People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 41

October 14, 2007



Amar Farooqui


THE struggle for Lucknow occupies a central place in the history of the Great Revolt. Of the major military engagements in 1857-58 the siege of the Lucknow Residency by the rebels was one of the most intense, and certainly the longest. The uprising at Lucknow and the heroic defence of the city by the sipahis and the common people constitutes a glorious chapter in the annals of the anti-colonial struggle. Not surprisingly the British had to mobilise armed force on a very large scale to crush the Revolt in the capital of the erstwhile kingdom of Avadh. The special status of the Lucknow Residency as a sacred site associated with imperial conquest was indicated by the fact that it was the only structure in the British Indian empire where the Union Jack was not lowered at sunset: it flew day and night, being eventually taken down only on August 14, 1947.


The origins of the Revolt may be justifiably traced to the annexation of Avadh by the East India Company in February 1856. As is well known the kingdom was annexed on the pretext of misrule. The ruler, Wajid Ali Shah (1847-56), had been asked to hand over the administration of Avadh (spelt as ‘Oudh’ or ‘Oude’ in colonial records) directly to the Company. When he refused, the kingdom was seized and Wajid Ali Shah was exiled. This political act of the Company had far-reaching military consequences since Avadh was a major recruiting area for the colonial state’s Bengal Army. On the eve of the Revolt nearly one-third of the sipahis in the Bengal army, numbering about 40,000, came from territories of the kingdom of Avadh. This kingdom was already truncated by the mid-nineteenth century. The result was that widespread discontent against colonial exploitation in the countryside (as well as in the cities, to which a large section of the rural poor flocked) could seek expression in military rebellion initiated by the Avadh ‘peasants in uniform’.


Following the events of May 10 and 11, 1857 at Meerut and Delhi, and with the establishment at Delhi of an independent sipahi regime with the Mughal emperor as its nominal leader, favourable conditions for an uprising developed in Avadh. There seems to have been widespread expectation of mutiny breaking out in garrisons situated in Avadh (Avadh at this time comprised mainly the districts of Faizabad, Lucknow, Sultanpur, Rae Bareilly, Pratapgarh, Barabanki, Unnao, Sitapur, Hardoi, Bahraich and Gonda). Already there had been mutinies between May 20 and 22 in adjoining areas — at Aligarh, Mainpuri, Etawah and Bulandshahr.


On May 30 sipahis of the 13th Native Infantry (NI), 48th NI, 71st NI, and 7th Light Infantry, stationed at Lucknow, rebelled. The British authorities were able to rapidly bring the situation under control and the sipahis dispersed to the countryside, especially in the Sitapur area. Simultaneously, a mass uprising by the inhabitants of Lucknow occurred, but was quickly put down. Large scale preventive arrests were made and the situation remained relatively quiet during June.




Meanwhile the Avadh countryside was up in arms. At the same time neighbouring Kanpur, located at a distance of about 80 kms from Lucknow, had become a major centre of the Revolt. Rebels led by Nana Saheb had taken over Kanpur by the first week of June. After Delhi, Kanpur was at this time the other important headquarters of the rebels. The events at Kanpur had a direct fallout on the situation in Lucknow. British troops were able to recapture Kanpur by the middle of July. This prompted many of the rebels to move in the direction of Lucknow. At Lucknow mobilisation for an offensive against the colonial authorities was underway for some time. Finally, at this point many of the rebels in the districts surrounding Lucknow converged on the capital.


On June 30 a decisive battle between the rebels and the British took place at Chinhat on the outskirts of Lucknow. The rebels won a resounding victory at the battle of Chinhat. They were now in a position to take over Lucknow. British troops and civilian officials retreated to the Residency compound and were besieged. Other European inhabitants of the city also rushed to seek shelter in the Residency. In all there were about three thousand persons within the Residency compound (apart from the Residency itself this included several other neighbouring buildings; the original Residency had been built towards the end of the eighteenth century). The epic siege of the Lucknow Residency commenced on July 1, 1857.


The rebels set up a new government of their own as the legitimate government of Lucknow — in fact of the whole of Avadh — thereby proclaiming the end of the East India Company’s government. They recognised the authority of Begum Hazrat Mahal who remained their foremost leader throughout the duration of the siege. Hazrat Mahal was a former wife of Wajid Ali Shah. She continued living in Lucknow after Wajid Ali was exiled. When the uprising began she declared her minor son Birjis Qadr as the ruler of Avadh. Birjis Qadr was accepted as the nominal head of government by the rebels. On July 5 he was installed as ruler in a formal ceremony. Hazrat Mahal was the regent for her son. Henceforth all official orders were issued in the name of Birjis Qadr. Recognition for Birjis Qadr was also sought from the Mughal emperor. The sipahi state in Delhi acknowledged him as the ruler of Avadh. He was granted the right to rule over the province on behalf of the Mughal emperor. All these arrangements underlined the legitimacy of the Lucknow regime, enabling it to gain widespread support in Avadh.




The rebels concentrated their military strength around the Residency. The siege of the Residency compound had an important political significance. This was the seat of the Company’s hated administration in Avadh after the annexation of 1856. Occupying the Residency would signal the end of the Company’s rule. There were at this time about 1700 combatants within the Residency. It is estimated that initially the strength of the rebel forces surrounding the Residency was about 6000. The British were led by Henry Lawrence, who had assumed the office of ‘Chief Commissioner of Oudh’ in March 1857, i.e. shortly before the outbreak of the Revolt. Lawrence was killed in the first few days of the siege, on July 4.


As there were a large number of tall buildings around the Residency compound, the rebels stationed sharpshooters on the rooftops of these buildings. Sniper fire was one of the tactics used to inflict damage on the British. Besides, the sipahis used underground mines very effectively. There were heavy casualties on the British side. We have detailed accounts of the siege from the colonial perspective, which give us a very good idea of the situation inside the Residency. In his history of the Revolt published in 1957 (Eighteen Fifty-seven), S N Sen reconstructed the details of the siege by using these accounts.


Unfortunately this made him concentrate mainly on what was happening inside the Residency rather than what was happening outside. We get to know that supplies, especially of food, were fast running out; sanitation was a major problem; Indians, mostly servants or soldiers, had to constantly face racial discrimination and were made to perform the most degrading menial tasks; and there were frequent disputes among the British. There were some peculiar problems as well, for instance the difficulty that opium addicts had in procuring the drug. Interestingly there was a thriving blackmarket trade in opium, though all addicts could not pay the high price. Sen refers to a person by the name of Jones who found it difficult to continue without his daily dose: ‘At last he decided to desert. With him went several of the King of Oudh’s musicians, all native Christians [who had taken shelter in the Residency]. A number of servants accompanied them, ... They left inscribed on the walls in several places, “Because I have no opium”’ [pp.208-209].


Military command of the rebels was in the hands of Raja Jai Lal Singh, who had been the názim of Azamgarh. He was a close confidante of Hazrat Mahal, and was a key member of the military council that took all major decisions. He was also the main spokesperson for the troops in their dealings with the Court of Birjis Qadr/Hazrat Mahal. Raja Jai Lal Singh was instrumental in mobilising military support from the districts around Lucknow. Another outstanding leader of the rebels was Maulvi Ahmadullah Shah, the so-called ‘maulvi of Faizabad’. It would appear that he enjoyed considerable grassroots support among the urban poor. Although Ahmadullah Shah cooperated with Hazrat Mahal, there were also sharp differences between the two of them. Further, Hazrat Mahal maintained close contact with Nana Saheb. In December 1857 the rebels were reinforced with the arrival at Lucknow of Kunwar Singh during the course of his famous ‘long march’. Subsequently Kunwar Singh proceeded to Azamgarh, which he occupied for some time.




As the uprising progressed and British administration in Avadh collapsed, a large section of the landed aristocracy, the talluqdars, came over to the rebel cause. This is indicated by the figures worked out by Rudrangshu Mukherjee in his study Awadh in Revolt, 1857-1858. According to Mukherjee the rebels received large-scale reinforcements around the middle of November 1857 when British forces led by the commander-in-chief Colin Campbell launched a major offensive to recapture the city. At this stage there were a total of 53,350 combatants, of which 32,080 were listed as ‘tallukdar’s men’. In the words of Mukherjee, this ‘clearly shows that the rebellion in Awadh had transcended a purely sipahi base. For one thing the fighting force was quite large and for another more than 60 per cent of the fighting force was drawn from the general rural populace. It is more than probable, given the ties of loyalty that existed in the rural world of Awadh, that the thousands of men supplied by the tallukdars were not all just their retainers but also drawn from tenants, peasants and clansmen who lived on their land’ [p.95].


It may be mentioned that the Company had pursued an anti-talluqdar policy since the annexation of Avadh. This was an extension of the policy it had pursued in the adjoining North-Western Province (the North-Western Province largely comprised those territories which had been acquired by the Company in what is now Uttar Pradesh —territories other than the kingdom of Avadh). In the North-Western Province, James Thomason, who was Lt-Governor of the Province for a decade from 1843 to 1853, had steadily pursued a policy of reducing the authority of the talluqdars, had taken away their intermediary rights, had assumed some of their land, and had curbed their political and administrative power.


After 1856 this policy was extended to Avadh, but initially the newly appointed Chief Commissioner, James Outram, had moved a little cautiously in the matter of dispossessing the talluqdars. When, however, Outram proceeded on leave in May 1856, his successor C Coverley Jackson embarked on a harsher policy, taking away the rights of the talluqdars. This gave rise to discontent among the powerful landowning classes in Avadh, and one of the reasons why Henry Lawrence had been brought in as Chief Commissioner was because he was perceived to be somewhat more sympathetic to the landed elite. But by the time Lawrence assumed office in March 1857 things had already gone too far, and then within a few months the Revolt broke out. Although initially the talluqdars were reluctant to join the rebels, once the Company’s rule disappeared in Avadh a large number of them shifted their allegiance. The British were somewhat surprised that even the peasants whom the talluqdars oppressed should have joined the rebel cause under the leadership of their respective talluqdars. Colonial officials seem to have assumed that the peasants would appreciate the Company’s anti-talluqdari measures, since these were supposed to be in the interests of the peasants. However the structure of rural society and an instinctive comprehension of the exploitative nature of the colonial regime which ultimately targetted the surplus produced by the peasant, made peasants and talluqdars fight side by side in Avadh.




As the monsoon season came to an end in 1857, the British made a concerted attempt to regain Lucknow. By this time they already brought the area between Banaras and Kanpur under their control. This had been made possible by unleashing violence on an unprecedented scale, the most vicious campaign being that of the notorious James Neill who carried out large-scale massacres in and around Allahabad. Delhi too had fallen by the third week of September. Around this time British troops commanded by Henry Havelock (who had led the offensive at Kanpur) attempted to break through the siege. Havelock was accompanied by Outram who had returned from leave and was now asked to assume charge of the province of Avadh. On September 25, 1857 Havelock and Outram, along with a small contingent, managed to reach the Residency, but they in turn were besieged. The siege of the Residency continued.


Then in November 1857 another attempt was made to lift the siege. We have already referred to this offensive that was led by Colin Campbell (who later became Lord Clyde). Campbell’s military action on this occasion was only a partial success. What Campbell was able to do was to evacuate the besieged inhabitants of the Residency. However, Lucknow itself still remained under rebel control. Eventually a massive offensive was launched in March 1857. The recapture of Lucknow was a matter of urgency; without control over Lucknow British rule could not be re-established in Avadh. As a colonial official put it, ‘... the subjugation of the province will follow the fall of Lucknow as surely as the conquest of France would follow the capture of Paris’. Campbell had set up his headquarters in the Dilkusha Palace located in the Dilukusha Gardens on the outskirts of the city. Campbell’s contingents occupied Lucknow on March 21, 1858.




With this setback to the rebel cause, Begum Hazrat Mahal shifted her base to the fort of Baundi (district Bahraich), where she continued her struggle till she was forced to evacuate the fort in December 1858. Ahmadullah Shah too continued the struggle in the western parts of Avadh and died fighting in June 1858.


From Baundi, Hazrat Mahal moved to the dense jungles of the Tarai area. British troops pursued her, but she managed to escape capture. Subsequently she was offered refuge in Nepal. Hazrat Mahal lived on till 1879 and was buried in an Imambara in Kathmandu. Recent reports indicate that her forgotten grave has virtually been obliterated. The final significant political intervention by Hazrat Mahal, before she went into self-exile, was a forceful rebuttal of queen Victoria’s proclamation of November 1858. This proclamation, as is well known, was issued after the British crown directly assumed responsibility for governance of the Indian empire (October 1858). By Victoria’s proclamation all inhabitants of the empire became subjects of the crown. The British monarch was projected as the benevolent protector of her Indian subjects. In response to Victoria’s proclamation Hazrat Mahal issued a contra-proclamation in the name of Birjis Qadr in which she exposed the falsehoods of British assurances and the deceit upon which colonial rule was based. Drawing attention to the hypocrisy of British declarations, Hazrat Mahal asked, ‘If the Queen has assumed the government, why does Her Majesty not restore our country to us when our people wish it?’


It is indeed a shame that in 1992 the BJP government in Uttar Pradesh temporarily renamed Begum Hazrat Mahal Park in Lucknow as Urmila Vatika. This park was originally called Victoria Park. The name was changed in 1962 to Begum Hazrat Mahal Park to honour this valiant leader of the Revolt. Not surprisingly the Sangh parivar has tried to erase the memory of the common unified anti-colonial struggle that Hazrat Mahal represented, by imposing upon this memory its politics of communal hate.




With the military occupation of Lucknow there was swift and cruel retribution against the inhabitants of the city. The barbarities of Delhi were repeated. The city of Lucknow had to be punished so that its fate could be held up as an example of what would happen to an entire city if it opposed British rule. The objective was to strike terror among the ‘subject race’. The entire layout of the city was transformed. The task of reshaping Lucknow was entrusted to military engineers led by Col. Robert Napier. A large part of the densely populated area around Macchi Bhawan, the traditional centre of the city, was demolished. Nearly two-fifths of the entire city was destroyed and the residents uprooted. The socio-religious and cultural life of the city was severely affected by the British policy of retribution. The military occupation of the Jama Masjid robbed the area of its life and vitality. A leading historian of colonial Lucknow observes that the area ‘dwindled into a picturesque ruin on a barren eminence with an unpeopled esplanade around it. Periodic attempts at rehabilitating have failed since it now stands on the periphery of what remains of the old city and is no longer the convenient locus it once was’ [Veena Talwar Oldenburg, The Making of Colonial Lucknow]. What is more, narrow winding streets that made military operations difficult were replaced with broad avenues, as for instance Victoria Street. This broad avenue, running from north to south, made it easy for the army to march from one end of the city to the other without having to encounter barricades. Thus the post-1857 policy left a permanent mark on the urban configuration of Lucknow. The city was never the same again.


After the recapture of Lucknow the British attempted to restore their authority in the Avadh countryside. For this purpose they initiated a policy of reprisals against the talluqdars, hoping at the same time to gain the support of the peasantry. In March 1858 the governor-general Lord Canning issued a proclamation confiscating the estates of the talluqdars. Only five talluqdars who had remained loyal, of whom the raja of Balrampur was the most prominent, were exempted. This measure of Canning led to a serious crisis. Talluqdars throughout Avadh promptly mobilized themselves against the British. This was a desperate struggle on their part to hold on to their land and feudal privileges. Even fence-sitters now joined the fight. Canning’s proclamation prolonged the Revolt in Avadh for several months. There was no British administration in Avadh for most of 1858, except in a few prominent towns. Canning’s policy led to a complete breakdown and there were sharp differences over the proclamation. These differences almost led to the fall of the minority ministry in Britain headed by Lord Derby. In India there were differences between Outram and Canning on this question.


Canning eventually agreed to a policy of reconciliation, and Outram tried to negotiate with the talluqdars, assuring them that they would not lose their estates if they gave up the path of rebellion. It was obvious that the Avadh countryside could not be won through a military conquest. The Revolt of the people was defeated through a compromise between the colonial rulers and the indigenous landed elite. In the post-1858 period the landed elite became the main support of the colonial state. Their participation in the Revolt ended in their capitulation as a class. This capitulation was at the cost of the toiling people in villages and cities who had played such an important part in the anti-colonial struggle of 1857-58.