Skip to main content

1857 War of Independence... when Hindu-Muslim separatism, hatred wasn't an issue

"The Sepoy Revolt at Meerut", Illustrated London News, 1857 
By Shamsul Islam*
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 163rd anniversary of War of Independence we need to tell the present flag bearers of Hindu-Muslim brand of communal politics that the revolutionary army which declared the Mughal King Bahadur Shah Zafar, a Muslim, India’s Independent ruler on May 11, 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.
Laxmi Bai, Bahadurshah Zafar 
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.

Ayodhya

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 Kuber Teela (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.
The joint heritage of Ayodhya was erased by British rulers and their henchmen turning the communal unity upside down
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.

Rajasthan

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.

Haryana

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.
Lucknow, July 30, 1857
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.

Central India

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 Moulvi Fazl Haq and his comrades, Tatia Tope continued to wage war till the beginning of 1859.

Rohilkhand

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.

Delhi

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.
Kashmiri Gate, September 14, 1857
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.

British narratives

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, Mussalman and Hindu, are there, and have sworn to fight for their young king, Birjeis Kuddr [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:
"The infanticide Rajput, the bigoted Brahmin, the fanatic Mussalman, 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.
---
Formerly with the Delhi University, click here for some of Prof Islam's writings and video interviews/debates. Twitter: @shamsforjustice, blog: http://shamsforpeace.blogspot.com/

Comments

TRENDING

'These people shouldn't be in jail': UN official seeks release of 16 human rights defenders

By Our Representative A United Nations human rights official has called upon the Government of India (GoI) to “immediately release" 16 human rights defenders who have been imprisoned on charges of terrorism in the Bhima-Koregaon Case, insisting, “These people should not be in jail. They are our modern-day heroes and we should all be looking to them and supporting them and demanding their release.”  

Arrest of Fr Stan Swamy: UN makes public letter seeking explanation from Govt of India

Counterview Desk In a letter to the Government of India (GoI), three senior United Nations (UN) officials – Elina Steinerte, vice-chair of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; Mary Lawlor, special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; and Fernand de Varennes, special rapporteur on minority issues – have said that the arrest of veteran activist Father Stan Swamy in October 2020 marks “the escalation of harassment the human rights defender has been subjected to since 2018.”

Swami Vivekananda's views on caste and sexuality were 'painfully' regressive

By Bhaskar Sur* Swami Vivekananda now belongs more to the modern Hindu mythology than reality. It makes a daunting job to discover the real human being who knew unemployment, humiliation of losing a teaching job for 'incompetence', longed in vain for the bliss of a happy conjugal life only to suffer the consequent frustration.

Farm laws 'precursor' to free trade deal envisaged by US corporates to allow GMO

By Rajiv Shah Did the Government of India come up with the three farm laws, first rushed by promulgating ordinances in June 2020, to not just open the country’s agricultural sector to the corporate sector but also as a precursor to comply with the requirements of the United States for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA), as envisaged by the outgoing US president Donald Trump?

Savarkar 'criminally betrayed' Netaji and his INA by siding with the British rulers

By Shamsul Islam* RSS-BJP rulers of India have been trying to show off as great fans of Netaji. But Indians must know what role ideological parents of today's RSS/BJP played against Netaji and Indian National Army (INA). The Hindu Mahasabha and RSS which always had prominent lawyers on their rolls made no attempt to defend the INA accused at Red Fort trials.

Differing from Ambedkar, Kancha Ilaiah holds a 'different' theory of caste system

By Banavath Aravind* I was introduced to Kancha Ilaiah’s work when I was about 20 years old. He was then in the midst of a controversy for a chapter in his book "Post-Hindu India: A Discourse in Dalit-Bahujan, Socio-Spiritual and Scientific Revolution", which termed the Baniya community as social smugglers. During many of his debates, I had come to notice his undeterred fighting spirit in trying to bring up certain fundamental social issues that were hitherto undiscussed. I eventually came across some of his works and started reading them silently. I’m deliberately stressing upon the word ‘silently’ here, as this was the kind of silence particularly associated with sensitive social issues like caste, religion, etc. But, as I write this essay, I feel silences on sensitive issues should be broken. Ilaiah opened up an entirely new debate that had the vigour and strength to counter the systemic Brahmanism. His methods of research were also novel in terms of going back to the roo

Fr Stan's arrest figures in UK Parliament: Govt says, Indian authorities were 'alerted'

London protest for release of Stan Swamy  By Rajiv Shah Will Father Stan Swamy’s arrest, especially the fact that he is a Christian and a priest, turn out to be major international embarrassment for the Government of India? It may well happen, if a recent debate on a resolution titled “India: Persecution of Minority Groups” in the United Kingdom (UK) Parliament is any indication. While Jesuits have protested Fr Stan's arrest in UK and US, the resolution, adopted in the Parliament, said, “This House has considered the matter of persecution of Muslims, Christians and minority groups in India”.

New trend? Riots 'expanded' to new rural areas post-2002 Gujarat carnage: Report

A VHP poster declaring a Gujarat village part of Hindu Rashtra  By Rajiv Shah  Buniyaad, a Gujarat-based civil society organization, engaged in monitoring of communal violence in the state, in a new report, “Peaceful Gujarat: An Illusion or Truth?” has said that a “new trend” has come about in communal violence in the state, where the parts of Gujarat which didn't see communal riots in 2002 are experiencing “regular bouts” of communal violence.

More than 5,200 Gujarat schools to be closed down, merged, says govt document

RTE Forum, Gujarat, releasing fact-sheet on education By Our Representative A Gujarat government document has revealed that it is planning to close down 5,223 schools in the name of school merger. The document, dated July 20, 201 was released by the Right to Education (RTE) Forum, Gujarat. It shows that the worst-affected districts because of this merger are those which are populated by marginalized communities – especially tribals, Dalits and minorities, said RTE Forum’s Gujarat convener Mujahid Nafees.

Consumption pattern, not economic shock behind 'poor' child health indicators

By Neeraj Kumar, Arup Mitra* The findings of the latest round of National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) conducted in 2019-20 covering 22 States/UTs under Phase-I  present a somewhat disappointing picture of children’s health in India. Majority of the experts, based on prima facie evidence, just highlighted the deteriorating sign of child health in terms of increase in proportion of stunted and underweight children in most of the phase-I states/UTs over last two rounds of NFHS (2015-16 to 2019-20).