“You can sentence me to death in your court but you cannot take my life because only God can grant or take lives. If He wills, you will die before me.” Jafar Thanesri told this to Herbert Edwards, the Sessions Judge, Ambala, after he was sentenced to death. His words turned out to be prophetic as Jafar outlived the judge by several years.
Jafar’s sentence was later commuted and he was shifted to Kala Pani (the Andaman Islands), where he wrote a book, Kala Pani. It is one of the few books written by a freedom fighter lodged in the Andamans. Also, it gives the detailed account of this God forsaken place.
In India we are often made to believe that the Indians first rose up in revolt against the British rule in 1857 and then the Indian National Congress took up cudgels against the British in the 20th century.
There is no key major freedom movement between 1857 and Swadeshi Movement of 1905. In fact, the revolt in 1857 was not the first and Indians never stopped fighting the British occupation. After the 1857 revolt was crushed, the next big threat to the British came from a group of Islamic scholars. These scholars were called Wahabi by the British, though the term was a misnomer because they were independent of the Wahabi movement of Arab. For the sake of simplicity, in this article I will stick to the term used by the British.
Wahabis, in India, was a group of Muslims who followed the teachings of Syed Ahmad of Rai Bareli, a 19th Century militant Islamic reformer. After his death in 1831, the leadership was taken up by Wilayat Ali, Inayat Ali, and their family members of Patna. The movement, apart from being religious, was anti-colonial right from its outset. Its founder Syed Ahmad believed in uniting Hindus and Muslims to free India. In a letter to Raja Hindu Rao, a Maratha chief, he asked for a military alliance to free India, Syed wrote,
“As soon as the land of Hindustan is cleared of alien (English) enemies and the efforts of these people result in the achievement of their objective the rank and offices of the government would be handed over to Indians (like you), and the roots of their power and authority would be strengthened.” In 1857, considering the threat posed by this group, Wahabi leadership was arrested in Patna even before they could launch an attack. All the prominent leaders were arrested and thus the revolt led by Pir Ali, in Patna, failed.
Though the British ruthlessly suppressed the Indians in 1857, they could not eliminate the anti-colonial feelings among the Indians. In 1863, Pathans in North West Frontier Provinces (NWFP) rose up against the colonial rulers.
Wahabis of Patna, and elsewhere, provided them with leadership, arms and money. The British intelligence pointed towards a 25-year-old Jafar Thanesri from Thanesar in Ambala, Haryana, as one of the main financiers and plotters of the Pathans’ revolt against the British.
Parson, Superintendent of Police, Ambala, had encircled the house of Jafar at the midnight of 11 December, 1863 with a huge police force. The police found several letters written to, and from, Wahabi leaders in Patna and NWFP.
One of the letters, which was to be posted the next day, mentioned sending several thousands of gold coins to the Pathan forces in NWFP. Other letters written in coded language also pointed towards a supply chain of arms and money from Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh (U.P) and Punjab to NWFP. Munshi Ghafoor and a 14-year-old servant, Abbas, were arrested from the house. Jafar fled from Ambala with his wife and children. Leaving his wife at Panipat, he reached Delhi and took shelter with a Wahabi merchant. Meanwhile, Parson had unleashed a reign of terror at Thanesar after realising that Jafar had escaped.
Each house was searched, hundreds were detained and tortured. The 12-year-old brother and old mother of Jafar were beaten up and threatened with hanging. Women of his family were manhandled and harassed by the male police. An award of Rs. 10,000 was also announced for providing the whereabouts of Jafar. Notwithstanding the torture, his brother told the police that Jafar had gone to Delhi. Parson, with his troops, reached Delhi on 15 December and blocked all the routes of the city. Hundreds of houses were searched and dozens of suspects detained. However, Jafar had already left the city for Aligarh. This time, telegram reached Aligarh police before him and Jafar was arrested. Parson took his custody and brought him to Ambala.
At Ambala, the letters found at Jafar’s house were investigated and his relatives and friends interrogated. He was locked up and tortured in a small solitary cell. The police raided locations across the country. People were arrested from Bengal, Bihar, Punjab, Bombay and Delhi. The gold coins mentioned in one of the letters by Jafar were also recovered. The investigation continued on for four months. The Indians detained were subjected to torture and forced to record statements against Jafar.
Jafar too was beaten and served foot comprising dry chapatis made of flour with sand and unpalatable curry. A few yielded to the police and became government witnesses. The extent of the tortures can be assumed from the fact that Jafar’s 14-year-old servant, Abbas, was beaten to death when he refused to record the statement to the linking of the police.
At last, in April, 1864, police produced eleven people in the Sessions court, Ambala and charged them for waging war against the Queen. They were: Muhammad Jafar, 25 of Thanesar, Maulvi Yahya Al, 47,, Patna, Abdul Rahim,28, Patna; Muhammad Shafi, Ambala, Abdul Karim,35, Ambala; Abdul Ghaffar, Bihar; Qazi Mian Jan, Pubna, Abdul Ghafur 25, Hazaribagh, Husaini of Patna, Husaini of Thanesar, and Ilahi Bakhsh of Patna.
During the trial, these people were kept in solitary confinement and tortured to turn government approver. Jafar and Yahya were denied a lawyer. Jafar argued his own case while Yahya would keep reciting the Quran and did not answer any official in the court. On 2 May, 1864, the court sentenced Yahya, Jafar and Shafi to death and to eight were sentenced for life imprisonment (kala pani). The court also ordered the confiscation of the properties of all the 11 prisoners.
The judgement was referred to the High Court for confirmation. In the meantime, these three were put in cells for convicts awaiting capital punishment. The British officials inflicted mental torture on them by showing them the ropes and wooden planks bought specially to hang them. They were treated like show pieces. English people would throng to jail to see these humans in a cage. The British, who expected to see fear in their eyes, were disappointed on seeing their stoic expressions. When asked the prisoners the reason for their behaviour and they said martyrdom is to be celebrated and not mourned.
This attitude unsettled the British. In September, the High Court changed the order of hanging to life transportation (Kala Pani). The order stated that since the convicts celebrate their death as martyrdom, they should not be provided the opportunity to become martyrs for their people.`
Meanwhile, during the trial Mian Jan died while Shafi turned approver to avoid the capital punishment.
On 22 February, 1865, the heads of remaining nine convicts were tonsured and beards shaved off and they were made to wear saffron clothes. Wearing handcuffs, iron chain and shackles they had to walk from Ambala to Lahore via Ludhiana, Jalandhar and Amritsar, as police rode horse-pulled vans.
Imagine walking with heavy iron chains from Ambala to Lahore. In Lahore, they were kept in jail for some time and subjected to more torture. They were again made to walk on roads of Lahore and turned into a public spectacle with the idea of the trios serving as a deterrent to others from raising their voice against the British. However, they kept on laughing.
A train took three of them, Yahya, Jafar and Abdul Rahim, to Multan and then Karachi. All through the journey, they were in iron shackles.
In Karachi they were packed like cattle in a steamer for Mumbai where they were lodged in Thane jail. As they walked from Thane Railway Station to jail, sweetshop owners asked them to lift the sweets from their shops. The owners would cheer them up for having their sweets. These prisoners, more than 40 now, were heroes for the Indian public. An Indian deputy jailer changed their heavy iron chains to lighter ones to give them some comfort. After two months they boarded a ship to Andamans on 8 December, 1865. After a 34-day journey, the ship reached Port Blair on 11 January, 1866. At the port people were waiting for them. As soon as they disembarked, people started asking, “Are Jafar and Yahya on board?” The Indian revolutionaries were already waiting for their heroes.
Jafar’s story is a first-hand account of an Indian who fought against the British, was sentenced to death, sent to the Andamans to avoid giving him the status of a martyr, the physical tortures he bore, and the hardships his family had to face.
However, it also gives us an insight his mind: he was at peace ad satisfied even after receiving punishment. People wept when he walked down the roads chained as a convict. Indians gifted him sweets for fighting their war. When he returned to Ambala later, he received a Hero’s welcome. His story tells us that Indians did not stop fighting the British after 1857 and those who did not fight, supported the revolutionaries.
(Saquib Salim is a Historian and a writer)