The British could not remain idle spectators to the turn of events. Lord Canning immediately called upon the troops from Madras, Bombay and Rangoon and despatched a big force to Banaras under the command of General Neill. He also ordered General Anson, the Commander-in-Chief at Simla, to march upon Delhi. General Anson led a large contingent of English and Sikh soldiers. It was, indeed, unfortunate that the Sikh rajahs as well as the people of Punjab did not actively participate in the great revolt of 1857, but lent their support to the British Raj. This was largely because of the mischievous propaganda made by Sir John Lawrence, the Chief Commissioner of Punjab, that the Mughal rulers in Delhi had always been anti-Sikh and that Bahadur Shah had ordered the indiscriminate massacre of Sikhs all over India. He also floated loans on behalf of Company at the lucrative rate of six percent interest which attracted huge investments. This made the rich feel having a big stake in the continuance of the British Raj in India. On his part, emperor Bahadur Shah left no stone unturned in winning over the Sikh chiefs to the cause of the revolution. He sent to them his special envoy, Tajuddin, with personal letters, but there was no response.
March to Delhi
The British forces which had started from Ambala on May 25, 1857 under the command of General Anson to march upon Delhi could not make much headway. General Anson himself died of cholera at Karnal on May 27, 1857. He was succeeded by Sir Henry Barnard. There were two fierce encounters between the British forces and the revolutionaries near Hindon and Bundelay Ki Serai but neither side won. The revolutionary forces would launch an attack on the enemy in the day and retire to the walled city at night. They were also getting support from the new contingents coming to Delhi from different quarters; wherever revolt took place against the Company, the sepoys started their journey to Delhi to pay their homage to the emperor and support the cause of the revolution. On the other hand, the British had the support of the Gorkhas and Sikhs. The great offensives launched by the revolutionaries on the British forces on June 17 and 20, 1857 completely foiled the plans of Commander-in-Chief, Barnard, who also died of cholera on July 5, 1857.
The arrival of Subedar Bakht Khan at Delhi with a large army of 14,000 infantry, three regiments of cavalry, with sizeable loads of arms and ammunition and a big purse of rupees four lakh gave a new momentum to the revolutionary command. Bakht Khan was an able military leader, an outstanding administrator as well as a strict disciplinarian. The emperor had already heard of his extraordinary military talent and organisational capabilities. He was, therefore, pleased to appoint him as the head of both the army command and civil administration. He also conferred upon him the title of Sahib-i-Alam Bahadur (Lord Governor General). The new leader reorganised the entire administration and launched massive onslaughts on the enemy. The revolutionary attack on the English forces on July 9 and 14, 1857 caused heavy casualties in the enemy camp which led to the resignation of General Reid on July 15, 1857 on grounds of illness.
The next General to lead the British forces in India was General Wilson. He assumed the responsibility of the command at a very critical hour when the morale of the British soldiers was extremely low. Fortunes, however, changed for the better for the Britishers when General Nicholson arrived at Delhi with a contingent of 5,000 Sikhs and Gorkhas, 3,500 Britishers and 2,500 Kashmiri soldiers. Coupled with this, the failure of Bakht Khan to launch successfully his planned attack on the British forces at Najafgarh on August 25, 1857 and the intrusion of the foreign spies in the royal household through Mirza Elahi Baksh, a close relation of the emperor, encouraged the British Commander to start new offensives. From September 7 to 13, 1857, the British forces made repeated attacks upon Delhi but were unable to make any headway except a few cracks in the city wall after losing hundreds of lives. On September 14, 1857, General Wilson planned another assault by dividing his forces under five divisions, each placed under the best military commander—General Nicholson, Colonel Campbell, Brigadier Jones, Major Reid and Brigadier Longfield. The revolutionaries fought ferociously. Every inch of advance by the British forces was keenly contested. Facing heavy firing, Nicholson climbed upon the ramparts to declare the British victory. He was grievously wounded and died a few days later. The Kashmere Gate was blown up and the English Forces entered the city. It was still not an easy task as people fought the enemy gallantly at every house, lane or street which the Britishers tried to enter. It was only after a week or so that the British forces were fully able to capture and control the capital.
Emperor in Custody
In the meanwhile, Bakht Khan decided to leave Delhi and fight the enemy from some other place. He felt that the country was still ablaze with the fire of revolution and there was absolutely no cause for dejection. He requested the emperor to accompany him and continue to guide the revolutionary struggle. Unfortunately, the British came to know of his plans. They knew well that as long as Bahadur Shah was alive and led the revolutionaries, they would never be able to crush the revolt. They made use of the services of the treacherous Elahi Baksh to prevail upon the emperor to reject the proposals of Bakht Khan and help them take him into their custody. Elahi Baksh played his part well for which the Government rewarded him and his descendants with a monthly pension of Rs. 1,200 paid up to 1930. The emperor declined to accompany Bakht Khan and by doing so, he sealed his own destiny as well as the destiny of the country. Captain Hudson lost no time to take him into custody along with Begum Zeenat Mahal and Prince Jawan Bakht from Humayun’s Tomb and lodged them in confinement in the Red Fort. He also caught hold of three royal princes, Mirza Mughal, Mirza Akhtar Sultan and Mirza Abubakar with the help of Elahi Baksh, stripped them of their clothes and shot them dead. His animal passion for revenge was still unquenched. He got them beheaded and presented the severed heads to the emperor with the remark, “Here is the Company’s nazar (tribute) to you which had not been presented for years.”
Bahadur Shah was later tried by a military commission. The trial lasted from January 27 to March 9, 1858. The principal charge against him was that being a subject of the British Government, he proclaimed himself as the sovereign of India and waged war against the Government. Juristically speaking, Bahadur Shah was the de jure sovereign while the East India Company was de facto. Ironically, the de facto deposed the de jure and sentenced him to life imprisonment. They humiliated him by making him live in squalor, reduced to the object of a peep show for the European visitors to Delhi. Considering his stay at Red Fort as a potential danger to the security of the State, the Government deported him in captivity to Rangoon in October 1858, where he died in 1862. His poetry, however, kept alive his memories and the plaintive ghazals of the King proved as equally effective weapons as the onslaughts of the revolutionaries on the British in the national struggle for freedom.
The victors, who entered Delhi after an exhausting struggle of about four months, were thirsty for blood of the people as well as their possessions. Mass killing and plunder ensued. Neither the Hindus nor the Muslims were spared. They killed everyone whom they suspected to have helped the revolutionaries. Lamenting over the mass slaughter, the famous Urdu poet, Ghalib, wrote mournfully, “Here there is a vast ocean of blood before me. God only knows what more I have still to behold”. The soldiers also plundered whatever and wherever they could find. There were also house-diggings to get hold of the hidden treasures. Places of worship were defiled.
The mosques became barracks. The entire population was driven out of the city. For disposal of the movable evacuee property,
the Government established Prize Agencies. They collected the movables from every house and auctioned them.
Battle for Lucknow
After the fall of Delhi, the British made their plans for suppression of the revolt elsewhere. Lord Canning had already made Allahabad his emergency headquarters. Havelock captured Kanpur from Nana Sahib after two fierce battles by the end of July 1857, as a result of which the latter left Bithoor with his treasury and the remnant forces. Havelock then started for Lucknow, barely 45 miles from Kanpur, but could not reach there for many days because of fierce resistance en route from the revolutionaries until the recapturing of Bithoor by Nana Sahib compelled him to retreat on August l2, 1857. There was another encounter between Nana Sahib and the British forces but without any decisive result. Havelock again started for Lucknow on September 20, 1857 accompanied by veteran British Generals—Neill, Outram and Cooper. He reached Alambagh on the outskirts of Lucknow on September 23, 1857 where he had to fight a pitched battle with the revolutionaries lasting 36 hours in which hundreds of soldiers were killed. Havelock had, therefore, to abandon his plans to capture Lucknow and reached the Residency with utmost suffering because of the heroic resistance by the people at every step of his journey. At Khas Bazaar, a stray bullet from the revolutionaries killed General Neill on the spot.
Having reached the Residency, Havelock found that instead of rendering assistance to the besieged, he had himself become a captive for months until a large British force led by Sir Collin Campbell, the Commander-in-Chief, along with Generals Grant and Great Head, reached Lucknow in November 1857. It was only after a fierce fight for nine days from November 14 to 23, 1857 that the thrust of the revolutionary forces on the Residency could be broken and the two forces of Campbell and Havelock were united. General Havelock died the very next day. Before Campbell could do anything further to capture Lucknow from the revolutionaries, he received the disturbing news that Tantya Tope had captured Kanpur for the revolutionaries. That compelled him to go back to Kanpur. The revolutionaries kept ablaze the fire of revolution at Lucknow under the stewardship of Moulvi Ahmed Shah of Faizabad, a resident of Madras who had come to northern India only a few months before the advent of the revolution. He soon became an ardent supporter of the revolution and was very popular among the people. The British considered him one of their most formidable foes for whose treacherous murder they paid a reward of Rs. 50,000 to Raja Jagan Nath Singh of Pavan.
The task before Sir Collin Campbell at Kanpur proved to be very formidable. The forces of Tantya Tope and Nana Sahib fought vigorously for a week on the banks of the Ganges against the British forces from December 1 to 6, 1857 before Campbell could recapture Kanpur from them. The Britishers had, therefore, to make extensive preparations for war before they could embark upon another offensive against the revolutionaries at Lucknow. Campbell again started for Lucknow with a large force comprising 17,000 infantry, 5,000 cavalry and an artillery of 134 guns assisted by General Jang Bahadur at the head of a contingent of 9,000 Gorkha soldiers. He reached Lucknow on March 11, 1858. The revolutionaries, against whom he had to fight, had also a big force of 30,000 regular sepoys and 50,000 armed volunteers. Barricades were erected at every nook and corner and heavy guns were positioned at every barricade. Begum Hazrat Mahal personally led the attack against the enemy. But after fierce fighting for days together, the British forces were able to make their entry into Lucknow on March 14, 1858. Moulvi Ahmed Shah left the city (along with Begum Hazrat Mahal and the minor Nawab, Birjees Qadar) to continue the struggle.
Rani of Jhansi
The Britishers now attempted to capture Jhansi, another stronghold of the revolution. As Sir Hugh Rose reached near Jhansi along with a massive force on March 20, 1858, Rani Lakshmibai started elaborate preparations for fighting the British forces. She adopted the ‘scorch-earth’ policy, i.e., destruction of the countryside on the route of the enemy but as the Britishers were supported by Maharaja Scindhia of Gwalior and Raja of Tehri-Tikamgarh, it did not prove of much avail. The brave Rani Lakshmibai personally supervised all the war preparations like erection of barriers and barricades as well as mounting of guns on the ramparts of the fort. She started the offensive with shelling at the enemy force by a Jhansi gun known as Ghangaraj (Thunderer) on March 24, 1858. She also sought the help of Tantya Tope who attacked the enemy from the rear. The fierce duel continued for more than a week in which heavy losses were sustained by both sides. Ultimately, the Britishers were able to capture the fort, not through any act of bravery but through treachery.
Lakshmibai left Jhansi along with a few adherents to fight the Britishers from another place. She along with other revolutionary leaders like Rao Sahib and Tantya Tope gave another tough fight to the British forces at Kalpi. She captured Gwalior from Maharaja Jiyaji Rao Scindhia along with other revolutionary leaders and established there a new stronghold of revolution. Maharaja Scindhia with his Minister Dinkar Rao sought the British protection at Agra. How could the Britishers treat such a sad spectacle with indifference ? They launched a strong attack on Gwalior led by Sir Hugh Rose. The revolutionaries fought heroically for four days. Rani Lakshmibai fought personally in the thick of the battle along with her two brave feminine attendants, Mandra and Kashi. She was in the saddle dressed in male attire from dawn to dusk and made heavy charge on the enemy with her sword. The battle on June 17, 1858 was a day of her victory.