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Vigil held at Empress Market, where blood of soldiers was spilt in 1857

Updated September 26, 2016

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Scholars and other learned individuals of Karachi gather for a vigil outside Empress Market in memory of the heroes of the 1857 uprising executed there by the British.—Anis Hamdani / White Star
Scholars and other learned individuals of Karachi gather for a vigil outside Empress Market in memory of the heroes of the 1857 uprising executed there by the British.—Anis Hamdani / White Star

KARACHI: It was a solemn moment at the Empress Market where several learned individuals gathered on Sunday evening to hold a vigil in remembrance of the unsung heroes executed by hanging or by being tied to British cannons which blew them up in September 1857. Many shopkeepers and passers-by stopped to inquire about what was going on, and were informed about Karachi’s role in the liberation war of 1857 against the British Empire.

Very few know that Empress Market where they go for grocery shopping, and have been doing so for years, was in fact the place where many executions took place following the failure of the War of Independence in 1857. For many years after that people used to sprinkle red rose petals around the place. They used to say that the red rose petals signified the blood of the martyrs until the British, afraid that people might one day build a monument for their heroes too, built a spacious grocery market in its place.

Speaking about the events leading to the war, Kaleem Durrani, secretary general of Irtiqa Institute of Social Sciences (IISS), said that true facts have always been deliberately hidden by people in power but the people’s history and the struggle for their rights should be shared. “The British forced their subjects to accept whatever they dished out to them. But there was a resistance, too. The uprising which began when Muslim British army sepoys refused to bite into gun cartridges lined with pig’s fat and Hindu sepoys refused to do the same with cartridges lined with cow’s fat is one such example,” he said.

To pay tribute to the freedom fighters of 1857 and tell about the role of Karachi in the liberation movement, IISS invited scholar Gul Hasan Kalmati to give a talk on the subject at the Irtiqa office earlier.

“Had the British invaded India directly, there would have been a war there, but they did not do that. They did it slowly, in the name of trade. And once inside they manipulated people to stand against each other with their divide and rule policy,” Kalmati said.

“But there was also a time when the Muslims and Hindus of India united to stand against their British rulers. The negative feelings were always there but then they boiled over like lava over the gun cartridges issue. It was decided by the local sepoys to carry out a rebellion on May 31,” he said.

“Information can leak, which is what happened and the British, too, had an inkling of what was to come but one Indian soldier Mangal Pandey jumped the gun to rebel on May 10 instead. Though he is criticised for this often but what he did was also good because his action took the British by surprise,” the scholar pointed out.

The punishment for the rebellion, which saw the men heading to Delhi to the last survivor of the Mughals, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was being hanged by the rulers at Chandni Chowk after the movement was thwarted. Still, the event weakened the British a great deal. In Karachi, too, people had heard about the daring attempt in central India. There was something being planned here as well. “But infighting among our own people helped the East India Company a lot,” said Kalmati.

“It was during the September 13 and 14 weekend in 1857 when two sepoys, Ram Banney and Lakshman Gudari, sneaked out from their barracks which used to be located near the Artillery Ground to meet their commandant officer. They wanted to warn him of another rebellion being planned in Karachi where local sepoys were going to kill British officers before robbing their homes while also turning the citizens against them. Their spilling the beans hours before the rebellion resulted in the British officers’ recalling their men from their weekly holiday and become prepared for the uprising,” Kalmati narrated.

He explained that the entire area from Karachi’s Frere Street, Artillery Ground to Empress Market and beyond was the army garrison area during those days, known as Karachi Cantonment. In fact the Empress Market of today was just an open army ground reserved for parades.

“As a result of the two sepoys blowing the whistle on their colleagues, Karachi was placed under a curfew. Many sepoys were hunted down and arrested. About 25 of them were sent off to the prison Kala Paani. Some 14 who had escaped from their barracks were caught and killed in Lyari. Their bodies were cut into small pieces and thrown into the sea. More were arrested from Goth Ahmed Khan near the Sohrab Goth.

“On September 17, 1857, some of them were tied to cannon barrels and blown into pieces while the rest were hanged. All these executions were public executions, which took place at what you know as Empress Market today. There was a storm drain behind where you have the Quaid-i-Azam’s mausoleum today and these soldiers’ bodies were also cut into small pieces and thrown into the drain. They didn’t even get a proper burial,” he said.

Published in Dawn, September 26th, 2016