Excavation of Truth : Unsung Heroes of 1857 War of Independence
By K.M.S. Khan (Khan Muhammad SadiqKhan), 2007, New Delhi: Kanishka Publishers.
The 150th anniversary of the first war of independence has, of course, aroused the interest of scholars and writers in this great historic event. This has resulted in the production of many articles and books on this subject and the contribution is going on. The book under review is a worthy addition to these works. The book has special importance from the point of view that it gives main focus on unsung heroes of 1857, especially Peer Ali khan, who was executed by the Britishers in Patna on 7th July, 1857 at the age of 37 years. The author has done painstaking work to dig out this forgotten freedom fighter of Azamgarh whose account was buried either in the shelf of archives, records of official dispatches, memoirs of the British officers and some Urdu novels or preserved in the memory of the elders of his native village (Muhammad Pur, Azamgarh). Though major part of the book is related to Peer Ali Khan, but he has also highlighted briefly the struggle and sacrifices of Muslim rulers, ulama and common people for the sake of emancipation of their homeland from the foreign rule. With regard to the scope of the work, the author clearly pointed out, “I have concentrated, here, only on one region i.e Patna Division as it existed in 1857 and the role of village Muhammadpur, District Azamgarh and its great son Maulana Peer Ali Khan. What happened in other parts of India other than Patna Division and Azamgarh is given in brief” (p.17).
The main purpose of writing this book, as stated by the learned author himself, is to bring forth the sacrifices of Muslims for freedom of this country which are being deliberately neglected and systematically erased from text- books and historical works (Preface). The author is quite right in his observation,” Great sacrifices of Muslims for independence of the country are systematically buried and allowed to be forgotten. This gave the vested interest of the country an open field to propagate and start tirade against Muslims”(P.12).The author’s clarification about the use of the word “Excavation” and not “Discovery” in the title of the book is very important and quite relevant to his above observation, and this also shows his serious concern for the academic honesty. To give his words, “Here, I have tried to “Excavate”, I named this book “Excavation of Truth” and not “Discovery of Truth”, because what I have written is already existed and nothing new has been discovered. I have just dug out the buried facts which all along were being kept away from the people of this country and the new and future generation”(p.17).
In fact, curiosity of the learned author about Muslim freedom fighters was created during his studies in 7th class in the Shibli Inter College (Azamgarh) when he found that a text-book (Fighters of Freedom, published by U.P.Board of Secondary Education) contained account of only one Muslim (Maulana Abul Kalam Azad) among dozen ones. On enquiry from his uncle, he came to know that it was not right; facts are somewhere else, as lacs of Muslims had sacrificed their life for the freedom of the country. However, he did not remain satisfy with this brief explanation and he himself attempted to search truth. No doubt, he was successful in this uphill task, as he exacavated (at least) Peer Ali Khan and collected and compiled very useful information about many other Muslim freedom fighters for which he, of course, deserved to be congratulated and appreciated. The work, as pointed out by the author, is the result the study of the relevant books for a long time and that of sifting the source material of varied nature. The details about collection of material and the numerous references given in the book show that the author attempted to go through the available sources and for this purpose he visited several well- known libraries, maintained regular communication with many scholars and knowledgeable persons of India and abroad. He also acquired some rich sources (especially works of the British writers) from foreign countries and in this connection he got much-needed help from his son (Khan Ahmad Adeel).This is also evident from the contents of the book that he left no stone unturned with regard to collection of material about Peer Ali Khan. The main sources of the author about Peer Ali Khan have been: Our Crisis (by W. Taylor), Unsung Martyrs of 1857(A. K. Biswas, abridged by I.K.Shukla), A History of Indian Mutiny( G.W.Forrest), Account of Major Thomas Rettary,Karwan-i-Raftah(Naqui Ahmad Irshad ),Peer Ali –Navel( Shad Azeemabadi,compiled by Naqui Ahmad Irshad )& Mshahir-i- Jang-i- Azadi( Intizamullah Shihabi).
What is more important about Peer Ali Khan in the present book is that in the contemporary and modern works about the first war of independence Peer Ali Khan is referred to as freedom fighter of either Patna or Awadh or Lucknow. It is only in this work that for the first time his native place stated to be a village of the Azamgarh District. According to author, the family of Peer Ali Khan originally belonged to Khandawari form where his father Mehar Ali Khan has shifted to Muhammad Pur to settle with his maternal grandfather. The author’s finding is based on the verbal statements of the elders of the village Muhammad Pur to which he himself belonged. This is quite surprising that this origin of Peer Ali is not given in any book, document or archival material, though all these mentioned him as a great hero of the 1857 war.( This reviewer himself attempted to find out documentary evidence for the origin of Peer Ali as given by the author, but could not succeed tilnow.) Contradicting the statement of W.Taylor and other writers who ascribed his origin to Oudh (Awadh) or Lucknow, the author observed that this impression was created actually by the statement of Peer Ali himself given before the British authorities just before he was hanged that “his children were in Oudh”. Secondly, the regular correspondence of Peer Ali with Maulana Masihuzzaman, a well- known freedom fighter of Lucknow also created confusion about his native palace. Referring to this matter, the author commented that Taylor could not realize that Awadh included a large number of districts including Azamgarh and that Peer Ali concealed his native place to protect his family and the people of his village from the British backlash. In this situation, the account of the author about the family background of Peer Ali, his departure from Muhammad Pur (Azamgarh) and settlement in Patna becomes of much importance, especially in view of the fact that he collected the relevant information from the people of his native village. However, the present study may not be “discovery” from other aspects, but this is really a discovery from the point of view of the origin of Peer Ali Khan.
Peer Ali, as stated by the author, had passion to seek knowledge since his childhood, but the financial position of his father did not allow him to pursue any formal education. At the age of 7th year, he (most probably in disgust) left Muhammad Pur and kept on moving onward till he reached near the Patna city. Being quite tired, he took rest under a banyan tree. While sleeping, he was suddenly woken up by some noise. Seeing that some armed men and a palki (litter) were heading towards his resting place, he became fearful and climbed the tree. That was actually the qafilah of Nawab Mir Abdullah, a zamindar and very resourceful person of Azeemabad (Patna). Peer Ali observed the activities of the qafilah very closely and after sometimes he saw the servants of the Nawab very nervous as he eagerly waited for huqqah and they were unable to serve it, because a broken part of a shrub stick was blocked in its pipe and they had failed to remove it. Breaking his silence, Peer Ali offered his services for solving the problem on the condition that he would not be harmed. On getting assurance of Mir Abdullah for his safety, he got down and after cutting a part of the edge of the pipe he pulled the stick by teeth.Nawab Saheb was quite impressed by the intelligence of the boy. On coming to know his background and reason of his presence in that secluded place, he took him to Patna and made necessary arrangement for his education along with his son Lutf Ali Khan under his personal care. In this way, he became educated in Urdu, Arabic and Persian. But at the same time, according to the author, Peer Ali grew up as “a self- respecting young man with passion to fight against the Britishers and to throw them out from the Indian soil” (p.20). He further pointed out that though Mir Abdullah was on good term with the Britishers, but inwardly he had anti- British feeling and he injected the same within Peer Ali Khan who later became an active worker against the Britishers of Patna.
After completing education, Peer Ali opened a book shop in Patna with the support of his patron. His shop, famous for the sale of the hand written books, actually served as meeting place of the local mujahidin –i-azadi, centre of planning against the Britishers and channel of communication with the freedom fighters of other places and the Indian sepoys working in the British army. Working from the same shop, as pointed by the author, Peer Ali with cooperation of his close associates carried on regular campaign against the Britishers and generated much heat within the local people against them. It was emphasized by the author that all these developments took place in Patna much before breaking out of revolt in Shahabad, Gaya, Danapur and even the famous sepoy revolt in Meerut (pp.28-29).
It appears from the account of the present work that Peer Ali Khan was planning for a big uprising against the Britishers with the support of the Indian soldiers of Danapur (with whom he had secret understanding), but he had to pre-pone his actual action plan without waiting for the help of soldiers due to seizer of two secret letters from the Danapur cantonment bearing the name of Peer Ali also and arrest of Waris Ali, an officer in the British army (who was his close associate and main link between him and sepoys of Danapur).The author is full of praise for Peer Ali for rising against the Britishers with confidence and determination as well as for his good planning, though he had hurriedly started his action with meager resources(p.104).According to the author, he prepared a flag of white and blue colour for his followers ( which was similar to the flag of great Mujahid-i- Aazadi Tipu Sultan who had hoisted it at Sri Rangapatam fighting against the Britishers.While launching his rising, he distributed about 50 guns among his supporters which were arranged with the help of Maulwi Mehdi( a patrolling magistrate of Patna (who was arrested and sentenced to death without trail on 20th June, 1857).Moreover, Ghulam Abbas was given the charge of flag bearer and Nandu Khar was directed to take position at the Haweli of the Padri and keep a watch on the insiders(p.106).
The learned author has given vivid account of the 3rd July Patna uprising led by Peer Ali Khan. According to him, shouting slogan against the Britishers, Peer Ali marched along with his close associates and 200 followers towards Gulzar Bagh, the headquarters of the state administration. On the way, they came into confrontation with Dr.Lloyal (the Assistant to the Agent of Opium Godown in Patna) and a band of native soldiers. On being attacked by the latter, the agitators got provoked and in the counter attack Dr. Lloyel was killed. When Commissioner of Patna W. Taylor came to know abut this sudden happening of showing open defiance of the Government he ordered a Sikh battalion to rush to the troubled spot and crush turbulence. Subsequently, the British forces indiscriminately fired on the crowd and this resulted in killing and injuring of a large number of people.Besides, the army unleashed terror in the city of Patna. All houses of Muslims were searched and they arrested en masse. Many of them were hanged on trees without any trial. On 4th July, Peer Ali and 33 of his associates were arrested in pre-dawn soup. Under the order of the Commissioner, most of them were hanged next day. Peer Ali’s shop was broken open, thoroughly searched and documents seized. For three days, he was interrogated and tortured to obtain information about conspiracy and details of his close associates, especially Lutf Ali. But in the words of the author, “the Shaheed-i- Watan” Peer Ali Khan did not open his mouth even on the lurement by Taylor to spare his life if he gives full details of his associates” (p.110).In response to his offer of pardon, Peer Ali is reported to have said, “There are some occasions on which it is good to give up life and that if I sacrificed; thousands others, everyday, will fill their place” (p.112).
Finally, Peer Ali was charged with killing of Dr. Lloyel and waging war against the Crown and was hanged in Patna on 7th July, 1857 by the order of W. Taylor. The latter also ordered for the execution of all those who were connected or associated with Peer Ali and confiscation of their property (p.32).
The work throws ample light on many important aspects of the personality of Peer Ali Khan as a freedom fighter. Though, he belonged to a poor family and worked simply as a book-seller, gradually rose up to the position of chief coordinator of the anti-British activities in Patna and maintained regular contact with the people of different strata involved in the freedom movement. These included ulama, government officials, Indian soldiers and common people.His close associates had been Maulavi Karim, a rich zamindar of Dausi, Waris Ali, a British army officer of Tirhut, Maulavi Mhdi, a patrolling magistrate of Patna, Maulavi Yahya Ali, Imamuddin, Shaikh Ghulam Abbas, Budhan Jan, Ghasita Khalifa, Nandu Kahar, Ausaf Husain,and a number of sepoys of the Danapur contonment. Besides, he was in regular touch with Maulana Masihuzzaman and Maulana Ahmadullah Shah Madrasi, the famous freedom fighters of the Awadh region. The noted historian Dr. Ishtiyaque Husain Qureshi has rightly observed (not quoted by the author) that Peer Ali, running a bookshop in Patna, was actually organizer of the anti-British movement in the province (Ulama in Politics, pp.211-212). Another notable aspect of Peer Ali’s personality was his integrity and high morals. Throughout his career as a freedom fighter, he remained faithful to his family, patron (Mir Abdullah) and close associates and did not give oblige the Britishers for details about them, though latter employed all possible means to get the same. To quote the words of the author: “ Peer Ali Khan, a brave and grateful in the true tradition of a Pathan, did not disclose the name of his mentor, nor disclosed the place of his origin, the village he belonged to or his family”(p.32). In spite of the Britishers being full of hate for Peer Ali Khan for his anti- British activities, he was depicted by W. Taylor (the man who put seal on his death sentence) as “cool and defiant to the last, though manacled and wounded, and with the sentence over him, he showed neither fear, nervousness, nor shame. In character, appearance and manners, he was the perfect ideal of brutal and brave fanatic” (112).
In view of such strong personality of Peer Ali Khan as a man and that of his great sacrifices as a freedom fighter, we fully share with the feeling of the author that this great patriot and self-less freedom fighter remained to be neglected by the Indian historians even by the Muslims ones.Prof. I.K.Shukla (the author of Unsung Martyrs of 1857) is right in his observation that “The sacrifices of a dedicated brand of patriots led by Peer Ali Khan of Patna and of lowly Rajwar community of Rajgir during the revolt of Hindustan in 1857-58 remain neglected in the histography of our First War of Independence against the Brits.This homage sets the record straight about our real martyrs and heroes” (quoted by K.M.S.Khan, p.32).
The author of the present work, no doubt, mainly attempted to excavate truth about Peer Ali, but it goes to his credit that he also furnished very rich information about different aspects of history of the pre and post-1857 India. These materials of the book may be quite useful for the study of the history of the first war of independence in more broad perspective as well as for understanding the services and sacrifices of Muslims for the country. In this connection, the following aspects of the author’s studies (other than Peer Ali Khan) are of much importance:
(a) A brief account of introduction of Islam in India and establishment of Muslim rule, the Mughals’action against Afghans and Turks, the rise of the Iranian and Rajput nobles at the Mughal court, reasons of biased statements about Aurangzeb and the background of the Britishers getting foot in the country.
(b) Assessment of the efforts of Emperor Aurangzeb and Mughal governors and Nawabs for checking the rise of the Britishers’s activities in the country.
(c) Contribution of Tipu Sultan to the freedom Struggle.
(d) Jihad of Sayyed Ahmad Shaheed against internal and external enemies of Muslims.
(e) Account of the pre- 1857 conditions of Patna Division as given by the contemporary British officers of that division.
(f) Evaluation of the observations of the Indian and foreign historians of the first war of independence (including that of Maulana Fazl-i- Haq Khairabadi).
(g) Examining the causes of failure of the first war and observation about Sir Sayyed Ahmad Khan.
(h) Assessment of the role of Nana Rao, Maharani Lakshmi Bai and Tantia Tope.
Of all the above studies, the author’s discussion about the origin of Muslims’ struggle against the Britishers deserves special notice. Tracing the origin of the Britishers’setellment and rising of their activities in this country, he briefly discussed the efforts of Emperor Aurangzeb, Shaistah Khan (governor of Bengal), Nawab Ali Wardi Khan (ruler of Bengal), his successor Nawab Sirajuddaulah, Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan for checking the activities of the Britishers or attempting to throw them out of country. In this connection, he also took note of all those Nawabs and Rajas who conspired with the Britishers against those rulers and governors who resisted their rising power and thus they helped foreigners against the Indians. Appreciating the bold steps of Sirajuddaulah against the Britishers and his bravely fighting them, the author ascribed his defeat to the treachery and lust of some of his own officers. Further, he highlighted the notable contribution of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan to the freedom struggle, as they put stiff challenges to the foreigners and engaged them in fighting for more than 30 years to prevent them from gaining foothold in south. The author is also full of praise for courageous and formidable lady of Awadh Begum Hazrat Mahal who lonely resisted the Britishers’ taking over Awadh. Though finding no help from any Nawab or Raja, she went into exile in the hills of Nepal, but did not surrender to the Britishers.
Significantly enough, the learned author also recognized the sacrifices of ulama to get rid of the enslavement of the country by the Britishers, and in the context of the first war of independence he gave special focus to Sayyed Ahmad Shaheed, Sayyed Amir, Maulana Masihuzzaman, Maulana Ahmadullah Shah Madrasi, Maulana Liaqat Ali, Maulana Nasimullah, who vehemently challenged the Britishers and spearheaded the freedom movement in Peshawar, Awadh, Rohelkhand, Allahabad and Aligarh respectively. Discussing the role of different group of Muslims in freedom movement, the author rightly observed, “Then there was another group comprising of ulama (call them Wahabees or by any other name) but they called upon the men to get ready for Jehad-e- Aazadi-e- Hindustan……They were people who did not have any personal ambitions nor were greedy of power for themselves but only “National” objective. They were neither terrorist nor fanatic but even if one may want to call them as such as the Britishers and British historians call them, I say, I am proud of such so-called terrorists/fanatics who attained martyrdom for the Azadi of motherland Hindustan”( pp. 121-122)
While examining the causes of failure of the Revolt of 1857 in third chapter of the work, the author appreciated the sincere efforts of Sir Sayyed Ahmad Khan for the educational development and social uplift of the Indian Muslims. But with reference to an article of a columnist, he observed that sir Sayyed was “absolutely pro- Britisher” (pp.122-123). In fact, there is great misunderstanding with regard to the Sis Sayyed’s approach towards the Britishers and the learned author is no exception. I feel that the issue required to be thoroughly investigated and looked into in the total perspective of his educational mission or movement. It would have been more relevant and useful, if in this chapter the author had discussed and objectively analyzed Sir Sayyed‘s views on the causes of the so-called 1857 revolt with reference to his famous book- Asbab-i- Baghawat-i-Hind.
The book under review contains very rich material about the subject taken up under different chapters, but their arrangement required more attention. It would have been better and more rational if the chapters were arranged chronologically. The chapters about arrival of Muslims in India, account of the Mughals, the Jihad of Sayyed Ahmad Shaheed, Wahabi movement, and the pre-1857 conditions of Patna needed to be placed before the chapters on Peer Ali Khan. This is noteworthy that the author has taken full care of citing the sources of statements, observations of others and that of documents cited. But the references have been adjusted in text itself. Their arrangement at the end of each chapter would have been better.
However, the present work shows the author’s deep involvement with a very important aspect of the Indian history and brings to light many unknown or forgotten aspects of the life and achievements of unsung heroes of 1857, particularly Peer Ali Khan. The contents of the book convincingly prove that the author made very sincere efforts for collecting material through different means (written, oral and personal).Moreover, supporting each and every statement and piece of information by reference to its source shows his great concern for academic honesty which is, of course, the basic principle of study and research work on any subject and this notable aspect of the book must be appreciated by sincere researchers and readers.
While going through the book, the reviewer picked up some important findings of the learned author which may be given as:
• The independence movement started much before 1857 and by the Muslims of the country. Actually, it goes back to the period of Aurangzeb Alamgir.
• If Sirajuddaulah would have got support from Hindu rulers such as Marathas Sindias and Rajputs, India would have been cleaned of Britishers hundred years before 1857 and 190 years before 1947.
• The projection of Tipu Sultan as communal and anti-national is a great injustice to him. His was purely a Nationalist movement. Unfortunately, no Indian ruler realized their national duty to respond to the call of Tipu Sultan, rather most of them sided with the Britishers.
• Peer Ali Khan, a great son of Azamgarh, was a self-less Mujahid-i- Azadi in true sense of the word and was really a crusader against the British tyrannical rule in India. He sacrificed his life for his homeland, but remained unsung hero of the 1857 war.
• The sacrifices of Muslims for the independence of the Watan-i- Azeem – Hindustan has been systematically erased, rather buried in the confines of the Archives.
• The truth about the sacrifices of Muslims in the National movement is not allowed to come out and all negative informations about Muslims, even if they are false, are prominently highlighted by the media, be it print media or audio and visual media of the country. It is a deep rooted conspiracy to create and maintain wedge between Hindus and Muslims.
• The Muslims are also to be blamed for this state of affairs. Because, we the Muslims of India, as a qaum and millat, have allowed the true history of sacrifices of Muslims for the country bury under thick layers of gumnami.
That is why we Muslims in India are being treated shabbily in the National stream and are falsely accused as anti- national and their existence in the National stream is being tried to be projected as irrelevant.