The night was terrifying and many Europeans posted sentries as safeguards or slept on the sofas with their pistols loaded beside them. Rumours flew thick and fast as the native servants filled the ears of their English masters. They were too scared of the final outcome. The government enrolled corps of volunteers on horseback and on foot to patrol the streets and mounted guards at different points at night. Major General Sir Williams Cavanaugh of Fort William best describes the night of “panic Sunday”: “I never saw Calcutta so quiet; now and then a figure clothed in white flitted past me and I met a patrol of volunteers; otherwise it was like a city of the dead.”

The fight against an invisible enemy went on for a long time. Home secretary Cecil Beadon’s words of assurance that “everything is quiet within six hundred miles of the capital” were found to be overstated, rather misleading to the government. JP Grant, a member of the Supreme Council, expressed his apprehensions, and warned by saying, “In reality as well as in appearance we are weak here [Calcutta].” It was not the native infantry; rather, Grant worried that he had no idea about the number of armed men at Garden Reach under the tutelage of the king of Awadh in exile.

Rumours were thick that the former King’s men had begun to plunder the supposedly protected suburb and had turned the English into pitiable incumbents. The tone of the native sepoys had changed after the Meerut outbreak. Governor General Lord Canning realised that the British capital of India was no longer a safe haven for his compatriots and desperately tried to summon a European regiment to Calcutta in early June. The Bengali gentries, the so-called bhadralok community, had just started to emerge into prominence and had never lived so peacefully before, thanks to their British dispensations. They were firmly with the Raj and presented a united front against the beastly sepoys and those who dared to question the rule of law set up by the Englishmen. The former King of Awadh had come to the city and taken away their peace of mind.

Grant’s awful portrayal of the former King of Awadh as an impending threat to the peace and tranquillity of Calcuttans enervated the Governor General more than the incessant danger of the Native Infantry. There was a rumour floating around that on the outskirts of Calcutta, the former King had been training a band of militant warriors, who were consorting with the sepoys of their fraternity to revolt against the British. His realm at Garden Reach was impermeable to outsiders and shrouded in mystery. Lord Canning feared a disastrous upsurge, which could arise unnoticed from the eastern corner of his capital.

A wave of sympathy was blowing in favour of the former King in Lucknow and across the north of India. Lord Canning was convinced that the wind could be turned in their favour only by taking the former King into custody. The effect would be manifold. Firstly, if the former King was detained, his followers in Calcutta would not have a leader to rally behind. Secondly, the wave of public sympathy in favour of the dethroned King aroused in London by the Oudh Commission would lose its strength. Rather, it would strongly appear in British Parliament as a tactic adopted by the commission to gain public favour. And lastly, the revolt of Awadh could be averted.

Canning did not have to wait long before an opportunity came to him for which he was not prepared initially. An incident took place on June 13, the night before “panic Sunday”, which gave enough reason for Canning to secure his front. Abdul Subhan, a young Muslim, was caught spying inside Fort William. On interrogation, he divulged that he was an agent of the former King and had come from Garden Reach. He revealed that he had been assigned the task of unravelling the relationship that existed between the Europeans and the native troops in the garrison stationed at Fort William.

Abdul aimed to bring the native troops in his fold so that they would take the side of the assailants in the event of an attack. He further confessed that Bahadur Shah Zafar, in connivance with Wajid Ali Shah of Garden Reach, was preparing for a war to drive out the British from their capital in Calcutta. It was also revealed from his deposition that apart from the sepoys of Calcutta and Barrackpore garrisons, 400 followers of the former King were prepared to sacrifice their lives in the war against the British in Calcutta.

There was no point waiting further to face the brunt of a grisly bloodbath. Late in the night on “panic Sunday”, Lord Canning held a closed-door meeting with his confidants and finally signed the arrest warrant of Wajid Ali Shah. All preparations were kept confidential, and at the dawn of June 15, Lord Canning ordered GF Edmondstone, secretary to the Government of India, to arrest Wajid Ali Shah and four of his close confidants. A team of about 500 men of the 53rd Regiment under Colonel Powell, some from the artillery, and bodyguard line of Governor General, along with Commander Foulerton’s naval force, boarded the Semiramis and reached the Garden Reach early in the morning.

After a late-night majlis in his rented kothi, the former King woke up as usual before dawn for his early namaz. He was not prepared for the troupe of 500 army men knocking at his doors. He had not taken his bath even. The former King was taken by surprise and all his efforts to plead innocence fell on deaf ears. His house and grounds were searched, and about 600 men and a thousand stands of arms were discovered and removed. After recovering from his initial shock, Wajid Ali Shah realised that destiny was prodding him to face the second challenge of his life. The operation was so perfect and so abrupt that his followers had no option but to accept the happenstance as one ordained in their kismet.

Wajid Ali Shah was arrested on the charge of conspiracy against the government and instigating insurgency among his armed followers. Edmondstone assured the former King that for his safety and security, he would stay in Fort William for the time being and would again return to his kothi once the law and order situation of the country was restored. He was apparently accompanied by Mujah-i-daullah and Diwanat-ud-daullah in a horse-drawn carriage. Ali Naqi Khan, the King’s confidant and the former prime minister in Lucknow was also a detainee. As soon as the King’s carriage disappeared into the horizon of Garden Reach, the seed of rebellion in Calcutta – had there been any – died down forever.

A beleaguering episode in the life of the banished King began, although his characteristic dignified behaviour seemed unchanged. Wajid Ali Shah was left with no option but to surrender to his destiny. While making a strong demonstration of the iniquity shown by the British, he surrendered himself to go wherever the Governor General ordered him to, exactly the way he relinquished his crown to James Outram a year ago. The banished King drove in through Coolie Bazaar Gate of Fort William at eight o’clock but was detained until two o’clock before he was finally allowed to settle in his room, prepared at the last moment to maintain the confidentiality of the plan.

Excerpted with permission from A Nawab and a Begum, Sudipta Mitra, Rupa Publications.