Ahmadullah Shah : Freedom Fighter
by Dr. SAIYID ZAHEER HUSAIN JAFRI
That Ahmadullah Shah was one of the central figures in the popular uprising of 1857 in Awadh becomes clear when we reconstruct his life and activities. Using hitherto lesser-used sources, such as personal memoirs of the British officers who participated in crushing the uprising, daily official despatches and Urdu biographies, newspapers and short notices, Ahmadullah Shah emerges as perhaps the only person praised even by his British adversaries. Colonel G.B. Malleson in his ÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â«Indian MutinyÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â says, "The Moulvie was a very remarkable man. Of his capacity as a military leader, many proofs were given during the revolt... No other man could boast that he has twice foiled Sir Colin Campbell in the field." It may be recalled that Sir Colin Campbell, hero of the Crimean War, was the commander-in-chief of the British forces in the subcontinent at that time.
The perception about Ahmadullah Shah, whether in the narration of the victors or that of the vanquished, is almost identical on the points of his 'brilliant ideas' and 'tactical skills'. The nobility of his character was so well known that Hindus and Muslims both accepted him as their undisputed leader when they broke open the gates of Fyzabad prison where he was lodged on charges of causing 'sedition' among them. He had the additional virtue of chivalry and humanism for in his entire career he had not stained his sword by assassination. These qualities become extraordinarily noble when we find him thanking Colonel Lennox (his jailor at Fyzabad who was to send him to the gallows) for his permission to allow him use of a hookah while he was a prisoner.
Ahmadullah Shah has won universal praise by modern writers who have studied this short but heroic phase of India's resistance against colonial domination. Historians like R.C. Majumdar and V.D. Savarkar have used superlatives to describe his role, while Tara Chand, S.N. Sen, Syed Moinul Haq, Abrar Husain Faruqi and Ghulam Rasul Mehr and a host of Urdu writers have praised his leadership qualities.
Born in the second decade of the 19th century as Saiyid Ahmad Ali Khan alias Ziauddin, titled Dilawar Jang, he was a son of Nawab Muhammad Ali Khan of Chinapattan (Madras). He received, as a prince, the best education of the time. He completed his studies in classical languages and traditional Islamic sciences (Tafsir, Hadith, Fiqh and logic) and also received extensive training in the art of Warfare. He seems to have acquired some knowledge of English. As an enterprising young prince his fame reached far and wide.
He visited Hyderabad as a guest of the Nizam in connection with a marriage proposal, and though the proposed marriage did not come off, he stayed in the city for quite some time. While at Hyderabad, the British officers formally requested his father to allow him to visit England. Thereafter, he proceeded to London, and had the opportunity to meet the King as well as some notables. Not much details of his stay at England are available, except the fact that he was allowed to display his skill in the use of arms at his own request. By the time he was back in India, he became inclined towards mysticism and after an intense search for a sufi guide, became a disciple of Saiyid Furqan Ali Shah, a saint of the Qadri order at Sambhar (Rajasthan) and remained with his pir for some time. From here he was directed by his spiritual guide to proceed to Gwalior. It was by his pir that he was called 'Ahmadullah Shah', a title by which he became known afterwards.
This was a time when the Muslim mystics were actively preaching resistance to the British rule and asking people to wage a holy war (jehad). Therefore, although the Qadris are averse to the very idea of musical gatherings (sama), we find these parties being used as an opportunity to gather support for jehad. Accordingly, Ahmadullah Shah reached Agra with a large number of disciples (murids). He rented a palatial house and kept naqqaras (drums) at the gate which were beaten five times a day. As his popularity grew, so did the number of his murids. Audition parties (majlis-i-qawwali) were arranged. It came to be believed that 'neither fire can burn his disciples, nor swords can do any harm to them.' During the course of these musical sessions, Ahmadullah Shah was fond of practising meditation, by holding his breath for a long duration (habs-i dam). It was during one such 'ecstasy' that he predicted that 'from this date after six months, there will be great disturbance in the territories of the government.'
It seems that at Agra he was very vocal against the British. As a result, complaints were lodged with the British authorities to the effect that, 'he is a dervesh only in name, actually he is a prince and is preparing the masses to wage a war against the government.' However, no action was initiated against him.
Sometimes afterwards he again went to Gwalior from where he proceeded to Lucknow, the capital city of the recently
annexed kingdom of Awadh, arriving there in November 1856. His arrival in the city was reported in the weekly newspaper of Lucknow, 'Tilism', on 21st November, 1856, in the following manner:
These days a person called Ahmadullah Shah in disguise of a faqir but having all the paraphernalia of royalty has arrived in the town... People ... visit him in a large number on Mondays and Thursdays to take part in mystic gatherings (majlis-i hal-o-qal). A number of feats are performed at these gatherings...Such display takes place every morning and evening for the masses...
The impact of these gatherings on the population of Lucknow can be gauged by the next report of Tilism, which appeared two months later. On 30th January, 1857, it was reported:
Ahmadullah Shah... is very fearless in saying whatever he wishes to say and a large crowd is always there... Although he is unable to do anything, orally he always pleads for 'jehad.'
Certainly, his call for jehad bore fruit. The news was leaked to the British and this time, the kotwal (a police official) was sent asking him to give up the call of jehad and to surrender his arms and ammunitions. Shah tried to convince the kotwal, who was also a Muslim, about the morality of jehad, but he was not convinced. The English thought it necessary to post some sepoys to check the inflow of the visitors and even to record their names. At the same time orders were issued to the thanedar (a police official) of Chinibazar for putting curbs on his activities. Finally, Ahmadullah Shah was forced to leave the town and go wherever he wanted along with his arms. This order was not resisted by him.
Ahmadullah Shah now left Lucknow, headed for Bahraich, with ten or twelve men. However, he halted at Fyzabad
where a hall was constructed near the Chawk sarai, where he was staying. Once again he started preaching jehad. Hardly two or three days had passed that the authorities got alarmed as 'chuprases' (peons) informed the magistrate of the dangerous implications of this man's preaching. Accordingly, the officer incharge of the city issued the necessary
orders for his arrest. The principal terms demanded from this Maulavi were that he and his armed followers, numbering
about seven, should give up their arms, which should be kept in safe custody. Further, that all this preaching and distribution of money, so conducive to disturbance of peace, should be entirely put to an end. This time, Ahmadullah
Shah made a deliberate refusal and early next morning, an infantry company attacked them. Ultimately, the Shah was
arrested and placed under guard in the cantonment as 'he seemed too dangerous a character to be kept in the city jail.' After a brief trial he was imprisoned in the district prison at Fyzabad.
With the outbreak of Mutiny at Fyzabad on 8th June 1857, the gates of the prison were broken open and Ahmadullah Shah was chosen by the mutineers as their leader. The notables of town presented themselves before him and offered nazr. This left him no choice but to assume leadership. At the time of the battle of Chinhat, he commanded both the
Hindu and Muslim sepoys of Fyzabad.
With the battle of Chinhat began the second phase of Ahmadullah Shah's career. Now, he was a busy commander of forces, planning attacks on the British positions and strengthening defences.
His first engagement with the British forces took place at Chinhat when the British made a surprise attack in the early
morning of 30th June 1857. The columns were hurriedly organised and Ahmadullah Shah and his contingent distinguished
themselves in hand to hand fight, capturing many assault guns. In inflicting a crushing defeat on the British, the Shah
had a very significant role. He wanted to take full advantage of confusion in the British camp, but other leaders failed to
realise the importance of such a strategic move. The Shah's contingent was left alone to pursue the enemy. For want of
joint action at the decisive movement, the English could consolidate their position. Anyway, the Shah led an assault on English fortifications (Residency) and suffered a bullet injury. Although he remained undeterred, 'there was a need for cannons and arrows, and not for lances and swords'. Therefore, the Shah had to beat a retreat. He now fixed his quarters at Tara Kothi, remaining there for quite some time.
Fateh Muhammad Taib, his disciple and author of his versified biography 'Tawarikh-i Ahmadi', tells us of the early estrangement between the Shah and Prince Birjis Qadar of Awadh's erstwhile ruling family. As the latter was still a
minor, and also a Shia, the Shah did not think he was fit to lead the war, which he still considered as a holy war (jehad). He was not willing to entrust the disciplining of the sepoys to the nominal authority of Birjis Qadar, whereas the situation at hand demanded that they be put under severe check. As a result of the military victory against the British, the sepoys had become very arrogant, causing much hardship to the inhabitants of the city by their indiscriminate plunder. On
the other hand, the followers of Ahmadullah Shah, who saw themselves as 'mujahidins', had come to acquire an inflated sense of importance. However, religious rhetoric did not prevent Ahmadullah Shah from lending full support to the attack on the British Residency. He personally participated in an assault on Baily Guard during which bullet pierced his right hand.
His biographer broadly confirms the general impression that at Lucknow the British position was threatened by two separate factions having conflicting and even contradictory interests, and hence the military leaders frequently changed
sides, quite often shifting their loyalties from one camp to another. But after the British capture of Lucknow, the Shah
became the main rallying point of anti-British forces. As such, a joint venture to fight the British was proposed by Prince
Birjis Qadar. The Shah readily agreed. In the ensuing fight, half-way through the battle the forces of the Prince withdrew,
leaving the ghazis to face the cannon fire of the English. Ultimately, the Shah was forced to retire to the palace at Gaughat. In this battle also he was severely wounded.
The common soldiers had utmost respect and consideration for Ahmadullah Shah and whenever he thought of going somewhere else, they prevailed over him to change his mind. It would appear that the entire responsibility for opposition to him lay with the sepoy leaders. At the same time, it must be conceded that the unruly mob of the sepoys was hardly under any one's control. The sepoy faction made an attempt on the life of Ahmadullah Shah, but the assassin was killed by his bodyguards.
Unable to hold his ground at Lucknow, Ahmadullah Shah decided to withdraw with his small following towards Sitapur
and established his headquarters at Bari. Hazrat Mahal (the mother of Prince Birjis Qadar) also thought it expedient to join him. Although the initial response of Ahmadullah Shah was cautious, he ultimately agreed. Reportedly, Prince Birjis Qadar offered him spiritual allegiance (bay'at), putting the entire management in Ahmadullah Shah's hands. The latter forced the officers of the Begum to part with their wealth, again causing much resentment. This was the cause of the new allies
ditching Ahmadullah Shah when he made a surprise attack on the Gorkha contingent of the British returning from Nepal after much plunder.
After suffering considerable losses at Bari, Ahmadullah Shah was forced to retire to Muhammadi. Here a last bid
was made to take a firm stand against the British. Although his health was fast deteriorating, he was the guiding spirit
behind all the planning. An envoy was sent to Nawab Khan Bahadur Khan of Bareily to request supply of lances. Although the envoy was received courteously, the lances were not supplied, as they were needed by the Bareily army itself.
It was at Muhammadi that Ahmadullah Shah declared himself to be an independent ruler. The coronation is said to have taken place on 15th March, 1858; coins were also struck, but none have apparently survived. The measure was probably resorted to boost the sinking morale of the fighting forces. It is said that at Muhammadi, he received many rebel leaders like Azeemullah Khan, Prince Firoz Shah, Nawab Bahadur Khan of Bareilly and one Ismail Khan.
Many details of the military campaigns of Ahmadullah Shah in Rohilkhand region are also found. A first hand account of
his assassination at Pawayan has been provided by Maulana Fazle Haq Khairabadi, who was an eye witness. In the reports of the British officers, there is an evident sense of relief upon obtaining the news of Ahmadullah Shah's death!
Such was the life of Ahmadullah Shah. Before the outbreak of mutiny, he carried on systematic propaganda in favour of
jehad in the present area of Uttar Pradesh, with considerable impact upon the popular mind, at least in Agra, Aligarh,
Lucknow and Fyzabad divisions. At the same time, he cannot be considered a lone preacher. Certainly, a significant role
must have been played by other spiritual leaders like Mehrab Shah Qadri, Lakkar Shah and others, about whom, unfortunately, very little is known.
The nation must acknowledge its great debt to Maulana Fazle Haq Khairabadi, a contemporary of Ahmadullah Shah, who
was exiled to Andaman prison. This prison was specially set up by the colonial tyrants after 1857 to house the 'most seditious and dangerousÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â of the 'rebels' away from the mainstream of the Indian nation.
It came to be known as Kala Pani (Black Water) in Hindi and, more evocatively as 'Saza habs-e dawam ba-ubur daryaeshur'- Punishment Beyond the Shores for Life in Urdu. It was here that Maulana Fazle Haq Khairabadi, instead of being put to hard labour, was asked to translate some classical Persian and Arabic works into Urdu. He took this opportunity to pen down 'Al Sauratul Hindiya', a Recollection of Events during 1857-59 in India. The work was later smuggled out of Andaman, preserving precious details about the life and times of Ahmadullah Shah. However, it could
only be published after India's independence in 1947.
The author is a Reader in the Department of History, Delhi University. His special area of study is the economic history of Awadh. Article first appeared in the March 2002 issue of India Perspective magazine.