The Kooka Outbreak
[A detailed letter published in The Times dated June 10, 1872 by older brother of Douglas Forsyth, Commissioner of Ambala (or Umballa) when the Kuka (or Kooka) executions occurred.]


Sir,-With the exception of a short letter which I addressed to you on the 1st of March, when a question about the Kooka insurrection had been asked in the House of Commons, I have hitherto abstained from saying a word in public on the subject of the conduct of my brother, Mr Douglas Forsyth, in connexion with it. Now, however, that the Governor-General in Council has pronounced his judgment, and the papers upon which that judgment was founded have been transmitted to England, I desire to be heard.

I am well aware that in supporting the cause of an only brother who is not here to defend himself I shall be suspected of being an advocate rather than a judge. But I also feel sure that the public will not be less disposed to listen to my statement because of my near relationship to the late Commissioner of Umballa, provided only that my facts are accurate and my argument is fair.

My brother has been removed from his post at Umballa to the Commissioner-ship of Oude, and the Governor-General in Council has declared that his removal ought to be accompanied “by an expression of opinion of the Government of India that he ought not in future to be placed in a position in which he would be called on to exercise similar control and superintendence;” – in other words, that he ought to be excluded in future from a position of political responsibility. This is a severe censure, and my endeavour will be to show that it is undeserved.

First of all, I will give a short account of the facts as they actually occurred; and I will take them from the official memorandum printed, if not published, by the Government of India. From this it appears that on the 11th and 12th of January last a body of Kookas, amounting to about 100 men, attacked the town of Malehr Kotla, but after a “well-contested fight,” in which eight of them were killed, they were forced to retire.

The gang retreated to a village in the Patiala territory, called Rurr, about 12 miles from Malehr Kotla, where they took up their position in a jungle, and the inhabitants of the village “abandoned it in a panic.” Niar Ali, the Naib Nazim of Amargarh, who was in the Patiala fort of Sherpur, was then applied to for assistance, and he proceeded with three sowars and a writer to Rurr. He summoned the Kookas to surrender, and says in his deposition, “I told them it was no use to resist; that though they might overpower me, the Maharajah would not leave a man alive.” The Kookas surrendered, and the Naib Nazim collected a number of men and escorted them to Sherpur.

Mr. Cowan telegraphed on the 15th both to Jalander and to the Lieutenant-Governor for troops, and applied for assistance to three native chiefs. “Seven men were brought before him, but he considered the case against the four men only who had been taken prisoners to be conclusive.”

These seven men had been captured at Malodh, and on the 16th Mr. Cowan telegraphed to tho Punjab Government for leave to execute the four men “regarding whose guilt, after his investigation, he entertained no doubt.”

So far I have followed the official “memorandum,” but in the rest of my letter I shall avail myself not only of it but of information communicated by my brother partly in his narrative of the 8th of April addressed to the Punjab Government and partly in letters to myself.

The news of the outbreak reached Mr. Forsyth at Delhi on the 15th, and he started for Loodiana by the train which left before daybreak on the 16th, arriving at Loodiana that evening. While there he received three very important letters from Mr. Cowan. In the first, dated Camp Kotla, January 16, 7.30p.m., Mr. Cowan said:-

“I have the hounor to report that tranquility has been completely restored, and that there is no necessity for you to come to Kotla. The gang of rebels – for no other name will adequately characterize them – never numbered more than 125. Of these there were at Malodh two killed, four captured; at Kotla eight killed, 31 wounded; of these wounded, 25 or 26 escaped at the time; but 68, including 27 wounded, have been captured in the Patiala State at Rurr, a village 12 miles from this. The entire gang has thus been nearly destroyed. I purpose (propose) blowing away from guns or hanging the prisoners tomorrow morning at daybreak. Their offense is not an ordinary one. They have not committed mere murder and dacoity; they are open rebels offering contumacious resistance to constituted authority, and to prevent the spreading of the disease it is absolutely necessary that repressive measures should be prompt and stern. I am sensible of the great responsibility I incur; but I am satisfied that I act for the best, and that this incipient insurrection must be stamped out at once.”

In the second, dated the 17th, Mr. Cowan said:-
“When first I heard of the attack in Kotla, the situation appeared to me to be a very grave one, and I telegraphed that troops might be sent… It looked like the commencement of an insurrection, and I trust that I shall not be thought to have caused unnecessary alarm by my first report… I propose to execute at once all who were engaged in the attacks on Malodh and Kotla. I am sensible of the great responsibility which I incur in exercising a power which is not vested in me, but the case is an exceptional one. These men are not ordinary criminals. They are rebels having for their immediate object the acquisition of plunder, and ulteriorly the subversion of order. It is certain that had their first attempts been crowned with success, had they succeeded in arming themselves and providing themselves with horses and treasure, they would have been joined by all the abandoned characters in the country, and their extinction would not be effected without much trouble. By the timely preparation at Kotla, their efforts were defeated, and by the active exertions of the Patiala officials this miserable attempt at rebellion has been stamped out, but others of their stamp must be deterred from following so bad an example, and that the warning should be effectual. It must be prompt and terrible. I have every confidence, then, that the Government of the Punjab will approve the immediate execution of those prisoners who have been taken red-handed.”

In the third letter Mr. Cowan said:-
“The conduct of the prisoners was defiant and unruly; they poured forth the most abusive language towards the Government and the chiefs of the Native States. All of them admitted that they were present at the attacks on Malodh and Kotla, and gloried in the act. They said they had attacked Malodh for the purpose of procuring arms, and Kotla because their religion required them to slay the killer of cows. The two women were residents of Patiala State, and I made them over to the officer commanding the troops for conveyance to Patiala; 49 of the rebels were blown away from the guns this afternoon on the parade ground of the Kotla Chief, in the presence of the troops of the Patala, Nabha, Jhind, and Kotla States. It was my intention to have had 50 men blown away, and to have sent the remaining 16 rebels to Malodh, to be executed there tomorrow, but one man escaped from the guards, and made a furious attack upon me, seizing me by the beard, and endeavouring to strangle me; and, as he was a very powerful man, I had considerable difficulty in releasing myself. He then made a savage attack on some officers of the native States who were standing near me. These officers drew their swords and cut him down… A rebellion which might have attained large dimensions was nipped in the bud, and a terrible and prompt punishment was, in my opinion, absolutely necessary to prevent the recurrence of a similar rising. I most sincerely trust that you will after this explanation approve what I have done. I am placed in a most difficult position here with reference to the 16 rebels who have remained unpunished. It was, as I have stated, my intention to have sent them for execution to Malodh tomorrow, and I earnestly beg that you will sanction my carrying out (my) sentence at once. I believe that these executions have had and will have a most happy effect on the people of these parts; their shouts and remarks wherever I go show this.”

Mr. Cowan’s telegram of the 16th was seen by Mr. Forsyth at Loodiana early in the morning of the 11th, and he immediately telegraphed to the Secretary of the Punjab Government at Delhi as follows:-

“Referring to Cowan’s telegram asking permission to execute at once four men. Since then we have got 70 men. I am at the spot, and can dispose of the cases according to form and without delay. Exceptional action not necessary, and would increase excitement better allayed.”

Mr. Forsyth received no answer from the Lieutenant-Governor until after midnight, and it was in the following words, dated January 17, 1872:-

“With reference to your telegram regarding execution of rebels Lieutenant-Governor concurs with you. He, however, approves Cowan’s energy and zeal.”

In the meantime my brother, not having heard from the Lieutenant-Governor, had sent off to Mr. Cowan on the night of the 16th a letter, to the effect that he was to keep the captured Kookas in the Fort of Sherpur until my brother could send a Ghoorka guard to bring them to Loodiana for trial. And again at noon on the 17th my brother despatched another letter to Mr. Cowan, in which he said:-

“I request that you will at once prepare the case against such as appear to you to be deserving of capital Punishment, and I shall then give immediate orders. But in reference to your expressed desire for promptitude, the case is not sufficiently urgent to justify the abandonment of the very simple form of procedure which we have at hand. I purpose proceeding to Malehr Khotla very shortly.” And in another letter, non-official, despatched on the same day, he said:-

“You have acted admirably; but, for heaven’s sake, don’t let the whole thing fall short of perfect success by any hasty act. By dealing with the men now caught as culprits in the Kotla territory they can be hanged legally without the delay of sending the case to the Chief Court by attending to the form usual in all such cases -i.e., sending up the proceedings to me, and, to save time and trouble, I am going out to Kotla as soon as I have disposed of Ram Singh.”

Notwithstanding these letters, which arrived before the prisoners were executed, we know that they were executed. It is not necessary for me to express any opinion whether that act was justifiable or not, for my brother’s defence rests upon grounds which are independent of it.

On the 18th my brother heard of the executions, and he wrote the following short letter to Mr. Cowan:-

“My dear Cowan, – I fully approve and confirm all you have done. You have acted admirably. I am coming out.”

And on the same day he proceeded to Kotla, where 16 other prisoners had been formally tried and found guilty of “an act of open rebellion,” and the question was what punishment they deserved. I now quote from the official memorandum:-

“Mr. Forsyth appears at once to have perused the record and to have appended his remarks to each deposition and statement, and finally, after summing up the evidence on which the case rested, recorded judgment in the following terms:- ‘It is impossible to discriminate now between those who actually struck the blow which caused the death of these men, nor at this moment would it be wise to display leniency towards a gang every one of whom is, according to law, liable to the same punishment. The intentions of the gang are clearly indicated by their leader, Ram Singh. Vide the statement made to me at Loodiana on the 18th. As regards the prisoners, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 10, 12, 13, 15, and 16, their statements are ample confessions of their being actually inside Kotla. No. 8 and 9 admit being at Kotla; Nos. 6, 11, and 14 admit being with the gang when caught, and their admissions coupled with the statements of 3 and 4 leave no doubt in my mind that they were of the gang, and are, therefore, equally liable to punishment. I concur with the committing officer, and confirm the sentence of death against all, to be carried into immediate execution.”

Now, there are two questions to be considered. First, did Mr. Forsyth do wrong in approving, by his letter of the 18th, the proceedings of Mr. Cowan, so far as he was acquainted with them? And, secondly, did he do wrong in executing the 16 men after trial and conviction on the 18th? And, further, supposing he was mistaken in the course he pursued, was the error such as to deserve a sentence of condemnation by which it has been declared that “he ought not in future to be placed in a position in which he would be called upon to exercise similar control and superintendence?” In other words, ought he to be placed for ever under the ban of exclusion from any post involving political responsibility?

As to the first question, it is essential to remember what was the information under which Mr. Forsyth acted. He had then received the three letters from Mr. Cowan already quoted. In the first Mr. Cowan had said, “Their offence is not an ordinary one. They have not committed mere murder and dacoity; they are open rebels offering contumacious resistance to constituted authority; and to prevent the spreading of the disease it is absolutely necessary that repressive measures should be prompt and stern.” In the second, “These men are not ordinary criminals. They are rebels, having for their immediate object the acquisition of plunder, and ulteriorly the subversion of order,” and he added that they had been taken “red-handed.” In the third he stated that “all the prisoners admitted that they were present at the attacks on Malodh and Kotla and gloried in the act,” and that a rebellion which might have attained large dimensions was nipped in the bud, “and a terrible and prompt punishment was absolutely necessary.”

Now I ask whether, if these statements were true, or even if they were not true, and yet Mr. Forsyth had no Cause whatever to doubt their exact truth, it was unnatural or unreasonable for him on the spur of the moment to write to Mr. Cowan and say, as he did in his letter of the 18th, “I fully approve and confirm all you have done. You have acted admirably. I am coming out.” He had been assured by his subordinate officer who was on the spot that the men executed were “open rebels, offering contumacious resistance to constituted authority,” and “these men are not ordinary criminals. They are rebels having for their immediate object the acquisition of plunder, and ulteriorly, the subversion of order.”

Mr. Forsyth’s letters already quoted show how anxious he was that Mr. Cowan should act according to law, unless it was a case of the suprema lex salutis, which supersedes all ordinary law. But the case was surely different after the executions were a fait accompli, and Mr. Forsyth had every reason to believe the reiterated assurances of Mr. Cowan that they had been dictated by stern necessity. Your “Own Correspondent” says:-

“The position of Mr. Forsyth presents this difference – that I believe he did not grasp the real meaning of affairs. He listened to representations, and believed on hearsay what he ought to have verified. The result was that he sanctioned what I am positive he never would have ordered at the outset, if he either had been in Mr. Cowan’s place or had been acting under similar circumstances in his own place as Commissioner.”

It is easy to be wise after the event, and condemn on cool consideration conduct which at first seemed to merit approval. It is one thing to sit in an official arm-chair when all danger is over, and on a review of all the circumstances to come to the conclusion that the peril was exaggerated; it is another thing to have to deal on the spot with an armed outbreak, and to feel that unless prompt and severe measures had been taken the province might have been in a flame. In the despatch of the Government of India, it is alleged that the Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab, Mr. Davies, “from the first embraced and expressed the opinion that the conduct of Mr. Cowan was unjustifiable in regard to the precipitation, illegality, and indiscriminate rigour of his proceedings.” The Lieutenant-Governor sent to my brother the following telegram dated the 17th of January, 1872:-

“With reference to your telegram regarding execution of rebels, Lieutenant-Governor concurs with you. He, however, approves Mr. Cowan’s energy and zeal.” And I may add what your “Own Correspondent” says in the same letter already referred to:-

“The course of the Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab is the subject of much conversation. The Government has held him to be not merely guiltless of any participation in the executions, but to have strongly disapproved them. On the other hand, it is remembered that some little time ago he made an extraordinary speech to some native chiefs who presented to him an address against the Kookas.”

The second question is with respect to the execution of the 16 men after trial and conviction. The Governor in Council admits in his despatch that “Mr. Forsyth’s proceedings were no doubt legal,” but he adds that “that fact alone ought not to protect him from censure if his proceedings showed a want of that merciful discrimination which ought in all cases to be characteristic of the British administration of justice.” Now, what is Mr. Forsyth’s explanation of this? He says in his letter of the 8th of April:-

“When the case was submitted for my orders I had to consider it in its judicial aspect, as well as from a political point of view. Now, taking the judicial view of the case as it stood by itself, quite apart from all other considerations, 16 men belonging to a gang who had committed a double series of murders were pronounced to be guilty of the charge preferred against them. The sentence for their crime was death; and had the case been tried in the courts governed by our codes it would have been incumbent on me to show very good cause why that sentence should be mitigated. Had the case, then, been a solitary one, there would have been no more ground for hesitating to confirm a sentence of death passed on 16 men than there would have been last year for the Chief Court to hesitate to pass sentence on 12 men for the murder of the butchers. I had, however, to consider all the surrounding circumstances, and the first one which would naturally influence me was the fact that so many men had already suffered for the same offence. But there were counterbalancing arguments, which I now propose to reproduce. One consideration was that, if the case admitted of it, Mr. Cowan ought to be supported. However much I might have deprecated his proposed action, and inwardly deplored it when as yet not taken, still when once done I felt myself placed in an entirely different, and, it will be readily conceded, in a most difficult position. To hastily disavow his proceedings and to cancel his acts at such a moment I considered would be most unwise.”

So that if Mr. Forsyth’s letter stopped here it would seem that he was influenced by two reasons – first, that the men belonged to a gang of murderers, and had been found guilty after trial; and, secondly, he thought that if he remitted the capital punishment he would be discrediting Mr. Cowan. But there was a third and very cogent reason, which is only glanced at in the despatch, but which I will give in my brother’s words, as contained in his letter of the 8th of April:-

“As I entered the town of Kotla I was met by the Nazim and Tehseeldar, who form the Council of Regency during the vacancy caused by the death of the late Nawab, and till the appointment of a successor. They earnestly described the dangers of their position, making, perhaps, more of the case than was correct, in order to exalt their own services. But in one respect they were genuinely earnest. They were in a decided dread of a second attack, and spoke of other Kookas coming sooner or later, to renew murders. That they had imbibed a fear lest I should show too much leniency was apparent from the earnest manner in which they begged that the men whose complicity in the attack they, in conjunction with Mr. Cowan, had pronounced to be proved should not be let off with a less severe punishment than the law warranted. I felt myself bound to give due weight to this consideration. I may here mention that when I went over the next day to Malodh to try the men charged with the murderous attack on Sirdar Mith Singh’s house, and before I began to take up the case, the Sirdar took me aside, and in a solemn manner assured me that unless I passed sentence of death on the prisoners, when found guilty, his life and the lives of the people with him wou1d not be safe.”

Let these considerations be carefully weighed before the censure passed upon my brother is endorsed by public opinion.

But I have a complaint to make, in which I feel sure that I shall have on my side all those who desire that justice shall be done. My brother has never been applied to by the Government of India for any defence of his conduct. They have condemned him without even asking what he had to say on his behalf. He wrote, indeed, a letter on the 8th of April, addressed to the Secretary to the Government of the Punjab, in which he gave a full statement of the facts so far as he then knew them. But I believe he never received any further communication from the Government until the decision of the Governor-General in Council, so seriously affecting him, was published. I should have thought that common justice required that before that decision was arrived at, my brother should have been formally called upon to justify himself, and his attention should have been specially directed to those points which, in the opinion of the Governor-General in Council, seemed to require a satisfactory defence. It is one thing for a man to write a narrative wholly in the dark as to the intention of the authorities to found thereon an accusation, but a very different thing to go fully into the case when he knows that his conduct is impugned and charges have been specially made.

I am most unwilling to parade my brother’s service, but when a sentence is passed which is tantamount to a declaration that he is unfit for a political post, I will not be deterred by any false delicacy from stating facts. In 1869 he was sent by Lord Clarendon on a mission to Russia, and the nature of that mission shall be described in the late Lord Mayo’s own words:-

“Any one that contributes, in the least degree, to bring about a thorough entente cordiale on Asian questions between Russia and England will perform a service to humanity, to the interests of civilization, and the welfare of the subjects of both Governments.”

How far he succeeded in effecting the objects here set forth will appear from the following letter from the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs to the Under-Secretary of State, India Office:-

“November 30, 1869

Sir, – I am directed by the Earl of Clarendon to inform you that understanding that Mr. Forsyth is about to return to India, his Lordship considers it an act of justice to that gentleman to place on record the high sense he entertains of the ability and judgment displayed by him in the mission which, at the suggestion of the Earl of Clarendon and with the sanction of the Duke of Argyll, Mr. Forsyth undertook to visit St. Petersburg.

“The communications held by Mr. Forsyth with the Russian Ministers will be found in the despatches from Sir A. Buchanan, already transmitted to the India Office, and his Excellency on November 5 reported, ‘that Mr. Forsyth had the honour yesterday of an audience of the Emperor, at which the language held to him by his Majesty may be fairly considered a ratification of the confidential assurances and explanations offered to him by his Majesty’s Ministers.’

“The political and commercial knowledge as well as the local experience that Mr. Forsyth brought to bear on the question of Central Asia, under discussion between the Russian and British Governments, appear to have made considerable impression upon the Minister of the Emperor, and may have important results, and, in the opinion of the Earl of Clarendon, Mr. Forsyth’s proceedings merit the entire approval of the Indian Government.


In April 1870, my brother received a letter from the Foreign Secretary at Calcutta, asking him to undertake the office of Envoy to the Court of Atalik at Yarkund, in Central Asia. He accepted the office, which was changed from that of Envoy to one of a less political character, and he proceeded to Yarkund. The narrative of the expedition as written by my brother has been printed and laid before the House of Commons. I need not, therefore, say a word about it, further than to mention that in a letter from the Secretary to the Government of India to the Government of the Punjab, dated 6th of January, 1871, he said that his Excellency in Council “has no reason to be dissatisfied with the measure of success which attended Mr. Forsyth’s journey, and he desires that the cordial thanks of Government be communicated to the officer and to those whose services he has brought to notice in his report for their courage and perseverance under difficulties of no ordinary kind, and for the good judgment displayed under trying circumstances.”

Your obedient servant,
Temple, June 8, 1872


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