Ahmadullah Shah: Maulavi who used flatbread to spread message of freedom
The confirmation of his death was not enough. The British East India Company’s regime in India had to display his head, severed from the torso, hanging it in the heart of the town, to strike terror in Indian hearts. Well, the British had good reasons of being themselves terrified by Maulavi of Faizabad, Ahmadullah Shah.
Besides being known as the “lighthouse of the rebellion” of 1857, the Maulavi of Faizabad, Lucknow, was an astute war-strategist, and most importantly an extremely charismatic preacher of India’s millennia-old syncretic culture, known in popular local lingo as the Ganga-Jamuna Tahzeeb.
He succeeded in achieving what the British feared the most: unifying Hindus and Muslims in resisting British exploitation. ‘Tall, lean and muscular, with large deep eyes, beetle brows, a high aquiline nose, and lantern jaws,’ Maulana Ahmadullah, to quote a British officer-turned-historian, G.B. Malleson, was ‘most certainly… a true patriot’.
Early childhood of Ahmadullah Shah
Ahmadullah Shah was born in 1787 in Faizabad. He was well schooled in Islamic education as well as in English language. Besides performing Hajj, he had travelled to Iran, Iraq, Russia and England. His education coupled with the exposure he received from his travels to several countries, soon made him realize the true exploitative nature of the Company Raj in the Indian subcontinent. And he decided to resist it actively. He turned the sermons at Masjid Sarai, in Faizabad, into sessions of dissent against the local administration.
As India’s first organized war of Independence broke out in 1857, Maulavi Ahmadullah, raised an army, declared war against the British and freed Faizabad. A bond of comradeship between Hindus and Muslims was the cornerstone of his dynamic military leadership. His 22nd Infantry Regiment was commanded by two able Hindu officers Subedar Ghamandi Singh and Subedar Umrao Singh, in the famous battle of Chinhat, on June 30, 1857. Maulavi’s army decimated the British forces led by Henry Lawrence, the Chief Commissioner of the Awadh province. Hindu leaders of the movement, such as Nana Sahib and Kunwar Singh were also his close compatriots.
The Brtish administration had of course foreseen the ‘danger’ and had put Ahmadullah behind bars in Patna, in today’s state of Bihar, a few months before the rebellion burst into flames. The brave patriot, however, broke out of the prison in the confusion of the rebellion, on June 7, connected with the rebel leaders, declared Raja Man Singh as the king of Patna, and moved to Faizabad to launch his own battle.
Besides raging a war against the British, Maulana Ahmadullah played a key role in spreading the spirit of rebellion among the common people. And in this campaign, he skilfully used the Chapati, the Indian flat bread, the common man’s staple, to spread the message of freedom. It is now famous in Indian history as the Chapati Movement. Never had the humble Indian bread struck such terror into the hearts of the mighty British, as it did during those days.
Sadly, however, the Maulavi was martyred by his own treacherous countrymen. On June 5, 1858, when Ahmadullah reached the gate of the palace of Raja Jagannath Singh, the king of the small kingdom of Powayan, in Shahjahanpur district, with a hope to convince the Raja of joining the freedom movement, a volley of gunshots killed him instantaneously. The British had declared a huge price of 50 thousand silver pieces on his head. The Raja promptly cut off the martyr’s head, and rushed to present it to the district magistrate. He received the money alright, and the great Indian freedom fighter’s head was hung from a pole in the administrative quarters of Shahjahanpur.
(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)