Meerut’s communal core can be traced to the Uprising of 1857. Every riot that broke out here came from those 19th century hurts

The flowers around the grave are wild, bright blue and are called spilanthes calva DC -their extracts make analgesics and antioxidants, all very nice with the drug making industry .The white marble angel, hands folded in prayer, with the hussar’s busby , sword and cartridge pouch are engraved in stone at her feet. It’s the grave of Hope Stewart. Born in England, died, age 22, in Meerut.Opposite is a mass grave with a hexangular foundation, for many English soldiers who died here.

Welcome to the graveyard at Meerut Cantonment, 72 km from Delhi, singed by the fire of the Uprising of 1857. Every grave marks a European casualty . Of the `native’ sepoys who died, there’s nothing.Meerut has another distinction: it’s the heart of every communal riot in north India since 1939.

So, it’s an abomination to hear judges say -as they did on March 22 ­ that they had no evidence to convict 16 men of the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) for mass murder. On May 22, 1987, a gathering of Muslims in Hashimpura, Meerut, was broken up by the army . Around 45 young men were handed over to the PAC.

Shot at night, the bodies were dumped into canals, never found again. But Amnesty International, which spoke to surivors immediately afterwards, has chilling accounts. Here is Ashraf Zulfikar, shot in the armpit: “…as I lay, feigning death, in the thicket beside the (Muradnagar) canal, I could hear the shots ringing out continuously and the sound of the bodies splashing into the canal“.

And here is Mujibur Rehman: “On the way to Muradnagar some of the people were shot and thrown into a canal. I, along with my friend Mohammed Usman…, were shot and thrown into the canal but somehow we were able to swim back to the bank… and came to a bridge.“ (Both quoted in EPW, November 28, 1987.) The killing also spread to Malliana, around 10 km west of Meerut. Twenty-eight years is a long time for a court to deliver a judgment: witnesses have died, evidence destroyed. After the verdict, Meerut is seething again.

A week before the Hashimpura judgment, we went there to look at remains of the Uprising. Our guide was Akhil Pathak, radiologist by profession, passionate chronicler of the Meerut Uprising. There, it became clear that if Meerut, or Hashimpura, is the heart of India’s communal darkness, its roots lie in the aftermath of the Uprising.

Rewind 158 years, to March, 1857: Barrackpore, Bengal. Sepoy Mangal Pandey shoots and misses two Europeans, fails to kill himself, and is hanged. By April, the fire of Pandey’s Uprising has scorched north India and reached Meerut, the second-largest East India Company garrison.

Here, Europeans and native sepoys were evenly balanced, with a little more than 2,000 on each side. The European cantonment was separated from the `native lines.’ Close by were Sadar Bazar and Lal Kurti Bazar, the latter named after the red uniforms worn by Company soldiers.

On 24 April 1857, Meerut’s commander, Colonel CarmichaelSmyth, paraded 90 Indian sepoys of the Bengal Cavalry, hired mostly from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. He ordered them to fire the new Enfield cartridges: 85 refused. The cartridges were covered with paper that had to be torn off: Muslims believed the paper was greased with pig and Hindus, with cow fat.

All 85 were stripped of their uniforms, imprisoned and shackled.Pathak says this was a major humiliation. The rebels were from the cavalry: they owned their horses, and were the upper-caste elite. If they could be shackled, what could others expect from the Company?
The Uprising started the next day, Sunday Sabbath for Europeans, who were caught off-guard and slaughtered. By May 10, when the British regrouped, the sepoys had left for Delhi.

Pathak says that the Uprising was the first time that one cause united all Indians. Gurjars, tyagis, rajputs, bhumihars -mostly upper castes -fought shoulder to shoulder with Muslims. Local prostitutes egged on sepoys questioning their manhood, in the face of European officers.

But the merchants of the bazaars and middle-castes, who’d gained from Company rule, hedged their bets and ducked. The Uprising was brutally quelled by the Company. And that cleared the path for the Hashimpura, Muzaffarnagar and Shamli riots, based on 19th century hurts.

The mutineers were led by upper-caste Hindus from the Gangetic plain, with Shia and Sunni elite. The former were resentful of the Europeans’ social `reforms’ which threatened age-old caste privileges and biases. The latter were aggrieved by the loss of prestige as the Company slowly digested the Mughal empire.

They became restive as the Company’s relentless expansion forced them to fight in unfamiliar places like Burma; and there were persistent rumours that pay and perks might be cut.

After 1857, the mutineers and their families lost everything. Those who sided with the British became powerful. Rebels were executed, jailed for life or exported overseas in chains. Worse: their women, land and livestock were handed over to Company loyalists. Their world turned upside down.

The biggest gainers from this upending were Jats, an intermediate caste, which fought for the British. Wealth snatched from mutineers in western UP was handed over to them. Some Brahmin collaborators and merchant castes also became the new nobility .

Pathak claims that there’s been no communal riot in Meerut after Hashimpura, 1987. He’s incorrect.The `love jihad’ propaganda, which sparked riots in nearby Muzaffar nagar and Shamli, originated from Meerut three years ago.

Paul Brass, at the University of Washington at Seattle, has spent his life analysing communal conflict in India, including Meerut. He says that the first fights began in 1939.Between 1939 and 1991, Brass records 14 instances of rioting in Meerut. The official death toll is 290; unofficially it’s a few hundred more.The toll in UP doesn’t end there.From Kanpur, 1992, Lucknow, 2006 and Gorakhpur, 2007 the Uprising echoes today .

During the Uprising, rumour of revolution travelled fast across north India. Legend says one harbinger of revolution was a pack of five chapatis, going hand to hand.Another is a mysterious `fakir’ sighted in almost every centre of the Uprising: Awadh, Cawnpore, Jhansi, Meerut and Delhi.

Now, social media does the job, faster. The Muzaffarnagar-Shamli riots were triggered by a photo of a thief lynched in Sialkot, Pakistan, passed off as a Hindu lynched by Muslims, on apps.

Brass thinks that violenceprone places have riotpreneurs, whose stock goes up during communal tension. But historical grievances have a long shelf life.

On March 17, Surendra Jain of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), one of the RSS offshoots which guide this government, made headlines in this paper: “The 1857 Uprising was communal.“ He was trying to justify recent attacks on Christians. But 1857 was no `communal’ -read, Muslim -uprising.

Its leaders, Mangal Pandey, Nana Saheb, Tantia Tope, Lakshmibai, were high-caste Hindus. The Muslims were led by the remnants of their aristocracy . Unfortunately, the vengeance extracted by the Europeans turned north Indian society upside down, creating animosities that persist today .