Titu Mir : His fight against the British from a Bamboo Fort
India’s first war of Independence from British colonial rule, in 1857, did not burst into flames all on a sudden. Sharp sparks of rebellions against the aggressive exploitation of the British East India Company’s raj in the Indian subcontinent, often with the support of local zamindars, mark Indian history right from the beginning of the 19th century. The politico-religious peasant uprising organized by Syed Mir Nasir Ali, popularly known as Titu Mir, is a classic example of the Indian subaltern’s growing anger and militant resistance to the new exploitative regime.
Uprising under leadership of Titu Mir
True, Titu Mir began his campaign as a socio-religious call to reform and purify Islamic practices in 19th century Bengal. Soon, however, it turned into an unmistakable uprising against the British rule and its Indian collaborators, and in Nasir Ali must be remembered for his Shahadat – martyrdom – as one of India’s first freedom fighters.
The fierce battle that raged in Narkelberia, a nondescript tiny village in today’s West Bengal, on November 19, 1831, was between to shockingly unequal parties: a regular British contingent, comprising 100 cavalry, 300 infantry and an artillery with two cannons, along with soldiers of several local landlords, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Stewart, met a few thousand brave peasants armed with bamboo sticks, led by Titu Mir.
William Bentinck, the Governor General of India, had decided that the uprising must be stamped out decisively. Titu Mir died fighting the British troops. Ghulam Masum, one of Titu Mir’s close followers, was captured and sentenced to death. Nearly 150 peasants were sent to prison. The bamboo fort, which his followers had built as the headquarters of the movement, was razed to the ground.
When peasants defied local landlords
Bentinck had reasons to be worried. For some years the Company administration had been noticing the support for Titu Mir’s movement swell alarmingly. His appeal to the local peasants to resist the exploitation of the local landlords, including such influential ones such as Kaliprasanna Mukhopadhyay, Gauriprasad Chaudhury, Debnath Ray and Rajnarayan, had clearly caught their imagination. Unable to cope with the rebelling peasants, the zamindars appealed to the British for help. And in Titu Mir they saw the prime enemy.
Syed Mir Nasir Ali was born to Syed Mir Hassan Ali and Abida Ruqayyah Khatun on January 27, 1782, in a small village named Chandpur, in present-day West Bengal, India. Brilliant in academic Islamic studies, Nasir Ali became a Hafiz of the Holy Qu’ran and a scholar of the Hadith when he was only 18. He was also a good sportsperson, and became particularly deft at wrestling. In 1822 he went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, where he met a noted Islamic scholar and reformer Syed Ahmed.
The famous bamboo fort
On his return Titu Mir himself became an Islamic preacher, aiming to cleanse local Muslims of spurious practices. Soon he realized that a vast number of his Muslim followers were extremely poor Muslim peasants who were being reduced to penury through ruthless taxation by local landlords. It also dawned upon him that the zamindars would not yield to appeals of reason, unless forced by an armed united peasant resistance. Thus began a series of conflicts.
One of the landlords was killed. Beaten back, the zamindars sought British help. The situation became seriously alarming for the Company administration when a local English Indigo planter Davis also had to bite the dust, in an armed conflict with the rebel peasants. Finally, when in October 1831, Titu Mir and his followers built a bamboo fort at Narkelberia, and started demanding counter taxes from the landlords of the area, the Governor General decided it was time to apply all the might at his command.
Yes, Titu Mir and his followers were defeated decisively, but the memory of their brave resistance has lived on not only in legends, but also in literature, as is testified by the novella, Titu Mir, penned by one India’s most coveted modern authors, Mahasweta Devi.
(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)