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Skeletons Found in Punjab in 2014 From 1857 Revolt, Not Partition: Study

A whopping 9,646 teeth samples were recovered, and at least half of these were analysed.

Updated
India
6 min read
Skeletons Found in Punjab in 2014 From 1857 Revolt, Not Partition: Study
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A latest genetic study has now established that the human remains found in an abandoned well in Punjab's Ajnala in 2014 belonged to 246 Indian soldiers who were killed after the Uprising of 1857 against the British.

There have been numerous theories about the discovery, including one that hinted that the remains belonged to victims of violence during the Partition in 1947.

The peer-reviewed study, published in a journal called Frontiers in Genetics on 28 April, however, has established that the men were a part of the 26th Native Bengal Infantry battalion, which mainly comprised soldiers from Bengal, Odisha, Bihar, and the eastern parts of Uttar Pradesh.

The findings are "consistent with historical evidence… and the current research can uncover the hidden aspects of the struggle of the unknown martyrs against the colonial yoke," reads the study.

The photographs of the skeletal remains were accessed exclusively by The Quint.

There have been numerous theories about the discovery, including one that hinted that the remains belonged to victims of violence during the Partition in 1947.

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

Remains of teeth found after locals excavated the site.

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

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The joint study has been done by the department of anthropology, Panjab University, Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences in Lucknow, cytogenetic laboratory at the department of zoology, Banaras Hindu University (BHU), CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, and Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics in Hyderabad.

The Quint spoke to anthropologist JS Sehrawat from Panjab University, who led the research, and Gyaneshwar Chaubey from the department of zoology at BHU, about what this study meant for our understanding of the Uprising of 1857, and how the group – formed by the Punjab government in 2014 – arrived at its conclusion.

What Happened in 2014?

Sehrawat said that it all went back to a museum library in 2014 when an Indian research scholar came across a book by a civil servant who was stationed in Amritsar in 1857. Titled The Crisis in Punjab: From 10th of May until Fall of Delhi by FH Cooper in 1858, the book "mentioned a mass burial site in an abandoned well lying underneath a religious structure at Ajnala (in Amritsar)."

Sehrwat said,

"The book mentioned how Indian soldiers of that battalion were stationed at the Mian Meer (now in Pakistan) cantonment and after they killed some British soldiers, they fled. They were captured soon after and killed, and dumped in this well."

He said that the researcher – who also belongs to Ajnala – returned home and alerted the authorities concerned, but they did not take it seriously. "The locals, curious about this, did the excavation by themselves after dismantling the religious structure under which the well was located. It was done by locals in a non-scientific manner. They found the well, the human remains, coins, and medals," said Sehrwat.

The locals did the excavations by themselves. They found the well, the human remains, coins, and medals, said Sehrwat.

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

It was then that the Punjab government swung into action and tracked down Sehrawat, a known forensic anthropologist. "They looked for me on Facebook. I began work on it with a research scholar and visited the site. The skeletal remains and other findings were handed over to me," he said.

This non-scientific excavation had its repercussions. As per the paper published in the journal, "Non-expert-mediated exhumation by the amateur excavators has further compromised the integrity of the already fragile and brittle remains. The government authorities' delayed intervention led to the loss of forensic evidence of utmost national importance. Only teeth, jaw fragments, vertebrae, phalanges, skulls, femurs, clavicles, and hand and foot bones were retrieved among the skeletal debris; no pelvis, complete femur, sternum, etc. could be recovered from the remains."

The study suggested that the closest possible geographical affinity of the skeletal remains was towards the eastern part of India, largely covering the Gangetic plain region.

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

A whopping 9,646 teeth samples were recovered, and at least half of these were analysed.

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

Sehrawat said, "I believe the first cruelty was done by the British who killed them, and the second cruelty was done by these amateur archeologists who excavated the remains without using a scientific method. The remains, already in a poor condition, suffered at their hands in 2014."

Most analyses are based on the teeth, he said. A whopping 9,646 teeth samples were recovered, and at least half of these were analysed.

As per the published paper, Sehrawat has "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."

Soon, others – professors from BHU, Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences in Lucknow, CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, and Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics in Hyderabad – joined the group.

What Were the Theories?

As per the study, the remains belonged to healthy males between the ages of 21 and 49 years, with their geographical origins traced to the Gangetic plains.

Professor Chaubey of BHU, the co-researcher who was brought on board in 2019, told The Quint, "I was told about the research by professors at CSIR and at first assumed it was related to Jallianwala Bagh case but was informed that it probably dates 50-60 years before that. I was asked to do the DNA analysis of it, and Dr Niraj Rai was heading the isotopic analysis group."

Chaubey and his team generated their DNA data which "rejected local ancestry," i.e., the remains did not belong to anyone with origins in Punjab.

Chaubey and his team generated their DNA data which "rejected local ancestry," i.e., the remains did not belong to anyone with origins in Punjab.

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

"The data showed that the ancestry was of Gangetic plains – UP, Bihar, Bengal, Odisha. This was repeated several times to ensure that there was no mistake because I am also from Gangetic plains and I thought maybe the sample is contaminated with my own sample. We tried with other researchers too but the result was always the same," said Chaubey.

These findings about geographical origins were further corroborated by findings of the oxygen isotope analysis. As per the study, "It suggested the closest possible geographical affinity of these skeletal remains is toward the eastern part of India, largely covering the Gangetic plain region."

The bone analysis of the unbroken skulls that have been studied also indicate the extent of torture that the soldiers underwent, with bullet marks between their eyebrows and fractured pelvic bones hinting that the bodies were thrown into the well from a height.

Why Is This Study Important?

Sehrawat said these findings had added a new chapter to the history of India's first freedom struggle, and that "it establishes that these were Indian soldiers, who revolted, got caught near river Ravi, and were tortured. This study establishes the cruelties of the Britishers".

He said that the Centre should create task forces that can work towards discovering more dumping grounds using new technology.

Sehrawat and Chaubey said that they had reached out to the British High Commission and the Indian government to provide the list of these soldiers who were killed and dumped in the well in Ajnala in 1857.

"We have been informed by research scholars in the UK that the list exists. We want to know their names and addresses so that their families can be traced. They deserve to be cremated properly," said Sehrawat.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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