Maulvi Ahmadullah Shah Faizabadi: The Unsung Hero of the Revolt of 1857
Maulvi Ahmadullah, born 1820 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.
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.’
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 Maulvi was a very remarkable man…. In person, he was tall, lean and muscular with large deep set eyes, beetle brows, a high aquiline nose, and lantern jaws.” Thus describes British historian G.B. Malleson one of the greatest heroes of the first War of Independence Maulvi Ahmedullah Shah of Faizabad. The British considered him a worthy enemy and a great warrior so much so that many a British officer has praised him in flowing words. Thomas Seaton described him “as a man of great abilities, of undaunted courage, of stern determination, and by far, the best soldier among the rebels.”
The imperialists, however, at the same time were afraid of Ahmedullah and declared a reward of Rs. 50,000 for capturing him alive. The Imperial proclamation reads: “It is hereby notified that a reward of Rs.50,000 will be paid to any person who shall deliver alive, at any British Military post or camp, the rebel Moulvee Ahmed Molah Shah, commonly called “the Moulvee”. It is further notified that, in addition to this reward, a free pardon will be given to any mutineer or deserter, or to any rebel, other than those named in the Government Proclamation No. 476 of the lst instant, who may so deliver up the said Moulvee”.
The above proclamation is proof enough of how anxious the British were to catch Maulvi Ahmedullah. His actions and deeds, before and during the revolt, extracted praise even from Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. “The life of this brave Mohammadan shows that a rational faith in the doctrines of Islam is in no way inconsistent with or antagonistic to, a deep and all-powerful love of the Indian soil,” wrote Savarkar.
Maulvi Ahmedullah was a talookdar in Faizabad. His talook was confiscated by the government shortly after the annexation of Awadh. The angered Maulvi vowed to purge his motherland of foreign domination and made it a mission of his life that only ended on June 5, 1858. There were several others who had been equally wronged by the colonialists but Maulvi Ahmedullah proved himself a hard nut to crack for the colonialists. He travelled through large parts of Northern India and visited Agra, Delhi, Meerut, Patna and Calcutta, preparing ground for an enormous revolt. During his travels, he devised a novel scheme known as the Chapati Scheme. It was devised to disseminate the message amongst the rural population of the North India that a great uprising would take place on the first favourable opportunity. The circulation of chapatis from hand to hand was easy and not likely to cause any suspicion.
Maulvi Ahmedullah Shah was a rare combination of both a writer and a warrior. He used his sword valiantly, and his pen effortlessly for awakening and mobilising the people against the foreign subjugation. Shortly after his return, he wrote revolutionary pamphlets and started distributing them. It was too much for the imperialists and they ordered his arrest. He was tried for sedition and sentenced to be hanged. But before the execution of this order the revolt broke out. The Maulvi escaped from the Faizabad prison where he was detained and joined Begum Hazrat Mahal, the wife of the imprisoned Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Awadh, in fighting against the colonialists. Both the Begum and the Maulvi led the rebel soldiers against the English in the battle field.
In Lucknow Ahmedullah mounted an attack on the defences of Sir James Outram outside Alambagh. The Governor General dispatched Sir Colin Campbell in place of Outram to fight and flush out the rebels. Ahmedullah retreated to Rohilkhand and went on to seize Shahjahanpur. On his way to Shahjahanpur he was joined by the Rajah of Mohamadi and Mian Sahib, one of the chiefs of Lucknow, each heading a considerable body of armed men. Ahmedullah reached Shahjahanpur on May 3, 1858 with nearly eight thousand cavalry. Sir Colin marched to Shahjahanpur and defeated the rebellious troops but Ahmedullah managed to escape and then raided Pali.
It is interesting to note that despite all the means at their disposal and an organised system of intelligence, the British never succeeded in capturing Maulvi Ahmedullah. He continued to elude them and give sleepless nights to his enemies until June 5, 1858 when he decided to go to Pawayan, a few miles from Shahjahanpur in order to solicit the support of Jagannath Singh, the Raja of Pawayan. In fact, the Raja himself had requested him to personally come to the Fort of Pawayan. Ahmedullah approached the fort at Pawayan on a war elephant. The treacherous Raja refused to open the gate and instead opened fire on Ahmedullah and shot him dead. Thus, a great patriot’s story was brought to an abrupt end at the hands of a coward black sheep.
It is said that Jagannath Singh had invited him with premeditated objective of winning the reward. This incident occurred nearly two months after the reward of Rs. 50,000 was announced for Ahmedullah’s capture. However, it is worthy of notice that not a single man fighting under his command was ever induced to kill him for the hefty reward of 50,000, which was then an enormous amount.
Jagannath Singh presented the head of Ahmedullah to the British District Magistrate and claimed 50,000 rupees reward. “Thus died the Moulvee Ahmed Oolah Shah of Faizabad. If a patriot is a man who plots and fights for the independence, wrongfully destroyed, for his native country, then most certainly, the Moulvee was a true patriot,” wrote Malleson.
But alas! In our history textbooks, particularly the ones by which our children are given their doses of history of India, we seldom come across the name of this great freedom fighter who won accolades from friends and foes alike, and even from the likes of V.D. Savarkar. Just a passing reference here, and an odd mention there is all our textbooks offer on Maulvi Ahmedullah Shah of Faizabad, while the contributions of a few others are blown out of proportion. Indeed, he is one of the unsung heroes of our first War of Independence that was fought 150 years from now.
Proclamations of rewards for apprehension of two prominent rebels merit our attention in this context. The Governor General had offered reward of Rs 25,000 for the arrest of Babu Kuer Singh of Shahabad, Bihar, and Rs 50,000 for Moulvi Ahmadullah Shah of Fyzabad, Qudh. The former has been duly recognised in history for his anti-colonial role during the Mutiny. The historiographers have, however, shied away from focusing on the Moulvi, who was far more dangerous for British rule. But this fearless freedom fighter and matchless strategist met his tragic end at the hands of a traitor for the fabulous pecuniary reward.
The Moulvi wanted Raja Jagannath Singh of Pawain, a zamindar in district Shahjahanpur (UP), to join the anti-colonial war. With prior appointment, he went to meet the zamindar in his fortress-like a house. On arrival at the gate, he was greeted with a volley of gunshots from Jagannath Singh’s brother and retainers. The Moulvi breathed his last on the spot as a result.
The martyr’s head was severed and carried in a piece of cloth with blood still oozing from it to the District Magistrate, Shahjahanpur by the zamindar. The District Magistrate was at lunch with his friends. But the depraved feudal lord rushed in and presented the severed head of the hero on the dinning table of the District Magistrate. With the reward of Rs 50,000 he returned home, flying atop the flag of loyalty.
Thus came the bloody end of a revolutionary, whom Holme, a contemporary Army officer, described as “the most formidable enemy of the English in north India”. He further added that when the news of the Moulvi’s death reached “England, the Englishmen and women heaved a sigh of relief.”
The villains of Indian freedom did not suffer during the colonial era. They enjoyed the patronage of their masters. Their descendants captured the centre-stage of the political and administrative spaces and managed it to their exclusive advantages, of course, with pretentious display of concern occasionally for the ignorant masses. Generations of Quislings and traitors have been enjoying the loaves and fishes of power and authority in independent India to their heart’s content!
1. Altamash Mohammed in spritualworld.com
2. Mohd Asim Khan in Radiance Weekly, 31 December 2006
3. A K Biswas in Mainstream Weekly December 22, 2007