Saturday 22nd Nov 2014
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Role of North-East Muslims
In 1857 War of Independence

Cover Story

, by BAZLUR RAHMAN KHAN

Here the intensity might be a bit low, but the activities and news of sepoys as well as success of mutineers from other parts of India reckoned shook the very base of East India Company. The Company officials were so much terrified that they called White and Gorkha soldiers in strategically important places where British officials worked or lived.

Sir Edward Gates, a British officer of Assam in 1926 and author of the first and exclusive book on the undivided Assam A History of Assam, wrote on 1857 North East that the situation was at times by no means free from danger and the comparative immunity which this part of India enjoyed was due to very largely to the watchfulness and courage displayed by the civil and military officers on the spot. Sepoys and the people, from Karimganj in the south-east to Dibrugarh in the north-east of Assam, Khasi chiefs of Meghalaya and princes of Manipur directly or indirectly were involved in the First War of Independence. Latu in district Karimganj and Mohanpur in district Hailakandi are the two places where clashes took place between sepoys and Company forces.

Here too, in North East India Muslims played a major role whether at battle fronts or in developing correspondence with different chiefs, tribal chiefs etc and princes. The most significant place in North East India either from the viewpoint of Muslim participation or battle is Latu Malegarh hillock at Latu, in the district of Karimganj, which once a part ofbelong to the undivided Sylhet district. When in May 1857 sepoys of Meerut raised the banner of rebellion, the company authorities apprehendeding a revolt from both sepoy s and the people through out India. The District Magistrate of Sylhettrough a di9rective where was ordered to send an information to higher authorities regularly about the real situation of the district, including public sentiments and any possibility of revolt. So before the revolt of sepoys of at Chittagong started, the Sylhet district authority was already taking measures for arresting the fugitives and estranged native sepoys.

In July 1857, Bhalludhar Singh, a member of the 73 Native Infantry Battalion of Barrakpore was arrested in Sylhet. He was arrested, while he fleeing to Sylhet via Dhaka. Similarly, in August 1857, a member of Sylhet Light Infantry was dismissed as her was apprehended to be a dangerous element. This kind of incidentsces leads us to believe that thes e sepoys of other parts of India were might developing correspondence with the sepoys of Sylhet and othersrest of the North East. As the Hindustani sepoys were leading the rebellion in Bengal, and half of the sepoys of Sylhet Light Infantry were Hindustanis, the Sylhet authority was naturally worried and excited.

On the night of ovember 18 , the 34 Native Infantry in Chittagong revolted in by breaking the prison and freeing the inmates, looting the armour and treasury and setting army barracks on fire. In the early hours of November 19, the sepoys left Chittagong for Manipur. Marching towards the direction of Comilla, they turnecd towards the jungles of Hill Tripura, and subsequently emerged in the south east of the Sylhet districnt in Karimganj. The rebels were staying at Karimpur of Shahbazpur Pargana on the border of Latu police station. IOn the news of arrival of the sepoys, a force of 160 Company soldiers under Major Byng, commandant of Sylhet Light Infantry, initially reached Praptapgarh in South Karimganj, but hearing that sepoys were expected shortly to pass through h Latu in West Karimganj,. Company forces stepped ahead to Latu on December 19. The Company soldiers and the sepoys confronted each other at Malegarh. in which the sepoys had to retreat. They fled to the adjacent jungles leaving 26 martyrs behind. Major Sher Khan and Captain Shamser Khan were prominent among the martyrs., On the other hand five of the Company soldiers were killed including Major Byng, and one was seriously injured. After the death of Major Byng, Major Sheerer took over the command of the army. The Martyrs’ graves on Malegarh tila (hillock) at Latu are still venerated by the locals. On the occasion of the golden jubilee celebration of India’s independence, the Governor of Assam, many ministers and other dignitaries’ of state and Karimganj district came to Malegarh to pay tributes to the martyrs. Every year a lot of people visit Malegarh as a token of their respect to martyrs.

Half of the Company soldiers in the battle were Hindustanis. According to British official C. E. Barrakland, the Hindustani soldiers of the Company did not respond to an earlier call of the rebel sepoys to join them. E. A. Gait’s wriitess that sepoys were tried by taunts and solicitations to prevent the Hindustani soldiers from fighting against them. However, after the end of the battle, a group of soldiers from Sylhetr Light Infantry returned to the commandant in Sylhet. Later under the leadership of Jamadar Gangram Bhisti 16 soldiers of the Company chased a group of 10ten sepoys in a dense forest and killed eight of them. The rebel sepoys moved eastward and reached Cachar. While many of the soldiers separated from their group on the way,. on December 23 they were attacked by the soldiers of Sylhet Light Infantry under the command of Lieutenant Rose at Mohanpur in present Hailakandi district of Assam . After gallant defence, they again marched towards Manipur. They were continuously attacked both by the the regular troops and Kuki scouts, who received a reward for each mutineer they killed. At last, as Gait writes, of the whole number that left Chittagong, only three or four could escaped death or capture;. but this information is not substantially proved.

The sepoys were finally joined by the Manipuri prince Narendra Singh and his followers, and entered the territory of Manipur. Some Manipuri Muslims probably acted as middlemen between sepoys and Manipuri princes, as we know that Muslims they were also employed in Sylhet Light Infantry with other Manipuries. After the Burmese invasion in Manipur, many Hindu Muslim Manipuries, both Hindu and Muslim, settled down in the plains of Sylhet and Cachar.

Though the possible strikes were forestalled, even at that time sepoys movement continued uninterrupted up to undivided Sylhet and Cachar. Twenty-two such sepoys were arrested in Sylhet. On December 16, two sepoys from 34 Native Infantry were caught. One of those arrested sepoys was Ali Baksh of Chittagang who was charged of desertion, robbery and revolt. He had many bullet injuries on his body, which served as evidence of his involvement in the revolt. Majority of the Muslims of Karimganj and Cachar were sympathetic to sepoys. Those who supported the Company received in return the Company’s favour in the form of land-grant and cash reward. Many local Muslims who helped sepoys faced the wrath of the Company. Gonjer Ali, the zamindar of Pratapgarh in Karimganj was accused of helping the rebels. This allegation was contradicted. However, one source provided proof of the allegation against Ali. The army in Sylhet caught a Sepoy of 34 Native Infantry. According to this Sepoy Ali was planning to meet the rebel leaders somewhere in Sylhet and also had decided to join them along with his own five thousand troops. In the absence of any strong evidence against Ali, he was later set free. Similarly, Gous Ali Khan, zamindar of Prithempasha was alleged to have fed one sepoy, when he was starving for three days and was without food and arms, staying at Karimpur.

It may be mentioned that like everywhere else in Sylhet (included Karimganj) also Company authorities were very suspicious about the attitude and activities of Muslims. After the incident of Barrackpore it was believed by the authorities that the Muslims of Sylhet very easily got information about any rebellious incident in north-west India. It was also apprehended that if the Sepoy Mutiny was extended up to this part and that it could be the outcome of the influence and efforts of the Muslims. Indeed the Company authorities here lost confidence in public, and the local zamindar and tenants were held responsible for the death of Major Byng.

The Sepoy Mutiny short-lived in Karimganj, Hailakandi and Cachar, but left tremendous effect in the minds and hearts of people. Songs remembering sepoys, full of sympathy for them were sung by the village folk till recent past. Written songs composed by bards for post mutiny period in local Sylheti Bangla used to be sold till the end of the last century. People used to read the stories with tearful eyes and talk about the martyrs in sorrowful tone. Sepoys are referred to as jangees in local literature.

East India Company was very much apprehensive of possible outbreak of revolt in Brahmaputra valley. The finger of suspicion was pointed towards Hindustani sepoys, a significant number of whom were Muslims from North India. There were a large number of Hindustani sepoys in first Assam Light Infantry as well as local artillery corps. There was a small but considerable number of Hindustanis in the 2nd Assam Light Infantry, which was quartered at Guwahati. In September 1857 an uneasy feeling began to appear among the men of Dibrugarh regiment, because of the contents of a letter received by some of the Hindustani sepoys from Shahabad, where many of them had been recruited; some of them were found to have entered into a conspiracy with the Kandarpeswar Singh, Ahom prince. Colonel Henny, the commandant, through an order deprived the Hindustani members of the regiment of the opportunity for communication with each other by sending them to small outlying posts. Kanderpeswar Singh was a mere boy and a complete tool in the hands of his Dewan, Moniram Borua, who was at that time in Calcutta. The Raja was placed under arrest and, on searching his house objectionable letters were discovered from Maniram. After trial, Maniram and one of his associates were executed and three other associates were sentenced to long terms of transportation. Some Hindustani sepoys and local Muslims, who were on the side of Kanderpeswar and wanted to overthrow the Company’s role from upper Assam were Noor Muhammed, Shaik Vikon, and Bahadur Gaonbora (village headman). Noor Mohammad, a jamadar of the Company promised Kanderpeswar help with his fellow sepoys. Sheik Vikon was another sepoy who actively helped Kanderpeswar. Bahadur Bora was a person close to Kanderpeswar. According to a government report; Bahadur and Formud Ali were among two thousand people who gathered in Jorhat on the call of Kanderpeswar. Bahadur was sent to Kalapani. Formud Ali was sent to prison but later released. Shenchowa Barua was transported to Andaman for his closeness to Kanderpeswar. After his release, on return to Assam, he embraced Islam.

Christian missionary Denaf writes that Muslims were very proud and said that the Company’s days were over. ‘Sahib would be killed and Islam would be established.’ Captain Luther writes that 2000 Muslim subjects of Kanderpeswar came to him and requested for his release when he was being taken to prison.

The activities of sepoys were less in comparison to those in northern India. But we find Hindustani sepoys posted at different places, local sepoys, Ahom princes, officials, Khasi chiefs, Jayantia King, Manipuri Princes, Native people of South and Upper Assam, all became more or less involved or interested in this first war of Independence. Muslims played an important role, in motivation and activities. The arrival of Muslim sepoys from Barrakpore, Dhaka, and Chittagong and their clandestine movement across North East India created tremendous stress for the local administration which had to cope up with this unexpected development. Likewise, they were extremely busy in confronting the rebellious activities of Kukis, Nagas, Khasis, and Manipuris.¨



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