The Times of India, May 10, 2007
The gleaming towers of Singapore are a far remove from the squalor of Malegaon, but a common historical thread runs through both, as it does through habitats as diverse as Mauritius and Jabalpur, the powerloom townships of Malegaon and Bhiwandi and the Muslim quarters of Madanpura and Mominpura in Mumbai.
All the above-mentioned were destinations for the refugees of 1857. They came by bullock-cart and boat, by train and on foot, fleeing not only the revenge of the Company’s armies but, in many cases, the feudal oppression of the old order.
In the aftermath of the May Rising, when additional forces of British troops had been hurriedly despatched from England, the retrieval of the northern plains was executed without mercy. The main targets of the suppression were the Muslim ulema, weavers and peasants, since the British blamed them for being the masterminds behind the revolt, but the fury of the advancing armies was so terrible that no one was left unscathed and sometimes entire villages were set ablaze. Families of weavers fled from Azamgarh, Maunath Bhanjan, Mau Aima, Mubarakpur, Barabanki, Allahabad, Lucknow, Benaras, Kanpur, Tanda, Faizabad and Basti, all of them heading for the old Bombay-Agra Road which snaked down to the Deccan.
Along the way, the refugees sought protection in domains loyal to the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar. Maheshwar, on the banks of the Narmada and a seat of power for the Holkar dynasty, was a major stop. The then ruler Ahilyabai allowed a large workforce to settle down in her territory. Further down the road came Burhanpur, a fertile belt close to the Tapi river, and then on to Dhule, Jalgaon and Malegaon in northern Maharashtra.
Bhiwandi, where the road nearly ended, proved to be a promised land of sorts, with its healthy economy and railway line running all the way to Bombay. Some families even moved into the heart of the city, to Madanpura and Mominpura, which in fact gets its name from the Momin weavers of Uttar Pradesh.
Mauritius, at that time, was a plantation colony under the British and in need of sugarcane labour. The flow of indentured labour intensified after the revolt. Migration figures are not recorded, but a Mauritian family that had migrated from Bhojpur, has records of a ship crammed with more than 500 Bhojpuris, embarking from the Kerala coast.
Writer Amaresh Misra, in his soon-to-bepublished book War of Civilisations: India 1857 points out that this Bhojpuri provenance manifests itself in popular culture. “The local language in Mauritius, Creole, is a patois of French with notes of Bhojpuri—for example, in the song ‘Hamre avion mein chal jo’ or the other common usage for ‘I love you’, ‘Je t’aime va’, where a ‘va’ is added in the way that Bhojpuri speakers say riskva or chalva,’’ he says.
Misra’s research also throws light on the migration to Singapore in 1859, when about 600 families from Gorakhpur fled to Siwan in Bihar, and on to Darbhanga and then to Calcutta. “The minister of Darbhanga financed their trip to Singapore,’’ says Misra. “In Singapore, the refugees stayed with the boat people of Malay origin, called the Orang laut. It was only years later that they got jobs as labourers and were given plots in Kampong Glam, in the eastern part of the island. Their descendants still live there. Many are still classified as working class, but others have broken out and live in the better parts of town.’’
Arundhati Roy, Tyeb Mehta, Michael Jackson, Kipling, Rushdie, Jinnah, Leonard Cohen, Anita Desai, Kiran Desai, East India Company, Namdeo Dhasal, etc