By Shamsul Islam
May 12, 2020
Let not communal forces undo the great heritage of joint sacrifices
Large sections of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs unitedly challenged the greatest imperialist power, Britain, during India’s First War of Independence which began on May 10, 1857; the day being Sunday. This extraordinary unity, naturally, unnerved the Firangees and made them realize that if their rule was to continue in India, it could happen only when Hindus and Muslims, the largest two religious communities were divided on communal lines. Urgent steps were taken to create enmity between these two. This was the reason, that immediately after crushing militarily this liberation war the then minister of Indian Affairs Lord Wood, sitting in London confessed: “we have maintained our power in India by playing off one part against the other and we must continue to do so. Do all we can, therefore, to prevent all having a common feeling.”
In order to put this strategy in operation, the White rulers in league with their Indian stooges came out with the two-nation theory implying that Hindus and Muslims belonged to two separate nations. The birth of the two-nation theory was no accident, in fact, it was specifically created to help the British rulers in creating communal divide and fragmentize the Indian society on the basis of religions as unity of Hindus and Muslims could prove to be the death knell of their rule.
One truth, never to be missed, about this Struggle is that it was jointly led by leaders like Nana Sahib, Bahadur Shah Zafar, Maulvi Ahmed Shah, Tantya Tope, Khan Bahadur Khan, Rani Laxmibai, Hazrat Mahal, Azimullah Khan and Ferozshah, a galaxy of revolutionaries who belonged to different religions. It was a liberation struggle in which Maulvis, Pandits, granthis, zamindars, peasants, traders, lawyers, servants, women, students and people from different castes, creeds and regions rose in revolt against the dehumanized rule of the East India Company and laid their lives.
On the eve of 163rd anniversary of War of Independence we need to tell the present flag bearers of Hindu-Muslim brands of communal politics that the revolutionary army which declared the Mughal King Bahadur Shah Zafar, a Muslim, India’s Independent ruler on 11th May 1857 comprised of more than seventy percent Hindu soldiers, all armed. These were Nana Sahib, Tantya Tope and Laxmibai, all Hindus, played vital role in making Zafar, Badshah; the King once again.
The contemporary documents of the period which are available even today are replete with instances, not confined to one particular area, in which Hindus and Muslims could be seen making supreme sacrifices unitedly. The War of Independence categorically presented one fundamental truth that Hindu-Muslim separatism or hatred between these two communities was not at all an issue.
After independence Ayodhya emerged as a place which caused rise of immense hatred between sections of Hindus and Muslims. Babri Masjid-Ram Janmbhoomi dispute played significant role in creating an environment of violence and mistrust between the two largest religious communities of India. But in 1857, it was the same Ayodhya where Maulvis and Mahants and common Hindu-Muslims stood united against the British rule and kissed the hangman’s noose together. Maulana Ameer Ali was a famous Maulvi of Ayodhya and when Ayodhya’s well-known Hanuman Garhi’s (Hanuman Temple) priest Baba Ramcharan Das took lead in organizing the armed resistance to the British rule, Maulana also joined the revolutionary army. In one battle with the British and their stooges, both of them were captured and hanged together on a tamarind tree at the KuberTeela (now in Faizabad Jail) in Ayodhya.
This region also produced two more great friends, belonging to different religions who made life hell for the British sponsored armies. Achchhan Khan and Shambhu Prasad Shukla lead the army of Raja Devibaksh Singh in the district of Faizabad. Both of them were able to defeat the Firangee army in many battles. It was due to the treachery again that they were captured. In order to desist anyone from such companionships between Hindus and Muslims both these friends were publicly inflicted prolonged torture and their heads were cruelly filed off.
It is not difficult to understand that why the same Ayodhya where blood of both Hindus and Muslims flowed for liberating the motherland in 1857 later became a permanent source of friction between the two communities. The joint heritage of Ayodhya needed to be erased if the British rule was to survive. It was meticulously done by the British rulers and their henchmen turning the heritage of communal unity at Ayodhya upside down.
Kota state (now in Rajasthan) was ruled by a Maharao subservient to the British. The leading courtier, Lala Jaidayal Bhatnagar, a great literary figure when found that Maharao was collaborating with the British he joined hands with the army chief, Mehrab Khan and established a rebel government in the state. When Kota was captured by the British forces with the help of stooge neighbouring princes, they together continued fighting in the region till 1859. Betrayed by an informer both were hanged at Kota on September 17, 1860.
Hansi town (now in Haryana) presents another heart-warming example of how Muslims and Jains fearlessly challenged the foreign rule and did not hesitate in sacrificing their lives together. In this town lived two close friends, Hukumchand Jain and Muneer Beg. They were known as literary giants and love for mathematics. The revolutionary government of Bahadurshah Zafar chose them as advisors and appointed them as commanders in the region of west of Delhi. They led many successful military campaigns in the area but due to the treachery of Native rulers of Patiala, Nabha, Kapurthala, Kashmir and Pataudi were defeated in a crucial battle and captured. The British highly perturbed by this kind of unity decided to kill them in a most sickening manner. After hanging them on the same tree in Hansi on January 19, 1858, Hukumchand Jain was buried and Muneer Beg was cremated against the custom of their respective religions. The obvious purpose was to make fun of the unity of these two revolutionaries belonging to two different religions and show hatred towards their comradeship. Another unspeakable crime committed by the British was that when 13 year old nephew of Hukamchand Jain protested to this treatment he too was hanged, although there was no sentence passed against him.
We all are familiar with Rani Laxmi Bai’s heroic resistance to the British rule and her death fighting the British forces at Gwalior. She was able to put up such a great resistance with her Muslim commanders; Ghulam Ghouse Khan (chief of artillery), Khuda Bakhsh (chief of infantry) both of whom were martyred defending Jhansi fort on June 4, 1858. Even her personal bodyguard was a young Muslim lady, Munzar who laid down her life with Rani on June 18, 1858 at Kotah-ki-Sarai battle in Gwalior.
Malwa region in the then Central Province (now Madhya Pradesh) was another war theatre where big and crucial battles were fought against the British. The joint command of Tatia Tope, Rao Saheb, Laxmi Bai, Ferozshah and Moulvi Fazal Haq, was able to mobilize a huge rebel army of 70-80 thousand fighters. This army won innumerable battles against the British. However, in a crucial battle at Ranod when due to the treachery of stooge princes the revolutionary army led by Tatia Tope, Ferozeshah and Moulvi was encircled, Moulvi Fazal Haq stood as a rock in the way of advancing British troops. He and his 480 companions laid down their lives on December 17, 1858, but were able to save the main force which included Tatia Tope, Rao Saheb and Ferozshah. Thus, saved by the supreme sacrifice by MaulviFazlHaq and his comrades, Tatia Tope continued to wage war till the beginning of 1859.
The present-day Bareilly, Shahjahanpur, Badaun and Bijnor was the area which was a strong hold of revolutionaries from the very beginning. Immediately after the announcement of an independent Indian government at Delhi on May 11, 1857, Khan Bahadur Khan was appointed as the viceroy of Mughal emperor there. Khan soon after assuming charge appointed a committee of eight members consisting both Hindus and Muslims to conduct the affairs of the state, his deputy being Khushi Ram. This government forbade cow-slaughter in deference to the sentiments of local Hindus. Khan and Khushi Ram led troops defeated the British and their stooges in many battles but were defeated in a crucial battle at Bareilly. Both of them were hanged with hundreds of their followers outside old Kotwali on March 20, 1860.
The revolutionary army was led by a joint command consisting of Mohammed Bakht Khan, Singhari Lal, Ghaus Mohammad and Hira Singh. The contemporary British documents show that despite all their attempts to create communal divide in the ranks of revolutionary army and residents of Delhi, the Indians stood as one. In order not to let the British spies succeed in creating communal conflict amongst Delhites, General Bakht Khan, C-in-C of the revolutionary army prohibited cow slaughter. What kind of communal amity existed in Delhi under siege can be further known by the fact that when a huge canon of Shahjahan’s times which was lying unused was taken out, repaired and made useable, before firing the first canon, in the presence of Bahadur Shah Zafar and other army officials, Hindu priests performed Aarti, garlanded it and blessed it with Vedic hymns.
William Russell, a war correspondent was sent by The Times, London to cover the ‘Mutiny.’ In one of his reports dated, March 2, 1858, while underlining the unity among the ranks of rebel army he wrote:
“All the great chiefs of Oudh, Musalman and Hindu, are there, and have sworn to fight for their young king, BirjeisKuddr [sic], to the last. Their cavalry is numerous, the city is filled with people, the works are continually strengthened. All Oudh is in the hands of the enemy, and we only hold the ground we cover with our bayonets.”
Another senior British officer, Thomas Lowe admitted that “the infanticide Rajput, the bigoted Brahmin, the fanatic Musalman, and the luxury loving, fat-paunched ambitious Maharattah [sic], they all joined together in the cause; the cow-killer and the cow-worshipper, the pig-hater and the pig-eater, the crier of Allah is God and Mohommed [sic] his prophet and the mumbler of the mysteries of Brahma.”
Throughout the War of Independence every hook and corner of the country was replete with such instances of fearless fighters, supreme sacrifices and strong bond of unity amongst people belonging to different religions. Such glorious instances of unbreakable Hindu-Muslim unity did really happen 162 years back. It can be verified even today by a simple perusal of the contemporary British archives, personal collections, diaries and narrations. Given these realities of history, it is not difficult to understand why a divide between Hindus and Muslims was necessitated, who were instrumental in accomplishing it and who benefited out of this divide. The survival of the British Empire in India depended on the successful execution of this strategy of divide and rule. The flag-bearers of the politics of two-nations in the past and communal politics today are the ones who helped the British to execute this evil design. We should never ignore the fact that communalism was a ploy of the British who feared the end of their Empire in India if Hindus and Muslims continually stood united. On the eve of 163rd anniversary of the great rebellion, we must rise to take pledge of never betraying the shared heritage and shared martyrdoms of the First Indian War of Independence.
Shamsul Islam is a retired Professor of University of Delhi.
Original Headline: Commemorating the 163rd anniversary of 1857 War of Independence
Source: The Contercurrent