How is Ashfaqullah Khan remembered today?
He is remembered as a martyr and a revolutionary of the Indian freedom struggle but with the prefix of Muslim invariably attached to these descriptions. In popular memory, his name is almost always associated with Ram Prasad Bismil and the Kakori train dacoity (1925). Beyond this, not much is not known about him. Ashfaqullah Khan is a name evoked now and then to stress upon the secular character of the Indian revolutionary and anti-colonial movement at large, and to emphasise the idea of communal harmony.
Other significant questions about Ashfaqullah Khan have been relegated to the background, such as what was his political and ideological journey and what kind of society did he envision and fight for? He is just understood as an idealistic youth who sacrificed his life for the country, becoming the ‘first Muslim martyr’ of the Indian freedom struggle. However, as his letters, diary and poetry reveal, there was an ideological and political depth to his journey which has been overlooked.
A brief life sketch
Ashfaqullah Khan was born on October 22, 1900, in a wealthy landlord family in Shahjahanpur district, in the United Provinces (present-day Uttar Pradesh), to Shafiqullah Khan and Mazharunissa. His initiation into the revolutionary movement began in the aftermath of the Mainpuri conspiracy (1918), spearheaded by Gendalal Dixit. Ashfaq was a student of Standard 7 then.
Though he knew about the sacrifices of revolutionaries like Kanailal Dutta and Khudiram Bose from Bengal and was inspired by them, Ashfaqullah’s first encounter with revolutionary politics came in the form of a police raid on his school to arrest a student, Rajaram Bhartiya, who had been involved in the Mainpuri conspiracy. That was when young Ashfaqullah started to seek out revolutionary groups working in the United Provinces. He asked his friend Banarsilal (who later turned approver in the Kakori conspiracy case) to introduce him to Ramprasad Bismil who had been declared an absconder in the Mainpuri conspiracy case.
In 1920, following a general pardon by the British king, those imprisoned for their role in the Mainpuri conspiracy were released. Bismil, who had evaded arrest until then, returned to Shahjahanpur in February of 1920 and thus began the legendary friendship which only ended with their death.
Over the next seven years, Ashfaq and Bismil formed an intense bond. They participated in the non-cooperation movement, campaigned for the Swaraj Party and engaged in revolutionary anti-colonial activism under the banner of the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA), culminating in the famous Kakori train robbery (August 9, 1925).
Avoiding arrest, Ashfaqullah escaped to Nepal. From there he went to Kanpur, where he met Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi, the reputed editor of Pratap and illustrious freedom fighter, before leaving for Daltonganj (in present-day Jharkhand’s Palamau district). He spent six months there working as a clerk under an assumed name. Then, overcome by restlessness, he made his way to Delhi, travelling through Nepal. He was planning to make his way abroad when a friend with whom he was staying betrayed him to the police.
Ashfaqullah Khan the revolutionary – also a poet writing under the pen name of ‘hasrat’ and ‘warsi’, and a dreamer who had wanted to open a school – was hanged on December 19, 1927, along with Bismil and Roshan Singh (all in different prisons), for his role in the Kakori train robbery. (The fourth revolutionary, Rajendra Nath Lahiri had been hanged two days earlier.)
A revolutionary’s ideology
As a youngster whose awareness of the anti-colonial movement was triggered by the arrest of a schoolmate for his involvement in the Mainpuri conspiracy, Ashfaq’s interest in revolutionary politics deepened when he read Walter Scott’s poem, ‘Love of Country’, in the eighth standard.
The story of Publius Horatius Cocle, an officer in the army of the Roman republic in sith century BCE who defended Rome from the Etruscan army, also left a deep impact on Ashfaqullah. In his writings he mentioned Thomas Babington Macaulay’s poem Horatius twice:
To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late,
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods.
As he wrote at the time in his short tract on the Mainpuri conspiracy, “This poem became the foundation of my love for [the] nation”. His teacher also gifted him a book titled Patriots of the World, and after reading it, he concluded that “only those who die for their country become immortal.” Defending the revolutionary youth who were condemned as seditionists or anarchists by the colonial state, Ashfaq wrote, “These young men would have been recognized as nation-builders if they had been born in a free country!”
In what was probably his first ‘political letter’, written to his friend Banarsilal sometime between 1921-22 – when he had decided on the revolutionary path he wanted to take but was yet to embark on it – Ashfaq voiced a desire to write a letter to Vladimir Lenin whose leadership of the Bolshevik revolution had become an inspiration for Indian revolutionaries: “I got to know about Lenin from your last letter. I am thinking of writing a letter to him too”.
After discussing his financial condition, his longing for personal freedom from the humdrum aspects of family life and his desire to fight for the freedom of the country, Ashfaq ended the letter with an acute observation, namely that “the freedom of India depends upon the farmers”. This observation was probably influenced by the Awadh peasant-tenant revolt (1920-22) which challenged the exploitative agrarian structure epitomised by the talukdars, landlords and the British Raj. Ashfaq felt it was important to do farming – the income generated could be used for the purpose of consolidating the peasantry.
In his last message to his countrymen, smuggled out from Faizabad Jail just a few days before his martyrdom on December 19, 1927, Ashfaqullah explained what kind of freedom he was fighting for:
“I want that kind of freedom for Hindustan where [the] poor should live happily and with ease. I pray to God that after my death, that day should come at the earliest when Abdullah mechanic of loco workshop, Dhaniya cobbler and common peasants are seen sitting on chairs in front of Mr.Khaliq-uz-Zaman, Jagat Narain Mulla and Raja Saheb Mehmoodabad in Lucknow’s Chhaatter Manzil [the palace of the erstwhile nawabs of Awadh].*
In this telling message, Ashfaq referred to two types of equality, i.e., economic and socio-cultural equality, and argues for the removal of inequalities on both counts. As to who the poor were, he made it clear in the same letter while expressing his support for the Communists and addressing them thus:
I am greatly in agreement with you and want to tell you that my heart always weeps for the poor peasants and helpless workers. While on the run I stayed with them and after seeing their condition I often wept… It is true that our cities shine because of them, our factories are working because of them…every work in the entire world is because of them… This is absolutely true that whatever they grow or produce, they have no share, they always remain sad and in bad shape. I do agree that for all these things our white Masters and their agents are responsible… I fully agree with your political aims…You should go village, to Industries, live among them, study their condition and make them politically aware.” *
Clearly, the poor for Ashfaq were the peasants and workers. Moreover, the above observations were not just rhetoric but based on an understanding of economic relations that, as he pointed out in his letter, he had seen for himself. He wrote that the “wealth of landlords is based on [the] exploitation of peasants and capitalists are like leeches who suck the blood out of workers.”
In his very short autobiography, which Ashfaq wrote from prison, he dwelt a great deal on the idea of freedom as well:
…I consider every form of foreign rule as illegitimate and along with that any republican form of Government in India which, a) does not recognise the rights of [the] marginalised, b) reflects the interest of capitalists and landlords, c) is not based on equal participation of worker and peasants, and, d) whose laws are made to maintain the existing privileges and differences…
He further stated that:
“I would say, If India attains freedom and instead of [the] British, our own people come to occupy the Government and the discrimination on the basis of rich and poor and between landlord and peasants remains, I would pray to God that don’t grant us freedom until equality gets established, for believing in this I can be called a ‘communist’, but I don’t care about it as I firmly believe in God…as he creates everyone as equals.”
Ashfaq wanted to write a separate tract on this subject but he did not get a chance to do so. It would not be an exaggeration to say that he was inspired by Marxism, but his ideas derived more from idealism and were backed by religious ethics than historical materialism. This was a common feature among his contemporaries like Bismil and Sachindranath Sanyal. Also, freedom for him did not mean just political freedom from alien rule; it equally meant social and economic freedom for the Indian masses as well.
Attitude towards religion
The role of religion across the entire spectrum of the anti-colonial movement has been discussed at length. That the early Indian revolutionaries derived their inspiration from religious principles and ideals is a well-accepted fact. Religious identity also became a very pertinent issue in the anti-colonial struggle with the growth of communalism and communal politics, especially in the third decade of the 20th century.
Ashfaqullah Khan’s attitude towards religion and related matters can be encapsulated in three interrelated points – a critique of religion based on identity politics; a critique of communalism; and, a view of religion as a private matter.
In the very last piece of writing in his short autobiography, Ashfaqullah Khan narrated his intellectual journey from pan-Islamism to patriotism in a poignant manner, reflecting upon events which were shaping the modern world, primarily the Balkan Wars and the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire during and after World War One. These events were interpreted as a conflict between religions (Islam versus Christianity) and led to the development of pan-Islamism, according to Ashfaq, which affected Muslims across the world. Even he was influenced by this discourse. He wrote:
I used to think and pray that Turks should win and establish suzerainty over India and we will become the subjects of Caliph…I developed hatred for British as they were the root of the problem and therefore their empire should get destroyed…and…we would come under the rule of Islam rather that Christianity… Probably even Hindus used to think that it would be better if China or Japan comes here…”
Reflecting on the beliefs he was swayed by, he concluded, “I think I was being idiotic and foolish as I wanted to throw the chains of slavery of one and embrace the other…I was imprudent in those times.”
This belief, according to Ashfaq, resulted from the teachings of an Indian government school teacher who “always used to differentiate between Hindus and Muslims. This I think was his meanness, and people like them are the real enemies of the nation.” General misgivings about people from another religion was commonplace during those times. Even Bismil wrote in his autobiography that initially he was reluctant to meet Ashfaq and was suspicious of his motives in wanting to join the revolutionary party, HRA, as he was a Muslim!
Later, as both got to know each other and conversations between them evolved, both Ashfaq and Bismil discarded their initial attitude towards the ‘other’ community and set a shining example of communal harmony. Both Bismil and Ashfaq took out several marches and campaigns in Shahjahanpur district in the wake of riots and even campaigned for the secular Swaraj party during municipal elections.
Ashfaqullah lived during a time when religious communalism was spreading its wings, what with the Arya Samaj’s shuddhi and Hindu Sangathan campaigns and counter campaigns by Muslims of Tabligh and tanzim. Ashfaq critiqued this communal atmosphere and thereby communal politics in his last message to his countrymen:
“…Oh! How can we appreciate the present-day life when our political leadership is going through internal strife? If one is fond of Tableegh [the propagation of Islam] the other believes that dying for shuddhi only will lead to emancipation…it is impossible that 7 crore Muslims can be converted to Hinduism and 22 crore Hindus can be turned into Muslims.” *
According to Ashfaq, it was the division on the basis of religious identity which had paved the way for India to become a colony of the British, because these differences negated the development of any form of national consciousness. As he saw it, if these divisions were not dealt with, it would only lead to the perpetuation of colonialism. Ashfaq also believed that communal poison was being spread among the Indian masses at the behest of the British bureaucracy and religion had just become a tool of ‘divide and rule’.
As far as the question of holding religious beliefs and practices was concerned, Ashfaq was a proponent of limiting them to the private sphere. He did not criticise religion but was critical of its use in politics. His last appeal to his fellow Indians was to tide over the differences of religion and unite against British imperialism.
Ashfaqullah Khan lived during a transitional phase of the Indian revolutionary movement and his ideological leanings and attitude towards religion reflected the changes that were taking place among the revolutionaries and in the revolutionary party, namely the HRA. After the hanging of Bismil, Ashfaq, Roshan Singh and Lahiri and the incarceration of other revolutionaries involved in the Kakori train robbery, the HRA changed its nomenclature to Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) under the leadership of Bhagat Singh and Chandrashekhar Azad, a change which also reflected the shift from idealistic socialism towards historical materialist socialism and, in matters of religion, from theistic secularism to militant atheistic secularism.
That is why Ashfaqullah Khan should not be remembered just as a ‘Muslim’ martyr of the freedom struggle but also as a revolutionary intellectual who tried to give shape to the larger revolutionary movement.
Harshvardhan is a research scholar at Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU, and Prabal Saran Agarwal is a research scholar at the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU.
*From Shamsul Islam’s Ashfaqullah Khan’s Martyrdom: Forgotten Facts.
All the statements of Ashfaqullah Khan have been taken from Amar Shahid Ashfakulla Khan (2008), edited by Banarsidas Chaturvedi and published by Ramjkamal Prakashan, and have been translated from the original Urdu by the authors in consultation with Tabrez Ahmed, a research scholar at Jamia Millia Islamia.