Punjabi Chieftains And The 1857 Rebellion

Punjabi Chieftains And The 1857 Rebellion
The revolt of 1857 was a nationalistic uprising against the rule of the East India Company, by the rebels known as sepoys, who were mostly Hindu and Muslim soldiers in the army of the East India Company. The uprising began in May 1857 in the garrison town of Meerut in Northern India (UP) province. It took the British government more than a year to put down the revolt with brute force and draconian laws. There were many patriotic Indians in the forefront of the revolt and the most prominent of them were Bahadur Shah Zafar, Laxmi Bai the Rani of Jhansi, Mangal Pandey, Tantia Topi and Bakht Khan.

In Pakistan, for reasons best known to the authorities concerned, the historical uprising of 1857 has never been recognised as anything of historical importance. Hardly any mention is made of it in our history books and this is not surprising. The fact is that most influential families and land owners in what is now Pakistan gave full support and loyalty to the British, and were very generously rewarded for their loyalty. They were granted huge tracts of land medals and honours by the British. A classic example is Mohammed Hayat Khan of Wah rewarded for assisting John Nicholson and helping in chasing down the rebels. He was given huge areas of land in Wah and was made a nawab. His son Sikandar Hayat was knighted and rose to be the Chief Minister of Punjab, and even his grandson Shaukat Hayat became a cabinet minister. Regiments of Punjabi Muslims and Pashtun youth played a very significant role in helping and assisting the British in recapturing Delhi, defeating the rebels and giving a new lease on life to the British Raj for another 90 years up to 1947.

The reasons for the support of the Punjab to the British and steadfast loyalty of the Punjabi landed aristocracy are simple. All the areas that now comprise Pakistan were under Sikh domination until the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1839. Sikh rule in Punjab was often seen as being one of cruelty and suppression for the Punjabi and Pashtun Muslims of this area. So, at the time of the revolt, the British in the eyes of the Muslims of the Punjab, looked like liberators who would help them to overthrow the Sikh yoke.

The Muslim chiefs of Multan stood shoulder to shoulder with the British and proved very loyal subjects in every way. The most important chieftain was Makhdoom Shah Mohammed Qureshi and his loyalty proved to be the major reason for keeping the Muslim population obedient and loyal to the British. The faithful followers of the Makhdoom did not join the uprising against the British and he also provided recruits for the British army, rendering excellent service to the British. For his loyal services, Shah Mohammed received a pension of Rs 3,000 and huge tracts of fertile lands. In 1877, Bahawal Bakksh son of Shah Mohammed was appointed honouree magistrate in Multan. Mustafa Khan Khakwani also remained loyal to the Raj and raised troops for the British Cavalry. Makhdoom Syed Noor Shah Gilani was granted a Khilat of Rs 300 and a sanad by John Lawrence in recognition of his loyal services. Sarfraz Khan Kharral had very close relations with the British and rendered invaluable services during the uprising in 1857, and later on proved his loyalty by providing vital information about the movement of the freedom fighters in his area and beyond. For his services he was given the title of Khan Bahadur, a pension of Rs 500 and a vast Jagir in district Gugera.

The major Punjab nobles, chieftains and landlords of all the districts of the Punjab remained loyal to the British and helped them to fight the uprising and defeat the rebels until the final victory at Delhi and the arrest of Bahadur Shah Zafar. In districts Rawalpindi, Gujarat, Jhelum, DI Khan, Hazara and across the length and breadth of Punjab the British received loyalty and immense help in the form of manpower, money and rations from the landed elite of Punjab.
The reasons for the support of the Punjab to the British and steadfast loyalty of the Punjabi landed aristocracy are simple. All the areas that now comprise Pakistan were under Sikh domination

Caught unawares by the popular revolt in northern India, the British were particular concerned about Punjab, a state that they had acquired less than a decade ago after two bitter wars with the Sikhs. Punjabi nobility had lost their status with the arrival of the British, and hence were bitter towards them. After taking over Punjab in 1849, the British had disarmed the Punjabi soldiers and sent them back to agriculture. However, they were aware of the martial capabilities of Punjabis, and knew that if the fire of rebellion that was spreading throughout northern India spread to the Punjab, then it would be hard to quell. Just as Delhi in northern India was a symbolic city where rebels converged, it was Lahore in Punjab which was the symbol of a lost empire and lost status for aristocratic Punjabis.

The colonial officers in Lahore understood the importance of maintaining their position in that city under all conditions. They also realised that with a strong presence in Punjab, the British could push back the rebels from Delhi and northern India, which is exactly what happened. With the help of the Punjabi nobility, General John Nicolson raised the Punjab Regiment in Lahore and then led this regiment to Delhi. On 14 September, he led one of the columns into Delhi. The rebels were brutally crushed, Delhi was again in the hands of the British and Nicholson became a legend and a national hero in Britain.

The battle of Plassey in 1757 and the revolt of 1857 were turning points in the history of the Subcontinent. This led to the birth of new leaders who then shaped the future of India. They fought for the freedom and rights of all Indians regardless of religion, and set the stage for an independent and modern India. The people of Pakistan have a rather lopsided relationship with their colonial past. Because of the great emphasis laid on the two nation theory and the obsession with defining themselves in opposition to the Hindus the official version is listed in school text books leaves a lot to be desired in providing a context about our colonial past. Our students are taught about the freedom movement in the context of Hindu-Muslim conflict and relations. Most of our students believe that Pakistan gained freedom from the Hindus and not the British in 1947. Pakistani society of today suffers from a severe identity crisis. People try their best to identify themselves with the culture of the Arab states and believe to have come to the sub-continent with the army of Muhammad Bin Qasim which is far from the truth. They see the country as a bastion of Islam in the Indian peninsula but this image was shattered after the creation of Bangladesh.