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Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Mumbai's Mangal and Other Mutinies

The Times of India, May 10, 2007
150th anniversary of the Great Indian Uprising

Nina Martyris

When The North Was Consumed By Violence, Mumbai And Its Surroundings Were Calm—But Not Untouched

Mumbai’s role in the 1857 mutiny can best be described as modest, but it would be unfair to say that this bustling port town with its mercantile survivor instinct was completely untouched by the slash and burn.

As a city with commerce in its veins, Bombay reacted characteristically to the news of the Rising: its stock market bucked. Wrote Karl Marx, who covered the mutiny for the New York Tribune, long distance from London, “An immediate panic seized the native capitalists, very large sums were withdrawn from the banks, Government securities proved almost unsalable, and hoarding to a great extent commenced, not only in Bombay but in its environs also.’’

Apart from this wholly natural reflex action, there were at least two sensational mutiny-related events that shook the native town to its foundations. The first was a grim cautionary lesson to prospective mutineers, handed out by the maverick police chief of the time, Charles Forjett, who ordered that two sepoys be tied to mouth of cannon and blown to bits. The other, was the charge of sedition brought against the wealthiest and most distinguished Hindu businessman of the time, the Maharashtrian banker Jagannath Shankarshet, who was implicated in a conspiracy despite enjoying the trust of the Governor Lord Elphinstone himself. In the case of Shankarshet, Forjett was once again to play a crucial role, but this time it was to exonerate not explode.

His swarthy complexion and black hair suggesting parentage that was not all British, Forjett was fluent in the local language, an expert at disguise, and often walked the streets to eavesdrop on conversations to get a sense of trouble brewing. This grassroots intelligence rarely failed him, and during the mutiny months he was more than ever on his guard. Writes historian M D David, “So tense was the atmosphere that when rumours of an outbreak of the mutiny swept the city many Europeans of Colaba fled their homes seeking shelter in the ships in the harbour, returning only when the rumours were dispelled.”

It came to Forjett’s keen ears that there was growing disaffection in the infantry and that surreptitious meetings were being held in the home of one Ganga Prasad. Blacked up and in native dress, Forjett is said to have stolen to the house in Sonapur (near Marine Lines) and heard, through a breach in the wall, the group plotting a Diwali attack on the firangis.

Forjett moved swiftly. He had two men, whom he described as the ‘ring-leaders’ arrested. The sepoys were court martialled at Fort St George and pronounced guilty. On October 15, at 4.30 pm on the Esplanade, the two conspirators, the strapping Drill Havaldar Sayed Hussein of the Marine Battalion and Sepoy Mangal Guddrea of the 10th Native Indian Regiment, were trussed with their backs to two cannon. The findings of the court were read out, the order delivered in a thundering voice, and as David writes, “There was a sharp report, a sudden flash of fire and when the clouds of smoke blew away there lay scattered the bloody remnants of the two men.”

The macabre execution took place in front of packed crowds, both Indian and European, and was Forjett’s way of broadcasting the message that any dissent would be dealt with in similar fashion.

History came round full circle a whole century later, when in Independent India, the Esplanade was renamed Azad Maidan to memorialise the numerous freedom speeches made here by Mahatma Gandhi and others. Unwittingly, but fittingly, the re-naming tributes Mumbai’s martyrs of the First War of Independence, its very own Mangal.

In those times, the practice of blowing up criminals was reserved for the most depraved atrocities. When Muslim sepoys in Delhi killed a cow and wanted to turn their swords on the kafir population, the normally mild emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, issued an order that if any cows were killed or Hindus touched, the culprits would be tied to a cannon and blown up. This order is said to have kept Delhi’s Hindu population safe.

Meanwhile in Mumbai, there were rumblings from the hinterland. From Pune came reports of placards being strung up declaring that all Europeans should be murdered and Rs 5,000 offered as reward for the Governor’s head. The man behind this move was supposedly the Peshwa, Nana Saheb, and Jaganath Shankarshet was accused of being in cahoots with him. Shankarshet protested he was being framed by European vested interests. The story of his implication and the consternation it caused is told is great detail in Gangadhar Gadgil’s biographical novel Prarambh. Forjett, who was in charge of the investigation, came to the conclusion that Shankarshet was not guilty.

But Amaresh Misra’s book on 1857, which will soon be published, says that Shankarshet was in police custody for 11 days and even hints at ill-treatment. Says Misra, “In a family memoir, Baburao Paradkar, a descendant of Shankarshet, says that his forefather was in Forjett’s custody, and that when he came out we all knew that ‘unke saath durvivhar hua hai’. In fact, the truth is that Shankarshet was very much in touch with Nana Saheb, and Forjett did find some incriminating documents, but there was a compromise and things were worked out.’’


Akanksha said...

Is this the same Amaresh Misra whose amazing 2 volume work on 1857 has released recently? i am proud he is an Indian writing with our perspective- and not the typicas British view a la pseudo-Darlymple

Anonymous said...

It is well known that C Forjett was Eurasian, a member of the population distinguished from the British in India by late 18th century law and policy. Today, he would be described as an Anglo-Indian.

Anonymous said...

Wow! I never knew this piece of history. Thank you so much for sharing.

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