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Friday, December 03, 2021

Mumbai Rewind: A Diwali in the past filled with fear post Sepoy Rebellion

The seeds of apprehension were sown by the May 10, 1857 Sepoy Rebellion and the administration was worried of a similar uprising in Bombay.

Written by Zeeshan Shaikh | Mumbai |
Updated: October 30, 2021 6:05:37 pm
Mumbai, Bombay, Sepoy Mutiny, British administration, Kaala Pani, Mumbai, Mumbai news, Indian express, Indian express news, Mumbai latest newsThe fear and foreboding culminated on October 15, the first day of the five-day Diwali festival on the grassy knolls of what today is known as Azad Maidan.

Diwali, the festival of lights, is a time of joy and cheer but in 1857, the run up to the festival saw Bombay being wrecked with trepidation and fear with every resident of the city suspected of being a potential mutineer by the erstwhile British administration.

The seeds of apprehension were sown by the May 10, 1857 Sepoy Mutiny and the administration was worried of a similar uprising in Bombay.

The fear and foreboding culminated on October 15, the first day of the five-day Diwali festival on the grassy knolls of what today is known as Azad Maidan.

The erstwhile British rulers led by Commissioner (Superintendent) of Police in Bombay Charles Forjett tied up two Indian soldiers — Drill Havaldar Syed Hussein of the Marine Battalion and Private Mungal Gudrea of the 10th Regiment — to the mouth of a cannon and blew them up to smithereens for a plot to stage an uprising against the British rulers.

Forjett, who had developed a reputation for himself for disguising and wandering around the city as a native, was in-charge of the city’s security as Commissioner (Superintendent) of Police in Bombay.

Based on the fear that mutineers have many supporters in the city, some of Mumbai’s leading lights, including well-known businessman and philanthropist Jagannath Shankarshet, were suspected of being in touch with the mutineers. Shankarshet narrowly escaped arrest after Forjett vouched for his credentials in front of John Elphinstone who was then the Governor of Bombay.

“The inhabitants of Bombay, than whom there is not a more devotedly loyal people in any part of the world, were also painfully swayed by feelings of apprehension in consequence of the persistence with which the mutineers of Cawnpoor, Lucknow and Delhi were able to maintain their ground,” Forjett writes in his book ‘Our Real Danger in India’.

In the book he also claims that the real threat of mutiny came from the city’s 1.5 lakh-strong Muslim population and the native sepoys who stayed in the military cantonment.

While security was enhanced in various parts of the city, Forjett also decided to construct a gibbet for public executions outside his office. In his book, Forjett says he called men who he felt could potentially lead the mutiny and showed them the gibbet to show the administration’s intent of showing no mercy against potential mutineers.

“I therefore put up a gibbet in the yard of the police office, and summoned the leading men among those who, in the event of a mutiny, would be foremost in the ranks of the lawless, and intimated to them, that if I should have the least reason to believe that any among them contemplated an outbreak in Bombay, they should be at once seized and hanged,” Forjett writes in the book.

He also did a bit of snooping around of his own to identify seditious elements. He would dress up as a native to mingle with the residents of Bombay.

“If during my presence at any place of rendezvous, the language of any one bordered on the seditious, I immediately threw off my disguise and seized him on the spot; and such was the fear inspired by the police, and such the opinion in regard to its ubiquity, that though the number assembled was a hundred, or two hundred, or more, they immediately hastened away, leaving the man who was taken into custody to his fate,” Forjett says.

Anyone who Forjett felt was being unfaithful to the state would be arrested and punished in some way or the other. Some of those who were caught by Forjett were even shipped out to serve the dreaded Kaala Pani punishment.

“Elphinstone kindly permitted the deportation of the men so taken into custody to the Tanna Gaol by night, a mystery thus hanging over their fate. It was known that they had been taken up by the police, but nothing was known— not till after the crisis of the Mutiny had passed— of what had become of them; but Iam glad to say that such summary arrests did not exceed three or four,” Forjett writes.

It was this surveillance of the residents of Bombay that Forjett stumbled upon a mutiny plot that was being drafted in the house of one Gunga Prasad by a group of soldiers.

Prasad was induced to reveal the plot and name the conspirators under promise of a comparatively large pecuniary reward.

Forjett claims that he himself hid in the house of Gunga Prasad and listened on as the mutineers conspired.

The sepoys, Forjett claims, planned to “kill and pillage” as many as they could in Bombay and then head to Poona where they wanted to proclaim Nanasaheb as Peshwa of the Deccan.

Forjett subsequently decided to move in and arrest the Sepoys and later on, two of them — Drill Havaldar Syed Hussein and Private Mungal Gudrea — were executed by being tied to the mouths of a cannon at Azad Maidan.

“Courts-martial were in due course convened by order of Government; and the proceedings resulted in the condemnation of a drill havildar of the Marine Battalion, and a sepoy of the 10th Regiment Native Infantry, who were blown away from guns, and in the transportation to Andamans, for life, of a soobedar and two sepoys of the 11th Regiment, and two sepoys of the 10th Regiment Native Infantry. One other sepoy of the 10th Regiment was also convicted of treasonable intentions, and transported on evidence given against him by sepoys of his own regiment,” Forjett says.

With the passage of time, the ground subsequently came to be known as Azad Maidan. Nearly 150 years after the death of the two, a memorial dedicated to the sepoys martyred in the 1857 mutiny was constructed at Azad Maidan by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. Sadly, the names of the other soldiers who were caught in the plot and transported remain unknown.

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