Thursday 26 May 2022
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Ajnala in Punjab throws up skeletal remains of freedom fighters of 1857

Some say the skeletal remains could be of the victims of the riots during the partition, but the latest anthropological study in Ajnala lays the speculation to rest

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Human skeletal remains that were extracted in 2014 from Ajnala in Punjab’s Gangetic plain region dating back to the 1857 Mutiny — known to Indians as the year of the first war of independence — years belong to Indian soldiers who were killed in action in the fight against the British East India Company, according to a study. Many human skeletons were recovered from an old well in Ajnala town. According to some historians these skeletons belong to the people killed in riots during the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.

According to older studies and research, some of the remains may be of people who were killed in riots during India – Pakistan partition.

A Punjab University researcher from the Department of Anthropology is now trying to trace the families of 246 soldiers of the 26th Native Bengal Infantry Battalion so that their last rites can be performed. For this, the British High Commissioner, New Delhi, and London History Museum will provide the names and addresses of martyrs, killed near Ajnala.

Prof JS Sehrawat from the Department of Anthropology said: “Their families will be traced by taking blood samples of families of the freedom fighters residing in the respective villages mentioned on the list. Then the DNA will be matched with the skeletal remains. Every martyr deserves to be honoured.”

The identities and geographic origins of these soldiers are under intense scrutiny due to the lack of scientific evidence.

Meanwhile, the latest anthropological study on the subject published two days ago in the journal Frontiers in Genetics shows that the skeletons belong to the soldiers of the Gangetic plain region and people from the eastern part like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Bengal and Odisha. According to the Professor from the Department of Zoology, Banaras Hindu University (BHU), Uttar Pradesh, Gyaneshwer Chaubey, said that the new findings add a significant chapter in the history of the “unsung heroes of India’s first freedom struggle.”

Gyaneshwer Chaubey, said that this study confirms two things: First the Indian soldiers were killed during the 1857 revolt and second that they are from plain, and not from Punjab. He said that there had been a lot of debate about their origin. Several people said that they had been killed during the India Pakistan partition. According to two theories about the 1857 conflict, either the skeletons are of local (Punjabi) soldiers or they are of soldiers of the 26th Native infantry regiment stationed at the Mian Mir cantonment in Lahore.

Researchers are trying to ascertain the manner of killing of these people. As per the preliminary MRI findings of their skulls, they were shot with wooden bullets from a point-blank range. “The way the skeletons were found lying, it can be inferred they were dumped from a height and were killed while their hands were tied. They were shot in the head with wooden bullet,” said Professor Sehrawat.

A little-known textbook authored by a civil servant of the British East India Company and Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar in 1857 mentioned a mass burial site in an abandoned well lying underneath a religious structure at Ajnala (Amritsar). It documented the capture, imprisonment, and eventual killings of 282 Indian soldiers of the 26th Native Bengal Infantry Battalion of the British Indian army.

The written accounts mention the battalion stationed at Mian-Mir cantonment had soldiers only from Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh (eastern), and some northeastern states. After killing some British officers, the mutineers fled from the cantonment, although 282 were captured near Ajnala and killed. Their bodies were dumped in a nearby well that had fallen to discuss.

In February 2014, 157 years after the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, some local amateur archaeologists and curiosity seekers took it upon themselves to unearth the reported remains. They did not employ any scientific excavation technique for their exhumation from the well sediments, and in the process, the brittle skeletal remains were severely damaged, fragmented and commingled.

The manner in which local amateurs handed the skeletal remains over to archaeologists had hampered the identification of their whereabouts to a large extent, said Sehrawat.

Scientific challenges in the identification process

The professor said that the nature of Ajnala skeletal remains, the haphazard and diverse positioning of the skeletons in soil sediments and non-scientific excavation had complicated their identification.

The government authorities’ protracted intervention led to the loss of forensic evidence of utmost historical importance. “Only teeth, jaw fragments, vertebrae, phalanges, skulls, femurs, clavicles, and hand and foot bones were retrieved among the skeletal debris. The preliminary analyses supported the remains belong to the mid-19th century as they are all adult men with good dental hygiene, indicating their military affiliations,” the study reported.

Sehrawat cited the number of people as 246 based on dental counts, which is very close to the figure of 282 claimed in the written accounts. The stable isotope and mtDNA analyses are consistent with the historical evidence, stating the battalion comprised men from Bengal, Odisha, Bihar, and eastern parts of Uttar Pradesh.

“The current research can uncover the hidden aspects of the struggle of the unknown martyrs against the colonial yoke. If reviewed in light of the findings of this study, the historical data and literature will further corroborate the incidence of this massacre and add another chapter in the annals of Indian history dedicated to the unsung heroes of India’s first freedom struggle,” said Sehrawat.

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