As India prepares to celebrate its 72nd Independence Day, we remember a renowned freedom fighter, Maulavi Ahmad Ullah Shah, who not just led the 1857 uprising, but also gave the supreme sacrifice for the nation, his life. His head and the body are buried separately at two difference places in Shahjahanpur, UP.
Maulavi Ahmad Ullah Shah is given credit for the success that the rebel armies managed in Lucknow, Shahjahanpur, Bareilly, larger Oudh and other areas in the entire uprising of 1857. He was one of the most successful generals in battlefield against the armies of the East India Company. Despite not being a trained soldier, Maulavi Ahmadullah Shah fought against the British East India Company across North India from Kanpur to Lucknow and Delhi to Bareilly and Shahjahanpur besides the surrounding places. He was a feared general whose name created terror in the hearts of the British forces. He was instrumental in the eventual fall of the East India Company forces in Lucknow and the surrounding places. Due to his heroics, fighting and leadership skills he become a legend. Repeated wars against the British colonial forces couldn’t beat him. Thus a foe, in the garb of friendship got him martyred. It was his sheer valour, courage and bravery, that even his most ferocious opponents were forced to praise him and call him a true, legendary patriot.
Born in the year 1787 as Sikandar Shah in Madras (Chennai), he rose to prominence at a very young age. While not much details of his youth are available, there are some accounts of the great scholar/general’s young years in Madras and then in Nizam’s Hyderabad. It is said that he was all set to be married to a close relative of the Nizam, but due to some reasons it didn’t happen. There are reports that he visited Great Britain and met the Queen. While returning from his British sojourn, he went to Iran where he was received by the King of Iran. There are reasons to believe that Ahmadullah Shah played a major role in the planning of the revolt in 1857. There are suggestions that he had interactions with Azeemullah Khan, the Diwan and later Prime Minister of Nana Saheb before Azeemullah left for his long journey to England. He visited Crimea, France, Turkey and also Russia and held parlays with high officials in those places.
Renowned British officers including George Bruce Malleson and Thomas Seaton, besides many others have made numerous mentions of his courage, valour and personal and organizational capabilities. G. B. Malleson repeatedly mentioned Ahmadullah Shah in the History of Indian Mutiny, a book written in 6 volumes covering Indian revolt of 1857.
A well-known historian, G. B. Malleson, while describing the renowned revolutionary says, “The Moulvi was a remarkable person. His name was Ahmad Ullah and his native place was Faizabad in Oudh. In person, he was tall, lean and muscular, with large deep eyes, beetle brows, a high aquiline nose, and lantern jaws”.
Maulavi Ahmad Ullah was also known as Maulavi Ahmad Ullah of Faizabad, besides many other pseudonyms that he used through years in the course of the first war of independence. He was not just a Maulavi. Besides being a practicing Muslim, he was also an epitome of religious unity and Ganga-Jamuni culture of Oudh. In the rebellion of 1857, royalties like Nana Sahib and Khan Bahadur Khan fought alongside Ahmadullah.
Rashmi Kumari in her book ‘Maulavi Ahmad Ullah Shah and great revolt of 1857’ has described the legend in the best possible terms. Ram Shankar Tripathi, while writing about the Maulavi says, “With being a practicing Muslim, he was also the epitome of religious unity and Ganga-Jamuni culture of Faizabad. In the revolt of 1857, royalties like Nana Sahib of Kanpur, Kunwar Singh of Arrah fought alongside Maulavi Ahmadullah Shah. Maulavi’s 22nd Infantry Regiment was commanded by Subedar Ghamandi Singh and Subedar Umrao Singh in the famous Battle of Chinhat.”
He goes on to add, “Maulavi wanted Raja Jagannath Singh of Pawayan, a zamindar in district Shahjahanpur of Uttar Pradesh, to join the anti-colonial war. On June 5, 1858, with prior appointment, he went to meet Raja Jagannath Singh in his fortress-like house. On arriving at the gate, he was greeted with a volley of gunshots from Jagannath Singh’s brother and retainers. The Maulavi breathed his last on the spot…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 dining table of the district magistrate. With a reward of Rs 50,000, he returned home, flying atop the flag of loyalty.”
He assumed the leadership of the rebels as soon as the uprising began. The rebel army of Oudh was led by Barkat Ahmad and Maulvi Ahmadullah Shah. In the Battle of Chinhat, Barkat Ahmad was declared Chief Army Officer of the rebels. East India Company forces were led by Henry Montgomery Lawrence who eventually died in The Residency, Lucknow. This fierce battle was won by rebel army under the leadership of Barkat Ahmad and Maulvi Ahmadullah Shah also led an attack on Beligarad. It was a huge victory for the rebels.
When Lucknow was recaptured by rebels, Wajid Ali Shah’s son Brijis Qadr, then all of ten years was declared the king. Maulavi resisted being part of new administration. He went away from the palace politics and established his camp with Ghamandi Singh and 1000 soldiers of subedar Umrao Singh in Badshah Bagh beyond river Gomati.
Soon British army was back. On 6 March 1858, British forces attacked Lucknow again under the leadership of Sir Colin Campbell, a reputed British army official. The rebel army was led by Begum Hazrat Mahal. With the capture of Lucknow by the British army, the rebels escaped on 15 and 16 March through a road leading to Faizabad. The last rebels, 1,200 men under Ahmadullah Shah, were driven from a fortified house in the centre of the city on 21 March. The city was declared cleared on this date. After the fall of Lucknow, Maulavi shifted his base to Shahjahanpur, Rohilkhand. In Shahjahanpur, forces of Nana Sahib and Khan Bahadur Khan also joined Maulavi in attacking British forces. Colin Campbell departed from Shahjahanpur on 2 May towards Bareilly. Maulvi, with king of Mohammadi and several thousand soldiers attacked Shahjahanpur. The British Army was informed and General Brigadier John reached Shahjahanpur on 11 May. Jones could not muster courage to attack Moulavi and kept waiting for more assistance from Bareilly. George Bruce Malleson writes that: “Maulavi was the only one who could have dared to defeat Sir Colin Campbell twice”.
Rebels and the occupation armies fought on 15 May 1858. Both sides had to bear heavy losses but rebels still controlled Shahjahanpur. Colin reached Shahjahanpur on 20 May, and attacked it from all sides. This battle continued all night long. Maulavi and Nana Sahib left Shahjahanpur. It is said that Colin himself followed Maulavi but couldn't capture him. After the fall of Shahjahanpur, Maulavi left for Powayan which was situated 18 miles north of Shahjahanpur.
Despite his great achievements on the battlefields across the United Provinces during the 1857 uprising it should be kept in mind that Maulavi Ahmadullah Shah was not a trained soldier, yet as a general he displayed great ability in tactics. He proved himself as a great planner of war besides assessing possibilities and situations. Notwithstanding the fact that he was not sure about the success of attack on well-entrenched Residency in Lucknow, the disciplined general participated in the attack wholeheartedly. He had prophesied that the attack will not succeed, and the same happened. However, he participated in the attack with his full might as it was the decision of the collective leadership of the rebels. The Maulavi had told the rebel leadership that they were in a trap and that the city could not be defended against the British.
Malleson, while writing about the Maulavi says “If a patriot is a man who plots and fights for the independence, wrongly destroyed, of his native country, then most certainly the Moulvi was a true patriot. He had not stained his sword by assassination; he had connived at no murders; he had fought manfully, honourably, and stubbornly in the field against the strangers who had seized his country and his memory is entitled to the respect of the brave and the true-hearted of all nations.”
It is said that the British could never catch Maulavi alive. The price of 50,000 pieces of silver was announced to capture him. Finally the king of Powayan Raja Jagannath Singh killed Maulvi with treachery, beheaded him and presented his head to the magistrate. Raja Jagannath was paid announced price for his treachery. Next day, the head of Maulavi was hanged at Kotwali. The saint general was martyred on 5 June 1858. Now his mausoleum in Shahjahanpur is a place frequented by people of all faiths including Hindus and Muslims, who not just pray there, but also find solace in the quiet mazaar of the saint general.
More columns by Syed Ubaidur Rahman:
Jallianwala Bagh massacre: Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs sacrificed their lives together