“The Musalmans of India are, and have been for many years, a source of chronic danger to the British Power in India.” - W W Hunter, an English official posted in India, in his famous book ‘The Indian Musalmans’, published in 1871.
After 1947, Indian scholars wrote a ‘nationalist’ history of the Indian freedom struggle and for unknown reasons, they excluded Muslims. For the last seven decades, we have been reading a history of the Indian Freedom Struggle that has largely overlooked the contribution of Muslims. The generations brought up over this narrative believe that either the Indian Muslims were pro-British or aloof from the freedom struggle.
In this age of social media, we find people questioning the patriotism of the Indian Muslims based on this false understanding of the freedom struggle. In fact, almost 30% of the total martyrs mentioned in ‘Dictionary of Martyrs of India’s Freedom Struggle (1857-1947)’ launched by PM Narendra Modi in 2019 are Muslims. We must take note that the dictionary does not account for the martyrs before 1857, which were in large numbers as well.
Such falsehoods propagated in the name of history should be challenged. The British imperialism in India was resisted by the Indians right from its outset and the Muslims were the flag bearers of this resistance. The British took over Bengal administratively and economically after defeating the royal armies at the Battle of Plassey (1757) and the Battle of Buxar (1764). With their win over the Nawab of Bengal, the British started exploiting the Indians of Bengal province in an unprecedented fashion. Their ruthless loot resulted in a famine in 1770, which accounted for the deaths of one-third of the total population of Bengal.
No wonder the first popular national resistance to foreign colonial rule arose in Bengal. A united front of Hindu Sanyasis and Muslim Fakirs rose up in arms against the British. The man who led this fight was, Majnu Shah, a Muslim sufi from Kanpur (Uttar Pradesh). Majnu was a devotee of Shah Madar, Kanpur, and took up the cause of poor peasants on the advice of another Sufi saint, Hamiduddin. Almost 2000 Fakirs and Sanyasis, under his command, would loot the treasures of the British and British-backed landlords to distribute the money and food among poor exploited masses. From 1763 till his death in 1786, Majnu was the most dangerous threat to the British Empire in India. Fakir and Sanyasi forces killed several officers and soldiers of the British in guerrilla wars. After his death, Musa Shah took up the leadership of the movement. Hindu Sanyasi leaders, like Bhawani Pathak, were also there and fought alongside but the colonial records considered Majnu as the most threatening leader because under him Hindus and Muslims fought a united war. The ruthless British suppressed this movement a few years after the death of Majnu but the spirit of nationalism could not be killed.
The suppression of the movement led by Fakirs in Bengal did not mean that they accepted defeat. Fakirs changed their strategy and joined Marathas and other anti-British forces at the turn of the 18th century. The first major mutiny by the Indian sepoys of the English East India Company Army in 1806 at Vellore, which is said to be the inspiration behind 1857, was planned by Holkars, sons of Tipu Sultan and brother of Nizam of Hyderabad with the help of Fakirs. In every cantonment in South India, Fakirs propagated the message of nationalism through religious sermons, songs and puppet shows. When the revolt broke out at several places including Vellore the Indian revolutionaries were led by Fakirs like Shaikh Adam, Peerzada, Abdullah Khan, Nabi Shah, and Rustam Ali. Scholar Perumal Chinnian writes, “the Southern conspiracy was supported by Fakirs and other religious mendicants. The conspiracy was established in all the army stations by them.”
Within a few years, the British faced another challenge in the form of three distinct movements led by Syed Ahmad Barelvi, Haji Shariatullah and Titu Mir respectively.
Born in Uttar Pradesh, Syed Ahmad toured a large part of the country and gained followers in Bihar, Bengal, and Maharashtra. His followers took up arms against the British and its allies in the areas adjacent to Afghanistan. The movement posed a challenge to the British for decades. The British painted the movement as a work of religious fanaticism while in reality, Syed Ahmad tried to forge an alliance with Marathas against the foreign rulers. After he died in 1831, Enayat Ali and Wilayat Ali, both from Patna, took up the leadership of the movement. The wars they led in the frontier region caused the death of thousands of soldiers of the British army.
Haji Shariatullah and his son Dudu Miyan took up arms in Bengal to resist the tyranny of rich landlords. They led peasants to revolt against the indigo planters and other British agents. The movement they led is known as Faraizi movement.
Titu Mir also led a movement of poor masses against the British-backed landlords. He formed his army and set up a popular administration. In 1831, Titu was killed during a battle with the British. Hundreds of his supporters were arrested and hanged, including his deputy, Ghulam Masum.
Meanwhile, the Movement started by Syed Ahmad remained a grave danger to British rule in India. Enayat Ali, Wilayat Ali, Karamat Ali, Zainuddin, Farhat Husain, and others led an armed struggle against the British. In Patna, as soon as the news of the revolt of 1857 reached, all the prominent leaders were arrested before they could act. Still, Pir Ali launched a revolt in Patna. Though not a part of the larger movement himself the British believed that he had their support. Pir Ali, Waris Ali, and other Muslim revolutionaries were executed in Bihar during the revolt of 1857.
The First War of the National Independence of 1857 had a long history of planning behind it. In 1838, the English government arrested Mubariz ud-Daula for plotting a nationwide revolt against the foreign rule. The investigations revealed that Raja Ranjit Singh, Gaekwars, Satara, Jodhpur, Bhopal, Patiala, Rohilla Pathans, and several nawabs, rajas and zamindars had agreed upon the plan. Raja Ranjit Singh had actually sent his troops to help Mubariz and contacted Persian and French powers for help. The plan, because of a few traitors leaked out, Mubariz was imprisoned where he died in 1854 and the revolt took place two decades later.
In 1845, again a plan for a nationwide war of independence was discovered by the English. Khwaja Hasan Ali Khan, Malik Kadam Ali, Saif Ali and Kunwar Singh of Bihar were trying to raise a large army with the help of several royals like Bahadur Shah Zafar, Scindias, and Nepal Naresh. Again a few Indians sold themselves to the foreign rulers and told the English about this grand design to overthrow them.
The role of Muslims in 1857 is no secret. The unity of Hindus and Muslims in 1857 threatened the British like never before and they resorted to a policy of divide and rule after that. Maulvi Ahmadullah Shah of Faizabad, Fazl-e-Haq of Khairabadi, Imdadullah Muhajir Makki of Muzaffarnagar, and Azimullah Khan, an associate of Nana Saheb, were prominent in propagating the need of taking up the arms against the colonial rule. For years before 1857, they were propagating these ideas among sepoys as well as civilians.
The sepoys at Meerut revolted against their British masters on 10 May 1857. Leaders of these sepoys were Sheikh Peer Ali, Ameer Qudrat Ali, Sheikh Hasan ud-Deen, and Sheikh Noor Muhammad. More than half of the 85 sepoys, who revolted initially, were Muslims. The sepoys were soon joined by the civilians. and The revolutionaries marched on to Delhi and proclaimed Bahadur Shah Zafar as the emperor of India. Delhi was liberated. In Lucknow, Begum Hazrat Mahal took up arms against the British and led one of the longest resistance movements during the revolt. Maulvi Ahmadullah was also fighting the British with his forces and attained martyrdom during a battle. In his book on the revolt, Veer Savarkar dedicated several pages to the valour and martyrdom of Ahmadullah.
In Muzaffarnagar, Imdadullah led a popular revolt with the help of Qasim Nanautvi, Rashid Gangohi, and others liberated Shamli and Thana Bhawan. A national government was set up. These revolutionaries were later defeated as the British recaptured the region. Nawab of Jhajjar, Abdur Rehman, was also hanged by the British for fighting for his motherland. The list is unending. The British records mention several Muslims who fought them in 1857. For example, an anonymous Burqa-clad Muslim woman killed several English soldiers in Delhi before getting arrested.
In Bihar, Kunwar Singh was leading the revolt of 1857. Zulfiqar was one of his most trusted comrades with whom Kunwar was discussing every plan. After liberating Arrah the civil government installed by Kunwar had his most trusted allies and there were several Muslims. The government had “Shaikh Ghulam Yahea as Magistrate. Shaikh Muhammad Azimuddin, an inhabitant of Milky Tola in the town of Arrah, was appointed Jamadar (treasurer) of the eastern thana: Turab Ali and Khadim Ali, sons of Dewan Shaikh Afzal, were made Kotwals (Police officers in charge of a city)”
The revolt did not succeed. Bahadur Shah was exiled to Burma, several were hanged and many more were transported for life to Andamans. But, the zeal for freedom did not die.
In 1863, tribals in North West Frontier Province stormed the British territories and entered into a war. The British, though registered a victory, had to face one of the stiffest military challenges. They lost more than a thousand of its English soldiers. Intelligence reports pointed towards a financier in Ambala. The man was Jafar Thanesri. During the raid police found several letters which established him as the principal financier of the war in NWFP. He channelled money, men and arms from different parts of the country to the war front. Yahya Ali of Patna and nine others were also charged for waging the war against the Queen. What followed was a series of arrests and trials across India.
People were arrested in Ambala, Patna, Malda and Rajmahal. Ahmadullah, Yahya Ali, Jafar, Ibrahim Mandal, Rafique Mandal and others were arrested and transported to Andamans. These revolutionaries celebrated martyrdom over life, hence the British decided not to hang them but to send them to the Andamans. In 1869, Amir Khan and Hashmat Khan were arrested in Kolkata. Norman, the Chief Justice, sentenced them to the Andamans. The sentence was avenged by Abdullah by assassinating Norman in 1871 and after a few months Sher Ali killed the viceroy, Lord Mayo, in the Andamans.
Bipin Chandra Pal, in his autobiography, credited these trials and killings as an important influence on his political career. Another famous revolutionary, Trailokya Chakravarty, noted, “the Muslim revolutionary brothers gave us practical lessons of unbending audacity and inflexible will and also advice to learn from their mistakes”.
In Maharashtra, Ibrahim Khan, a Rohilla leader, and Balwant Phadke launched a guerilla war against the British. They provided a tough resistance through the 1860s and 70s, and threatened the British in south India.
Meanwhile, in 1885, Indian National Congress (INC) was formed to voice the apprehensions of the emerging educated middle class. Badruddin Tayyabji and Rahmatullah Siani were two of the earliest members and presidents of Congress. Later on, M.A Ansari, Hakim Ajmal Khan, Hasrat Mohani, Abul Kalam Azad, and others remained associated with the largest political outfit of India.
In 1907, peasants in Punjab started agitation against the canal colonies. Along with Lala Lajpat Rai and Sardar Ajit Singh, Syed Hyder Raza was one of its prominent leaders. The movement is seen as a precursor to later Ghadar movement.
During the First World War (1914 - 18), the British intercepted three letters written on silk cloth. The letters were written by Maulana Ubaidullah Sindhi to Maulana Mahmood Hasan and pointed towards a global plan to overthrow the British rule in India. Ubaidullah was named as one of the most dangerous Indians for the British in the Rowlatt Committee Report. He formed armed groups, preached anti-British ideas and formed a provisional government in Kabul. The Prime Minister of the government was Maulana Barkatullah. The government had to have an army as well, which would attack India to free it. But, the plan failed because of the leaked silk letters and the end of the World War. The plan was called Silk Letter Movement and 59 freedom fighters, mostly Muslims, were charged for waging the war against the Empire. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Abdul Bari Firangi Mahli, Ubaidullah Sindhi, Maulana Mahmood, Husain Ahmad Madni and M.A Ansari were few of them. Maulana Mahmood and Madni were arrested in Makkah and imprisoned in Malta.
Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, who is often seen as a token Muslim in a largely Hindu dominated Congress, was a freedom fighter whom the British feared. His name occurred in different CID reports for planning armed revolutions. At least 1700 freedom fighters took oath to die for the cause of freedom as members of Hizbullah, a revolutionary organisation formed by Azad. Al-Hilal, a paper edited and published by him, was banned for propagating the revolutionary nationalist ideas. Azad established Darul Irshad, a madarsa, to popularise the anti colonial ideas. For his organization, Hizbullah, Jalaluddin and Abdur Razzak were prominent recruiters, who also united Hindu and Muslim revolutionaries of Bengal. No wonder, Azad was jailed many times and was the President of INC when the Quit India Resolution of 1942 was passed.
The Silk Letter Movement was not the only resistance movement during the World War. Ghadar Movement was another movement in which several Muslims took part and attained martyrdom. Rehmat Ali was hanged in Lahore for trying to instigate mutiny among soldiers. The efforts bore fruit in Singapore, when, in February, 1915, 5th Light Infantry consisting mostly Muslims from Punjab revolted. The soldiers captured Singapore for a few days. The revolutionaries were later defeated, captured and shot dead.
Another misconception prevalent among Indians is that the Bengali revolutionaries were Hindus. Interestingly, the revolutionary organizations with Hindu religious overtones, like Jugantar and Anushilan had many active Muslim members. Sirajul Haq, Hamidul Haq, Abdul Momin, Maksuddin Ahmad, Maulvi Ghayasuddin, Nasiruddin, Razia Khatun, Abdul Kader, Wali Nawaz, Ismail, Zahiruddin, Chand Miyan, Altaf Ali, Alimuddin, and Fazlul Kader Chowdhury were few of the Bengali Muslim revolutionaries who took up arms along with Hindus. Many of them were sent to Andamans or killed.
After the World War, the British introduced a draconian Rowlatt Act. The Indians protested against the act and many leaders were arrested. At Jallianwala Bagh people were massacred when they were protesting against the arrest of Saifuddin Kitchlew. The proportion of Muslims killed at Jallianwala was quite high. Around this time, 1919 onwards, Abdul Bari Firangimahli, Mazharul Haque, Zakir Husain, Mohammad Ali, and Shaukat Ali emerged as the mass leaders. Women like Bi Amma, Amjadi Begum, and Nishat al-Nisa also jumped into the freedom struggle.
In Tamil Nadu, Abdul Rahim organised the workers during the 1930s against the oppressive colonial rule. V. M Abdullah, Sharif Brothers, and Abdul Sattar were other prominent Muslim leaders in South India who led nationalist movements and braved torture and imprisonments.
Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan led pathans posed a non-violent challenge to the British. In 1930, the British fired upon a crowd protesting against the arrest of Ghaffar Khan at Qissa Khwani Bazar, Peshawar. Hundreds of pathans laid their lives for the service of the motherland.
Faqir of Ipi, Mirza Ali Khan, and Pir of Pagaro, Sibghatullah, raised their armies in the 1930s in Waziristan and Sindh respectively to fight the British during the World War. In a larger scheme of things, Subhas Chandra Bose and Axis Powers allied with their armies in order to liberate India.
In 1941, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose escaped from house arrest. The man who played an important role in the escape was Mian Akbar Shah. Netaji reached Berlin and formed a Free India Legion. Abid Hasan, became his confidant here and served as secretary. Abid was his only associate who accompanied him on a famous submarine journey from Germany to Japan. In 1943, Netaji formed Azad Hind Sarkar and Azad Hind Fauj. Here several Muslims like, Lt. Col. Aziz Ahmad, Lt. Col. M.K Kiani, Lt. Col. Ehsan Qadir, Lt. Col. Shah Nawaz, Karim Ghani, and D.M Khan became ministers with important portfolios. Azad Hind Fauj faced reverses in war and its soldiers were taken prisoners by the British. Rashid Ali’s imprisonment became a symbol of Hindu Muslim unity when Hindus and Muslims across the political affiliations came out on Kolkata road demanding his, and other Azad Hind Fauj soldiers, release in 1946. The police fired upon the protesters killing dozens of Indians. Elsewhere, in Mumbai and Karachi, the Royal Navy revolted in support of Azad Hind Fauj. Anwar Husain was one of the prominent martyrs of this revolt as Colonel Khan led the soldiers in revolt at Mumbai port.
India gained independence on 15 August, 1947. It was a costly affair. The cost was the Indian lives. The lives we paid were neither Hindu, nor Muslim. The lives belonged to the Indians. Those who laid their lives were Indians first, and Hindus or Muslims later. Here again, Muslim leaders like Allah Bux Somroo, K. A. Hamied, Faqir of Ipi, Abdul Qayyum Ansari, Abul Kalam Azad and others fought against the divisive communal politics of Muslim League to stop the partition. Tragically, more than seven decades later people have forgotten this important aspect of our freedom struggle and try to divide this great struggle along petty sectarian lines.
(The article is an updated version of an article published last year.)