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Today, May 10, 2022, is the 165th anniversary of India’s first freedom struggle.
The first freedom struggle of India, launched in 1857, has essentially become synonymous with figures like Mangal Pandey, Nana Saheb, Tatya Tope, Rani Laxmibai, and Veer Kunwar Singh.
However, being a widespread movement of massive proportions, many of its heroes have been lost in oblivion as we either know very little about them or nothing at all. One such prominent leader of the 1857 Mutiny was Maulavi Liyaquat Ali, hailing from Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh.
Since the Mughal era, Allahabad has been a strategic location from where the monarch exercised control over the whole of northwest India. This is why Akbar built a fort there. This is also why, later, the British also retained it as the control centre for the region, extending from Delhi to Bengal.
During the Revolt, Maulavi Liyaquat Ali led the movement in Allahabad and managed to keep the British forces at bay from June 6, 1857 to June 16, 1857.
Ali was born between 1810 and 1830 in a peasant family at a village called Mahgaon in Chail Pargana (now in the district Kaushambi) of Allahabad. There is little by way of record available now. When he was arrested in 1871, however, his age was recorded in the court as 45 years.
His father’s name was Sheikh Meher Ali. His uncle, Dayam Ali, was employed with the Company Bahadur’s army in Jhansi, according to a piece by Arvind Kumar Singh. For a while, Ali also worked for the Company Bahadur with his uncle, but he opposed the ill treatment of indigenous soldiers by British officers. As a result of this, he was dismissed from service.
Maulavi Liyaquat Ali was an eminent Islamic scholar, and was also highly respected in his area. After being fired from his job, he returned to his village, visiting Delhi, Bhopal, and Tonk on the way. In Tonk, he met Sayyid Ahmad Shaheedi, who was by then, already waging a guerrilla war against the British.
This probably pushed Maulavi towards armed struggle. In his village, he opened a madrasa where he taught children. He also delivered sermons at various places. Meanwhile, he began organising local peasants in their struggle against the persecution of the Company Bahadur and his loyal native rulers, especially in rural areas. Popular with small zamindars, talukdars and common people in Allahabad, Mirzapur and Pratapgarh, he soon emerged as a local hero in Rohilkhand, Awadh and Kanpur.
His influence soon extended to the Panda community in Allahabad’s Daraganj, the Pragwal Brahmins of Kydganj and Beniganj, as well as to Muslim majority villages like Saidabad, Ranimandi, Dariyabad, Samadabad, Beli, Nawada, and others.
As a result of his efforts, when the bugle for the war of 1857 was sounded, the people of Allahabad were at the forefront.
The Battle of Allahabad
As soon as the news of the rebellion in Meerut on May 10 and the capture of Delhi by the rebel army on May 12 spread, the British army turned alert in Allahabad as well.
The Allahabad Fort had the largest stock of arms and ammunition in northwest India at the time. To guard it, the Sixth Regiment Bengal Native Infantry, which was part of the Ferozepur Regiment, had a portion of its Sikh troops stationed there and the rest in the cantonment on the Kanpur Road, which usually consisted of soldiers who hailed from peasant families of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh.
The British started sending armies to Allahabad.
Maulavi Liyaquat Ali, meanwhile, was training common people for war. All the zamindars of Allahabad supported him in his efforts. So did ordinary farmers and the urban class.
Sensing danger on June 5, British civilians were called inside the fort. Two companies of the Sixth Regiment and 150 Cavalry from Third Awadh were deployed with Lieutenant Alexander at Alopibagh and Daraganj to stop rebels if they crossed the Ganges Bridge.
Meanwhile, Liyaquat Ali was holding meetings throughout the city and was also in contact with soldiers in the cantonment as well as inside the fort. On June 5, Khalid Bin Umar notes in a blog post that a meeting of eight Mewati Muslim villages took place at Saif Khan’s house in Mauja, Shamdabad (where Company Garden is now located and where Chandrashekhar Azad was martyred during the freedom struggle of 1947). All of them joined the struggle the same day, except the host of the meeting, Saif Khan.
On the night of June 6 at 9.20 pm, Indian soldiers stationed at Daraganj, who were guarding the Ganges Bridge, started the rebellion. An order was issued from the fort that the soldiers should deposit their arms, but the soldiers defied the order and started moving towards the cantonment with their guns.
Lieutenant Harvard, who was the officer of this battalion, rushed to Lieutenant Alexander stationed at Alopibagh nearby who ordered his cavalrymen to fire at the rebel soldiers. These soldiers did not obey either. The soldiers killed Alexander when he opened fire.
Lieutenant Harvard somehow managed to escape and reached the fort. At 10 pm, Indian soldiers had killed all Britishers in the city and looted treasure. The next morning 3,000 prisoners were freed from the prison under the leadership of Sepoy Ramchandra.
On June 7, Maulavi Liyaquat Ali declared Allahabad independent and made the historic Khusro Bagh his headquarters. To control the chaos that had been going on for two days, Maulavi Liyaquat Ali marched in the city with the soldiers and all the rebels, delivered speeches and hoisted the emperor’s flag over the city Kotwali.
On June 8, Bahadur Shah signed a decree to appoint Maulavi Liyaquat Ali as the governor of Allahabad, which is still preserved at Hyderabad’s Salarjung Museum. On the same day Maulavi appointed a council and officials for managing the affairs of the city. Sheikh Nemat Ashraf was made the police authority or Kotwal and Sukh Rai was appointed the tehsildar.
Office bearers were chosen from both the communities and a massive council was set up to carry on the struggle. The Bharwari railway station in Allahabad had already been captured on June 7. So the English could not reach Kumuk by rail. There was no line till Allahabad then. By then, railway workers too had joined the movement.
Maulavi enjoyed the supported of all communities. Everyone from city residents to farmers of the Doab region and small land owners of the region extending between the Ganga and the Yamuna and beyond were with him.
However, the big princely states of the time, such as Raja Manda, Raja Dahiyabara, and Raja Karchana sided with the British, for which they were rewarded later.
The decrees issued by Maulavi Liyaquat Ali at the time show that he was a man of deep understanding and an overall brilliant general.
“Mulk Badshah ka, hukm Maulavi Liyaquat Ali ka” (‘The emperor’s country, Maulavi Liyaquat Ali’s governance’) was his motto.
Many of his orders, like banning attacks on Anglo-Indians and taking goods from shopkeepers without paying, were exceptionally humane.
By June 10, Maulavi and his men started efforts to capture the fort. Colonel Neil reached Allahabad on June 11 from the other bank of the Ganga. He was accompanied by a large army. Maulavi hoped to receive support from the 400 soldiers of the Sikh regiment stationed inside the fort, but they remained loyal to the British till the end.
Maulavi tried to penetrate the fort by placing an old canon rifle on the Jama Masjid built by Akbar but failed. The keys of the fort were held by a famous Khatri family of the city who had promised to hand them to Maulavi. But when two of the Maulavi’s men visited them, the family betrayed them and both of them were killed by the British.
Finally, on June 15, a fierce battle broke out between Maulavi’s army and the British, outside the fort. Maulavi had more soldiers, yet he was forced to retreat because his weapons were old and his army less trained. Many of his soldiers were injured or killed.
Maulavi returned to Khusro Bagh. On June 16, Colonel Neil’s army laid siege at Khusro Bagh and launched an offensive. By evening, the cleric was warned that the whole city would be set on fire if his men did not lay down their weapons.
Finally, on June 17, dodging Colonel Neil and his army, Maulavi, along with 3,000 of his companions, drove out to Kanpur and met Nana Saheb. On June 18, eight nearby villages of Mewati Muslims, including Samadabad, were burnt down and anyone who tried to escape was shot dead.
Later, all government buildings, the High Court, all Police Headquarters, the Attorney General’s office as well as the Civil Lines were constructed by the British over the remains of these villages. About 6,000 people of Allahabad city were killed in this rebellion.
The British army carried out terrible massacres in the areas near Kotwali, Kydganj, Daraganj, Beniganj, Dariyabad and Saidabad. As per records, nearly 600 to 800 people were hanged on the neem tree at the Chowk. Historian Vishwambhar Nath Pandey has said 634 people were hanged.
The ‘Phansi Imli’ tree – a tamarind tree witness to the massacre – still stands today on Kanpur Road. Despite this, Maulavi did not stop fighting. Till 1858, Maulavi’s army was in control of the area on the other side of the Ganga. In 1858, Maulavi fought his last battle, against Major Berkeley. He escaped that as well.
After the failure of the rebellion, the cleric stayed underground at Lajpur near Surat in Gujarat, disguised as Hakim Abdul Karim and later moved to Bombay. Here, he stayed at the house of a businessman, Bakir Ali. As he was delivering a sermon in a mosque, two people in the audience recognised him and informed British officials.
He was arrested on July 7, 1871 at Byculla station in Bombay, an event which was reported by the New York Times, Times London and Sydney Morning Herald. After a year in prison, on July 18, 1872, his trial began in the court of Judge A.R. Pollock in Allahabad. Judge Pollock wrote that during the hearing, hundreds of thousands of Maulavi’s supporters gathered outside the court to catch a glimpse of him.
Hearing the news of his capture and trial, Amy Harney, the only English woman to survive the Kanpur rebellion, who was then 17-year-old, reached Allahabad to testify in favour of the cleric. In her statement, she testified that the cleric not only saved her life but also reunited her safely with her family. On hearing testimonies of women like Harney, Sabiha White, and several others, Judge Pollock converted the cleric’s death sentence to a “kalapani” sentence, following which he was shipped to Port Blair.
Maulavi breathed his last in 1892. The state library of Allahabad still has the complete file of his case but it is in Persian, as was the custom then, and thus has few readers now.
After Independence, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru met Maulavi’s descendants in 1957. His sword and torn kurta-pyjama are preserved in the Allahabad Museum. His descendants are settled in Mahgaon and some localities in Kareli. With the efforts of local villagers and his family, an educational institution and a library named after him were opened in Kareli.
In a country where cities and roads are named and renamed every other day and statues are installed at every nook and corner, no such honour has been bestowed upon Maulavi’s memory.
Today, when communal politics and hatred rages, it is worthwhile to remember this unsung hero.
Even though the governments of independent India have failed to honour the memory of its heroes, people have kept them alive in their songs and folklore.
One is reminded of a couplet by Bahadur Shah Zafar expressing his own anguish, which is equally apt for all the martyrs of his time:
How wretched is your fate, Zafar! That as your burial ground
Even two yards were not to be had in the beloved’s land.
K.K. Pandey is the editor of a monthly magazine Samkaleen Janmat.
Primary sources for the piece were interviews and discussions with the late Quasi Naseem, a relative of Maulavi Liyaqat Ali. He was the only person from his village who visited Ali’s grave in Yangoon and was the founder of Maulavi Liyaqat Ali Library, Kareli, Allahabad. Interviews with Amir Kazi and Liyaqat who are relatives of Maulana Liyaqat Ali, were also sources of information.
An earlier version of the piece did not have this acknowledgement.