Following the horrific murder of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, USA, a mini revolution is taking place across the globe. Every past military and civil hero is being re-evaluated in light of their role or support for slavery and racial injustice. Statues of Thomas Jefferson, one of the leading fathers of US independence and democracy and Mahatma Gandhi, the prophet of non-violence and peaceful resistance, are being vandalized and toppled for their racial past. Story books, national medals, and even religious concepts are being bad-listed (an alternate, politically correct word being offered here for ‘blacklisted’).
In Rawalpindi-Islamabad, on the western side of GT Road, as it crosses the Margalla Pass close to Taxila, there stands a 40-feet tall obelisk, called Nicholson’s memorial. It was erected in 1868 to honour Brigadier General John Nicholson of the British East India Company, one of the most demonic individuals produced by the British Empire.
While the British history regards this diplomat-soldier as resolute, fierce, just and efficient – qualities that helped the British East India Company in defeating the Sikhs in the Anglo-Sikh wars of 1845-46 and 1848-49, and thereafter in establishing the Company rule on firm foundations in the Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa – Nicholson was extremely racist. He regarded the local population as inferior, hated the people of this land and expected the locals to be extremely subservient on pain of being incarcerated, flogged, shot or hanged; something that he did frequently.
Nicholson remained part of British army in the first and the second Anglo-Afghan wars in 1841 and 1842, led the British East India Company Native Infantry in Anglo-Sikh Wars, remained Deputy Commissioner of Bannu and Peshawar and finally during the 1857 War of Independence, led the army units against the freedom fighters in Delhi. He was wounded during storming of Delhi and died on the 23rd of September 1857 at the age of 34. He had come to India at the age of 17 and had spent the entire period in the Punjab and KP, except for brief forays into Afghanistan, Kashmir and Delhi. His history has been well recorded. His biography was penned, among others, by Caption Lionel J. Trotter titled The Life of John Nicholson and by JW Kaye in a chapter titled ‘General Nicholson’ in the book Lives of Indian Officers, vol II. Though these biographies are adulatory in nature, written as a compliment to a fellow officer, they detail the ample anti-native deeds of the man.
He was fond of hanging Indians whenever his mood swings so desired. On his march to Delhi during the mutiny, he hanged all the cooks of his detachment on the suspicion that they had poisoned the food
Punjabis and Pakhtuns were the main targets of his cruelties and atrocities, some of which are listed below from the above two books. They are sufficient to hang his name in shame rather than be exalted with memorials.
From his very childhood, Nicolson had a fiery temper which was easily roused by anything which offended his strong sense of justice, or his hatred of (what he perceived as) mean or cowardly practices. One day, when he was just three years old and his mother found him flicking his knotted handkerchief in the air and saying that he was trying to kill the devil. Subsequently in India, he treated the Indians nothing less than the devil and killed them mercilessly. As he wrote to his mother from Peshawar in 1842, “I dislike India and its inhabitants more every day, and would rather go home on £200 a year than live like a prince here.” However, the lure of Indian riches kept him here till his death.
He arrived in India at a time when the Great Game was its height with Russian and British vying to out manoeuvre each other in the Central Asia. After travelling from Ludhiana to Ferozpur, he wrote to his mother, “[…]and what I have just mentioned shows, I think, that they do not like us.” Of course, he didn’t care to tell her that the British were aggressively taking over the whole Indian Subcontinent.
Nicholson had scant respect for law as far as the natives were concerned. Kaye mentions that in Peshawar, Nicholson wrote to Commissioner Herbert Edwards, “I have got a man who taunted my police on the line of march with siding with infidels in a religious war. May I hang him?”
No case, no trial: just hang him. Such was the mindset of this colonial administrator.
In one of the most humiliating incidents, when Nicholson was passing through Kapurthala, a State that was faithful to the British cause, he met General Mehtab Singh, the commander of the State army, in the office of the British Commissioner. On noticing that Mehtab was wearing his shoes, Nicholson rebuked him for this ‘audacity’ and ordered him not only to remove them but also to carry them outside himself in full view of his troops. He didn’t brook the faintest perception of insolence by any native towards himself or an officer of the ruling race. It is no wonder that Sir John Lawrence, the first chief Commissioner of the Punjab and later Governor General and Viceroy of India, noted that Nicholson was keen on confronting and humiliating Indian leaders. Such was this colonial monster whose memorial our country maintains in our capital city.
Nicholson found ample reasons to nourish his hatred of the Afghans. His regiment was part of the British army in its first invasion of Afghanistan in early 1841 that removed Dost Mohammad as the king and installed Shah Shujah. People rebelled under Dost Mohammad’s son Akbar Khan, against the puppet king. Nicholson first arrived in Kabul leading a native regiment and was then stationed in Ghazni. The history of this first Anglo-Afghan war is well known. It ended with the complete decimation of the British force except for one doctor, who alone managed to reach Peshawar. Nicholson was taken prisoner along with other British men and women. He was rescued when the British Army of Retribution ransacked Jalalabad, Kabul and the surrounding areas, afflicting rape of women, slaughter of men, destruction of villages and pillage of fruit gardens. However, on their return march near at Ali Masjid, the British troops were surprised by the redoubtable Afridis. As Nicholson was passing by the dead, he saw the naked mutilated corpse of a dead white soldier, whose genitals had been severed and stuffed in his mouth. Nicholson soon recognized him to be his younger brother who had formed part of the advance guard.
In a letter to Commissioner Edwards, he spoke of the Afghans as utterly false, treacherous, and faithless […]” In another instance he called the Bannuchis a savage people. In his biased labelling, he overlooked the fact that he and his countrymen had attacked Afghanistan and were occupying frontier region in utter disregard of any principals and had faced the fury of the Pakhtuns for not respecting their freedom.
After losing another brother under mysterious circumstances in Sukkur, Nicholson wrote, “India is like a rat-trap. It is easier to get into than out of.”
During his tenure as Deputy Commissioner of Bannu, he would flog people under the slightest pretext and even resort to hanging them. After Nicholson shot a local person dead, John Lawrence wrote to a friend that Nicholson was a “stern, uncompromising chap”. In fact he was fond of hanging Indians whenever his mood swings so desired. On his march to Delhi during the mutiny, he hanged all the cooks of his detachment on the suspicion that they had poisoned the food. Even his compatriots found his keenness for flogging Indians on almost any grounds – sometimes even when he did not have the authority to do so – deeply disturbing. Recently, the Scottish-Indian historian William Dalrymple called him an “imperial psychopath”.
The Nicholsons were five brothers. One died young and the rest served in the British India in the tumultuous period of middle of 19th century. Three died here; all violently. We can only sympathise with their mother who lived under penury circumstances and sent sons in their teens to, what she perceived to be, the golden goose that was India. She got the financial benefits alright: but at the heavy price of the loss of three sons. Those were the greedy ways of the English race in their imperial days.
Nicholson was particularly ruthless during the War of Independence in 1857. In early May, the native battalions stationed at Nowshehra rebelled and left the cantonments. These rebels were hunted down by Nicholson and killed on the 25th of May. By this time 120 sepoys had been slain outright, many of them by Nicholson’s own hand, 150 had been taken prisoners, forty of whom were afterwards blown from guns before the assembled garrison of Peshawar. While he marched with his force to Delhi, he learnt of rebellion of troops at Gurdaspur. Nicholson pursued them to an island in the river Jhelum close to Trimmu. Nicholson refused to take any prisoners and what has been described as a partridge shoot, killed each and every one of over 500 men. He advocated merciless revenge against mutineers- including flaying them alive.
Before he died of gunshot wounds in Delhi at the hands of Indian mutineers fighting for freedom from the British Empire, Nicholson acted in the most villainous manner against the very people who were sustaining him and his race.
His name shall for ever live in infamy. It does not befit the Pakistan nation to have a memorial standing in his name in this land. It should be taken down and kept at some museum with appropriate epitaph to describe his heinous crimes against our land and people.
There are some voices that say that tearing down statues does not change history and that it only inflames emotions. They forget that while it may not be right to give in to negative emotions, it is by no means right to ask the victims to honour and maintain the statues and memorials of their oppressors. The Nicholson memorial was erected by the victor British rulers to honour someone who had done much to establish their rule. The Pakistani nation should have asked the colonial power to take the obelisk with them on their departure in August 1947 and install it in London or in Ireland, or where ever it may have some relevance. Every time this author passes by the column, he recalls his evil behaviour and his hatred for us. To ask us to behold his memorial is to shame us and our ancestors. That is not fair to us.
It is time for this obelisk of shame to be brought down.
Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at email@example.com