Tatya [Tope] had left Gwalior on June 20, 1858. He had no army worth the name, and no equipment. His colleagues were reduced to two, Rao Sahib and the Nawab of Banda, and his followers were a mere handful. But he did not give up hope. He planned to go south and, in Peshwa’s name, enlist the active support of the rulers and the people of southern India for the revolution. To execute the plan, he proceeded towards the Narmada, which he intended to cross and go south.The English would not let him do it.
The English in hot pursuit of Tatya
The first English attempt to check Tatya was made at Jaora Alapur on June 22, 1858. An English force caught up with Tatya but he got away. Tatya then headed for Bharatpur. A strong English force immediately reached Bharatpur to get him there. Tatya turned and made for Jaipur. The people and the army of Jaipur were in sympathy with the revolution, and Tatya had sent them word to be ready. An English force was forthwith sent from Nasirabad to Jaipur. Tatya then turned southwards.
Col Holmes pursued him. Tatya hoodwinked his pursuers and neared Tonk. The Nawab of Tonk closed the gates of the city and sent out a detachment of his troops with four guns to fight Tatya. But the detachment, as soon as it came face to face with Tatya, went over to him with the guns. Tatya had now acquired fresh troops and equipment, with which he marched towards Indragarh. It was raining heavily. Holmes was rapidly advancing on Tatya’s rear, and General Roberts was leading a force from the Rajputana side to attack him. The river Chambal facing Tatya was in high flood.
Tatya got round all the three obstacles and turned northeast towards Bundi. Tatya stopped at Bheelwara village in the Neemuch-Nasirabad province, for a little while. General Roberts got news of it and, on August 7, 1858, attacked Tatya. The fight lasted throughout the day. In the darkness of the night, Tatya made good his escape with his guns. He reached Kotra village in Udaipur State.
Battle at Kotra and after
On August 14, the pursuing English force caught up with Tatya at Kotra. Tatya was defeated in the battle which followed, and had to abandon his guns. As he retreated, the English force pursued him. Tatya again headed for the Chambal. In addition to the English force that was pursuing him, another was marching on him on his right. A third force was on the bank of the Chambal facing him directly. But with amazing skill and speed, he eluded all of them, reached and crossed the Chambal only a short distance from the position of the English force.
The river Chambal was now between Tatya and the pursuing English forces. But Tatya had lost his guns and had no provisions. He proceeded to Jhalrapattan straightaway. The Raja of Jhalrapattan sallied forth with his army and guns to attack Tatya; but when his army faced Tatya, it went over to Tatya.
Tatya thus got more men, guns and provisions. He did not have a single gun when he had started for Jhalrapattan; now he had 32. He had won a bloodless victory, and he exacted Rs 15 lakh from the helpless Raja for his war-chest. He stayed on at Jhalrapattan for five days and paid his troops. Then, in consultation with Rao Sahib and the Nawab of Banda who were with him, he decided to renew the attempt to cross the Narmada. The English spread out a net far and wide to trap Tatya, who was now headed for Indore.
Six of the ablest English Generals, Roberts, Holmes, Parke, Mitchell, Hope and Lockheart, were now making strenuous efforts simultaneously to round up Tatya. More than once the English pursuers came within sight of Tatya and his force, yet Tatya got away every time.
The English force under Mitchell attacked Tatya near Raigarh. After a short battle Tatya abandoned 30 of his guns, and made good his escape. Later, he acquired four guns whilst on his way northwards.He entered Sindhia’s territory and attacked Eeshgarh (Isagarh) and seized light guns from there. Tatya’s ultimate aim and object was to cross the Narmada anyhow, and the English were trying their hardest to prevent him by encircling him again and again. An English writer sums up the situation thus:
“Then began the series of Tatya’s amazing elusions and escapes, which continued for ten months, and which seemed to render our victory fruitless. His successes in evading capture made his name better known in Europe than that of most of our English Generals.
The problem facing Tatya was not an easy one...He had to march his irregular army so continuously, and with such speed as to foil not only the troops pursuing him, but also those that suddenly pounced upon him from his right or his left. Whilst madly on the run with his army he, at the same time, attacked dozens of towns that lay along his route, and thus provided himself with equipment and stores. He also seized guns wherever he could find them. And, more than all that, he enlisted volunteer-recruits in his army – recruits who had to march continuously and, at a run, some 60 miles a day.
Tatya’s achievements, in spite of his meagre resources, prove that he was not a man of ordinary ability...He ranked with Hyder Ali. It has been stated that Tatya planned to reach Madras via Nagpur. Had he succeeded in doing so, he would have proved quite as formidable for us as Hyder Ali had done. The Nurbudda however, proved to be as great an obstacle in his way as the English Channel had been in that of Napoleon. Tatya did everything but he could not cross the Nurbudda...The English troops pursuing him were used to march at only a reasonable speed, and they did so at first.
But later, they schooled themselves to march fast. The detachments led by General Parke and Col Napier marched with a speed which equalled the speed of half the marches made by Tatya. But even so, Tatya always got away. The summer passed, so did the whole of the rainy season. Winter was practically over and summer had come round again. But Tatya was still at large and on the move, sometimes with only 2,000 tired troops –sometimes with 15,000.”— "The Friend of India"
Tatya crosses the Narmada at last
Tatya then divided his force into two detachments. One was led by him personally, and the other was put under Rao Sahib. Both advanced, but by different routes. Their way was barred at a number of places by English forces, but both fought their way through to Lalitpur where they joined. They were, however, encircled by five detachments of the English army. On the south by Mitchell’s force, on the east by Col Liddell’s force, on the north by Col Meade’s force, on the west by Col Parke’s force, and by General Roberts’ force in the direction of the Chambal.
Tatya then had recourse to a ruse to fool the English. He stopped going southwards, turned back and began marching rapidly northwards. The English were misled into believing that Tatya had abandoned his plan of going to the south, and so they relaxed. Suddenly, however, Tatya turned back once again, and with amazing speed, he reached and crossed the river Betwa. He fought an opposing English detachment at Kajoori and from there went on to Raigarh. From Raigarh he raced southwards like an arrow shot from a bow.
The English were bewildered by these tactics. Gen Parke rushed from one direction, Mitchell rushed from behind Tatya. None of them could, however, stop Tatya, who reached the Narmada and crossed it near Hoshangabad. He had baffled some of the highly recognised war-tacticians of the world. The historian Malleson has stated that it is impossible to withhold admiration from the pertinacity with which the scheme was carried out.
Excerpted with permission from British Rule in India, Pandit Sunderlal, Sage Publications.