Forgotten Mujahideen of the Freedom Struggle


Name of the Book: Kaala Paani  Gumnam Mujahideen-e-jung Azadi 1857 (Urdu)
Author    : Waseem Ahmad Saeed
Publishers: Maulana Azad Academy, New Delhi - 25
Year:     2010
Price:     Rs 300
Pages    : 338 (including 19 plates)

Here is a book that not only throws light on those dark chapters of India’s struggle for freedom which have conveniently been consigned to oblivion but also raises several questions which historians would find difficult to answer. Muslim freedom fighters have been deliberately marginalised to such an extent that they have been made to fade out of public memory. The role of Muslim freedom fighters has been reduced to marginal notes. Bahadur Shah Zafar is paid lip sympathy while Tipu Sultan is portrayed as a bigot Muslim. His great grandchildren live in abject poverty in Calcutta. Though several chroniclers, while enumerating freedom fighters, do recall Zafar or Ashfaqullah; there had been no authentic book focussing entirely on Muslim Mujahideen. Such long awaited book deserves our sincere appreciation. Saeed has rendered a great service not only to the community but also to national history.

In his ‘Foreword’, Dr Aqil Ahmad, Secretary of Delhi’s Ghalib Academy, tells us that Saeed undertook a journey to the Andaman islands, visited the Cellular Jail, met employees and officers and spoke to local inhabitants. He availed himself of 98 texts - English (22), Urdu (72), Hindi (4). He covered Mujahideen from different parts of the country. He says, Saeed has raised certain issues which have never been examined in the past with such insight.

In his “Preface”, amply punctuated with scores of Urdu couplets, Saeed laments the absolute ignorance among the masses of the supreme sacrifices that Mujahideen had made for India’s liberation. Focussing on the ordeals of condemned prisoners of Andaman, he cites Ramprasad Bismil’s lines:
Aah kya yeh ummidon pe dala paani
Zindagi bhar haemin bhej ke kala paani.
(How our hopes have been, to the ground dashed;
By despatching us to the island of distressed)

Saeed raises a very significant question. He declares historians as absolutely ignorant for declaring “1857” as the first war of India’s independence. If so, what will you call Tipu’s descendants heroic struggle of 1806 at Vellore, he asks. Even British historians called it a rehearsal of 1857 war. He declares Shah Waliullah Dehlawi and Syed Ahmad Shaheed to be the first Mujahideen of India’s struggle for freedom. Reminding readers of the unfortunate Battle of Plassey, Saeed declares 1757 as the first proclamation in which Nawab Sirajuddaulah had vowed: “By Allah, I shall turn the colour of Indian rivers red with British blood” (p. 30).

Within the establishment itself, the British forces had been “wrestling” with at least 18 insurgencies. Starting from Bengal Army rebellion of 1764, followed by another in the same year, such rebellions continued upto 1850. Saeed asks historians to decide why should these not be included in the glorious war of independence (p. 31). He, in fact, tells us how the British themselves had coined separate nomenclatures-”war of independence”, “struggle for freedom” and “freedom movement” (p. 32).

Saeed reminds us that these early flashes had claimed the blood of innumerable Muslims - ulama, soldiers and common men. Their contribution has been forgotten. Those who jumped much later claimed the entire credit (p. 33). Lamenting that there is no war memorial or museum to commemorate their memory, Saeed draws our attention to India Gate or Memorial Tower at Bara Hindu Rao. He finds the British more honest and sincere for creating such memorials in which, in addition to British officers, they did not forget to include the names of Hindus and Muslims who fought under their banner (p. 34).

The Mujahideen themselves did not want any memorials. Propelled by an insatiable desire for freedom, they fought with a spirit of sacrifice without any hope for a reward.
Hum khoon ki qisten to bahut de chuke lekin
Aei ardh watan, qarz ada kyon nahin hota (p. 35)
(Though we have repaid in several instalments;
The debt ever remains unpaid).

In a few pages, the author provides geographical facts about the place called “Kala Pani” (Black Water) now known as Andaman & Nicobar islands, which are a cluster of a thousand islands 780 miles away from Calcutta. These are divided into seven settlements. It is inhabitated by tribals and several species of birds and animals who do not tolerate anyone else on the soil.

The British occupied the land in 1789 in order to develop a penal settlement for their prisoners under the command of Lieutenant Blair. His first attempt proved futile and he had to retreat in 1796 after lending his name to the place – Port Blair. The hostile attitude of the local population and inclement weather conditions drove him away. Following 1857 insurgency, the British decided to deport the freedom fighters to distant places wherefrom they would not be able to incite people for rebellion. Their first choice was Andaman. Hence those who escaped gallows or bullets were condemned to this wretched place. The first batch of ten freedom fighters arrived on 10 March 1858 under JP Walker as jailor.

From 1857-1945, this island remained a mute witness to inhuman atrocities. It was declared a public place, instead of penal settlement in 1945 when all 4500 inmates were transferred to prisons of their respective regions. There are several shocking events during this brief span of 87 years. The cellular jail was constructed in 1906. In 1942 during World War-II this area remained under Japanese occupation (23 March 1942-7 October 1945). They proved to be more atrocious than the British though they had handed over this settlement to Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose who visited the island as the Supreme Commander of Azad Hind Fauj (p. 37).

Why did it earn the sobriquet (Kaala Paani – Black Water). Maulana Fazl Haq Bari narrates in his memoirs the gloom and misery that prevailed there… “No misery in any part of the world can supersede what one suffers here.... even ordinary ailments prove fatal. There are several diseases… for which medical texts have nothing to offer as remedy… and when a patient dies… he is dragged by leg… denuded… buried deep in sands without a prayer or a ritual bath…” (p. 39).

Majority of inmates brought here used to be Muslims; many were ulama, intellectuals, men of letters, critics, and artists… they must be about 5-6 thousands in number (p. 42). Though practically nothing remains as record to apprise us of their biographies… yet they turned Andaman into a paradise on earth by their hard toil. In addition, tabligh was also undertaken with great passion.

The chief jailor, an Irish, David Beary, used to boast: God had ordained in his destiny the task of finishing enemies of the nation not by hanging nor by violence but by inflicting atrocities. (p. 45). This compelled the inmates to undertake hunger strikes (1937-38). Three persons died during a 45 day-long strike. Mahatma Gandhi and Ravindranath Tagore intervened on their behalf and the inmates were granted a few concessions (p. 45).

On 26 June 1941, the island was rocked by a severe earthquake which took a heavy toll of lives and caused wide-spread devastation. This was followed by atrocities perpetrated by the Japanese under Imperial Force by killing thousands under the suspicion of being British informers. On 29 December 1943, Netaji Bose - established his government-in-exile and visited the island. He was shown the Cellular Jail though he was not taken to places where Japanese had unleashed reign of terror. Were he to see these places and the atrocities he would have withdrawn his support to Japan and would not have established the INA headquarters there (p. 47).

Out of the archives, the author has been able to trace records of 314 mujahideen out of thousands. Some of them are presented in a few lines while a few have been covered (with their daring accomplishments) in three or four pages. Arranged in an alphabetical order, these 314 mujahideen form the second part of the book which runs into 240 pages.

There is only one entry showing the name of a lady among these warriors. The author wants Razia of Bengal to be called Bengali Joan of Arc. Life sketches of these cannot be included in this book review due to paucity of space. However, one cannot resist the temptation of narrating two life sketches:

Muhammad J’afar Thanesari participated in the 1857 war with great passion but having faced reversal, he returned to his hometown Thanesar in Punjab. After long deliberations on causes of failure he decided to tour various parts of the country. British terror did not spare his aged mother and younger brother. His wife too was imprisoned. The young child could not bear persecution any longer and divulged information of his whereabouts. During his imprisonment he recorded his memories in Taa’rikh Ajeeb covering 18-20 years of his incarceration. After completing his term in Andaman he returned to India.

Sher Ali Khan, another freedom fighter, had foreseen his predicament that none shall remember him nor shall his village be recalled (p. 137). His is an act of unprecedented courage and dare devilry. Out of 21 (or 17) Viceroys, only one died in office. Lord Mayo happens to be the only Viceroy who was assassinated when he was on an inspection tour of Andaman. It was destiny that drove him to a place which was not in the original schedule. When he visited the place, Mount Harriet (Hope Town) to watch a superb sun-set, Sher Ali Khan pounced on him. Stabbing him ten times he kept him in his death embrace. In spite of body guards and security personnel Sher Ali Khan fulfilled his long cherished desire to kill a highly important Englishman. Unlike other assassins in history who fled from the scene, Sher Ali Khan remained glued to the place ready for his tormentors to arrest him (138-141).

“Hang me as early as possible because my death would erupt a volcano which would roast the British empire and every drop of my blood would breed several Sher Alis” he said (p. 144).

Saeed asks us a very pertinent question here: We know Udham Singh’s name for assassinating General Dyers how come that no one knows Sher Ali who killed Lord Mayo? (p. 148).

Beautifully printed, the book has a jacket with two photographs - an enchanting view of the greenery in front of the Memorial Tower and the main gate of the Cellular Jail. There are nineteen plates reflecting the past. Incidentally, Sher Ali Khan’s photo is printed facing Lord Mayo’s. A photo of Netaji’s statue exhorting people to march is also included.

This remarkable book shall lose its impact if it remains confined to Urdu. It is imperative to get it translated into English and Hindi so that people  may  know how Muslim mujahideen’s contribution to the freedom struggle and how they have been thrown into abyss of oblivion.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-30 September 2010 on page no. 27

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