Tirhut (Muzaffarpur) in 1857

Introduction: In the rising of 1857 in Tirhut, (unlike in Awadh) the landed elites/feudal lords generally remained with the British, and they helped the colonial regime with men and money in suppressing the rebels. However, before 1857, i.e. in 1829 and 1845-46, the landlords of Bihar did attempt to confront with and dislodge the British and in this exercise they also tried to enlist the support of the sepoys. By 1829, the ryots of Tirhut had started their fight against the European planters in the law courts established by the colonial regime; and when the Najeebs (the low rank/ subaltern Indian sipahis in army and police) mutinied in Danapur, Sugauli and in various police chowkis, the ryots also took to arms to expel the planters. But there existed a lack of proper coordination between the najeebs and the ryots in Tirhut which revealed the weaknesses of the movement and probably because of this, it could be suppressed easily and rapidly, testifying not only a strong agrarian base of the movement of 1857 but also the vulnerabilities of the peasants vis a vis the repressive state machinery. The argument that the sepoys were basically ‘peasants in uniform’ is difficult to be accepted in the case of Tirhut, where we don’t find concrete evidence of a proper coordination between the Najeebs (sepoys) and the peasants, even though both asserted against the Europeans.

[The Region: ‘Tirhut’ is said to be a corrupted version of the Sanskrit words ‘Tira’ and ‘Bhukti’ which means people living on the river bank; it played an important part in the history of Indo-Nepalese relation during the colonial period. It was a stepping-stone to the conquest of Nepal.
It was probably due to this geo-strategic consideration that, in 18th century, Nawab Reza Khan Muzaffar Jung founded the city of Muzaffarpur. Many years before the East India Company’s accession to Diwani (1765), ‘he appropriated for the purpose, 75 bighas of land from 4 villages of Sikandarpur, Kanhauli, Saiyadpura and Saraiyaganj and called the town after his own name’ (W.W. Hunter, A Statistical Account of Bengal, vol.13, Trubner & Co., London, 1877, pp. 51-52). Syed Md. Reza Khan Muzaffar Jung had arrived in Bengal from Delhi during Murshid Quli Khan and was appointed as the Chakladar of Chittagong during the reign of the Mughal Emperor, Md. Shah Rangeela (1719-48). He was also the raja of Chaitpur (Bengal). It is also said that the town is named after Muzaffar Khan Turbati, a general of the Mughal Emperor, Akbar, who, in 1570s had erected a cantonment here, to take care of the Afghan rebels taking shelter in the tarai (foothills) of Nepal. This cantonment led to the emergence of a market which was developed into a town in 18th century by Reza Khan Muzaffar Jang. In 1772, Lord Clive dismissed him and in 1782, his son Dilawar Jang was given a pension of Rs 1.5 lac per annum by Warren Hastings, who seized the Jagir of Tirhut (Muzaffarpur), and it was made the district headquarters of Tirhut. In 1875, the word Tirhut disappeared from the terminology of the colonial administration when Muzaffarpur and Darbhanga were made two separate districts.
In 1907, again modern Tirhut was re-created, under a separate commissionership comprising of the districts of Muzaffarpur, Darbhanga, Saran, and Champaran. After India’s independence, Darbhanga and Saran (Chapra) were made separate Divisions (commissionership). Presently, Tirhut is a Division/Commissionership (with headquarters in Muzaffarpur) consisting of 6 districts, viz. Muzaffarpur, Vaishali (headquarters Hajipur), Sitamarhi, Sheohar, East and West Champaran].

In 1845-46 when the Anglo Sikh wars took place in the North West frontier region, some Muslim elites of Patna tried to take advantage of it to expel the British. They tried to build an anti British front consisting of Indian troops in the Danapur regiment, which included Khwaja Hedayat Ali Khan, the Principal Sadar Amin of Tirhut (Muzaffarpur). Many more Muslim and Hindu zamindars including Kunwar Singh were in secret correspondence to assemble at the Sonepur fair; and plans were chalked out to raise forces with the help of the Raja of Nepal and the Emperor of Delhi. But all these plans came to the knowledge of Major Rowcroft through a Police Jamadar, named Moti Mishra. The Police hunt followed. The service men were dismissed from the services.
Thus, the British could suppress the rising of 1845-46 but the people’s discontent lingered on and the grievances remained un-redressed.
Nevertheless, the unity among a large number of the zamindars, cutting across religious lines, proved to be an advantage and the British government refrained from taking any harsh action against them. Rather, to allay the misgivings of the local population, they made an announcement that the British government would no longer make any interference in the religious affairs of the Indians.
Yet, an uneasy calm existed throughout Bihar. Large scale conflicts of the raiyats with the European planters started taking place. A study of the Bengal Judicial Proceedings reveals that from 1830s to 1850s hundreds of cases were registered by the raiyats against the planters in north Bihar. People’s anger was sought to be suppressed through repressive measures and a large scale imprisonments of the raiyats into the jails, where bad food (mess system) was already adding to the woes of the peasant-prisoners. In the jails, inter-caste dining was considered as loss of religion by Hindus.

The Lotah uprising, 1855: In such a charged and explosive situation, the government, in 1855, decided to withdraw the brass vessels (lotahs) and introduce earthen vessels in the jails. This particular decision infuriated the prisoners of the jails of Arrah and Muzaffarpur. In fact, in April 1854, one of the prisoners of the Alipur (24 Pargana, Bengal) jail had hit the unpopular jailor Richardson with the brass vessel and killed him. This incident led to the decision of replacing the brass vessel with earthen vessel, in the jails of Muzaffarpur (Tirhut District) and Arrah (Shahabad District), but it hit the religious sensibilities of the Hindus as the metal brass, in use since ancient days, carried some religious sanctity. The decision was greatly resented by the prisoners as well as the common people of the respective districts. A large crowd of ryots and the town people had come out on the streets of Muzaffarpur against this decision and had attacked the jail, setting the prisoners free. This was probably a re-enactment of what had happened with the Bastille Prison House of Paris during the French Revolution of 1789. This mass assertion brought the colonial state on its knees and the brass vessels were again allowed to be used. This lotah uprising was the brainchild of Waris Ali, claiming to be a relative of the Mughal Emperor and posted as police Jamadar at Baruraj police chowki of Muzaffarpur. He was soon alleged to have planned to induce the Danapur sepoys with money and other incentives to rebel against the British, who planned to start an uprising on Friday, 3rd July 1857. Ali Karim of Gaya, a friend of Waris Ali, had to be elected as the ruler of the province after dislodging the British. The raja of Bettiah was also suspected to have been involved in the plot.
Merely on doubts, quite a large number of people were arrested in the town of Muzaffarpur and in the villages like Singhia and Lalganj. On 23rd June 1857, Waris Ali was arrested from Baruraj, ‘by Mr Robertson, the Assistant Magistrate and some indigo planters, with his horse saddled, his goods packed and in the act of writing to tell Ali Karim that he had resolved to join him at once’. ‘He was a man who had been for years in the district, and knew well what he was about, himself of high family, as is said, with the Royal Family of Delhi, and possessed of considerable property’. The Jamadar was sent to Major Holmes, at Sugauli, for being hanged but the latter sent him to Danapur to take his trial in the court of the Commissioner. Some accounts say, he was tried by the Commissioner, Willaim Tayler, and on 6th July 1857, he was declared guilty of possessing some letters which were considered to be treasonable and, therefore he was sentenced to death. One of the letters seized from Waris Ali, informs William Tayler, expressed resentment against the wealth amassed by the European planters. The same day, he was hanged till death.

The Agrarian Roots of 1857: In Muzaffarpur, the people’s ire was particularly very high against the European planters (nilaha sahibs).

[The peasantry of the villages of the Tirhut district (Headquarters Muzaffarpur) had come into the exploitative grip of these planters as early as in the later half of 18th century. In 1789, at Motipur, a Dutch capitalist had established a sugar mill, which was converted into indigo factory in 1816. In 1780s, one French, named Danble, had set up his indigo factory at Saraiya. Alexander Namell had established his factories at Kanti and Motipur. Mr. Finch started his enterprise at Deoria, William Orby Hunter at Dholi and Schuman started his indigo factory at Bangra. The first Collector of Tirhut (Muzaffarpur), Francois Grand (1782-87), had brought many indigo factories under his personal possession and amassed a huge wealth by subjecting the peasantry to untold exploitation and misery so much so that even the Company state got disgusted and dismissed him from his services. The peasantry was practically converted into wretched slaves. Even miles away from the European planters’ residences, the common Indians were not allowed to wear shoes, they could not use umbrellas to protect themselves from the rains. They, quite mercilessly, oppressed the peasantry, by forcing them to cultivate indigo and sugar, therefore causing famine, as most fertile portions of the land were forcefully earmarked for indigo and sugar cultivation, rather than the cereal crops/coarse grains to be consumed by the cultivators/ peasantry. In 1839, a faujdari case was filed against the planter, Mc Lead, of Saraiya factory. In 1856, 38 cases were filed by the raiyats of Tirhut against the planters].

By early July, 1857, steps were taken by the East India Company’s government to seize the mutineers and deserters who were to be found in Tirhut. In order to effectively arrest the rebels, the security arrangements at the major river ghats were increased. Nilaha sahibs were also expected to help the colonial state; incentives were announced for those who could provide clues about the rebels; all eight zamindari ghats on the Gandak and the Ganges were to be properly guarded and the landholders were instructed to give information about the mutineers and they had to be detained on their estates. The police posts at Lalganj and Hajipur were provided with large number of security personnel. In the town of Muzaffarpur also, larger number of policemen were deputed. On 30th July 1857, the Magistrate, E.F. Lantaur, implemented martial rule in Muzaffarpur and other towns.
The planters and loyal zamindars like those of Dumra, Pupri, Kamtaul, Pandaul, Deoria, Jitwarpur were given the powers of a magistrate, to check any mutineer entering into Tirhut from the borders of Nepal. The king of Nepal, Jang Bahadur, the zamindars of Bettiah, Hathwa, Sursand, Pandaul, and the Mehtas and others assisted the British to suppress the movement. The zamindar of Sursand offered a reward of Rs. 30/- for each deserter seized. On 5th September 1857, H.L. Dampier succeeded Lantaur, who initiated the cases of murder and robbery against the Indians with as much of ruthlessness as his predecessor. In one of the cases the charge was that the accused had cried out that “the Supremacy of the English and the Company was at an end and that it was Kunwar Singh’s reign”. Confiscation of properties, execution of leaders, and transportation, and long term imprisonments, exaction of collective fines from the villagers, chastisement of the common people in rural areas, burning and destruction of houses were some of the sufferings of the people of Tirhut, as a result of the state reprisal that followed the ‘mutiny’. This once again led to people’s anger, and apprehension developed that the rebels might stage a comeback coming from Azamgarh-Gorakhpur via Rewa ghat. Some notables of the town had to send their families again to the interiors.The house of the Darbhanga Maharaj on the southern bank of a lake at Sikandarpur in Muzaffarpur was chosen to be developed like a fort to provide shelter for the European planters of the district. Several minor zamindars (like that of Bakhra, near Rewa Ghat) helped the British near Gandak, when a party of men in revolt was approaching from that side. Military alert was maintained at Motipur, Deoria, Saraiya etc. because, from Nepal via Champaran, the mutineers might stage comeback By December 1857, the Bengal Yeomanry Cavalry, consisting of 300 troopers, under Richardson, was sent to be stationed at Pusa (which was strategically located at a point from where the three important towns viz. Muzaffarpur, Darbhanga and Hajipur could be accessed easily) for Tirhut’s protection; and all the roads and ghats (between Hajipur-Pusa, Pusa-Muzaffarpur and Pusa-Darbhanga) had to be put into thorough repair .
This arrangement was done also because of the fact that Rebellion had started in Dhaka (East Bengal) on 18th November 1857. To gather intelligence inputs, new lines of telegraphic communications were planned to be developed between Purnea and Muzaffarpur via Bhagalpur -Kishanganj- Supaul. Their hunt against the Najeebs (the rebel soldiers) continued, who were moving in Nepal and by April 1858, once again apprehensions developed about their attack on Tirhut by crossing the river Gandak
H.L. Dampier, in his correspondence with the Commissioner of Patna during June-August 1858, expressed his thanks to the European planters of these areas like Saraiya and Deoria. He also thanked ‘the Bakhra Babu and indeed all maliks in the neighbourhood who had responded creditably to the Magistartes’ call in suppressing the mutineers’. These zamindars and the police officers were assured favours and promotions to reciprocate their loyal services. One such loyal officer was Dewan Maula Bakhsh.
Till April 1859, the apprehension of ‘coming back’ of the mutineers (najeebs) persisted, hence the colonial decision to enhance policing on all ghats. (Now, a policy decision was taken by the colonial state that Muslims and upper caste Hindus had not to be recruited in police. Rather, Dusadhs, Chamars, Musahars etc. were to be preferred). Probably because of this apprehension, the construction of roads and rail, (like that of Lalganj-Vaishali-Kesaria-Sugauli) and of bridges on the ghats (like that of Rewa Ghat connecting Muzaffarpur with Chapra through much shorter distance), remained neglected by the colonial administration. It, however, looks ironical (or may be outrageous) that even the independent India’s governments persisted with such conscious negligence and it took almost 150 years after 1857, and about six decades after the independence that the necessities of such communications could be realized by the powers that be. Such constructions for infrastructural developments are yet to be undertaken / completed. This area is yet to be put on the rail map, despite the fact that several leaders of North Bihar have enjoyed the portfolio of Railways.

[Note: This is abridged version of essay “Local Resistance and Colonial Reprisal: Tirhut (Muzaffarpur) Muslims in the Ghadar, 1857-59” published in Contemporary Perspectives, vol. 2, No.1, January-June 2008, pp. 25-45; (Urdu rendering in Tahzibul Akhlaq, April 2008), and will be a part of my forthcoming book, Against Colonialism and Separatism: The Muslims of Muzaffarpur since 1857]

1.Pusa is a village in the district of Samastipur (a town founded by Haji Shamsuddin Ilyas, 1342-57, the governor of Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq; it was called Shamsuddinpur, which subsequently got corrupted as Samastipur; alongwith it he also founded the town of Hajipur). This deployment of the cavalry at Pusa, led to its emergence as a famous centre for horse breeding, and eventually a college for agricultural sciences (now Rajendra Agricultural University) was started here. In the earthquake of 1934, this institute got severely damaged, so its laboratories etc. were shifted to New Delhi where the road is named as Pusa Road.

Dr Mohammad Sajjad, Lecturer, Dept. of History, AMU, Aligarh
mdsajjad1@rediffmail.com

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