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Drawing Lines Along The Meerut Cantonment, Birthplace Of The 1857 Revolt

Where do the leaseholders of colonial-era bungalows go? At times, sharing walls with the Army units, how would you draw a line for them on a map? A way of life that has been around for over two centuries is set to end and some wonder if it’s possible at all.

Colonel Finnis of the 11th Native Infantry was killed at the outbreak of the Revolt of 1857 at Meerut. Engraving from 1858, Engraver Unkown Photo by D Walker.
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The city of Meerut has long taken pride in being the ‘Krantidhara’ — the land of the revolution. It’s a reference to the Revolt of 1857 that began in Meerut on May 10, 1857.

The Revolt referred to as a mutiny by the British, brought an end to the rule of the British East India Company. After the Revolt, the governance of India was taken over by the British Crown and, this way, even though the Revolt could not overthrow the Colonial rulers, it fulfilled a century-old prophecy that the Company’s rule in India would last only a century. 

The birthplace of the Revolt, the Baba Augarnath Temple, lies in the heart of the Meerut Cantonment — as it did in 1857. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited it last year, he called it the starting point of India’s march to Independence. 

“In 1857, the cry for freedom from Baba Augarnath Temple that invoked the march to Delhi showed a new light in the tunnel of slavery. With the inspiration of this revolution, we marched ahead and achieved Independence and are celebrating the Amrut Mahotsav today,” Modi was quoted saying in Meerut that day. 

However, now that the Modi government has decided to abolish all the cantonments one by one, and the establishment has labelled them as “colonial legacy”, one wonders how the birthplace of the Revolt of 1857 —considered by the nationalists as the First War of Independence— can be a “colonial legacy”.

Rooted in history and seeped in over two centuries of civil-military intermingling, the Meerut Cantonment for long has been an oasis of civil-military fusion, but is its time now over? The debate today is whether Meerut Cantonment is a colonial relic whose time is up or part of the Indian heritage that deserves safekeeping. 

“Meerut Cantonment is a blend of British legacy and Indian heritage. While there are sites like the Augharnath Mandir, Bilveshwar Mandir, Shahid Smarak and a few churches, most of the heritage sites are mainly British, created by the British to serve their own interests and had little to do with Indians. This Cantonment was established in 1806 away from the main Meerut city and the natives were mostly not allowed in the Cantonment,” says historian and author Anil Kumar Gandhi. 

The History of Meerut Cantonment 

Set up in 1806 after the British took over the region from the Marathas, the Meerut Cantonment served as a British military stronghold in north-western India. 

Military historian Amit Pathak notes in book 1857: Sajhi Shahadat Ke Phool that Meerut’s geography was key to the British interests here. It allowed them to keep Delhi —the seat of power in India and the symbolic capital of India for around seven centuries at the time— under their protective envelope, and enabled them to launch expansionist operations in Punjab and further into Afghanistan. 

The British presence in Meerut, however, predates the establishment of the cantonment. One of the most regal British buildings being the Belvedere Complex, locally called the White House by some for its resemblance to the American president’s residence built in 1802. The building has housed the defence accounting services for a century now.

“Office of the CDA (Army), Meerut is housed in the historic building of Belvedere Complex at Ayudh Path, Meerut Cantt. Belvedere Complex building was built in the year 1802, however, this building was activated sometime in 1897…It is said that earlier it was used as a ballroom dance hall,” says the website of the Comptroller of Defence Accounts-Army (CDA-Army), which has been housed in the building since 1922. 

The CDA (Army) and CDA (Funds) both have their regional headquarters in Meerut. During the British period and even for decades after the Independence, the CDA (Army) held a place of high prestige. In the British period, it was informally known as Viceroy’s Office as it had direct oversight over the military. "As the auditor of the Indian Army and the British Indian Army before it, the CDA (Army) building played a very critical role in the military affairs of the cantonment. It’s all history now,” says a retired CDA (Army) official, who served in the department for around four decades, requesting anonymity.

While the ex-defence accounts official talks fondly of his former workplace and its once-exalted place in the scheme of things, Gandhi argues over the question of heritage. He stresses that not every nook and corner in the cantonment can qualify as heritage. 

“Every single building cannot be heritage. For example, if there is a building where a British officer lived 200 years ago, is it heritage just because of this fact? Today, it’s just an Army nurses’ mess. Is it really worth the name of Indian heritage which we should take pride in? The Indian civilians were not allowed inside the cantonment except as servants of the British. Of course, the British buildings which were directly involved in the great uprising can qualify as heritage,  such as the Race Course, St. John’s Church and the like. The cantonment too was divided into British and Indian parts,” says Gandhi, concluding that while there are elements of Indian heritage, the cantonment largely remains a colonial legacy. 

“The Augharnath Mandir, a well-known Lord Shiva temple, where stayed the harbinger of the Revol of 1857 who incited the Indian sepoys, is also in the ‘Indian part’ of the cantonment. The British had divided this area into two parts, with the Indian one to the north and the British one to the south, and the latter area being posh in nature as it was meant to be used by the British. The artillery batteries, the churches, and all the main offices were in the southern half, whereas the northern part housed Indian soldiers’ units, called ‘native regiments’,” says Gandhi, adding that Abu Ka Nallah practically divides the cantonment into two halves, and is a mute witness to the British prejudice.

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The deep imprint of history

The British have long left India and, in some years as things stand, the cantonment in Meerut too would cease to exist, but even then the historical and cultural imprint would likely be too deep to erode anytime soon. It’s so intrinsic that several people don’t even realise it anymore. 

The Rajban Bazaar, near Mall Road, is a corruption of the Colonial name Regimental Bazaar. The Lalkurti locality along Mall Road is named after the British Redcoats — British soldiers in red uniforms. The Top Khana, a site of the annual Ram Lila and Dussehra fair frequented by people from across the city, is in the area where British artillery batteries were once stationed. 

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The Punjab Lines, Sikh Lines, and Dogra Lines still feature in the house addresses of people and the two Kendriya Vidyalaya are still called KV Punjab Lines and KV Sikh Lines — even though the Sikh, Punjab, and Dogra regiments have long moved their headquarters out of the Meerut Cantonment. 

Nestled in the heart of the formerly British part of the Meerut Cantonment is also St John’s Cemetery, where one finds themselves lost in history. Amidst graves dating to the 19th century, one can often hear the automatic firing of practising Army units in ranges nearby. At the other end of the cantonment near Fazalpur, the residents for around three decades were so used to tanks and armoured personnel carriers rolling into the range that even the thunder of dozens of tanks wouldn’t bother them. It was yet another day.

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There is no denying that the issues with the Cantonment Board and a section of residents indeed bear disgruntlement. But the idea of lines drawn on a map segregating civilian and military parts does not find peace with many. For one, where do the leaseholders of colonial-era bungalows go? At times, sharing walls with the Army units, how would you draw a line for them on a map? A way of life that has been around for over two centuries is set to end and some wonder if it’s possible at all.

The Lalkurti Police Station stands on Mall Road, the posh residences at the British Cavalry Lines are at a stone’s throw from an infantry division’s headquarters, and some of the grandest old-grant colonial era bungalows are right in front of the Military Hospital. Just like they say about Jerusalem where holy structures of one lie over another’s and passage to one’s sacred place goes through the revered structure of another, one wonders how they would demarcate a place where intermixing of the two sides has been going on for over two centuries.

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The irony of Modi's visit to the Cantonment, the only Indian PM to do so, and the establishment's decision to draw lines through people's lives is not unmissable here. Time will decide the fate of the starting point of "India's march to independence".

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