September 13, 2012

Rohilla War Memorial, Calcutta

This post is part of series about St. John’s Church located in BBD Bagh area, Calcutta. The integrated post about the church and the structures within can be accessed from here – Pixelated Memories - St. John's Church


About the Rohillas – 

“… but the wretched Rohillas had no country; the country they had left had long been possessed by others, and where were these miserable people to seek for a place of shelter – from the persecution of whom? Of Englishmen – natives of a country renowned for its justice and humanity. They will carry their melancholy tale into the numerous tribes and nations among whom they are scattered, and you may depend upon it the impression which it will make, will, sooner or later, have its effect.” 
- Charles James Fox 

The mighty Mughal Empire that had been ruling over the vast Indian subcontinent with unparalleled strength & eminence since AD 1526 had begun its downward spiral in early 18th century. The men who came to the throne after the death of the strong but compassionate emperor Bahadur Shah I (ruled AD 1707-12) were all weak & unable to control the huge empire, leading to its subsequent decline & disintegration. Following the chaos that erupted, regional warlords became powerful. New powers, new enemies came up around the empire’s strongholds, carving out chunks out of the empire & converting them into their citadels, testing the Mughal’s strengths, exploiting their weaknesses, taking advantage of their mistakes & slowly gaining an upper hand in the conflict for territories, treasure & supremacy. The major groups amongst these new formations were the Sikhs (Punjab), the Hindu Marathas (Maharashtra & Central India), the Nawab of Awadh (western Uttar Pradesh) & the Rohillas (eastern Uttar Pradesh). (Nawabs were initially officials responsible for maintenance of law & order & collection of taxes for the Mughal administration, but lately many of them, most notably the Nawabs of Awadh & Bengal, declared their independence from the Mughals) A new power, the British East India “trading” Company was also making inroads within the Mughal domain & even though their initial attempts at controlling Indian territories & portraying themselves as a superior military power were rebuffed by Emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir (ruled AD 1658-1707) through a series of military expeditions & sieges in what is known as “Child’s War” (AD 1686-90), they were able to safeguard their interests & build an Indian army for themselves soon after Aurangzeb’s demise. Friendships were established & treaties signed amongst some of these powers, others were deemed fit to be enemies & to be engaged in war. But then friendship & enmity have always stood on a shaky ground in India, one who is your loyal companion today might turn out to be your bitterest opponent tomorrow, baying for your blood with a ferocity that outrivals even a mad hound; the enemy who wanted you dead yesterday might actually come to your support when even your friends betray you (I don’t think modern Indian politics is an exception to this rule).

Among the groups that stood out, the Rohillas were different. Originally from the mountainous regions of Afghanistan (hence the name “Rohilla” meaning “mountaineer” from the Pashtu root word “Roh” meaning “mountain”), they were mostly descendants of the Yousufzai tribe of Pashtuns (aka Pathans), but also included several smaller tribes & sub-tribes. The chief amongst these were the Yousufzai & the Barech tribes from Kandhar which contributed most of the Rohilla leadership. Rohilla chief Daud Khan Barech came to India under the service of Madar Khan, a powerful Zamindar (“Local chief”), but soon took over the control of the villages. He was awarded the province of Katehar by Emperor Aurangzeb with the aim of subduing the incendiary Rajput population & became the first “Rohilla Nawab”. 20,000 Rohilla soldiers were employed to assist the Mughal army & later, impressed by their battle-worthiness, Aurangzeb inducted 25,000 more Rohillas into the regular army. Contending for territories amongst themselves, Indian Zamindars too began employing Rohilla mercenaries for small-scale battles & for settling personal scores. Soon thereafter, many members of the tribe had migrated from Afghanistan to settle in & around the Katehar region & carved out a distinct cultural, linguistic & territorial identity for themselves. Their enclave was christened “Rohilkhand” (“Land of the Rohillas”, the districts of Bareilly, Rampur & the surrounding regions in modern-day Uttar Pradesh). Many Afghans themselves became Zamindars & small Nawabs & brought in their kinsmen from Afghanistan to help in the administration of their territories. The Rohillas soon became independent of the Mughal rule in their territory & virtually lorded over the whole of it after subduing the local population which was predominantly Hindu. They followed Pashtun traditions, which incorporated collective history, storytelling & poetry to propagate warnings & their shared knowledge, a system of not-forgiving-&-never-forgetting until revenge has been extracted from an enemy/oppressor & a belief in omens & holy men bordering on superstition. They were soldiers, cavalrymen & mercenaries at the time of war & conflict, but when not under duress they went back to simpler professions – merchants, dealers & horse sellers who plied their business from Delhi to Afghanistan. Their leadership was made up of tribal chieftains (“Sardars”) & warlords. After the death of Ali Mohammad Khan, Daud Khan’s son & successor, the baton of leadership passed on to a group of chieftains, the most notable among them being Faizullah Khan (Ali Mohammad's son), Hafiz Rahmat Khan Barech & Najib-ud-Daulah.

The flag of the Rohilla state of Rampur (Photo courtesy -

As the Rohilla strength increased, they took to rowdy & ungentlemanly behavior & turned against their erstwhile masters. Like the Jats who reigned supreme in parts of Haryana-Rajasthan & took to loot, plunder & robbery as a means to harass the Mughal nobles & caravans, the Rohillas too took to plunder & raids. Amongst the groups responsible for vandalizing Delhi’s Red Fort (refer Pixelated Memories - Diwan-i-Khas, Red Fort, New Delhi) for its treasures, the Jats & the Rohillas were the foremost. The Rohillas soon embarked on a short-sighted expansionist policy & began eyeing neighbouring territories. They brought Farrukhabad under their control, but soon came into conflict with Mirza Safdarjung, the Nawab of Awadh, after the latter plundered & ravaged Farrukhabad. Rohillas embarked on a battle against Safdarjung, but the Nawab applied for help from the Marathas to dominate them. The Rohillas were administered a crushing defeat by the Maratha-Nawab combine in AD 1752 & their powers curtailed. The entire Rohilkhand region was captured by the Marathas & it was only in 1757 that Najib-ud-Daulah could re-conquer it. The Marathas leaped from strength to strength, increasing their wealth & reach manifolds. Half a century after Aurangzeb’s death, the might of the Maratha confederacy had increased to such an extent that they had embarked on a slow but steady engulfment of Mughal territories, threatening the Rohillas, their erstwhile ally the Nawab of Awadh & other Muslim kingdoms that had sprouted up in North India. The Marathas had become so powerful that the Mughal emperor became a puppet in their hands & had to apply for Maratha help every time a calamity appeared on his frontiers. The Marathas even went ahead to capture parts of Punjab & Afghanistan that were then under the control of the Shah of Afghanistan Ahmed Shah Abdali. Alarmed & still pissed at the Marathas for their last defeat, the Rohilla chief Najib-ud-Daulah invited Abdali to invade India & chastise them & also brought in other sardars including Hafiz Barech & Dundi Khan as well as Shuja-ud-Daulah (Safdarjung’s son & the then Nawab of Awadh) into the alliance. Abdali’s armies met the united Maratha front at the war field of Panipat in AD 1761 (since this was the last of 3 major battles fought in Panipat, we shall refer to it as the III Battle of Panipat), the Rohillas & the Nawab made sure that the Maratha supply lines were cut & their leadership isolated from the soldiers. The battle turned in the favour of Abdali, the Marathas were defeated & pushed back to their original territories in Central & Southern India. Between 40,000-70,000 Maratha soldiers were massacred, many non-soldier Marathas were executed after the battle, thousands of women were subjected to rape, many committed suicide afterwards, over 22,000 Maratha women & children were enslaved & carried to Afghanistan. Delhi & its neigbourhoods were plundered before the battle by the Maratha army (who claimed to be defending India from a foreign power & drew their expenditure from the Mughal treasury & the taxes from the areas surrounding Delhi) & afterwards by the Afghans (who wished reimbursement for their war efforts & expenditure involved in crushing a “Kaafir” (Hindu) army). Abdali left behind Mughal emperor Shah Alam II as the nominal head of the country, but the power had shifted to the Rohillas as Najib-ud-Daulah was declared regent of the Mughal Empire. The Marathas had to cede part of their territories to Najib-ud-Daulah who had many Maratha leaders tortured & executed. Most of the Maratha leadership was eliminated after the war & though they remained a major military power after the war, they were never able to recover from the rout & achieve their position of pre-eminence again. Relegated to the background, the Marathas appointed Peshwa Madhavrao I as their new leader.

Najib-ud-Daulah became the de facto ruler of Delhi & along with several other chieftains saw that the Rohillas were awarded many more territories over time & their military might too multiplied manifolds. All this while the Marathas kept to the background & focused on re-building their army & command, they stayed quiet till they could become strong enough to take their enemies head on. The British East India Company too had been biding its time, taking stock of the country’s affairs with its own vested interests in mind, it had by now come to control territories in India & had established military outposts & fortresses around its trading centers. The Company was already strong enough at the time of the III Battle of Panipat to be seen as a contender for the throne of Delhi – their strength & the ability to change the political outcome of various battles was bared when Abdali issued a firman (“royal decree”) to all the major powers of India before his departure from Delhi asking them to recognize Shah Alam II as his representative in the country & had one firman sent to Robert Clive of the Company too. The Company finally came into its first conflict with the native Indian rulers in AD 1764 over the issue of collection of taxes from the Company’s territories in Bengal. A battle was fought at Buxar (in Bihar) in the same year with the Company army on one side & the Mughal emperor Shah Alam II, Nawab Shuja-ud-Daulah & Nawab Mir Qasim (ruler of Bengal) on the other. The Mughals were supported by the Rohillas & battalions supplied by Abdali in the war. However, lack of coordination & constant conflict between Shah Alam II & Shuja-ud-Daulah ensured that the combined forces tasted defeat in the battle & the Company’s military supremacy was established over the country (This time, the Afghan forces could not support their co-religious Mughal army since they were involved in conflicts with other Afghan principalities). Shah Alam II had to give several concessions to the Company, including the rights to collect revenue from Bengal & Bihar. Shuja-ud-Daulah remained the nominal head, tasked with maintenance of law & order in Bengal. He had to pay annual tributes to the Company in return for a guarantee of his safety in times of need. The Rohillas disappeared into the background, nonchalantly increasing their numbers & continuing with trade in their own territory, but their downward spiral had begun with this minor defeat. Their power was soon checked by the Sikhs who began attacking them from Punjab & Delhi & defeated them in 1767.

Commemorating fallen soldiers - The Rohilla War Memorial within the hallowed grounds of St. John's Church 

In 1771 AD, 10 years after the military debacle that cost them their supremacy, a much-recovered Maratha army embarked on a punitive campaign to seek out & destroy all those small principalities & communities that had either sided with Abdali in the III Battle of Panipat or later recovered their sovereignty from the subdued Marathas. The Marathas saw the Rohillas as one of their foremost enemies & annexed their kingdom. The Rohillas had fallen into bad times by now & their army was in a disarray following defeats administered by the British & the Sikhs, the soldiers had not been paid for many months & amongst the chiefs only Hafiz Rahmat Khan stood tall. Najib-ud-Daulah’s son & successor Zabita (Zabasta??) Khan was defeated by the Marathas & forced to seek asylum with Shuja-ud-Daulah. Sardar Hafiz Rahmat Khan found himself in a tough corner – the recharged Maratha armies were pummeling his defenses while he could not ask his ally, the Nawab of Awadh, for military help as it would have involved huge remuneration in return. Hafiz knew that the Rohilla coffers were empty & whatsoever little they had had already been plundered by the Marathas. How could the Rohillas pay the Nawab if they did not even have enough to pay their own soldiers?? In the end, against his wishes & following the collective demand of his community, Hafiz Barech signed a treaty with the Nawab where he would pay the latter Rupees 4 million (in 1771!!) after the war. Shuja-ud-Daulah, assisted by the East India Company’s armies (since the Company offered him protection against enemies as long as he paid for the Company army’s maintenance), dealt with & defeated the Maratha forces. The war was over, but the Rohillas were out of the frying pan & into the fire – when they were unable to pay for the war expenses, Shuja-ud-Daulah turned against them & attacked the Rohilla confederacy. It is usually contended that the chief reasons for Shuja-ud-Daulah’s enmity with the Rohillas were their religious differences (Shuja-ud-Daulah was Persian Shia, the Rohillas were Sunni Sufis from Afghanistan), the lure of occupying Rohilla territories (the area of Doab that formed the majority of Rohilla principality is one of the most fertile in the country) & the slight Shuja-ud-Daulah suffered on the hands of Ahmed Shah & the Rohilla chieftains during the III Battle of Panipat (the Barech Rohillas were a sub-clan of the Durrani tribe to which Abdali belonged, their religion too was same & they despised Shuja-ud-Daulah for a number of reasons).

Warren Hastings, the British Governor of Bengal, permitted Colonel Champion to lead the Company’s armies & join Shuja-ud-Daulah in the clash against the outnumbered Rohillas on April 23, 1774. (Hastings was to be later tried in Britain for interfering in India’s internal affairs & cultural genocide of the Rohilla community). The battle came to an end when the Rohilla armies fled after their commander Hafiz Rahmat Khan was killed as a cannonball struck him in the chest. His two sons who were commanding the central flank of the Rohilla formation were also killed. Despite their gallantry & steadfastness, 2,000 Rohillas were killed that day as the battle, later to be known as the First Rohilla War, turned against them. The resistance against Awadh had failed, the Rohillas were badly crushed & most of them either killed or chased out of their territories. The whole of Rohilkhand was annexed by Awadh & its little remaining wealth too was plundered away. Terror aimed at ethnic cleansing by the Shia Shuja-ud-Daulah was unleashed against the Rohillas after the battle – thousands of villages were burned & thousands of men & women slaughtered. The weakened Rohillas were then attacked by Sikh raiders & forced to leave their villages. The fleeing Rohilla population settled in small numbers wherever they could find asylum. The British established a small “protected” Rohilla state at Rampur & let Faizullah Khan continue as its Nawab. Rampur prospered to some extent & the Rohillas began regrouping under their new chief. They still remembered Hafiz Rahmat Khan’s plight & death in battlefield through their poems & shared stories & had not forgiven either Shuja-ud-Daulah or the British (Revenge being an important factor in Pashtunwali tradition). Many of the Rohillas adopted guerilla tactics to harass the Nawab & the British; the Mughals & the Marathas too faced the brunt of Rohilla raids & skirmishes. In AD 1788, Rohilla armies led by Ghulam Qadir Rohilla, Zabita Khan’s son, besieged & captured Delhi – finding the treasury empty & the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II himself reduced to a state of abject poverty, Ghulam Qadir had the emperor’s family executed, his eyes gouged out & went ahead to dig up the floor of the Diwan-i-Khas palace (refer Pixelated Memories - Diwan-i-Khas, Red Fort, New Delhi) in a bid to find hidden treasures. But the Marathas led by Mahadji Scindia had promised support to the crumbling Mughal Empire & they soon retook the control of Delhi after defeating & executing Ghulam Qadir.

Faizullah Khan passed away in AD 1793 & his ill-tempered son Muhammad Ali Khan came to the throne. Fed up with Muhammad’s policies & overbearing attitude, his own brother Ghulam Muhammad Bahadur, deposed & exiled Muhammad Ali Khan. But Ghulam Bahadur was even worse than his brother & the East India Company was forced to intervene again. General Abercromby led the British forces in the Second Rohilla War. 25,000 Rohilla soldiers were defeated & executed; some British soldiers too lost their lives.

While the Rohilla strongholds were destroyed, their land & property confiscated & their population terrorized & forced to find refuge in neighbouring territories, the British celebrated their victory & went ahead to raise a memorial to commemorate their fallen heroes.

The plaque installed on the memorial (Photo courtesy -

The 15meter high memorial consists of a small hemispherical roof surmounted on twelve Doric pillars. A plaque fixed on the side of the memorial’s base 101 years after the war names the military officers killed in action. The memorial is part of St. John’s Church, Calcutta & is one of the first monuments one sees when traversing the grounds of the church complex (moving left from the ground entrance). Sadly not many people stop by today to look at this piece of history. In fact most of the educated Indians would not even know of the Rohillas or the Rohilla Wars at large – the only remaining link is the memorial, the names etched on which have survived more than 200 years after the war, even though they have receded from the collective memory of the population. Do the British remember their soldiers who laid down their lives for their country’s profit in a far away land?? Shouldn’t the memorial pose as an example & a warning to all those who are even today waging wars in countries separated from their own by miles of land & sea?? Sadly, humans rarely, if ever, learn from their own or someone else’s mistakes.

Location: Inside St. John's Church complex, BBD Bagh area (Walking distance from Raj Bhavan, the residence of Governor of Bengal)
Nearest Metro Station: Esplanade Station
How to reach: One can simply walk/take a taxi from Esplanade.
Open: All days, 10am – 5pm
Entrance Fee: Rs 10 for entering the Church complex (Parking charges extra)
Photography/Video Charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 10 min
Relevant Links -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Diwan-i-Khas, Red Fort, New Delhi
  2. Pixelated Memories - Red Fort, New Delhi
  3. Pixelated Memories - St. John's Church
Suggested Reading -
  1. - Article "Was late medieval India ready for a Revolution in Military Affairs?- Part II" by Airavat Singh
  2. - "The Red Fort is Ravaged Further ", article by v
  3. - Warren Hastings in India (Extract from "A History of the British Nation" by A.D. Innes, 1912)
  4. - Article "From twilight to twilight in Delhi...." (dated Oct 21, 2002)
  5. - Shuja-ud-Daula, Nawab of Awadh & sworn enemy of the Rohillas
  6. - (pdf download) Hindustani Fanatics, India’s Pashtuns & Deobandism
  7. - Battle of Buxar
  8. - Charles James Fox, British parliamentarian (Quoted at the beginning of this article)
  9. - Child's War
  10. - First Rohilla War
  11. - Robert Clive, British officer who consolidated East India Company's territories in India
  12. - Rohilkhand
  13. - Rohilla
  14. - Rohilla chief Ali Mohammed Khan
  15. - Rohilla chief Faizullah Khan
  16. - Rohilla chief Hafiz Rahmat Khan Barech
  17. - Rohilla chief Najib-ud-Daulah
  18. - Rohilla state of Rampur (Uttar Pradesh)
  19. - Second Rohilla War
  20. - Third Battle of Panipat (1761)

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