A history of identity: remembering forgotten heroes of 1857

Community stereotypes are created and maintained by suppressing multifaceted narratives of nationalist struggle


Faizi Hashmi | March 9, 2020 | New Delhi

#freedom struggle   #Muslims   #secularism   #history   #identity   #Nationalism  
Maulvi Md. Ali Baqar was executed by the British in the first recorded ultimate persecution of a journalist in India. He is believed to have been blown off by canon – as later represented in a famous painting of Russian artist, Vasily Vereshchagin in 1878. (Image courtesy: Creative Commons)
Maulvi Md. Ali Baqar was executed by the British in the first recorded ultimate persecution of a journalist in India. He is believed to have been blown off by canon – as later represented in a famous painting of Russian artist, Vasily Vereshchagin in 1878. (Image courtesy: Creative Commons)

The column may begin by recalling quotations from two illustrious sons of pre-Independence India who were under no obligation to make any ‘appeasing’ comment.

Noted Urdu critic, Dr. Abdur Rahman Bijnauri, made the following opening remarks, exactly a hundred years ago in 1920, in his book on Ghalib’s poetry: “India has two revealed books – Ved Muqaddas and Diwan e Ghalib.” What an amazing message was this and how beautifully conveyed! Bijnauri not only called the Vedas pious but also a revealed one! Allama Iqbal (died 1938), philosopher poet, composed a poem on Shri Rama with the title, Imam e Hind. To quote, “Hai Ram ke wajood pe Hindustan ko naaz/ kahte hain ahl e nazar, usko Imam e Hind”! What beautiful tribute to a venerated deity of India by a par excellence Islamic scholar who had no compulsion to be politically correct. Dr. Mohd. Iqbal also composed, ‘Hindustani Bacchon ka Geet’, “Chishti ne jis zameen me paigham e haq sunaya/ Nanak ne jis chaman me wahdat ka geet gaya/…Jannat ki zindagi hai jiski fiza me jina, mera watan wahi hai, mera watan wahi hai…” There is a Hindi film song that goes as, “…tumhara pyar chahiye/ din raat wafa ka iqrar chahiye…” Hence the need for above citations! A contextual reliance is put here on these two quotes as we are looking for perspective.

Now the question is, whether we want to analyse complaints of lack of involvement and syncretism by ‘them’, or indeed, why ‘they’ came here in the first instant eight hundred years ago. Answer to the latter part, which is veritably camouflaged, would be complex and thorny as it would expose many raw wounds, not excluding who came first and from where etc. Now, as for the former part, we may have a quick wrap of some gems from 19th century history including the 1857 – Kranti.

Though unofficial consensus supremely eludes Gandhi, there is both official and unofficial consensus around Rani Laxmibai, Kunwar Singh, Nana Saheb, Tantia Tope, Mangal Pandey etc as venerated brave fighters and leaders of the first war of Indian Independence. We come across statues of these warriors in different places where they are acclaimed as national heroes who made extreme sacrifices for the sake of the motherland. Indeed they were! But as the country moved on, something went missing. While remembering these ‘icons of nationalism’, we chose to forget the names of ‘others’ – the list is fairly long as I found from the Archives – who fought, were incarcerated or killed for revolting against the British. And that needs a contextual correlation. Listed below are some, only a fraction of Muslim freedom fighters of 19th century.

Nawab Ali Bhadur of Banda was Rakhi brother to Rani Laxmibai. He supported her with forces in her fight against the British, and is known to have performed her cremation and last rites.

Azimullah Khan’s (Kanpur) unheard story is very fascinating. He was the Dewan of Nana Sahib and an ally of Tantia Tope, knew English and French languages and was considered a good strategist. Nana Sahib dispatched him to London in 1853 to plead for restoration of his pension (of Rs. 8 lakh) given to his predecessor, Baji Rao II, but denied to him for not being a natural successor. During his stay in London with a family of Civil Servant, Azimullah had a chance to meet John Stuart Mill, Charles Dickens, Carlyle, and Tennyson among others. He returned to India via Constantinople, picking up some revolutionary ideas from there to guide Nana Sahib. He even coined the slogan, ‘hum hain iske malik, ye hindustan humara’. Having lost the fight during the tumult of 1857 he escaped to Nepal and reportedly died there of illness.

Ahmadullah Shah was another valiant warrior of the period and an ally of Begum Hazrat Mahal who established himself in Faizabad, gave a long valiant fight to the British. His valour and strategy were commended even by his British adversary, though he was treacherously killed by Raja Jagannath Singh of Powayn for a hefty reward from the British.

Khan Bhadur Khan was another capable Mughal noble and a fearless warrior who took over Burreily and resisted the British for a long time. He eventually lost, was caught by the British and hanged on 24 February 1860.

Liaqat Ali, the real hero of Allahabad (Chail, Prayagraj), fought heroically against the British in 1857, escaped from Allahabad on its fall, was captured in 1871 at Byculla station and transported for life to Port Blair where he died in 1892 after 21 years of abusive captivity, without seeking forgiveness from the British Crown.

Maulvi Md. Ali Baqar’s story is most remarkable. He was the owner and editor of Dehli Urdu Akhbar (monthly subscription, Rs.2, facsimile of some issues available in Archives). He knew many languages including English and taught Persian at Delhi College. He ardently reported the siege of Delhi during the conflict and rejoiced the success of the sepoys in his Akhbar, and therefore invited the wrath of the British. He was executed by the British which should be noted as the first recorded ultimate persecution of a journalist in India. He is believed to have been blown off by canon – as later represented in a famous painting of Russian artist, Vasily Vereshchagin in 1878. Baqar’s ten year old son Mohd. Hussain Azad survived the reprisal and went on to become a litterateur and is acclaimed for his seminal Urdu book, Aab e Hayat.

Imam Bakhsh Sahbai, a poet and a fighter, was shot along with his two sons.

Nawab Mustafa Khan Shefta, a poet and a fighter, was sentenced to transportation to Andamans – both Sahbai and Shefta were close friends of Mirza Ghalib who mourned their loss in his famous letters and the killings and sufferings of several of his comrades.

Muneer Shikohabadi, poet and a fighter, was sentenced to transportation but was lucky to be released in 1869. There were countless others.

Molana Jafar Thanesari was a renowned Islamic scholar who was sentenced to death, later commuted to transportation for life – he survived severe torture inflicted upon him by DIG, Maj. Takfell for not disclosing names of his associates but did not seek forgiveness from the British Crown. He got out after completing twenty years of violent incarceration in Cellular Jail but in a very poor health and died soon thereafter, though not before completing his book, Kaala Paani: Tawarikh e Ajeeb.

Fazl e Haque Khairabadi, maternal grandfather of Muztar Khairabadi (father of Jan Nisar Akhtar and grandfather of Javed Akhtar), was given life transportation to Andaman Islands where he died in 1861.

Hakim Abdul Haque, Nawab Ahmad Mirza, Nawab Moosa Khan, all friends of Bahadur Shah Zafar who supported the sepoys with money and provisions were given life transportation to Andamans.

Mahmood Khan, Nawab of Najeebabad, died along with his compatriots Bala Rao and Ahir Dutt Singh while awaiting transportation to Andamans.

The Nawabs of Jhajjar, Ballabhgarh, Farrukhnagar were summarily executed and several other princes were met the same fate for participation in the Kranti.

Coming to the rallying point of the Kranti, Bahadur Shah Zafar (D. 1962, Rangoon), the last Mughal ruler, was essentially a poet by training and a Sufi by nature. Despite initial dithering and hesitations Zafar rose to the occasion and accepted the leadership thrust upon him by the Hindustani sepoys. The historical fact of ‘baghi sepoys’ finding nobody more important than the aging Badshah in Dilli as their natural leader is pregnant with meaning and should be an apt recognition of the unwritten and inexplicable socio-political sanction that came to be associated with the Mughal rulers by their Hindu subjects. The Committee of ten members that was formed at the Mughal Court to oversee the administration during the period of revolt included five Hindus, Gen. Gowri Shankar, Subedar Maj. Bhadur Jiwa Ram, Shiv Ram Misr, Het Ram and Beni Ram. The King was ably assisted by Bakht Khan and Prince Mirza Mughal but they lost Delhi in less than four months. Zafar was exiled to Rangoon along with his wife Zeenat Mahal. Bakht Khan died in action while the Crown Prince, Mirza Mughal along with three other princes were shot in cold blood by Major Hodson who violently repressed the populace after Delhi’s fall – we have an area named after him just behind the University of Delhi, so has another British Army officer as Outram Lines, an avenger of the Lucknow siege. No correction of history again!

Begum Hazrat Mahal, wife of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Awadh, and mother of Birjes Qadr along with Raja Jai Lal as her Commander valiantly fought the British. A major casualty on the British side was Henry Lawrence, the British Resident in Lucknow. The other was the death of Major Hodson during the siege of Lucknow, which many thought to be a divine retribution for his killing of the Mughal princes and shoddy treatment of the King of Delhi. Begum’s energetic revolt to reestablish her rights against the British is legion, was at par with that of Rani Laxmibai and Nana Sahib. Her chivalry was praised by the British officers in glowing terms and later despite all offers of pension etc she refused to surrender till the end, escaped to Nepal, lies buried in the compound of Jama Masjid, Kathmandu.

These are just to name a few as the names run in hundreds – the number of Muslim freedom fighters as recorded in the Cellular Jail, Port Blair is much higher in proportion to its population – not to mention a large number of those whose properties were confiscated and publicly auctioned by the British, again mostly Muslims, rendering their families destitute and left begging on the city streets.

None of the above named persons are celebrated as freedom fighters in their own country on the analogy of Rani Laxmibai, Nana Saheb, Tantia Tope, and Kunwar Singh. They remain totally unsung till this day. Similar roles, same objectives, same fate but different reception! Not even Azimullah Khan who was the most trusted lieutenant of Nana Saheb or Ali Bahadur who fought with Laxmibai! What would be the differentiator, religion?

Consider the period from 1707 to 1857, a period of 150 years. The Mughal Rule continued in Delhi after Aurangzeb despite the threatening presence of several competing forces all around like the Jats, Marathas, Rajputs, Rohillas, Sikhs and not the least, the East India Company. In between would follow violent upheavals, the invasion of Nadir Shah (1739), the Battle of Plassey (1757), the Battle of Panipat (1761), invasions of Ahmad Shah (1760s), the Battle of Buxar (1764), the Battle of Srirengapatna (1799), the Anglo-Maratha Wars (1775-1818), the First Anglo Afghan War (1839-1842), the First Anglo-Sikh War (1845-1846) etc. However, the miraculous thing to note is that the throne at Delhi continued to be occupied by a lackluster scion of the Mughal dynasty throughout this tumult. He continued to be recognized as the King of Hindustan by the East India Company, which found it pragmatic to rule in the name of the King. The proclamation in the streets of Delhi used to be, Khalq Khuda ki, Mulk Badshah ka, Hukum Company Bahadur ka”! So it must be recognized that the dynasty had come to occupy a kind of social and political sanction in the consciousness of the elite and the masses alike.

There is no explanation for this brand of continuity otherwise. The powerless King was still looked upon as someone who could be relied upon in hours of need, the mai-baap who commanded respect. What more proof was required for this than the march of the Indian sepoys to the aged Mughal Emperor beseeching him to lead them against the Company’s forces?

Zafar was looked upon by his people as a pir, a pious person who had no much interest in the affairs of the world. The catholicity of the King, his love for his subjects, the active participation of the royalty in Hindu festivals under him is well documented. It may not be out of place to quote Zafar’s couplet on Holi, “kyun mukh per mari rang ki pichkari/ dekho kunwar ji mai dungi gari”. Celebration of Holi, Diwali, Ram Lila and Dussehra was commonplace in or around Lal Quila during this period. Even earlier, Mir Taqi Mir (1710-1823) composed, “Aao saqi bahar phir ayee/ Holi me kitni shadiyan layee”, and Nazeer Akabarabadi, (1740-1830) “Aa dhamke aish o tarab kya kya, jub husn dikhaya holi ne/ har aan khushi ki dhuum hui, yuun lutf jataya holi ne”. These poetics steeped in the culture and soil of Hindustan, and on Indian nationalism are far too many to be accommodated here. Unfortunately the newer generations are not aware about these. Since most poets and composers happened to be Muslim, castigation, disdain and disregard are heaped on the great grandchildren of these Indianised contributors.

Contrast that with what George William Forrest, British historian of ‘Indian Mutiny’, observed, “Among the many lessons the Indian mutiny conveys to the historian, none is of greater importance than the warning that it is possible to have a revolution in which Brahmins and Sudras, Hindus and Mahomedans, could be united against us…”

Neither history nor the understanding of history moves in a linear direction. But a carefully cultivated version is what is doled out to students in schools as lessons of history, the idea being to create a uniform mind based entirely on identity through a process of constant conditioning which is then exposed to a set of manufactured villains, inviting censure, denunciation and social ostracism.

However, the point that is gloated over is that none of the historical ‘wrongs’ can be avenged in modern times, or retribution or restitution sought on that plea. That is also because we now have laws all over the civilised and democratic world, which prohibit any retrograde activities aspiring to undo ‘historic wrongs’. This need came into sharp focus after the devastations of Second World War unleashed by Nazism, Fascism and Japanese Militarism. The modern sensibility that has grown since then, endorsed by Humanitarian Laws and State Laws is repulsed by racism, discrimination and prejudicial treatment of the minorities and the marginalized. Seeking revenge for the wrongs or retribution on present ‘accused cohort’ against the generations gone by would therefore neither be practical nor acceptable in modern democratic polity, despite the rhetorical divisive pronouncements. To quote Libba Bray, “retribution is a dog chasing its tail”.

Therefore, pushing a section of the citizens, who partnered a shared and collective consciousness with the rest, to the position of what George Orwell called as ‘unpeople’ would truly be a historic wrong. Let us honestly abide by the Constitution in letter and spirit. Posterity will judge the present breed of political leaders based on what they do today. It is also an existential issue for this great nation.

Read the previous column in this series:

Let us recall the makers of a nation

Faizi O. Hashmi is a retired IAS officer.



Other News

New study tracks heat wave; exposes dangerous trends in big cities

An unprecedented heat wave has been enveloping Indian cities, worsening the urban heat island effect, this summer. A new analysis by Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) says there are far deeper and longer term evidences on the nature of this changing trend that is impacting the biggest cities of the

Phase 6: Voter turnout 59.06% at 7:45 PM

Polling in the sixth phase of General Elections 2024 which commenced across 58 PCs recorded an approximate voter turnout of 59.06% as of 7:45 pm Saturday. In spite of hot weather in certain parts of the country, voters were undeterred in their enthusiasm as they were seen queuing up patient

Banks not adhering to RBI guidelines, finds study

Banks across India are levying inconsistent service charges on basic savings accounts. A study, “Benchmarking Reasonableness of Service Charges by Banks in India”, uncovers and exposes inconsistencies in adherence to RBI mandates by banks. It finds some banks impose charges exceeding reasonable

“Mumbai Infra boom similar to that of Manhattan in 19th C”

Mumbai’s ongoing infrastructure boom – with a new coastal road, Atal Setu, metro lines and much more – creating transport corridors – is comparable to that of Manhattan in New York during 1811-1870, according to BMC commissioner Bhushan Gagrani. The iconic projects being implemented

Global Gandhi: How the Mahatma captured the world’s imagination

Gandhi’s Australia, Australia’s Gandhi By Thomas Weber Orient BlackSwan, 348 pages, Rs 1,800  

Urban apathy in Mumbai, Maharashtra sees 49% voting

Polling in the fifth phase of General Elections 2024 which commenced at 7 am on Monday simultaneously across 49 PCs recorded an approximate voter turnout of 57.47% as of 7:45 pm. Voters came out in large numbers braving hot weather in many parts of the states that went for polls on Monday.

Visionary Talk: Amitabh Gupta, Pune Police Commissioner with Kailashnath Adhikari, MD, Governance Now


Current Issue


Facebook Twitter Google Plus Linkedin Subscribe Newsletter