How Bhopal Ruler Tackled 1857 Revolt

It is now 150 years since the first revolt took place in 1857 to throw out the yoke of British rule in India. The history of Indian national movement would be incomplete without the presentation of the actual role of Indian Muslims in it.

Many historians tried in vain to prove that Indian Muslim leaders preached the gospel of separation right from the Revolt of 1857 to the day of independence in 1947, and the Muslim antagonism to the Freedom Movement dates back to its beginning itself and that religion can never allow a true Muslim to adopt India as his/her motherland. While the fact remains that Indian Muslims have written the history of Freedom Movement on the sands of time with their own blood.

But contrary to the expectations, the role of Indian Muslims in the national movement has not been given proper place in the press or books. It has either been sidetracked or mentioned in passing reference by scholars. Instead of adipting principles of factual and unbiased historiography it has been communalised.

The contribution of Muslim revolutionaries, poets and writers is not known to common man in India today. Similarly facts are scarcely known about the contribution of Muhammad Ashfaqullah Khan of Shahjehanpur who conspired and looted the British treasury at Kakori (Lucknow) to cripple the administration and who, when asked for his last wish before execution, desired: No desire is left except one that someone may put a little soil of my motherland in my winding sheet.

Likewise, the present generation of students does not know about Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a great nationalist who passed 45 years of his 95 years of life in jail for the freedom of India; Barakatullah of Bhopal, one of the founders of the Ghadar party who created a network of anti-British organisation and who died penniless in the United States in l927; Syed Rahmat Shah of the Ghadar party who worked as an underground revolutionary in France and was hanged for his part in unsuccessful Ghadar uprising in 1915; Ali Ahmad Siddiqui of Faizabad (UP) who planned the Indian Mutiny in Malaya and Burma along with Syed Mujtaba Hussain of Jaunpur and was hanged in 1917; Umar Subhani, an industrialist and millionaire of Bombay who presented a blank check to Gandhiji for Congress expenses and ultimately gave his life for the cause of independence; Muhammad Basheer, Khuda Bux, A. Zakaria, Zafar Hasan, Allah Nawaz, Abdul Aziz and tens of thousands of revolutionaries.

There is no doubt that the Muslims contributed massively to the national movement. Their struggle started since the advent of British rule in India. In the annals of archives Qaiser-ul-Tawarikh mentioned that the number of Muslims executed only in Delhi during 1857-58 was 27,000, not to speak of those killed in the general massacre. This shows the great sacrifices they made for the emancipation of their country from British rule.

Let us examine here the scenario in Bhopal state in Central India during the 1857 uprising wherein a Muslim woman held the reigns of power. Sardar Dost Mohammad Khan, an Afghan chieftain of Aurangzeb’s Army, had established the Bhopal state after the Mughal Emperor’s death in 1707.

Sikandar Jahan Begum, a successor to the Dost Mohammad Khan dynasty and the second of the four Begums who ruled Bhopal from 1819-1926, held the reigns of power from 1844-1868 under the patronage of British rule – the period in between which the first war of Independence broke out in 1857.

The Regional office of the National Archives of India at Bhopal houses a unique collection of documents that has been designated as “Mutiny Papers”. They constitute about 400 bulky files some of which are voluminous enough to contain 200 pages or so. These documents are a mine of information about the causes and consequences of the Great Rebellion of 1857 that spread throughout the length and breadth of the erstwhile state of Bhopal. Moreover, we also know about the spread of uprising in its neighbouring territories. A detailed account of the activities and actions of the ruler of the Bhopal state in suppressing the same can be reconstructed from such a plethora of records.

The present write-up aims at presenting evidence and drawing the readers’ attention to some important and interesting considerations arising from a study of some important documents. Though the study is not exhaustive enough to cover all the important events, the underlying spirit of the rebellion and its striking similarity with the war of independence that had engulfed the major part of the Indian subcontinent also deserves some importance.

The outbreak of the rebellion in Bhopal was not spontaneous because there was an ongoing effort to arouse the anti-British feelings among the masses on various pretexts. However, the rumour of mixing of bone-dust in the sugar provided the fuel to the fire like greased cartridges that was highly obnoxious to the religious susceptibilities of the Indians. This suddenly brought the latent spirit of revolt into action and set the spark that kindled the embers of discontent among the Indian sepoys of the East India Company’s Army who took advantage of the rumours of mixing of bone-dust for producing the desired effect among the masses like the greased cartridges

Since the very existence of the British had a far-reaching impact on the Indian political arena, the company’s ascendancy to power had a demoralising effect on the masses that began to hate it. The general discontent and widespread rebellion in other parts of India provided an impetus for them to rise in arms to overthrow the East India Company’s rule either through the Nawab of Bhopal or mastermind her ouster from power to put an end to this ‘petticoat’ government.

The ideology of the rebels played a pivotal role in organising and coordinating their action plan and in attempting at systematisation of the administration of the occupied territories. The rebellion was declared as jihad against the British and the Maulvis and Afghans began to preach holy war against them in the mosques of Bhopal. The overthrow of the British yoke was aimed at the formal continuance of the Mughal supremacy and the establishment of an autonomous state under the leadership of the chief rebels like Fazil Muhammad Khan and Adil Muhammad Khan. The rebellion was not in isolation but had close relationship with rebel leaders of other states like Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi, Tatya Tope, Nawab of Tonk, Nawab of Banda and others who had maintained rapport and secret contact with them. The ruler of Delhi was acknowledged as the emperor of Hindustan and offerings began to be sent to Delhi in the form of horses and cash.

The rebels had formulated a determined line of action and successfully implemented the same in the theatre of war. They had a conceited plan of capturing all the forts for liberating the state from the British clutches. Although the exact number of rebel forces deployed for waging the war at various fronts from time to time is not known but initially they outmanoeuvred many attempts of the Begum. However, the Begum in collusion with the company outnumbered the rebels gradually.

The surrounding regions like Indore and Mhow were inflamed by the sentiments of rebellion that erupted like a volcano at Neemuch on June 3, 1857. In the beginning of July 1857 Bakhshi Murawwat Muhammad Khan informed Nawab Sikandar Jahan Begum that the rebel forces were marching towards Bhopal from the above-mentioned territories. Accordingly, Begum issued instructions to Bakhshi to repulse the army of Mhow. Nawab Sikandar Jahan Begum also took precautionary measures by strictly prohibiting the circulation of all seditious notices either found lying on the road or stuck on the walls. She immediately instituted an enquiry against Maulvi Abdul Qayyum, Darogha of Fatehgarh Fort who was charged of collusion with the rebels and distributing 500 copies of a pamphlet issued by the rebels of Cawnpore (Kanpur), inciting the Hindus and Muslims to overthrow the British because they were interfering with their religions sentiments. She also tried her best to counteract this belief by publishing a pamphlet from Sikandari press, Bhopal denying such charges.

The first signs of insurgency appeared in the Begum’s Army comprising 600 cavalry and 400 infantry which had been raised under the Anglo-Bhopal Treaty of February-March 1818 between Nawab Nazar Muhammad of Bhopal state and the British Government and put under the direct command of the British officers. But when the mutiny broke out most of these sepoys had become restive and disobeyed their British masters and their allies. Some of the rebel sepoys of Bhopal contingent became so much enthused that out of fear Major William Henry Richards, Political Agent at Bhopal, and other British officers thought advisable to leave the matters under the direct charge of the Begum and shifted to a safer place about 92 kilometres away at Hoshangabad. Many of the soldiers were so much charged with rebellions frenzy that they set on fire the British officer’s bungalows at Sehore cantonment, about 35 kilometres from Bhopal, and made incessant attempts to plunder arms and ammunitions from the Magazine. One Mama Qahhar Khan, Jamadar in the Vilayatian Regiment, revolted along with the sepoys working under him and refused to accept pay; as a result their services were terminated.

Later, we find that the most incurious sepoys gave vent to their pent up feelings under the leadership of Wali Shah, Risaladar and Mahavir, Kotha-Havaldar by burning and ransacking the bungalows of the English. Subsequently, they proclaimed their slogans that all creatures owe their existence to Almighty God and the country belongs to the king, and the order lies with the soldiers. Both these rebel leaders raised the banner of revolt at Sehore in the morning of August 6, 1857 and pronounced their symbols of revolt as the Nishan-I-Muhammadi and the Nishan-I-Mahaviri and requested both the communities to rally round them. Next day the rebel sepoys decided to collect Rs.2 lakhs at least, by foul or fair means, from the Mahajans of Sehore. Mahavir, one of the leaders who engineered the plot snatched Rs.700 from the state Treasury of Sehore Tahsil.

In Berasia, about 40 kilometres to the north of Bhopal, Shajaat Khan Pindari and Jahangir Muhammad Khan emerged as rebel leaders. They raised a regiment consisting of 70 followers and made an attack there on July 14, 1857 and looted the township of Berasia and killed Babu Subh Rao, assistant Political agent, Munshi Mukhdum Bakhsh and others. They also plundered the treasury and seized the personal effects of the officers murdered by the insurgents. Some of the sepoys of the Bhopal contingent stationed there too assisted the insurgents in crushing and paralysing the state machinery.

Nawab Sikandar Jahan Begum had tried her best to restore peace and order in Berasia and its suburbs and forced the rebels to take flight. Shajaat Khan Pindari was reported to have fled to join Fazil Muhammad Khan, the rebel Jagirdar of Garhi Ambapani, but on the invitation of Prince Bhawani Singh of Narsinghgarh he remained stationed at Karwar. Unfortunately, the rebel leader could form coalition neither with Fazil Muhammad Khan nor with Bhawani Singh and was arrested by the spies of the state. Shajaat Khan along with his followers was brought to Sehore jail under military escort and in the morning of January 4, 1857, the great freedom fighter of the land of Bhopal and his son were hanged near Idgah of the town for their rebellions activities against the ruler as well as British Government. The Khakrubs or sweepers buried them beneath a Mahua tree in one and the same grave.

Another seat of uprising was Piklon, a tahsil of Bhopal state adjoining the territories of Maharaja Scindia of Gwalior, where a group of rebel leaders like Muhammad Abu Saeed Khan, popularly known as Nawab of Itarsiwala, Raja Chhatarsal of Agra, Aqil Muhammad Khan, Fazil Muhammad Khan and Adil Muhammad Khan of Garhi Ambapani and others devised a plan to occupy the town. For repulsing the impending danger, Nawab Sikandar Begum sought Maharaja Scindia’s help and co-operation to block the advancing troops of the rebels. In spite of the efforts of Begum to quell the rebellion, the insurgents consisting of about 300 men attacked the town of Piklon and forced the state forces to retreat. They plundered the town and its adjacent villages like Chopra, Bisraha and Bisrai etc. and also established their Thana at Piklon. Due to the havoc prevailing there the Tahsildar of Piklon fled away from the war scene and took refuge in an adjoining village in the territory of Scindia.

It is interesting to note that the distribution of mysterious Chapatis (5 loaves of bread) by the insurgents in the villages of Sehore Tahsil has also been referred. The Begum of Bhopal took immediate notice of it by issuing a notification addressed to all the District Collectors of the state to put a ban on its further distribution from village to village. She also directed her officers to obtain an undertaking from the Balahi and Patel of every village to report to the Thana concerned if anyone found guilty of violating the same.

Thus, the sepoys and the disgruntled Jagirdars, who dared to rise in revolt, could not give vent to their engineered ideas through organised actions, for want of cohesion among themselves and absence of sagacious leadership. Nawab Sikandar Jahan Begum’s quick offensive actions against the rebels served to put down this seeming unrest in Bhopal.

In spite of the fact that the rebellion failed in achieving the desired goal through the tactful machination of the Begum of Bhopal and her administrative potentialities, the Great Rebellion of 1857 generated a spirit of independence which in the succeeding decades led not only to the exodus of the British from India but also extinguished the Bhopal state itself.

It is said that during the 1857 uprising Nawab Sikandar Jahan Begum used to say that Bhopal state was not a creation of the Britishers but she adopted a middle path of not alienating the masses and at the same time saving her empire from being annexed by the ruthless foreign power. The Anglo-Bhopal 1818 treaty of her predecessor Nawab Nazar Mohammad Khan (1816-1819) with the Englishmen bound her to side with the British Government during the 1857 revolt. She assiduously faced the situation and the Bhopal state existed for another 90 years till the last Nawab of Bhopal Hameedullah Khan merged it with the Indian Union when the Britishers were ousted from India in 1947.