Muslims and 1857 War of Independence

ABUL KALAM analyses the various factors that led to 1857 war of independence, and concedes that for Muslims, it was but a continuation of the campaign by Syed Ahmad that started at the turn of the 19th century to save the Muslims from subjugation.

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ABUL KALAM analyses the various factors that led to 1857 war of independence, and concedes that for Muslims, it was but a continuation of the campaign by Syed Ahmad that started at the turn of the 19th century to save the Muslims from subjugation.

One hundred and fifty years have passed since Lord Dalhousie annexed Oudh (Awadh) in 1856. It aroused mass resentment against the British. Muslim elite realised that Delhi would be the next target as the Mughal empire was already in the throes of death. With its easy annexation by the East India Company, India would be lost as Darul-Islam. (For details see the Fatwa by Molvi Karamat Ali Jaunpuri, published by the Mohammedan Literary Society, Calcutta).

For Muslims, 1857 uprising was but a continuation of the campaign by Syed Ahmad (d.1831) that started at the turn of the 19th century to save the Muslims from subjugation.

The British called it the Sepoy Mutiny (Ghadar) – a seditious rebellion by a few discontented sepoys against the use of tallow-greased cartridges. They deliberately minimised the popular resentment that the general population in India felt against their repressive policies, and after India’s Independence in 1947, persistent attempts are underway to rewrite the history of India’s first war of independence also. The intended goal appears to remove the traces of mass struggle by the Muslims to save India from the clutches of the ever-greedy British plunderers.

Christopher Hibbert’s The Great Mutiny; India 1857 provides valuable insights into the genesis and causes of Ghadar – the massive uprising.

On page 60 (1978) Hibbert mentions how the “fakirs and maulvis” moving about the countryside, were warning the attentive crowds of the designs of the ‘Fringhis.’ They also exhorted to prepare for the looming fight for their faith. The mutineer’s slogan was: “Help, O King! We pray for assistance in our fight for the faith” (p.93). Jivanlal’s diary recorded a proclamation issued by the beat of drums that his Majesty (Bahadur Shah Zafar) would himself lead an attack on the English. “In consequence of this proclamation upwards of 10,000 Mohammedans converged near the Kashmir gate and waited till midnight for the arrival of the King.”

Neo-nationalist historians rarely mention Muslim heroes of this first war of India’s Independence except Bahadur Shah Zafar. However, they portray several insignificant players as the real heroes.

Who knows about Nawab Mahmud Khan, Ahmadullah Khan, Made Khan, Enayat Rasul, Khan Bahadur Khan, Bahadur Khan (of Rampur), Molvi Wahajuddin (of Mau), etc? Where do we get the mention of massive killing of Muslim noblemen? The detention and deportations of the Muslim activists to Kala Pani continued for decades after Ambala (1864) and Patna (1871) plots.

Bakht Khan Rohila’s contribution is largely maligned and ignored. He was the one who organised the rebellious sepoys into a fighting force that kept the freshly recruited reinforcements from the Punjab and the Gurkha Battalion from retaking Delhi for more than four months from June-September 1857.

Also are seldom mentioned thousands of prominent local Muslim chiefs and landlords around Delhi, Rohilkhand, Bundelkhand, and Oudh who lost their estates and lives on the slightest pretext of disloyalty or on suspicion of providing material support to the so-called mutineers.

The dairies, journals and personal notes written during the stormy days of 1857 and immediately after the British Raj was restored have preserved somewhat a blurred picture of the bravery, sacrifice and suffering of those who bore the brunt of British vengeance.

Sir Sayed (1817-1898) witnessed the events first hand. His writings, especially Asbaab-e Sarkashi-e HindostanTarikh-e Sarkashi-e Bijnore, and Loyal Mohammedans of India have invaluable information though as a loyal servant of the British Raj, his portrayal of the freedom fighters was that of unruly bandits revolting against magnanimous rulers.

The British had their spies and henchmen implanted in every Darbar. For example, they assigned the job of keeping Bahadur Shah Zafar – the Last Mughal emperor – from Bakht Khan Rohila to Hakim Ahsanullah Khan, his private doctor and for his ‘valuable’ services paid him a pension of two hundred rupees a month till his death. His journal, written in Persian is lost but its English translation is partially preserved. Chunni Lal was a grocer for the Red Fort. His record of the events is very interesting, and so is the journal of the Delhi Kotwal, Mubarak Shah. The dairy of Munshi Jivanlal who administered the pensions paid by the British to the Mughal kings contains passages showing how widespread unrest in Delhi was. Khwaja Moinuddin Hasan’s journal that appeared in Ahsanul Akhbar was later collected in Hadang-e Ghadar by Khwaja Ahmad Faruqi.

Charles Ball’s History of the Indian Mutiny and Christopher Hibbert’s The Great Mutiny; India 1857, though highly partisan, attest to fact that the British inflicted maximum punishment to the Muslims and ruthlessly plundered them.

Muslims Led the Independence War of 1857

The Muslims in India rebelled against the repressive colonial power of the East India Company because it had been usurping their lands under the slightest pretext and looting the poor masses through heavy taxes. The Muslims were in the forefront of the 1857 war of independence and often had to face in combat fellow Indians in the British army ranks.

The Mutiny, as the British labelled the 1857 War of Independence, started from Meerut on May 10, 1857 where 85 sepoys were court-marshalled for refusing to obey the orders. Low ranking Muslim soldiers rebelled against the insulting behaviour of their superiors, killed British officers, freed their comrades, and destroyed the Company offices. With their slogan of “March to Delhi”, they arrived at the outskirts of the Red Fort. They entered the city through the Kashmiri Gate and affirmed their allegiance to Bahadur Shah Zafar, the nominal Mughal emperor.

Bakht Khan Rohila took the command of the rebel army and kept the British garrison under siege for four months. Daily battles raged and the British had almost lost hope when Nicholson came to their rescue. What followed was the worst plunder and massive massacres in the thousand-year history of Delhi. British historians attest to the thorough destruction of Delhi in three days following its capture on September 20, 1857. One of them described Delhi as “a deserted charnel house.”

The brutal suppression of the Muslims in India continued for another decade.

Revolt Spread

The Delhi Revolt against the British rapidly spread through northern and central India.

Col. Greathed was dispatched from Delhi to rescue the British under siege in Agra fort for months. He pursued the mutineers across Doab into Oudh. By the end of November, the countryside around Delhi was cleared.

When restive elements in Lucknow got the wind of the revolt in Meerut and Delhi, they also revolted against the British Resident. Wajid Ali Shah’s son under the guardianship of Hazrat Mahal was pronounced the legitimate authority. General Outram and General Havelock were sent to rescue the besieged Lucknow garrison. However, both came under intense attack and surrounded by the insurgents led by the “Maulvi of Faizabad.” He had under his command a formidable force. However, Gen. Collin Campbell’s large army supported by fresh Gurkha reinforcement sent by Jang Bahadur, the de facto ruler of Nepal, was able to defeat the ill-equipped throng at Lucknow on March 21, 1858 though the fighting was quite savage. Alam Bagh, Dilkusha Bagh and Sikandar Bagh became red with the blood of innocent Muslim inhabitants. As in Delhi so in Lucknow victory followed the looting and indiscriminate killing: “Sepoy or Oudh villager, it mattered not – no question asked. His skin was black, and did not that suffice?”

Many British officers feared that their share of prize-money would not amount to nearly as much they had hoped for. Even so the plunder accumulated by the prize-agent in Lucknow was estimated by The Times at over six hundred thousand pounds. The amount did not include the amount of what the British soldiers took with them.

Kanpur rebelled on May 15. By June 7 the British residents decided to vacate the city. Nana Sahib had allowed the British to leave safely. Gen Havelock moved on Kanpur but Tatya Tope pushed him out on November 23 and Havelock died there. Finally, in the third battle, Campbell defeated Tope on December 6, 1857. Fatehgarh, another stronghold of the rebels, fell to Campbell on January 5, 1858.

After the fall of Lucknow, Taluqadars in Oudh continued their resistance. Walpole’s campaign in Rohilkhand ended in his defeat at Ruiya on April 15, 1858. However, Campbell was able to defeat Khan Bahadur Khan outside Bareilly on May 5, 1858. Maulvi Ahmadullah retreated from Lucknow into Rohilkhand, seized Shahjahanpur and shelled the British cantonment. Under pressure, he retreated to Oudh again but was killed in a fight. The Rajah of Pawayan cut off his head and took it to the British magistrate of Shahjahanpur to claim fifty thousand rupees reward announced over his head.

With the death of the Maulvi of Faizabad the fire of rebellion almost died down in Rohilkhand and Oudh. Still there were many who refused to surrender. They took refuge in Nepal and Jang Bahdur asked Lord Canning to send troops to root them out. When Hazrat Mahal crossed Nepalese border with her son at the end of 1858 and appealed to Jang Bahadur for help, he told her: “I inform you that if you should remain within my territory the Gurkha troops will most certainly … attack…you. Be it also known that the Nepalese State will neither assist, show mercy to, nor permit to remain in its territories….”

The sepoys of Jhansi mutinied and surrounded the fort on June 8, 1857. However, Laxmi Bai, the widow of Raja of Jhansi, did not join their war of independence. She stayed away from the revolt though Lord Dalhousie had rejected her request to declare her adopted son as the Raja, after Gangadhar Rao’s death and had annexed Jhansi three years ago. The Company had also been pressing her hard to pay back all her husband’s debts out of her own pension of Rs. 60,000.

The mutineers took the British officers prisoners. They murdered them and left Jhansi next day with the treasure and magazine. The Rani reported to Major WC Erskine, Commissioner of Sagar Division: “The troops stationed at Jhansi through their faithlessness, cruelty and violence killed all the European civil and military officers and the Rani… could render them no aid, which she very much regrets.”

Jhansi was invaded by two neighbouring states. Her appeal to the British to protect Jhansi from the neighbouring Rajas was turned down. In desperation, she turned to her rebel army for help. They drove the invaders out but also pressed her to declare independence from the British. She still seemed to have been unwilling to commit herself. However, she was forced to give in to the rebels’ demand when a formidable British army appeared at the walls of Jhansi intent upon revenge for the massacre.

Tatya Tope brought over his twenty thousand men to help the Rani, but was beaten back by the British. One night the Rani escaped with a few of her loyal cavalry to join Tatya Tope at Kalpi. The British army caught up with her near Gwalior and mowed her down in the battlefield. Tatya Tope fled across the Chambal river, was captured later and executed on April 1859. Rao Sahib was not captured until 1862.

Other notables of the Ghadar, Firuz Shah died in Makkah in 1877. Hazrat Mahal was allowed to remain in Nepal with her son. Nana Sahib entered Nepal and was said to have died there in September 1859. The King of Delhi, Bahadur Shah Zafar was put to trial before a military court at the end of January 1859 and banished to Rangoon, Burma where he died on November 7, 1862. In July 1859, Lord Canning called for a day of thanksgiving and announced: “War is at an end. Rebellion has been put down.”

A book of essays by Marx and Engels (Moscow: 1960) called it the “First Indian War of Independence”. Savarkar (1909) insisted that the Mutiny was indeed a national revolt, and B.S. Chaudhury supported this designation. But R.C. Majumdar declared that it was neither first, nor national, nor a war of independence. Hibbert’s quoted first-hand description of the events leaves no doubt that it was a Muslim War of independence and they lost it because the revolting masses could not compel the ruling elite to grab the momentum and unite for the cause of independence.¨