| The Nicholson cemetery in Delhi. Picture by Prem Singh
New Delhi, Oct. 24: An island of peace and serenity amid the noise and rush of frenetic traffic, a British cemetery in the heart of Delhi has become the symbol of continuing differences in perception between India and Britain over an historic event, more than half a century after Independence.
As India prepares to commemorate 150 years of the First War of Independence in 1857, the British high commission is quietly saluting those who died defending the Empire against the “Sepoy Mutiny”.
“Brigadier General John Nicholson, who led the assault of Delhi, but fell at the hour of victory, mortally wounded, and died 23rd September, 1857, aged 35,” says the tribute on the grave of the British general who spearheaded the British attack on Bahadur Shah Zafar’s forces here.
Nicholson, a veteran of earlier wars against the Sikhs and Afghans, led the forces through Delhi Gate to defeat what then was the biggest threat to the British control of India. Some 14,000 people died in the assault, of whom 4,000 were fighting on the side of the British, including several Indian soldiers.
In the series of commemorative events to honour freedom fighters next year — from stamp releases to seminars and exhibitions — planned by the Indian government, if Nicholson at all finds an unlikely mention, it will be unfavourable.
Britain, however, has renovated the Nicholson cemetery, built in honour of British soldiers who died in the Delhi assault.
Opening the renovated cemetery today, high commissioner Michael Arthur evaded questions that highlight the persisting difference in the perception of history, drawing attention instead to the “common historical heritage India and Britain share”.
British civilians and even Anglo-Indians who died much after 1857 are also buried in the 9-acre cemetery, but London’s interest is clearly in Nicholson and other war “heroes”.
“To the British, Nicholson would be a hero,” said Ian Draper, defence attache at the high commission.
“An insult to India” is how an emotional Rajnish Chaudhary, who lives in an apartment complex close to the cemetery, described what he saw as the commemoration of Nicholson.
Many of those who stay in the buildings say the government should “never have allowed a fancy ceremony in memory of someone who butchered so many Indians”. A small crowd of residents even gathered at the entrance to the cemetery, disapproving looks on their faces.
The idea to renovate the cemetery came up three years ago, when families of British soldiers buried here complained to the British government about the lack of maintenance of the burial ground, high commission officials say.
“When family members came back to Britain after visiting the cemetery, they would complain of how ragpickers and urchins lived inside. The graves were not maintained — some were damaged very badly,” said an official.
Put in this context, humanitarian concerns, rather than eagerness to revive an historical bitterness, appear to be the guiding force behind the renovation.
Several British companies helped with the renovation, the largest financial assistance coming from Group 4 Securicor, a multinational security company.
The British government has spoken to New Delhi about renovating other war cemeteries in India, too, high commission officials said.