The year 1833 holds a special place in the history of British India. Under the Charter Act passed by the British parliament, the governor-general of Bengal Lord William Bentinck was appointed as the first governor-general of India. The act also legitimised the East India Company’s efforts to further explore the land, people and cultures of south Asia. The year heralded a new era as interest in India grew in England and modernity blossomed in Europe.
A couple of years later came the shift in focus from the eastern headquarters of Calcutta to north and northwest India. A new governor-general, George Eden, took charge in 1836. Accompanying him was his sister, Emily. She joined him in his trips to the northwest via the Gangetic plain. Travelling across the country, she wrote of life during the early days of the Raj and about the cantonment towns that came up in places like Meerut.
Emily’s narratives describe in detail the parties, the plays, the eccentricities and the all-out attempt by the English to “go native”. It was the beginning of the cantonment town culture in north India, of which Meerut would remain a model. By the 1830s, the town had emerged as a favourite military post for the British. “Meerut is a large European station, a quantity of barracks and white bungalows spread over eight miles of plains. There is nothing to see or draw,” writes Emily in her travelogue Up the Country, which was, in fact, a series of letters she wrote. These were compiled and published as a book in 1866.
Emily did not visit the entire town. Perhaps as she was a European aristocrat, her travel was not as free and adventurous as it would be for someone like Rudyard Kipling 50 years later. Her visits were limited to the European quarters of Meerut and she appears to have missed the older section of the town, the Muslim quarters that sprang up around the Jama Masjid. This part of the town, which continues to thrive even today, was at its glorious best in the early 19th century.
Her accounts, however, offer interesting vignettes from the lives of the British. For instance, the governor-general and his companions used to stage Shakespearean plays for entertainment. Since there were only a few women in the entourage, writes Emily, women’s roles would often be played by tall soldiers with curly wigs.
On their journeys across the country, the governor-general’s team would spend considerable time in different towns and their security was the responsibility of the English soldiers. Security was tight as the British had started operations against the Thugs, who were members of a violent group that waylaid and strangled travellers, in a ritually prescribed manner. They were quite active in north India and the anti-Thug campaign was a sign that the East India Company was serious about moving westward. Despite this, notes Emily, the soldiers and their guests lived in style enjoying elegant dinners, ball-room dancing and ample socialising, fuelled by fine wine and spirit.
Emily also describes the enormous hardships faced by the native people following the decline of the centuries-old political system of the Mughals and the traditional rulers. Her letters contain details of the lawlessness, dreadful malnutrition and famine that had struck the Gangetic plain in the late 1830s, believed to be among the reasons behind the revolt of 1857.
Those days of famine are long gone. The agriculture-dominated western Uttar Pradesh, of which Meerut is the educational and commercial hub, has become increasingly prosperous. But, we found that a new breed of poverty―of tolerance and harmony―was taking root in Meerut. The communal riots that broke out in neighbouring Muzaffarnagar in August did not spare Meerut, leading to several casualties and displacement of thousands of people.
Inside the Jama Masjid, we met Hussein, who looked lost and tired. “He is a Rohingya Muslim. He and his family came from Myanmar following communal clashes there,” said the young caretaker of the mosque. Influx of such refugees has heightened tension in the region.
And, that remains the story of Meerut. Centuries have passed. Yet, public disorder continues to haunt the green belt that adorns India’s heartland.
YOU cannot conceive the horrible sights we see, particularly children; perfect skeletons in many cases, their bones through their skin, without a rag of clothing and utterly unlike human creatures. Our camp luckily does more good than harm. We get all our supplies from Oude [Awadh], and we can give away more than any other travellers.
―Emily Eden, Up the Country: Letters Written to Her Sister from the Upper Provinces of India, 1834