creation of the Khalsa by Guru Gobind Singh to resist the Mughal Empire.  By the later half of the 18th century, the Mughal Empire had shrunk considerably, while Punjab was basically a collection of 14 small confederacies called misls, of which 12 were ruled by the Sikhs while Kasur near Lahore was Muslim controlled and one ruled by an Englishman George Thomas.

Ruling over the rich fertile plains of Punjab, watered by the 5 rivers- Ravi, Chenab, Beas, Sutlej and Jhelum,  these misls were constantly at conflict with each other over revenue collection, even though all of them  swore allegiance to the same Khalsa fraternity. By the end of the 18th century, there were 5 powerful misls-  Sukkarchakkia, Kanhayas, Nakkais, Ahluwalias and Bhangi.

And the man who would bring these disparate misls and forge a Sikh empire was born in Gujranwala on the 13th of November, 1780 to Maha Singh Sukerkechia and Raj Kaur-  Maharaja  Ranjit Singh.

Belonging to the Sukerkechia Misl, a bout of small pox in childhood caused him to lose an eye.  Short of build,  he had just the basic education in Gurmukhi.  He spent more time outside in nature, learning horse riding,shooting. He had to take charge of the misl, when just 10 years old owing to his father’s ill health.  Taking advantage of his age, the other Sikh Sardars backed Sahib Singh of the Bhangi misl  in his revolt.  However the 10 yr old Ranjit Singh ambushed these Sardars, and suppressed the revolt of Sahib Singh Bhangi. His father  passed away soon after, and at just 12 yrs he became the heir to the family estate.

It was Ranjit Singh’s mother Raj Kaur who handled the affairs of the estate, helped by Diwan Lakhpat Rai. The constant intrigues between his mother, and his uncle Dal Singh, and mother in law Sada Kaur, however disheartened him. At age of 18 he took charge of Sukerkhechia Misl, aided by his manipulative mother in law Sada Kaur.

Punjab was pretty much in a state of chaos, when Ranjit Singh took charge of the misl. Ahmed Shah Abdali’s empire had collapsed, Afghanistan was split, Peshawar and Kashmir had become independent. Nawab Muzaffar Khan had captured Multan, the Pathans controlled Kasur, Attock was taken over by the Wazhrikels.This was the situation in Punjab and North West in 1790s, when Ranjit Singh took charge.


The first Sikh warrior to capture large tracts of Punjab was Jassa Singh Ahluwalia noted for his prowess on the battle field. With Abdali occupied at Panipat in 1761, he took advantage capturing Sirhind, Jagraon, Kot Isa Khan.  However Jassa Singh was badly routed at the Battle of Ghalughara by Abdali, and he had to flee towards Kangra to escape the massacre.After Abdali’s death, Taimur Shah ascended the throne at Kabul in 1773, by this time however most Misls established themselves in Punjab. Taimur Shah attacked Multan, drove out the Bhangi Sardars, however they managed to reoccupy it, as well as Lahore.When Shah Zaman ascended the throne at Kabul in 1793, he vowed to bring the entire Punjab under his heel, especially Lahore.

Shah Zaman, was assisted by Nizam-Ud-Din Khan the Pathan ruler of Kasur, who was always loyal to the Afghans.Shah Zaman’s first attempt however was a failure at Hassan Abdal, where the Sikhs routed his 7000 strong army under Ahmad Shahnachi. He again attacked in 1795, snatched Rohtas from the Sukerkechia Misl, Ranjit Singh however did not lose hope, recapturing Kabul when Shah Zaman returned to Rohtas again.

Shah Zaman once again attacked in 1796, this time his target was Delhi itself, with a 3000 strong army.Sahib Singh of Patiala was one of those who joined hands with Shah Zaman, betraying his own people. The Rohillas, Wazir of Oudh, Tipu Sultan all promised assistance to Shah Zaman in his mission to capture Delhi. As the news of Shah Zaman’s invasion spread, most of the leaders of the Misls abandoned their own people, and ran to the hills for safety. He swept into Punjab without any resistance, as most of the Misl leaders had already abandoned everything and fled.It was only Ranjit Singh who decided to fight back Shah Zaman, and called a meeting of all Sikh Sardars.

However most of the Sikh Sardars, at the Sarbat Khalsa,did not support Ranjit Singh, and suggested he should also give up. They felt it was better to allow Shah Zaman into Punjab, while they could escape into the hills. It was Ranjit Singh’s mother in law Sada Kaur, who once again exhorted the Sikhs to fight against the Afghan invaders. He reorganized the forces and marched towards Lahore, taking Shah Zaman head on. His forces used surprise sorties at night to ambush the Afghans, this made them defeat em in several villages. In 1797, however Shah Zaman, had to return back to Kabul, when his brother Mahmud revolted in his absence.

Shah Zaman put Shahnachi Khan in charge of Lahore and retreated towards Kabul, with the Sikhs in hot pursuit of him. Ranjit Singh pursued Shah Zaman upto Jhelum, and routed Shahnachi Khan at Ram Nagar, his first major achievement. His victory over the Afghans, his pursuit of Shah Zaman, made him now a hero of sorts among ordinary Sikhs.Shah Zaman once again attacked Punjab in 1798, and this time the retribution was brutal.

Many villages in Punjab were burnt, the inhabitants massacred by the invading Afghans, as Shah Zaman swept inside.Once again Sada Kaur exhorted the Sikhs to fight for their honor at the Sharbat Khalsa, saying she herself would command the forces. She appealed to the Sikhs sense of pride, saying that an Afghani soldier was no match, and they had the blessings of Wahe Guru. Lahore was occupied by the Afghans in 1798, and Shah Zaman planned to attack Amritsar next. Ranjit Singh met the Afghans just 8 km from Amritsar, where a pitched battle was fought. He routed the Afghans near Amritsar, and pursued them towards Lahore, surrounding the city.

Nawaz Ud Din Khan came to aid of Shah Zaman at Shahdara, but was completely routed by the Sikh forces.Ranjit Singh created such a strong wall of resistance, that the Afghans found it impossible to move towards Delhi. He forced Shah Zaman to retreat to Kabul, and routed his forces at Gujranwala.Shah Zaman himself was deposed and blinded by his brother, it’s said he later came to seek refuge with Ranjit Singh. Ranjit Singh followed the typical Sikh policy of “take no prisoners”, as the fleeing Afghans were massacred with no mercy and looted.With the Afghans in turmoil, many prominent citizens of Lahore, like Mian Ashak Mohd,Hakim Rai, asked Ranjit Singh to take over.

Capture of Lahore

July 6, 1799- Mobiling a 25000 strong army Ranjit Singh marched towards Lahore and by July 7, the entire city was surrounded.  Sada Kaur attacked the Delhi Gate while Ranjit Singh rode the walls of Lahore, and blew them apart with cannons.With minimal resistance, Ranjit Singh entered Lahore, Sahib Singh who collaborated with the Afghans fled, fearing reprisals. Though the  victorious Ranjit Singh entered Lahore, he now had to face some of the Sikh Sardars jealous of his growing power.The Sikh sardars of Amritsar, Wazirabad, joined hands with Nawaz Ud Din Khan to wrest Lahore from Ranjit Singh.

Ranjit Singh however routed them, and soon established himself as the leader of all, crushing all challenges. He had to face not just the Afghans, but even fellow Sikh Sardars who were opposed to him, he defeated them all. With the capture of Lahore, Ranjit Singh soon crowned himself as Emperor at Lahore in 1801, founding the Sikh Empire. Lahore was captured by other Sikh leaders too before Ranjit Singh, however none could rule for too long there. He not just captured Lahore, he also established a great Sikh empire that covered Punjab, Kashmir, entire North West.




Posted in Indian History, Medieval India, Punjab, Sikh History, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Vellore Mutiny

Image result for vellore mutiny 1806

Typically the 1857 Revolt, is often seen as the first large scale armed revolt against the British rule, and is often the most discussed one too. But around 50 years before this, there was an equally bloody revolt on July 10, 1806 by Indian sepoys in Vellore.

Vellore, a small city located in the northern part of Tamil Nadu, close to Andhra Pradesh border, so gets it’s name from the Velan trees surrounding it. Now known for it’s leather industry and the CMC Hospital, one of India’s leading healthcare providers. And the famous Vellore Fort where the mutiny broke out.

Vellore fort

Built during the Vijayanagara Era  in 1566 AD, it gained strategic importance, after Chandragiri became the capital, following the demise of Hampi, post Tallikota.  The fort was later ruled by the Bijapur Sultans, the Marathas and Mughals, before the British finally took over it. Around 1806 two infantty regiments of Madras Regiment was stationed in the Fort.

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The immediate cause of the Mutiny was the forcible dress code  imposed on the Indian soldiers. Hindu soldiers were prohibited from wearing vibhuti or tilak, while Muslim soldiers were asked to shave their beards. Soldiers were asked to wear a round hat, and cockade in place of a turban, which offended the sensibilities of both Hindus and Muslims. The cockade is a round hat, associated with Christianity around that time, and the order was passed General Sir John Craddock, the Commander in Chief of the Madras Army.  This triggered a lot of resentment among the sepoys,  and the changes were forcibly imposed in spite of an order to keep in mind the sensitive and delicate nature of the proposal.

In May 1806, some of the protesting sepoys were sent to Fort St.George, Chennai, and two of them, were given 90 lashes in public and dismissed from service. Around 19 sepoys were lashed around 50 times, asked to seek pardon from the East India Company then. There also was the angle of Tipu Sultan’s sons, who had been confined at the Fort, since 1799 as pensioners, following their father’s defeat. Though their intention seemed to have been to stoke an uprising in the Mysore Province, once the actual Mutiny started, they were reluctant.

The Mutiny

The garrison at Vellore Fort was comprised of  4 companies of British infantry, 3 batallions of Madras infantry. The sepoys typically lived outside the Fort walls, with their families in the huts.  However just one day before on July 9, 1806, the sepoys had to be assembled in the fort, as there was a parade scheduled the next day, and they had to be ready for it.  This was the right opportunity they were looking for.

July 10, 1806- In the wee hours of the morning, just past midnight, the mutiny broke out. The sepoys went on a rampage, killing 14 officers of their own Madras Regiment, and 115 men of the 69th Regiment, while they were sleeping, which included Colonel St. John Fancourt, the commander of the Fort.  By dawn, the rebels had seized control of the fort, raised the Mysore flag over it and declared Fateh Hyder, Tipu Sultan’s second son as the ruler.

However a British officer Major Coopes, escaped the carnage and alerted the garrison in Arcot. And 9 hours later, a relief force comprising the British 19th Light Dragoons, galloper guns, and a squadron of Madras Cavalry rode from Arcot to Vellore, covering a distance of 26 km in 2 hours.  Led by one of the most capable officers, Sir Rollo Gillespie, he dashed ahead of the main force with a single troop of around 20 men.

At the Fort, Gillespie found around 60 European officers of the 69th, who had survived the carnage, still holding out, but having no stock of ammunition. With the gates barred, Gillespie clambered up the Fort walls, using a rope, and led them in a bayonet charge.  As the 19th Light and Madras Cavalry neared the Fort, he made them blow open the gates using the galloper guns.  Both the 19th Light and Madras Cavalry charged inside the fort, killing any sepoy who stood in their way. 100 sepoys who took refuge in the fort, were bought out, lined against a wall and shot dead. It was one of the bloodiest encounters ever, resulting in around 350 sepoys killed, and more wounded. The unrest was snuffed out in a stroke, and the British were safe.

If the massacre was ghastly enough, the reprisals for the surviving mutineers, were equally terrible. After a hastily conducted trial, 6 mutineers were blown away from guns, 5 shot dead by the firing squad, 8 hanged and 5 transported for life. The 3 Madras Regiment battalions were disbanded, while Captain John Craddock whose orders led to the mutiny was recalled in disgrace at his own cost, along with other senior officers. The Mysore royal family in the fort was transferred to Kolkata, while the then Governor William Bentick too was recalled.  The Vellore Mutiny was over and crushed, but it’s repercussions would be felt in the form of numerous smaller revolts and outbreaks against British rule, resulting in the 1857 Revolt.

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Musunuri Prolaya Nayaka – The History of Telugu Saffron Warriors

Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the eminent freedom fighter, once said “Oh Motherland, sacrifice for you is like life. Living without you is death.’ Hundreds of year before Savarkar was born, a Kakatiya-era chieftain named Musunuri Prolaya Nayaka took the message to heart and was willing to sacrifice his life to expel the Delhi Sultanate from his motherland. The story of Musunuri Prolaya Nayaka is that of heroism, determination, and sacrifice. His story began when the Kakatiya’s story ended.

The Kakatiya Empire, a powerful and prosperous Telugu kingdom, was defeated with the capture of Warangal in 1323 by the Ulugh Khan of the Delhi Sultanate. What followed was a disintegration of Telugu polity and the rise of anarchy. According to the Vilasa Grant issued by Prolaya Nayaka, Brahmins were forced to give up religious practices, the murthis of the gods were overturned and broken, the agraharas of the learned were confiscated, and the cultivators and their families became impoverished. Seeing the disintegration and anarchy, a group of Telugu nobles and nayakas, such as Recherla Singama and Prolaya Vema Reddy, elected as their leader Musunuri Prolaya Nayaka. The consensus among historians, such as P. Raghunadha Rao, B.S.L Hanumantha Rao, Durga Prasad, K.Satyamurthy and etc, is that Musunuri Prolaya Nayaka was born into a martial-chieftain Kamma family from the town of Musunuru in the Krishna District of Andhra Pradesh. Prolaya and his cousin, Kapaya (shown below), led the confederation which included the Recherla Velama Nayaks and Prolaya Vema Reddy, to oust the Delhi Sultanate from the Telugu regions.

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With his mission set, Musunuri Prolaya Nayaka freed many areas of Coastal Andhra in just two years following the fall of the Kakatiya Empire. He established his capital in Rekapalli/Rekhapally on the Godavari River near the present-day border of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Musunuri Prolaya’s reign brought back the peace and stability that had been lost during the Sultanate’s reign. Prolaya restored the agraharas of the learned and granted new ones to scholars. In fact, the town of Polavaram, where the Polavaram Dam is being built, was an agrahara that was named after Prolaya by the great Brahmin scholar Vennaya. Moreover, Prolaya reinstated Hindu rituals and sacrifices that were restricted under the Sultanate’s rule. He initiated a simple ⅙ land tax on farmers’ produce in order to fund military renovations and establish an efficient administrative system. The farmers were said to have willingly contributed their share of taxes. He was assisted by his Minister Bendapudi Annaya Mantri in his endeavors. In his later years, the Vilasa Grant records his charitable actions and deeds.

Prolaya Nayaka died soon after he established an independent kingdom. He was succeeded by his cousin-brother, Musunuri Kapaya Nayaka, who expelled the Delhi Sultanate from Warangal, the former capital of the Kakatiyas. During his short reign, Prolaya was a true saffron warrior who led the confederacy to beat back the Delhi Sultanate. His actions and that of his successor inspired Bukka and Harihara to establish the Vijayanagara Empire. There is no better description for this king than the following one written by historian Jaywant Joglekar:

Prolaya Nayaka first led the movement of Hindu resurgence. He drew his sword against the Muslims to reestablish the Hindu Dharma, to restore the worship of the gods and to protect the Brahmin and the cow.”

Decisive Battles India Lost (326 B. C. to 1803 A. D.)

Pranams to Musunuri Prolaya Nayaka, the great saviour of Hindu Dharma in the Telugu regions.

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Rani Durgavati

Rani Durgavati, was the brave Gond queen, who refused to surrender to Emperor Akbar and fought till the end. A true heroine, who took over the kingdom on her husband’s death, and defied the mighty Mughal army.

She was born to Shalivahan, the Chandela Rajput ruler of Mahoba, famed for his bravery and courage. With her mother passing away early, she was bought up with great care by Shalivahan, and was trained like a Rajput. And trained by her father at a young age in horse riding, hunting and usage of weapons. She was a skilled hunter, markswoman, who took pleasure in going on expeditions, also a skilled archer.

Hearing about the valor of the Gond ruler Dalpat Shah, and his exploits against the Mughals, Durgavati was impressed by him. When her guru pointed out that Dalpat Shah was a Gond, Durgavati replied “He might be a Gond by birth, but his deeds make him a Kshatriya”. Dalpat Shah was one warrior, whom the Mughals feared, he controlled the territory that gave them passage to the South. When Dalpat Shah bought up the alliance with Durgavati, many other Rajput rulers protested saying that he was a Gond. They knew very well that if Mughals were unable to advance to South, it was due to Dalpat Shah himself. Shalivahan himself was not keen on Durgawati marrying Dalpat Shah, as he was not a Rajput.

However considering the vow he gave to Durgavati’s mother, that he would allow her to choose her life partner, he agreed to Dalpat Shah. Finally in 1524, Durgavati was married to Dalpat Shah, and this also bought the Gonds and Chandel dynasties in an alliance. .With the Chandelas, Gonds coming together, a new alliance was formed against the Mughal rulers that could keep them in check.

Sadly Dalpat Shah died soon, in 1550 and it was left to Durgavati to handle the kingdom. With her son, Bir Narayan, still a minor, Durgavati ruled as a regent, after her husband passed away. Assisted by 2 ministers, Adhar Kayastha and Man Thakur, she reigned over the Gond kingdom with wisdom and success. As a ruler, she shifted her capital to Chauragarh, a strategically important fort on the Satpuras.

Like her husband Dalpat Shah, Durgavati proved to be an able ruler, expanding the kingdom, looking after her subjects well. She had a large army with 20,000 cavalry, 1000 war elephants, large number of soldiers, which was well maintained. She also dug many reservoirs and tanks for the welfare of her people, one of the more well known one is near Jabalpur called Ranital.When the Sultan of Malwa, Baz Bahadur, tried to attack her kingdom, she fought back and forced him to retreat. So heavy was the loss faced by Baz Bahadur at hands of Durgavati, that he dared not attack her kingdom again.

In 1562, Akbar defeated Baz Bahadur, and took over Malwa, which now meant that Mughal empire was touching her kingdom. Lured by the prosperity of Gondwana, Akbar’s subedar Abdul Majid Khan, wanted to invade and occupy it along with Malwa, which had already fallen to Mughals, Rewa too was captured and now only Gondwana was left.

Though her Diwan warned her against taking on the mighty Mughal Army, Rani Durgavati said she wud prefer death to surrender.She initially fought the Mughal Army at Narrai, flanked by the Narmada and Gaur rivers, and hilly ranges.hough the Mughal Army was superior to Durgavati’s she led the defense, and fought back fiercely. Her fierce counter assault on the Mughal Army chased them out of the valley and she was successful initially.

Buoyed by success, Durgavati wanted to attack the Mughal Army in night, but the suggestion was not accepted by her lieutenants. And this meant she had to face the Mughal Army in open combat, which would prove to be fatal to her.Durgavati however refused to surrender, and with her son Vir Narayan, counter attacked the Mughal forces strongly, riding on her elephant Sarman.

Vir Narayan, himself led a fierce attack on the Mughals, making them retreat thrice, before he was wounded badly. Hit by arrows, bleeding, she realized that defeat was imminent against the Mughals. Disregarding her mahout’s advice to flee from battle, Rani Durgavati, stabbed herself with a dagger, preferring death to surrender. Thus ended the life of a truly brave and remarkable lady.

Durgavati was also a patron of learning, respected scholars, encouraged building of temples, truly a great ruler. She was not just a brave warrior, but an able administrator too, who built lakes and reservoirs for benefit of her subjects.passed away physically, but her name lives on, especially in Jabalpur, where the University is named after her. She was a benevolent ruler, a caring mother, and a fierce warrior, who refused to surrender. A woman who was fiercely independent, be it in choosing her life partner, or refusing to surrender to the Mughals.

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June 22, 1897- Chapekar Brothers

Chinchwad now an upcoming residential, and commercial suburb, was a small, dusty village, during the late 19th century. Adjoining the North West of Pune, it’s right now famous for its furniture factories, and the adjoining industrial suburb, of Pimpri, which together form the Pimpri-Chinchwad Muncipal Corporation. The ancient Ganesh Temple built here by the saint Morya Gosawi on the banks of the Pavana River is one of the suburb’s more prominent landmarks took.

The Chapekar brothers hailed from Chapa, one of the small hamlets adjoining to Chinchwad, which in a way explains their surname too. The eldest Damodar, was born in 1868, to Dwarka and Hari in a large joint family of twenty that included his parents, aunts, uncles and above all his grandfather, Vinayak, the patriarch. Though born into relative prosperity, the huge family would fall on hard days, mainly due to Vinayak’s rather unsuccessful business ventures. Damodar had memories of the trip he had made to Varanasi, with his grandfather, and taking a dip in the holy Ganga, as well as taking the blessings of Kasi Viswanath.

Damodar’s father Hari, had learnt Sanskrit, and was prepared to take up the profession of a Kirtankar, people who usually made their living singing Kirtans, travelling from place to place. However taking up the profession of a Kirtankar was looked down upon with disdain, in the highly orthodox Chitpavan Brahmin community, to which the Chapekars belonged. Hari’s brothers too refused to accompany him, and soon the once large joint family began to disintegrate. Vinayak Chapekar was excellent in the Modi and Balbodh scripts, had even left for Indore to earn a living there. However his rather sloppy way of dressing, his inability to get on with others meant, he really could not make good use of his talents, and ended up begging on the streets. Hari’s mother and father soon died, and he himself was poverty stricken now, with his brothers too deserting him.

For Hari Vinayak Chapekar, the only way to make a living now, was by singing kirtanas. With no professional musicians as accompaniment, he began to train his sons, Damodar, Balakrishna and Vasudev to play the instruments. The brothers had no formal education, but learnt a lot travelling from place to place, performing in the durbars of princes and assemblies of eminent scholars. Hari Vinayak himself is credited with writing the Satyanarayana Katha in Marathi.

The Plague

The brothers life however would be turned upside down by the end of 1896. Or rather specifically the first half of 1897. Plague had struck Pune somewhere in the end of 1896, by January 1897, it had spread like an epidemic in the city. By February itself around 657 people died of, those who could surive deserted the city. The bustling, once former capital of the Peshwas had now turned into a ghost city, with one half of it’s inhabitants dead, and another half running away to save their own lives.

By March 1897, the Government decided to combat the plague, and prevent it from spreading. An ICS officer W.C.Rand was put in charge of a special comittee, that would oversee Pune City, the suburbs and the cantonment area. Orders were given not to offend religious sensitivites, examine Muslim or upper caste Hindu women, and not to enter the private quarters of any home.

Major Paget heading the Durham Light Infantry consisting of around 893 officers, began to oversee the operations. And this is where the British lost it effectively. Not following the instructions, the officers began to adopt harsh measures to combat the epidemic. Officers barged into private homes, to literally pull out the infected patients from their beds. And this was utterly daft, considering how most Indian homes that time, valued privacy very highly. Most families would not even allow outsiders into their kitchens, and here were the officers barging into the private quarters, grabbing the infected patients, sometimes forcibly out of their beds. Infected patients were segregated from families, forcibly, personal possesions in homes were destroyed to prevent further spreading of epidemic. Funerals were not allowed, until all deaths were registered, the head of the family had to ensure this was done.

The problem, here was that while the intentions were good, the execution was totally fouled up Where sensitivity and care was needed, the Government treated it like a military operation. The infected patients needed proper care, but they were often treated like common criminals. What is worse, any one disobeying the draconian orders, were liable to criminal prosecution. The Government employed military tactics, treating it like a war, where a human, healing touch was needed. The entire operation went on to till May 1897, 2000 odd people were dead by the end of it, Pune was devastated in more ways than one.

While Rand claimed that care was taken to ensure, the feelings and traditions of people, were not hurt, the feedback coming out indicated the opposite. The ordinary people of Pune were furious at the behaviour of the officers, their utter disregard for their sensitivites. In Rashtra Peth locality, some of the residents, beat up the British officers in anger. Noted lawyer, dramatist Narasimha Chintan Kelkar slammed the high handed,arrogant approach of the British officers by which they rode rough shod over the feelings of the local residents. Intimidating innocent people, barging into their private quarters without permission, taking away valuable possesions,  in effect most of the British officers behaved like low life bullies.

Bal Gangadhar Tilak, was outright critical of a sullen tyrant like Rand, being put in charge of the operation, claiming he had no idea of the sensitivities of the natives, and this was not a war either. Tilak’s contemporary Gopal Krishna Gokhale, was equally vociferous in his criticsm, alleging that the British officers behaved no better than medieval invaders with the citizens of Pune. The ham handed, sledge hammer way in which Rand handled the entire operation had turned out to be a fiasco. It just alienated the people even more, and the anger against the British Raj that was simmering on slow burn, was now turning into a raging forest fire, with potentially far reaching conequences.

June 22, 1897

The celebrations of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria’s rule, were going on in full swing. Not a particularly wise thing to do, considering the anger against the British Raj then. On one side, plague, famine had devastated the country, and on the other side, this kind of vulgar celebrations of opulence, was like rubbing salt into the wound. And added to it the high handed behavior of the British officers during the plague, did not really make things better.

Most of the British and European officers were at the Government House in Pune for celebrations. Damodar, the eldest of the lot, felt this was the best time to strike, considering the who’s who of the British elite, would be there, most of all their target Rand. Along with his brother Balakrishna, he choose a spot near the Ganesh Khind Road, to fire the shots. They hid their rather heavy weapons under a rock to avoid suspicion.

The sun had set, the shadows were lengthening, on one side, the Government House was in a festive mood, with the sound of music, fireworks, tinkling of the glasses. In sharp contrast, stood the two brothers their faces pensive and grim, covered by the darkness, fists clenched. Both of them held their breath, like a tiger, awaiting to pounce on it’s prey. The deathly silence outside was in sharp contrast to the gaiety and festivities in the building.

At around 7:30 PM, the horse drawn carriage could be seen, coming. Damodar’s breath quickened, the grip around the sword became even tighter. The quarry was in the carriage, the man they despised, Rand, seated cozily in it, blissfully unaware of the danger. As the carriage made it’s way to the yellow bungalow, Damodar ran behind it now. With the grace of a cheetah, covering long strides, fist clenched tightly around the sword. He chased the carriage, with the stealth of a tiger stalking it’s prey from behind. As the carriage turned around, the corner, he yelled out to his brother “Gondya Ala Re”, a signal to act.

Damodar raised the flap of the carriage, and fired, the shots hit, Rand straight in the chest. Balakrishna who had caught up by now, fired a couple more at one of the occupants, whom he suspected to be discussing with Rand. The hapless occupant sitting near Rand, was his military escort, Lt Ayerst, who died right on the spot, as the bullets penetrated his skull. A grievously bleeding and unconscious Rand, was taken to the Sassoon Hospital where he would pass away on July 3rd.

The police soon launched a manhunt, and aided by the Dravid brothers, Damodar Hari was traced out and arrested. Damodar Hari in an October 1897 statement, openly claimed that he was seeking revenge for what he believed were desecration of their holy palaces. He had no qualms whatsoever over what he did, and his statement was taken as a confession, charged under Section 302. On 18 April, 1898, the noose fell around his neck, and the body lay limp.

Almost a year later in January 1899, Balakrishna Hari, was finally caught by the police, after he managed to evade them for a long time, betrayed by a close friend of his. The youngest of the lot, Vasudeo meanwhile shot the Dravid brothers on the streets of Pune, along with this friends Mahadev Vinayak Ranade and Khando Vishnu Sathe. On the same evening of February 1899, the trio also tried to assasinate the chief police constable Rama Pandu. However the attempt was aborted, and the trio was caught. After a trial, the brothers and Ranade were found guilty and ordered to be hanged. Sathe being a juvenile was given 10 years of Rigorous Imprisonment.

And one by one they climbed on to the scaffold, proud and defiant, as the noose tightened around their necks. Vasudev on May 8, 1899, Ranade on May 10, 1899 and finally Balakrishna on May 12, 1899. The voices fell silent, but the thoughts would fire a generation towards independence. 

Posted in Maharashtra, Maharashtra, Modern India, Revolutionary Movements, Veer Savarkar | Leave a comment

Birsa Munda

One of the more ignored aspects of the Indian freedom struggle has been the various tribal revolts that broke out against the British rule. Tribals were prohibited from cutting trees for firewood, their traditional Podu cultivation was banned, and they were often exploited by contractors who used them as labor for building roads in those areas. Many protests broke out in the tribal areas of Eastern Indian, notably Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Western Odisha, Bengal, one of the more famous one was that of Birsa Munda in Jharkhand.  The only tribal leader whose portrait hangs in Parliament Central Hall and whose Jayanti is celebrated as Jharkhand Day too.

Birsa Munda was born on November 15, 1875, in the tribal hamlet of Ulihatu in Jharkhand’s Khunti district , though some versions state it as Chalkad. He got his name from the fact that he was born on a Thursday as per the custom of the Munda tribe. For sometime he studied in a German Mission school, however with the tribal sardar’s agitation against Christian missionaries, his father removed him from the school, and also the membership of the German mission.

He came under the influence of the Vaishnava devotee Anand Pandey, and his stay in Chaibasa from 1886-1890 in a way shaped his own thoughts and ideology. It was the period when the tribal Sardars launched an agitation against the missionaries, and the Govt. It was against both the unjust taxation of the colonial Government, as well the proselytizing activities of the missionaries. Under the Indian Forest Act, the Government took control of all the forest and village areas, depriving tribals of their own land. The officials marked off large tracts of forest land, that consisted of both waste as well as cultivable land as per their convenience. In a way the Indian Forest Act, deprived the tribals from cultivating their own lands, and denying them rights over the forest produce. It led to many tribal revolts like the one by Birsa Munda and one in Agency area led by Alluri Sitaram Raju.

Coming from the poorest of poor, Birsa Munda, more than any one else, was well acquainted with the misery of the ryots and tribals. Most of his growing up years, were of a nomadic nature, moving from place to place in search of employment. His experiences as a laborer at various places, gave him an insight into the problems faced by the peasants and tribals.

During the British time, the non tribals, were invited by the tribal Sardars to take over the land and cultivate it. These non tribals known as Thikadars, were one of the most greedy, ruthless lot and together with the British looted the tribals . By 1874, most of the tribals had lost possesion of their lands, and were reduced to mere serfs, living in the most pitiable conditions.

Birsa Munda, now began to mobilize the tribals against the British rulers, as well as their middle men like the Thikadars. Abua raj seter jana, maharani raj tundu jana.- Let the kingdom of the queen be ended and our kingdom be established, this was Birsa’s slogan, which is still remembered to date in the tribal regions of Jharkhand, Bihar, Odisha, Bengal and MP. Consider this in 1856, tribals had possesion of around 600 Jagirs and owned around 150 villages in Chotanagpur region itself. By 1874, with the non tribal Thekedars taking control, they completely lost control of their lands, reduced to serfs.

Birsa Munda’s movement was to assert the tribals as the real land owners and expulsion of British, Thikadars. Adopting guerilla tactics, he launched a series of armed attacks on the Thikadars and the British Govt. With his excellent oratory skills, good organization skills, Birsa Munda managed to rally the various tribal communities in the forests of Chotanagpur, Odisha, Bengal against the British. He bought together the Oraons, Kharias on to a common platform agains the British-Thekedar combine, forging a tribal unity. His fight was also to save the native traditions of the tribals, from the Christian missionaries. He vigorously campaigned against Cow Slaughter, urging the tribal communities to protect cattle.

Soon the movement spread like wildfire in the Chotanagpur region, and Birsa Munda became one of the most wanted men by the British. He harassed the Thekedars and British, with a series of guerilla attacks, and soon the revolt was a major worry for them. Finally the British managed to arrest him on March 3, 1900, when he was sleeping in the Jamkopai forest near Chakradharpur, through a stealth operation. Around 460 of Birsa’s associates were arrested, one of them was given capital punishment, 30 deported to Cellular Jail.

Apparently Birsa Munda passed away in Ranchi jail of cholera, on June 9, 1900. Though many versions, state that the British actually executed him in prison, but showed as if cholera was the cause. He died at a very young age of 25, but the impact he made on the movement was quite significant. Though his movement died out, it forced the British Govt, to introduce laws that prohibited non tribals from occupying tribal lands. His revolt led to a series of similiar tribal revolts against British rule throughout India, which have not really got their due.

Incidentally the war cry of Bihar Regiment is Birsa Munda ki Jai, he is pretty much of a folk hero in the tribal parts. The airport in Ranchi is named after Birsa Munda, as is BIT at Sindri. Also the university at Purulia, the Agricultural University at Ranchi are all named after him. Mahasweta Devi’s historical novel Aranyer Adhikar for which she won the Sahitya Akademi award is based on Birsa Munda’s life. She also wrote an abridged version of Birsa Munda’s life story for younger readers.

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Savarkar My Hero

Veer Savarkar has been one of my heroes. One of the most fascinating, multi talented personalities ever. Freedom fighter, nationalist, activist, thinker, writer and sadly a very misunderstood personality too. Here was some one who braved the worst form of imprisonment at Cellular Jail for not one year, two years, but a whole decade. Imagine spending ten years in a hellhole, that would have broken the spirit of a lesser man. There is so much about Savarkar to be told, his fight for independence, his Hindutva philosophy, his stay in Cellular Jail. This is more a brief summary of his life.
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The late 19th century, was when India was awakening to its spiritual heritage, its pride of place among the nations of the world, during ancient times.  People like Dayananda, Swami Vivekananda were spreading social consciousness among India, urging them to awake from their stupor.  It was however just the beginning, only the ground work had been done, the rising tide of nationalism was yet to surge.  While there was a mood of a national reawakening, it still remained dormant.  Precisely around that time in 1883, at a small village near Nashik called Bhagur, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar was born on the 28th of May.  Originally hailing from the Konkan,  the Savarkars were quite influential in the final days of the Peshwas. Vinayak grew up amidst the chanting of Sanskrit slokas, and hearing tales from the Mahabharat, Ramayan and those of Shivaji , the Peshwas. A child prodigy, Vinayak composed poems at age of 10, submitted them to newspapers and had an insatiable thirst for knowledge. Yet like most of the kids he was age, he was equally fun loving, liked to play pranks.

It was the time when plague struck Maharashtra,  and many families were forcibly evicted from their homes by the British authorities.  The assassination of the Plague Commissioner Rand by the Chapekar brothers, and their subsequent trial and hanging, fired up Savarkar’s nationalist spirit.  He swore to keep the revolutionary spirit alive, and not rest till the British were driven out from India. With his parents passing away, Vinayak was taken care of by his elder brother Ganesh Savarkar aka Babarao, who also influenced his thinking in a way. Along with his brother, and two friends Mhaskar, Page, he formed the Mitra Mela ( Band of Friends) in 1900  to promote nationalist feelings among the youth.  This Mitra Mela would later become the Abhinav Bharat in 1904, whose aim was to liberate India through armed revolution.  Nashik would be the starting point for Vinayak Savarkar, and his Mitra Mela  began to occupy a vital space in public discourse. Along with his knowledge, erudition, he was also a brilliant orator, all of these qualities made Vinayak a born leader. One more aspect about the Mitra Mela, was that it had no caste distinctions, Savarkar was dead against the caste system and untouchability.

Savarkar married Yamunabai in 1901, and the subsequent year he enrolled in Pune’s Fergusson College. His father in law was quite a rich and influential person, and he financially assisted Savarkar in his education. At Pune, Savarkar was more impressed by the extremist leaders in Congress, Tilak, Lala Lajpat Rai and Bipin Chandra Pal.  The Swadeshi campaign as also the partition of Bengal affected Savarkar deeply and he also wrote regularly for Aryan, a hand written weekly started by him. He was influenced by the revolutionary movements in Italy, US, and the works of Shakespeare, Milton, Kalidasa, Bhavabhuti had a deep impact on him. The Mitra Mandal became the Abhinava Bharat in 1904, and the subsequent year he was deep into the Swadeshi movement, conducting bonfires of foreign goods and clothes. He passed his BA with distinction, and also proved to be a writer of repute composing ballads on Shivaji, Tanaji and Baji Prabhu.  Abhinava Bharat in a way was organized on the lines of Mazinni’s Young Italy or the various revolutionary outfits in Ireland, Russia.

In 1906, he left for England, on a scholarship to study law, with assistance from Shyamji Krishna Verma. London in those days was a meeting point for revolutionaries from all over the world. And Savarkar stayed in the India House that was founded by Shyamji, who also founded the Home Rule Society in London in 1905.  India House was a thriving hub of student and political activity, and soon Savarkar established the Free India Society in 1906 to organize Indian students fighting for complete independence. In his own words

We must stop complaining about this British officer or that officer, this law or that law. There would be no end to that. Our movement must not be limited to being against any particular law, but it must be for acquiring the authority to make laws itself. In other words, we want absolute independence.

Bhai Parmanand, Lala Hardayal, Virendranath Chattopadhyaya(brother of Sarojini Naidu), Madame Bhikaji Cama, Senapati Bapat were some of the nationalists who came from there.  It made the Indian students in Britian more proud of their heritage, culture and history, Dussehra was celebrated, anniversaries of Shivaji, Guru Gobind Singh were observed.  Savarkar spread his revolutionary ideas through pamphlets, books and articles. He translated the biography of Mazinni into Marathi and got it published through his brother. He learnt Gurumukhi, studied the Adi Granth, and appealed to the Sikh soldiers of their sense of duty. Savarkar dreamt of an 1857 style guerilla war for freedom, and studying its history wrote The History of War for Indian Independence, and he was one of the first to call the 1857 Mutiny as India’s First War for Independence. The book was banned all over the British Empire for its incendiary content, and Madame Bhikaji Cama managed to get this published in France, Netherlands and Germany.

Savarkar also learnt the techniques of bomb making from a Russian revolutionary veteran, and he circulated a pamphlet on this. In 1909 Madan Lal Dhingra, one of his proteges, assassinated Sir Curzon Wylie, the British MP in a public meeting. While many condemned Dhingra’s action, Savarkar was one of the few who stood up for him, and fought with the British authorities in taking claim of his ashes.
It however came  at a terrible personal cost for Savarkar, India House was shut down following Wylie’s assassination. He met Gandhi in 1909 at London, but the ideological chasm was too large between both of them. Savarkar was however not a doctrinaire believer in violence, for him it was to be used only when necessary, as he said

We feel no special love for secret organizations or surprise and secret warfare. We hold that whenever open preaching and practicing of truth is banned by enthrone violence, then alone secret societies and warfare are justified to combat violence by force.

In the meantime Lord Minto was planning to crush the independence movement, and Savarkar’s elder brother Babara was sentenced to life, while his younger brother was arrested in the Nasik conspiracy case. On the other hand, the British were building up the case against Savarkar, for his involvement in revolutionary activities, waging war against the Crown and distribution of arms. He was arrested in London in March 1910, and the Magistrate ruled that he should be extradited to India for further trial. Keeping in touch with a close friend, Savarkar asked him to inform of the ship’s likely route. When the ship docked at Marseilles he jumped out from the porthole at the top of the water closet in the toilet into the sea.  He managed to swim to shore in spite of the British in hot pursuit of him.

Unfortunately his friends Madame Cama and V.V.Aiyar were late in arriving and Savarkar was caught by the authorities. It was a breach of international law as he was arrested by the British on foreign soil. France strongly protested over this breach of law, and the case went before the Permanent Court of International Arbitration. The Court observed that since France and Britain were collaborating on Savarkar’s issue and as his arrest was done without any fraud, the British authorities need to hand him over and they could take him to India for trial.

Savarkar reached Mumbai in July 1910, and was sent to Nasik jail, the stories of his attempted escape at Marseilles made him a hero of sorts. He refused to take part in the trial saying he was entitled to asylum and protection in France. He was finally charged and sentenced to life imprisonment in the notorious Cellular Jail of Andaman and Nicobar Islands. On June 27, 1911 Savarkar was lodged in the steamer S.S.Maharajah, en route to the Andamans. The Cellular Jail the Indian version of Devil’s Island, a notorious prison, filled with horrifying tales of torture, mistreatment. It should be noted that the British sent only those revolutionaries and freedom fighters to the Cellular Jail, whom they felt as a major threat.  Revolutionaries were yoked to an oil mill and made to pull it, a task that only beasts of burden could perform. Pathans were used as jailors to mistreat, assault the prisoners.

It was in this kind of soul sapping environment that Savarkar spent 12 years in solitary confinement. Living in solitary confinement in a prison could drive any one insane, imagine Savarkar spent 12 years that was the man’s mental strength.  Reunited with his brother Ganesh, he led a harsh life, rising at 5 AM, cutting wood, working at the oil mill and no contact with other prisoners.  Savarkar however bore the torture with dignity, spent his time, educating other prisoners, made them aware of their rights.

Knowledge without action was lame, action without knowledge was blind, this was Savarkar’s view. As news of the torture and harassment suffered by Savarkar came out in the Indian media, there was a widespread outcry and a demand to release them.

An epic ballad on Panipat, composed entirely on the walls of his prison, one of the greatest literary feats ever.  He was one of the greatest writers ever, often rated equivalent to Kalidasa, by the Marathi critic Madkholkar.  His magnum opus Kamala is often regarded as the Shakuntala of modern India, in it’s usage of similes, and it’s graceful composition. He also introduced a blank metre verse called Vinayak in Marathi poetry.

His long time in Andaman, and the solitary confinement, began to bring a philosophical outlook towards life. Having experienced the worst ever indignities and torture, for him death really held no fear. And this was the time, when he began to formulate the philosophy of Hindutva.

Life Story Of Veer Savarkar

Posted in Hindutva, Indian Freedom Struggle, Indian History, Maharashtra, Modern India, Revolutionary Movements | Tagged , , | 2 Comments