An entire village erased by the British in 1857: it was only hearsay until one man’s curiosity helped piece together a startling fragment of history.
A man’s quest to trace his roots has unearthed an atrocious slice of Raj history. Of how the British, a little over 150 years ago, massacred hundreds in a small town in Uttar Pradesh (UP), razed it to the ground, and wiped out all mention of the place from the records as vengeance for the townsfolk’s participation in the 1857 uprising. Thanks to the untiring efforts of one man, yet another ugly and horribly bloody face of British rule in India has been exposed. The tale of this discovery is fascinating in itself.
Mohammad Latif Ansari, 65, had been leading a nondescript life as the owner of a tailoring establishment in Mumbai for many years. But an inexplicable force kept drawing him to a spot near his native village of Bahadurpur, about 15 km south of Basti, a town in central UP. Ansari’s forefathers were weavers from Murshidabad in Bengal and had fled that province in the late 18th century to escape atrocities on Bengal’s famous weavers by the British who were keen on promoting their textiles by eliminating India’s native weaving industry.
Archives at the National Library in Kolkata, accessed by Open, show that the British chopped off the thumbs and hands of master weavers in Bengal, and many of them fled with their families to other parts of India. About 20 such families sought refuge from the Nawab of Oudh, who settled them at Mahua Dabar, a centre of weaving and dyeing near Basti. By the mid-19th century, Mahua Dabar had become a prosperous town of about 5,000 people. But the descendants of the refugees from Bengal could not forget the persecution that their grandfathers and great grandfathers suffered at the hands of the British, and, when an opportunity presented itself to take revenge in 1857, they killed six British army officers on 10 June that year. A little over a week later, British forces surrounded Mahua Dabar, looted it, massacred its inhabitants, demolished all structures, set them on fire and levelled them to the ground. The killings, plunder and destruction took nearly two weeks. By 3 July 1857, Mahua Dabar was no more.
The British then issued a firman (decree) that the place where Mahua Dabar stood would henceforth be ‘ghair-chiragi’ land (where no habitat could be built), meant only for cultivation. They also erased all mention of Mahua Dabar from land records and christened another village about 50 km north of Basti as Mahua Dabar. It was a diabolical cover-up of a heinous act. None of this would have come to light had Ansari not felt drawn to the spot near Bahadurpur that was once Mahua Dabar and not delved into the dog-eared records of the time.
Ansari’s father, Mehboob Ali Ansari, migrated from Bahadurpur to Rangoon (now Yangon) as a lad, and then to Mumbai where he set up an eatery at Grant Road. Latif’s mother Bashirunnisa was also from Bahadurpur, and Latif was born there in October 1945. Bashirunnisa joined her husband at Bombay with an infant Latif, who returned to Bahadurpur after 19 years in 1964 to get married to a girl chosen by his parents. “I had been hearing about Mahua Dabar from my dad since I was a kid. When I came to Bahadurpur in 1964, I was going to a neighbouring village with my uncle Razzak Ansari. He pointed to the ruins of what looked like a mosque, and said that was the place where Mahua Dabar once stood. He repeated the story my father used to tell me about Mahua Dabar and how the British destroyed it. I was benumbed with shock and felt a strange pull, as if my roots were there,” Ansari tells Open at a site that’s just been excavated by Lucknow University’s Archaeology Department under licence from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).
Ansari got busy raising a family in Bombay for the next 30 years, and though Mahua Dabar continued to haunt him, he couldn’t get time to find out more about the place. “I had been coming to Bahadurpur for short periods on work, but could never concentrate on Mahua Dabar. And since I studied only till Class 10, I had no idea how to go about researching the subject,” he says. In February 1994, he came to Bahadurpur to find a bride for his second son Sahabuddin. “On reaching Bahadurpur, I came straight to the site of Mahua Dabar. I was visiting the place after 30 long years, but I felt the same strange pull and the same feelings of having my roots here that I felt when I first came here with my uncle in 1964. It was then that I decided to do something about unearthing Mahua Dabar and researching its history,” says Ansari.
Ansari devoted himself full-time to this task. He started meeting elderly people in the area and historians in Basti, Lucknow and Allahabad. Some repeated the story about Mahua Dabar he had heard from his father, but couldn’t provide any documentary evidence or records. Some historians suggested he trawl through the Basti Gazetteer of the British period. In 1996, he ultimately found a mention of the Mahua Dabar incident—the killing of six British soldiers by its inhabitants and a subsequent revenge attack by the British—in some records. “But it was all very vague,” says Ansari. In January 2003, Ansari obtained Pooran Chand Joshi’s Inquilab 1857 from a fair in Mumbai. “Joshi referred to four British historians who had written books on the mutiny—Charles Ball, John Willam Kaye, Colonel GB Malleson and George W Forest. Ansari went to the Bombay Central Library, picked up Charles Ball’s book, History of the Indian Mutiny, and started going through it. He ultimately found what he was looking for—an account of the events in Mahua Dabar by one Sergeant Busher of the 13th Light Field Battery (which was posted at Faizabad) who was the only survivor of a group of British officers killed that fateful day at Mahua Dabar.
The Events of 1857
Indian soldiers of the 22nd Native Infantry at Faizabad, UP, revolted against the British on the evening of 8 June 1857 and were joined by their counterparts of the 6th Oudh Irregular Infantry. British officers were kept in captivity overnight, but given boats to go to Dinapur (now Danapur), a cantonment near Patna, the next morning. Early morning on 9 June, 22 British officers set sail in four boats down the Ghagra River. At Ayodhya, two boats docked while two continued downstream until they were ambushed near Begumganj by Indian soldiers; Colonel Goldney, superintendent commissioner of Faizabad, and Sergeant Major Matthews were killed. The remaining six British officers, in the other boat, fled ashore (the first boat ran into a sandbank and its occupants were captured), and continued running; they ran into more Indian soldiers and jumped into a stream to escape. Two officers drowned in that stream and the other four swam ashore and ran towards a village, where they were given shelter and food.
These Britons were given escorts and started towards Amorha, which they reached early morning 10 June. At Amorha, they met the three officers from a boat that had docked at Ayodhya, and the party of seven British officers started moving towards Captaingunge (in Basti district) at 7 am on 10 June. They reached the place late that morning and were told by the tehsildars there that rebellious soldiers of the 17th Native Infantry at Gorakhpur were at Basti and so it wouldn’t be safe for them to go to Basti. They were provided escorts and ponies and advised to go to Gaighat (the Ghagra used to flow through Gaighat before it changed course), from where they’d get boats for Dinapur.
The party reached Mahua Dabar, where one of the escorts (burkandazees) invited the British into the village for refreshments. According to Sergeant Busher, the villagers were armed and clearly hostile. The British managed to pass through the village, but on reaching its outskirts on the bank of the Manorama River, the villagers started chasing them with swords and matchlocks, and killed six of them—lieutenants TE Lindsay, WH Thomas and GL Caulty, and sergeants AF English, TJ Ritchie and Edwards. Zafar Ali, a descendant of one of the families that fled Bengal, led the angry mob. Only Sergeant Busher managed to escape.
According to records, the British were shaken badly by the revolt in the Gorakhpur-Basti-Faizabad belt and the massacre of six of their officers, especially as nowhere else had ordinary civilians killed so many British soldiers during the 1857 War of Independence. “The British felt the residents of Mahua Dabar had to be taught a lesson, and so the Gorakhpur Collector W Peterson commissioned a particularly cruel indigo planter, one William Peppe, to destroy Mahua Dabar after granting him the rank of a deputy magistrate,” says Dr Jai Prakash Narain Tripathi, head of history department at Basti’s prominent APN College, who has carried out extensive research on Mahua Dabar’s history. Peppe was given half the troops of the 12th Irregular Horse Cavalry for the task. On 20 June 1857, he reached Mahua Dabar—and ordered the killing of civilians there. Hundreds fled, but an equal number were butchered. All structures were then pulled down and set afire. The debris was levelled to the ground. The episode in all its enormity took nearly two weeks, and on 3 July 1857, Mahua Dabar was no more.