Graves of empire tell of India’s troubled past

By Angus MacSwan  /  Reuters, NEW DELHI

Tue, Feb 18, 2014 - Page 12

By the side of a crowded Delhi highway with buses thundering by and hawkers touting their wares lies a small, walled cemetery.

It holds the graves of hundreds of British citizens and other foreigners who, for better or worse, played roles in India’s colonial past. Soldiers, missionaries, traders and officials rest here, the cracked tombstones giving only hints of their lives.

Despite the peaceful air, the Nicholson Christian Cemetery near the Kashmere Gate is also testimony to a history of violence. It was founded after the Indian Mutiny in 1857 and many of its inhabitants died in that conflict, now seen by some as India’s first war for independence.

The cemetery is named after Brigadier General John Nicholson, who was mortally wounded at the age of 36 leading the assault to relieve the siege of Delhi during the insurrection.

His grave is surrounded by a railing fence and features a white marble slab. His ghost is reputed to haunt the cemetery.

Nicholson was a controversial character in life and in death. An Ulsterman who fought in Afghanistan and Punjab before meeting his fate in Delhi, he was disliked for his haughty manner by fellow officers but revered by many of his Indian troops who elevated him to a cult-like status.

But he detested Indians and Afghans and dealt with them ruthlessly, reputedly displaying the severed head of one of his adversaries on his desk.

To a fellow officer, he proposed “the flaying alive, impalement or burning of the murderers of (British) women and children. The idea of simply hanging the perpetrators of such atrocities is maddening”.

Historian William Dalrymple, in his book The Last Moghul, calls Nicholson an “imperial psychopath” with a “merciless capacity for extreme aggression and brutality”.

Still, his grave is designated a national monument by the Archaeological Survey of India’s antiquities department.

“We don’t bear any grudges,” said Father Jesuario Rebello, head of the Delhi Cemeteries Commission.

Other soldiers buried among the bougainvillea and tamarind trees include Alexander William Murray of the 42nd Bengal Regiment. According to his gravestone, Murray “fell while encouraging his men to follow his example on the 18th of September 1857 during the siege of Delhi”.

Plenty of civilians are buried here too. James Cumming was a telegraph master killed by lightning on July 28, 1874, “leaving a widow and infant daughter to bewail his loss.” James Daof “died of heatstroke” in August 1907 at the age of 29.

Elizabeth Badley Read, daughter of the Reverend B.H. Badley of the American Methodist Mission Society, was born in Los Angeles in 1885 and died in Delhi in 1935.

“She loved India,” her tombstone says.

There are also the graves of many infants and children for whom the rigours of life in India were too much.

NO VACANCIES

Father Rebello’s problems are with the present, not the past.

“The cemetery is closed now. There’s no space anymore,” he told Reuters at New Delhi’s Sacred Heart Cathedral.

Only “second burials” are allowed - when relatives move the deceased’s cremated remains to a niche and use the vacated lot for a new body.

In fact, five of Delhi’s 11 old Christian cemeteries are full. The government had allocated land for a new cemetery but that is getting crammed too, said Rebello, a Roman Catholic priest from the former Portuguese colony of Goa.

“We’re fighting. The government does not give easily. We are a minority,” he said.

The small staff of gravetenders often have to chase away drug addicts, who climb over the wall to seek peace and seclusion to indulge their habit, he said.

Funds are also a problem. The graveyard charges a small fee from relatives to clean the graves and clear away the weeds which sprout relentlessly.

So modern India has encroached on the graveyard. One way to raise money has been to rent it to Bollywood movie productions as a set.

But after the plot of one movie involved an assassination attempt on a politician by a bishop, the committee now vets scripts to make sure they are appropriate. Anything too racy - no doubt with the silent approval of the Victorians lying there - will not be allowed.

“We don’t permit any semi-nudity and things like that here,” Rebello said.