Early on the morning of May 13, 1857, the native regiment army in Lahore was summoned to the parade ground. They were positioned in a way that the European horse-artillery troop was behind them. The regiment was asked to step forward and ordered to submit their arms, which they did so in confused fashion.
A couple of days earlier, Indian sepoys at the Meerut cantonment had rebelled against the British officers, starting a year long struggle for freedom. On May 11, 1857, the rebel soldiers reached Delhi, where they urged Bahadur Shah Zafar, the puppet Mughal king, to become their leader.
It’s hard to say if the soldiers in Lahore and Punjab had heard about the rebellion. The telegraph had been installed in Punjab and was being used by the colonial officers to convey the news. Chief Commissioner of Punjab John Lawrence, the most important colonial officer of the province, was in Rawalpindi on his way to the hill station Murree with his family, something that he did every summer to escape the heat of Punjab. Hearing about the mutiny in Meerut, he sent his family to Murree and stayed in Rawalpindi to monitor the progress.
With the telegraph line between Lahore and Rawalpindi down on May 12, the colonial officers in Lahore were on their own.
Threat to the Empire
Caught unawares, the British were particular concerned about Punjab, a state that they had acquired less than a decade ago after two bitter wars with the Sikhs. Punjabi nobility had lost their status with the arrival of the British, and hence were bitter towards them. After taking over Punjab in 1849, the British had disarmed the Punjabi soldiers and sent them back to agriculture. However, they were aware of the martial capabilities of Punjabis, and knew that if the fire of rebellion that was spreading throughout northern India spread to the Punjab, then it would be hard to quell.
Just as Delhi in North India was a symbolic city where rebels converged, it was Lahore in Punjab which was the symbol of a lost empire and lost status for aristocrat Punjabis. The colonial officers in Lahore understood the importance of maintaining their position in Lahore under all conditions. They also realised that with a strong presence in Punjab, the British could push back the rebels from Delhi and North India, which is exactly what happened.
“If Lahore is saved, the Empire is saved,” said Robert Montgomery, the Judicial Commissioner of Punjab, while presiding over an emergency meeting attended by senior civil and military officers in the new Mian Mir Cantonment. Robert Montgomery had been informed by the Lahore station master, who had heard from a Sikh non-commissioned officer in the police corps, that the entire native regiment was planning to rebel against the British officers and take over Lahore Fort.
Huddled together on May 12, the British officers could not decide if there was any truth behind this news. It was suggested that there was no such mutiny planned in Lahore and disarming the regiment would unnecessarily alert them. However, Robert Montgomery did not want to take any chances. Hence, on the morning of May 13, the entire native regiment in Lahore was disarmed.
This was a stroke of genius that saved the Empire. The rebellion never really gained momentum in Punjab. Similarly, native regiments all across the province were disarmed.
John Lawrence assigned the famous John Nicholson to sweep through Punjab with force and quell all rebellion in its infancy. Nicholson, who at that time was serving as the Deputy Commissioner of Bannu, had earned quite a reputation for himself. During his tenure as the Deputy Commissioner, he had brutally dealt with the hill tribes and cast fear among the locals. As he combed through Punjab, the legend of his martial prowess grew immensely.
In the meantime, John Lawrence raised a Punjabi regiment that comprised Sikhs, Muslims and Dogras to send to Delhi to capture the city back from the rebels. The Viceroy of India, Charles Canning, was holed up in Calcutta at this time and was cut off from the action. The telegram lines between North India and Calcutta were regularly cut off, making it difficult for the Europeans in the heart of the rebel territory to communicate with their viceroy.
Under these circumstances, John Lawrence took it upon himself to preserve the British Empire. He was the de-facto Commander-in-Chief in the eyes of most Britons in the north and west of India. Previously, he had also served as a Magistrate in Delhi and was therefore aware of the layout of the city, which would be crucial information in wresting back the city.
Preparing a Punjabi regiment, John Lawrence assigned John Nicholson to march to Delhi and fight the rebels. Nicholson was already a legend by the time he reached Delhi. On September 14, he led one of the columns into Delhi. The city was eventually taken back and the rebellion was crushed, but John Nicholson died during the battle.
Honouring their heroes
Without the help of the Punjab regiment, the British would have never been able to crush the rebellion. The war of 1857 made legends out of several British officials, three of which were Robert Montgomery, John Lawrence and John Nicholson. Nearly 160 years since the 1857 revolt, Punjab and Lahore honour neither the rebels nor the freedom fighters, but rather these three British heroes who were pivotal in curbing the rebellion.
At a little distance from the walled city of Lahore, whose walls were razed by the British after the Revolt of 1857, is a road named Montgomery Road, named in the honor of Robert Montgomery, the Punjabi hero of the Revolt, who also served as the Lieutant-Governor of Punjab between 1859 and 1865. A congested road, it is now the hub of auto spare parts in the province. The road then merges into a road called Nicholson Road, named after the legendary John Nicholson. The Nicholson road converges into McLeod Road, named after another British official from the same period, who was the Revenue Commissioner for Punjab. The McLeod touches the Mall Road, perhaps the most famous road constructed by the British in Lahore. On Mall Road is Bagh-e-Jinnah, once known as Lawrence Park, named after John Lawrence, the saviour of 1857 and the Viceroy of India between 1863 and 1869. Lawrence Park, however, remains the popular name.
Next to the Park is the Quaid-i-Azam Library, one of the largest public libraries in the country. Situated in a white colonnade colonial style building, the library was originally Lawrence Hall, built in 1866 to honor John Lawrence. It was used to hold important British functions and also served as a gymkhana. After the creation of Pakistan, both Lawrence Park and Lawrence Hall were renamed after the founder of the country. In pre-Partition Lahore, there used to be a statue of John Lawrence on Mall Road, with a pen in one hand and a sword on the other, with the following lines inscribed beneath it: “By which will ye be governed, by pen or by sword?” Deemed offensive to nationalist sensibilities, the statue was removed in the 1920s after much protest.
The Pakistani state has a strange relationship with its colonial legacy. Because of its emphasis on the two-nation theory and its obsession with defining itself in opposition to the Hindus, the official narrative, as is found in school textbooks, is often lacking in providing a context to students about our colonial past.
Pre-Partition history is only presented in the context of Hindu-Muslim relations. It is therefore no surprise that the vast majority of students in the country believe that Pakistan achieved its freedom from the Hindus in 1947, and not the British. In the popular imagination, the colonial era is remembered fondly for the peace and economic stability that it brought to Punjab. The British succeeded the Sikh Empire, which is portrayed as a tyrannical rule for the Muslims.
To better understand the State’s relationship with its colonial predecessor, consider the example of General Raheel Sharif – one of Pakistan’s most popular army chiefs – commemorating 100 years of the Infantry division of Lahore, which was raised during the First World War, in March last year.
Recently, I was talking to a German friend living in Delhi, who said that he has come across many young Indians and Pakistanis who take a lot of pride in the fact that their ancestors took part in the Second World War. In contrast, my German friend admitted that he was embarrassed about his grandfather’s role in the German army during the same war.
Pakistani society suffers a major identity crisis today. It used to see itself as a bastion of Islam in the Indian peninsula. However, that image suffered a major setback after the creation of Bangladesh.
Even so, Muslim identity continues to play a major role. Today, this identity is once again under threat with the rise of Islamic extremism, which too constructs an Islamic identity. The religious minorities in the country have suffered deeply owing to the close links between religion and national identity. So have the smaller provinces such as Sindh and Baluchistan (small in terms of its numbers) that, parallel to a Pakistani/Muslim identity, also adhere to their regional identity. It is only Punjab that has completely adapted this Pakistani identity by shedding away its regional identity, which is seen diluted because of its association with the non-Muslim past.
It is because of our obsession with defining our history in terms of Muslim-Hindu relations that we have not been able to understand the ramifications of colonialism and how it affects our daily lives. It is for this reason that British officials such as Montgomery and Lawrence, who undoubtedly played a pivotal role in the modernisation of Punjab, are still idolised, while our folk heroes who challenged this hegemony are unacknowledged. Everybody in Punjab today knows about Montgomery, Nicholson and Lawrence, but not many have heard of Ahmad Shah Kharal, who laid a popular revolt against the British in 1857, inspired by the events in Meerut. He was killed on September 21, in a region that was later to be called Montgomery District.
Haroon Khalid is the author of the books In Search of Shiva: A study of folk religious practices in Pakistan and A White Trail: A journey into the heart of Pakistan’s religious minorities.