Delhi slept on 10th May 1857, unaware of the momentous events in the nearby city of Meerut.
That evening in Meerut a chain of events, which were to have disastrous and far-reaching results for India, had started. It was set in motion in the evening of 10th May, in the parade ground in Meerut when a a group of Indian sepoys (soldiers) had rebelled against the authority of the East India Company and had decided to march to Delhi to fight for their freedom against colonial rule. There were various reasons for this revolt and are taught in all schools in India.
On the morning of 11th May, 1857 the 30- 40 sepoys from Meerut, who had had been involved in the rebellion and killing of the European officers, crossed the Jamuna on the Bridge of Boats and tried to enter the Red Fort through the Calcutta Gate. As this was closed they eventually entered through the Rajghat Gate, and after setting the tollhouse on fire and marched towards the Red Fort.
(Bahadur Shah with his sons. To the right is Mirza Mughal who late became commander of the rebels for a while)
Bahadur Shah II, the Moghul Emperor was by now a pensioner of the British East India Company, and was Emperor only in name. He was most reluctant to join the rebels, as he was unsure of both his role as well as that of the rebels. He was ultimately persuaded or coerced into lending the legitimacy of his name to the rebels and was proclaimed the Shahenshah-e-Hindustan. The sepoys fought under his banner.
The British were caught unprepared and there were no units of the British or “European” units of the East India Company forces at Delhi. Colonel Ripley the Commanding Officer of 54 Native Infantry was the first to march towards the Kashmir Gate. But here the rebels were already ensconced and they fired and killed the leading four British officers. When the remaining British officers ordered the Indian troops to open fire at the rebels they refused, fired in the air and joined the Meerut sepoys. Many Indian soldiers had joined them and a massacre of British officers followed. Delhi had fallen by the afternoon and it was no longer in British control.
The sepoys first took hold of the city (Shahjahanabad) and then the Ridge. Civilians, aristocracy and Indian rulers joined them. It was no longer a simple mutiny or revolt but the First War of Indian Independence.
Kashmiri Gate or Cashmere Gate had been built by a British military Engineer, Robert Smith in 1835 and saw fierce fighting first when the sepoys captured it and later when the British re took it. The Gate is next to the ISBT and adjoins the Kashmiri Gate metro station was so named because it used to be the start of a road, which led to Kashmir. Many British officers lived in this area with their families. It is here that the final act of 1857 was played out on 14th September when Nicholson led the counter charge against the Indian soldiers. The gate still bears the scars of the cannonballs and fire. There is a stone tablet, which records the names of the British officers who took part in this inside this gate.
The gate itself is double doored and is surrounded by a thick wall with ramparts on which one can climb and a few rooms where the arsenal was stored.
Next to it is the St. James’s Church built by Colonel James Skinner of Skinners Horse in 1836. It is one of Delhi’s oldest churches. The church has many tombs and plaques commemorating the British killed in the revolt. The church saw some action during 1857 as the British soldiers took refuge here to recoup and the rebels shot at the cross and ball which adorned the top. It used to be kept in the churchyard but sometime during the 20th century it disappeared. The residence of the British Commissioner, William Fraser was a little way behind it. It is now the office of the Chief Engineer of the Northern railways. Fraser is buried in this church.
The Magazine or Arsenal, opposite the GPO is in the middle of the road. There is a granite obelisk, erected outside it, which, records the courage of two young signallers, who sent messages, which warned the British in Punjab about the uprising in Delhi. The main gateway is nearly all that remains of it. There is a tablet over the gateway, which names the nine British men who defended the magazine, eventually blowing up part of it in the face of the rebels. The British recaptured it on 16th September.
Brigadier General John Nicholson led the charge against the rebels on 14th September 1857 and died from the wounds received. He is buried in a serene cemetery lies a little way of Kashmiri Gate to the west of ISBT bus station and can be reached by foot. It is called Nicholson’s Cemetery after him and is owned by the St James Church and is still in use today. Nicholson’s grave is near the entrance.
On 20th September Bahadur Shah was captured from Humayun’s tomb and that led to the official end of the Mughal Empire and the start of the British Empire in India.
“ On 21st September the city was evacuated of the enemy.” There is a plaque there placed underneath it by the Indian govt. clarifying that the above mentioned ‘enemy’ were ‘those who rose against the colonial rule and fought bravely for liberation in 1857.” This plaque is dedicated to the memory of the heroism of is placed in memory of these patriotic Indians on 25th August 1972. The memorial is now called Ajitgarh.
This article appeared in Hindustan Times in 2012