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Britons may be forced to abandon trip to 1857 relic

September 24, 2007 21:54 IST

The proposed visit by a 42-member British delegation to pay homage to their kin who laid down their lives in the 1857 Indian war of independence (referred to by the British as sepoy mutiny) may be abandoned.

The Uttar Pradesh administration has decided to disallow them from paying a visit to the ruins of the Residency where nearly 3000 British soldiers and their families had perished 150 years ago and a cemetery with about 200 graves stands in testimony.

Even as officials were tight-lipped about the rescheduled programme of the delegation that was to arrive on Monday morning, a heavy security net was thrown in and around the Residency.

Though Bhartiya Janata Party took the lead in opposing the visit that was aimed at marking 150 years of the 1857 uprising against the British in India, even its rivals followed course.

The move enlisted support from diverse quarters. Hindus, Muslims and even ideologically divergent BJP and the Samajwadi Party seemed to be virtually joining hands in opposing the visit.

The delegation, led by Sir Mark Allen Havelock, the great-great grandson of Major General Havelock, who was responsible for crushing the revolt by Indian sepoys is scheduled to arrive on Tuesday.

A descendant of Maj Gen Henry Lawrence who died while defending the Residency was also a part of the delegation.

It was however evident that both the BJP and the SP were keen on using it as a political tool to attack the Congress-led UPA government at the centre as well as the Bahujan Samaj Party, ruling Uttar Pradesh.

Close on the heels of protest calls issued by Hindu fundamentalist outfits like Rashtriya Swayam Sewak Sangh and Bajrang Dal, came angry reactions from certain Muslims organisations too.

Those issuing the protest calls included BJP leader Lalji Tandon, SP spokesman Rajendra Chaudhary, Bajrang Dal state chief Rajendra Sachan, well known Muslim Shia cleric Maulana Kalbe Jawaad and Sunni Maulana Fazlur Rehman.

However it was only BJP's Lalji Tandon, a close lieutenant of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who marched to the Residency Monday noon to stage a protest demonstration.

"We will not allow anyone to make a mockery of our freedom struggle by eulogising those who oppressed us, rebuked us and humiliated us for almost 200 years," Tandon told a gathering of about 300-odd BJP workers outside the closed gates of the Residency, where nearly 3000 British were trapped and killed during the uprising which also brought down the once magnificent complex erected in the late eighteenth century by the then Nawab Saadat Ali Khan for the British resident.

The Archaeological Survey of India preserves the ruins as "protected monument".

An emotionally charged Tandon said, "After all, how can we forget that the forefathers of the members of the delegation were the ones who tortured and slaughtered our freedom fighters." And went on to add, "Why should we allow anyone to come and shower praise on those oppressors?"

Interestingly, despite loud clarifications issued by the Delhi-based organisers that the visiting British delegation has no plans of eulogising the role of their kin against the first major anti-Britain uprising by Indians, both BJP and SP were busy terming it as observation of some kind of 'victory day'.

"All they wish to do is to pay homage to their ancestors at a British cemetery inside the  Lucknow Residency, where they would lay wreaths and light candles; no one intends to make speeches or hold any kind of celebration," clarified a spokesman of Tornos a tourist agency that had arranged their India travel.

"I fail to understand why some persons were trying to give the visit an unnecessary political colour," he wondered. "The British group proposed to first hoist the Indian tricolour at the Residency where the Union Jack used to fly once upon a time; it is to be followed by recitation of Gurubani as a mark of tribute to the Sikh soldiers, who also laid down their lives along with the British soldiers and to be concluded with hymns to commemorate the soldiers from both sides," he further pointed out.

"So where is the question of eulogising the British," he asked.

Caught in a cleft stock, the UP government sought to put up a very objective front. "We will not allow anyone to disturb the peace and harmony; permission will not be granted to anybody to hold any such celebration that might hurt the feelings of the people," said principal home secretary J N Chamber.

However, in the same vein he hastened to add, "But we cannot disallow people from offering homage to their dead." He also ruled out the possibility of banning the entry of the delegation.

Echoing similar assertions Lucknow district magistrate Chandra Bhanu told this scribe, "we have made adequate security arrangements in and around the  Residency to prevent any untoward incident from any side."

Sharat Pradhan in Lucknow