The whole nation is now commemorating 150 years of War of Independence. The rising of 1857 was no doubt a major event with its deep imprint on our national history. Cachar, a remote district of the British India, also felt the impact of the rebellion.
Latoo, a nondescript village, close to Bangladesh, was the battleground of the historic Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. Quite ironically, this glorious chapter in the annals of the freedom struggle of the country is glossed over by historians. No steps have been taken to clear the jungle of Latoo and raise memorial in honour of the brave soldiers who lie ?unheard, unsung and unhonoured?.
Historian E.A. Gait in his book History of Assam recounts that in November, 1857, three companies of the 34th Native Infantry stationed at Chittagang mutinied and after burning their residential lines broke open the jail and plundered the treasury. Then, they marched towards Comilla and from there moved into the jungle of Tippera hill and subsequently entered southeast of Syllet.
Gait adds as soon as Mr. Allen, member of the board of revenue, heard of their movement, he was directed to intercept them. On his advice, Major Bying, commandant of the Sylhet Light Infantry, now known as 8th Gorkha Rifles, set out with 160 men and reached Pratapgarh, 80-mile distant in the short span of 26 hours. On receiving information that the rebels were expected to pass through Latoo, 28 miles away, Major Bying, along with his contingent, made night march and reached Latoo early in the morning.
The rebels around 200 of them came up soon afterwards who just within a gap of 30 yards from the enemy position tried to gain them over by appealing to their religious feeling as well as nationality. Failing this, the rebels taunted by calling them ?Kristan ka kootas? and goolams.?
But only answer they received was steady fire. Dr. Sujit Choudhury, eminent educationalist and historian and editor of The Mutiny Period in Chachar quoting from correspondences of Capt. Robert Stewart, Superintendent of Cachar, says, ?In the ensuing gun battle that took place on December 18, 1857, Major Bying, and five of his soldiers were killed.? Subedar Ajodhya Singh of the rebels displayed exemplary strategy and won the battle. The battle, known as the battle of Latoo, in fact, was the War of Independence in the North-East. Notwithstanding the victory, the mutineers left behind 26 of their comrades dead. Some of them were buried in the hillock of Malegarh nearby which is still visited by curious people. The letter of Capt. Stewart, addressed to the Secretary, Government of Bengal, dated December 22, 1857, throws light on the Latoo episode:
??.late on the night of 19th I received a letter from Mr Dod, who had accompanied the force sent with Major Bying from Sylhet in pursuit of the mutineers of the 34th Native Infantry, informing me that after having marched to Pratapghar, Major Bying'sforce upon certain information received marched to Latoo along river Kushiara and there had been an engagement with the mutineers on the morning of December 18th in which 26 of them lost their lives. The remainder had fled, it was said in the direction of Pratapgarh with a view to making towards Cachar and Manipur.?
Robert Stewart'sletter on the battle and subsequent event makes disparaging observation on how Bengalis, the dominant community in the area, were sieged with fear despite exemplary show of indomitable spirit by their countrymen. He mentions: ?The people of this district are much alarmed, the Bengalis being in the greatest fear. The badmashes are all on the look out for a favourable opportunity to plunder?.?.
These cynical comments by Stewart were provoked by the killing of Major Bying by the rebels. People in general in the area not only gave help and cooperation but also inspired the sepoys in revolt. They guided them through jungle-infested paths, gave them shelter and food. Despite hurdles, nothing could stop the mutineers. Their plight has been brought out by Stewart in these words, ?They did not obtain one particle of nutritious food and were compelled to eat jungle roots and berries.?
E.A Gait notes that the successor in command of Major Bying, Lt Ross did not think it wise to follow the mutineers into the jungle. But, after a few days, the rebels were attacked by a detachment of Sylhet Light Infantry under Lt. Ross and were again put to fight. Stewart records that being in disarray, ?several of them died of hunger and disease?.
The rebellious soldiers and their chivalry had stirred the heart and soul of the people of the region deeply. Their story of glorious battle, their supreme sacrifice, their agonies have passed into ballads and folk songs. Amalendu Bhattacharjee, a scholar of folklores, said, ?Latto floklores tell tales of the great historic even and the feeling and emotions of the people of the time.? It also tells of Quisling Kala Mia who acted as informer of the occupation army of the British. The folk songs, better known as battle songs are still sung in Latoo, Mohanpur and Narsingpur. Some of them unfold the betrayal of Kala Mia who passed on information to the British agents about the movement and strategy of the sepoys in mutiny. Quite poignant are the tales of several rebels who had died of hunger and disease and unable to carry their children had dashed them on the ground and left them to die.
The campaign of the British assisted by Kukis and Lushais against the mutineers who retreated tactically in groups only to regroup marched through the inhospitable forested terrain of Daholia, and then changed direction from moving to Lushai Hills and advanced towards Manipur in order to join hands with the Manipuri rebels after crossing the Katakhal river. The Britishers continued to chase them.
The mutineers almost exhausted, many of whom wounded, and camped in the deep jungles of the Mohanpur close to Silchar. Taking advantage of their adversity, the soldiers of Lt. Ross swooped down on the famished rebels and brutally tortured them. Those who escaped did not lose heart. Nor were they subdued. They succeeded in reaching Bhuban Hills on Manipur border and could forge an alliance with Manipuri prince Narendrajit Singh and his royal troop, waging war against the British occupation.
On way to Bhuban Hills, the mutineers had confrontation with the contingent of Lt. Ross. There was another bloody encounter at Binnakandie near the hills that cost the life of 18 mutineers. The British army too lost two of their soldiers. In all, the rebels had lost 185 of their officers and sepoys. The mutineers could hardly proceed further as they were in total disarray. Quite significantly, women too took up arms and fought gallantly along with their male counterparts and suffered untold miseries. Many of them died in action and many were taken prisoners and executed. But, their resistance against the British force for long one month after Latoo the episode, notwithstanding the death of their commanders and loss of men, lack of ration, extreme physical and mental exertions and rough terrain, has become a part of the glorious history of India'sfreedom struggle. All India Radio, Silchar, has rightly recreated the almost forgotten annals of our country'swar of independence by abridging the historical events in 13 episodes and broadcast them for the viewers across the valley of Barak in Assam.
(The author can be contacted at Satsang Ashram Road, Silchar, Assam-788 007 e-mail: [email protected])