The First War of Indian Independence: Recounting Untold History 150 Years On

The 1857 revolt, which had forged an unshakable unity amongst Hindus and Muslims, was an important milestone in our freedom struggle – providing hope and inspiration for future generations of freedom lovers. However, the aftermath of the 1857 revolt also brought about dramatic changes in colonial rule. After the defeat of the 1857 national revolt – the British embarked on a policy of ‘Divide and Rule,’ fomenting religious hatred as never before, writes MUHAMMAD BURHANUDDIN QASMI.



The First united War of India’s Independence or the Indian Rebellion of 1857, as in the British records, also known as the Sepoy Rebellion, the Indian Mutiny, and the Sepoy Mutiny, was a prolonged period of armed uprisings in different parts of India against British occupation. Small precursors of brewing discontent, as was the plan, involving incidences of arson in cantonment areas began to manifest themselves in January 1857. Later, a large-scale rebellion broke out in May that year and turned into what must be called a full-fledged war of independence in the country. This war ultimately led to the end of the British East India Company’s rule in India, and immediately led to fidgety direct rule by the British government.

In Thana Bhawan, a place in Muzaffar Nagar district of UP, Muslim Ulama gathered under the leadership of Haji Imdadullah Muhajir-e-Makki. And in May 1857 the famous Battle of Shamli took place between the forces of Haji Imdadullah and the British army. This year 2007 marks 150 years of those untold stories of the heroes of India’s war of freedom. While many of them like Mongal Pandey and Lakshmi Bai, the Queen of Jhansi, though found tributes in the pages of modern Indian history, the real brave men and the torchbearers, the Ulama, have been deliberately buried under bigoted attitude of governments that aid (the distortion) of history and await a real recounting from the sons of the soil to whose destiny they bestowed their last gasps of life.

Islam teaches us not to subjugate the free will of the people but it exhorts its followers not to submit to oppressive and evil forces. It was this teaching of Islam that inspired the Ulama of India to wage a relentless war against the Company rule. However, there are so-called intellectuals who will not only ignore the Ulama’s contributions to India’s independence, but intentionally malign Muslim scholars and their educational institutions branding them anti-national. The following statements of a British Army general, Thomson, should be an eye-opener for those who are unable to see the selfish motives of some so-called nationalists. The British army general, who fought against Muslims in the uprising of 1857, wrote in his memoir: (Rebellion Clerics: p.49):

“If to fight for one’s country, plan and mastermind wars against mighty occupying powers are (acts of) patriotism, then undoubtedly the maulvis (i.e., the Ulama) were the loyal patriots to their country and their succeeding generations will remember them as heroes.”

But in our country these maulavis, unfortunately, happen to be looked at as otherwise. Let alone remembering them as heroes, their succeeding generations are even questioning their spirit of patriotism.

Shah Waliullah and his Mission

Shah Waliullah Dehlavi (1703-1762) led a revolution to change the whole system by drawing attention of the people towards degradation of European imperialism and rampant corruption among oriental rulers. During his pilgrimage to Makkah in 1731, he was inspired by a vision to replace the imperialist and corrupt administration by establishing a government based on principles of equality and justice.

Shah Waliullah had seen the decline of Mughal rule in India and observed similar degeneration in other countries of Asia and Africa. The last revered and powerful ruler of the Mughal dynasty, Aurangzeb, had already passed away (1707) and the East India Company had assumed power to rule a part of Eastern India, defeating Sirajud Dawla at Palasi in 1757. Ultimately, Shah Waliullah came to the conclusion that monarchist and imperialist tendencies were the main cause for worsening state affairs. He formulated certain principles, necessary for the revival of human values. In his world famous book, Hujjatullahi al-Baligha, he laid down those principles i.e., “labour is the real source of wealth” and “only those who put in the physical and mental labour for the sake of betterment of the society deserve to possess wealth.” People, he believed, are equal and the position of the ruler of a State is no more than that of a common citizen in matters of justice and freedom. The right to freedom, security and property, are essential for all, irrespective of religion, race or colour.

It is to be noted that he propagated these ideas long before the French, American or Soviet revolutions took place. It is a pity that even today these noble ideas lie buried under the trash of imperialist history that was mainly written to tarnish the image of Muslims and Ulama in India. It could be termed as nothing but the tragedy of this nation that a stalwart like Shah Waliullah Dehlavi is deprived of a place in the modern history syllabus of schools and colleges.

Martyrdom of Tippu Sultan

During the period between 1757 and 1857, Muslims alone fought organized battles against the mighty British for the freedom of this country. On 4th May, 1799 Tippu Sultan was martyred in the battle of Srirangapatnam. On seeing his dead body Lord Harris gloated: “Now India is Ours.” (Biography of Sultan Tipu, p. 343)

Tippu Sultan’s martyrdom has been a source of inspiration for the Ulama who fought tooth and nail against imperialist designs in India. They, however, later took realistic view of the situation and came to conclusion that after Tippu Sultan’s death there was no ruler who could challenge the British power. And rightly so, later on history proved that the British occupied the whole of India in a short span of time after Tippu Sultan was martyred.

First Fatwa against the British Rule in India

In 1803, the British captured Delhi and set up the rule of the East India Company, declaring ‘people belong to God, country to the King, and administration to the Company Bahadur’. The common talk in Delhi at that time was, “the writ of Shah Alam does not run beyond Palam.” At that time Shah Abdul Aziz Dehlavi (1703-1823), the son of Shah Waliullah Dehlavi, issued the first edict (Fatwa) against the British rule that proclaimed, “Our country has been enslaved. To struggle for independence and put an end to the slavery is our duty”. With this proclamation of Shah Abdul Aziz Dehlavi, the long drawn India’s freedom struggle witnessed a new momentum.

Syed Ahmad Shaheed

Ulama under the leadership of Syed Ahmad (1786-1831), the great martyr of Rai Bareli of UP took the task of executing the edict of Shah Abdul Aziz. The armed struggle against the British occupation started in 1808, when Maharaja Jaswant Rao and Nawab Amir Ali Khan jointly planned to fight against the British forces. Shah Abdul Aziz ordered his disciple Syed Ahamd Shaheed to merge his army with that of Amir Ali Khan. Syed Ahmad Shaheed fought jointly for six years before he came to know that Amir Ali Khan was contemplating to enter into a pact with the British.

He left Amir Ali Khan and from the year 1818 to 1821 he toured the country to propagate and instill the spirit of independence in the masses. In 1824, he set up his base in the Frontier and began the struggle. A nucleus of freedom fighters met on January 10, 1827 and set up a provisional Government of Free India under the leadership of Syed Ahmad Shaheed. In a tyrannical system, as the condition existed in those days, this was the first ever bold and courageous move by a representative body to denounce openly the British rule in India.

An Indian Prince, and an ally of the British imperialism, invaded North-West Frontier Province of present-day Pakistan in the year 1818. As the Province fell, it was annexed to Punjab and indirectly fell under the East India Company. Syed Ahmad Shaheed and Shah Ismail Shaheed with the help of the Mujahadeen, including the Swatis, Pashtun tribe of Balakot, and Syeds of Kaghan, led many revolts and attacks against the British allies. At last on 6th May 1831, during a fierce battle, Syed Ahmad Shaheed and Shah Ismail along with 300 of their followers were martyred. Thus the Ulama leaders of the freedom struggle paid the price of united free India through their lives and were defeated in the battle of Balakot.

Even after this setback, companions of the two great martyrs carried on the struggle for nearly half a century. Ulama of Sadiqpur continued their relentless struggle and went on fighting in the Frontier region for more than two decades between the year 1845 and 1871.

The Historic Revolt of 1857

Indian freedom fighters kept on fostering anti-imperialism revolt all over the country. In 1857 another edict for Jihad (call for war as religious obligation for Muslims) was issued. The edict carried the signature of 34 Ulama. Prominent among them were Maulana Qasim Nanotavi, the founder of Darul Uloom Deoband, Maulana Rasheed Ahmad Gangohi and Hafiz Zamin Shaheed who fought the British army under the leadership of Haji lmdadullah at Shamli and was martyred.

Threatened by such a radical turn of events, the British rulers poured immense resources into arms and men to suppress the struggle. Although the rebels fought back heroically – the betrayal by a number of Indian rulers allowed the British to prevail. Lord Canning (then Governor General) noted about an Indian Prince that, “If (he) joins the rebels, I will pack off tomorrow”. Later he was to comment: “The Princes acted as the breakwaters to the storm which otherwise would have swept us in one great wave.” (India During the Raj: Eyewitness Accounts, from Diaries and Related Records Held at the British Library, London,

The British were also helped by the conservatism of the trading communities who were unwilling to put up with the uncertainties of a long drawn out rebellion. But equally important was the superior weaponry and brutality of the British in defending their empire. British barbarity in suppressing the uprising was unprecedented. After the fall of Lucknow on May 8, 1858 Frederick Engels commented:

“The fact is, there is no army in Europe or America with so much brutality as the British. Plundering, violence, massacre – things that everywhere else are strictly and completely banished – are a time honoured privilege, a vested right of the British soldier…” (South Asian History Pages from the History of the Freedom Struggle in India, 1857.html and also New-York Daily Tribune, February 20, 1858)

In Awadh alone 150,000 people were killed – of which 100, 000 were civilians. The great Urdu poet, Mirza Ghalib wrote from Delhi, “In front of me, I see, today, rivers of blood.” He went on to describe how the victorious army went on a killing spree – ‘killing every one in sight – looting people’s property as they advanced.’

Bahadur Shah’s three sons were publicly executed at “Khooni Darwaaza” in Delhi and Bahadur Shah himself was blinded and exiled to Rangoon where he died in 1862. Refusing to plead for mercy from the British, he courageously retorted: “The power of India will one day shake London if the glory of self-respect remains undimmed in the hearts of the rebels.”

Thomas Lowe wrote:

“To live in India now was like standing on the verge of a volcanic crater, the sides of which were fast crumbling away from our feet, while the boiling lava was ready to erupt and consume us.”

Nevertheless, the revolt of 1857 or the first war of India’s independence by the Ulama failed and Indians failed to resist a long armed battle against the mighty British army. Thereafter the Ulama became the main target of the British oppression and persecution. The word ‘Maulavi’ became synonymous with ‘rebel’ in the British eyes. Out of approximately 200, 000 people martyred during the revolt, more than 51, 200 were Ulama. Edward Timus admitted that in Delhi alone 500 Ulama were hanged to death.

There were five major sedition cases against the Ulama during the period 1864 and 1871. The sedition cases were generally known as ‘the Wahabi Cases’ or the ‘Ambala Conspiracy Case’. In all these cases, the accused were either sentenced to death or to life imprisonment. Thomson, as stated above, the British army general who fought against Muslims in the 1857 revolt, detailed in his memoir, Rebellion Clerics, and honestly accepted that the real heroes of the 1857 revolt of India against East India Company were none other than the Ulama, (Maulavis in his words).

Birth of Darul Uloom Deoband

After the defeat of 1857, some of the prominent Muslim leaders of the freedom movement found it very hard to save India from the cultural onslaught of the British. To counter the nefarious British plan to enslave India culturally, they planned to establish a revolutionary institution that would impart knowledge as well as enthuse fervour among students to fight against oppressive forces. Darul Uloom Deoband, the most eminent Islamic learning centre thus was established in 1866. Maulana Muhammad Qasim Nanotavi (1832-1879), the founder of ‘Darul Uloom’ (house of knowledge) at Deoband, later on outlined the purpose of establishing the institution in the following words:

“The English have perpetrated boundless acts of tyranny against the Muslims for their fault, if at all it was a fault, of the uprising in 1857 and their relentless endeavour for the independence of this country thereafter. They have left no stone unturned to plunder and obliterate the Islamic arts and science, Muslim culture and civilization.

Endowments of Muslim educational institutions have been confiscated and as a result state funded schools have been virtually closed. It is therefore, necessary to adopt other method instead of relying upon the old system of endowments.”

The negative approach adopted by the British historians of the past, and even present day Western historians to paint Ulama and their struggle against oppressive forces in bad colours is understandable. What is not understandable is the purpose of poisonous writings of Indian writers. We simply cannot believe that these historical facts are hidden from them. The Ulama of Deoband were the pioneers, holding the opinion that the Indian subcontinent had become a Darul Harb, the land of war.

Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan

But a few from among the Muslims who were influenced by the West, held different views. Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) while writing an essay on “The Causes of the Rebellion of India” began with praises of the British and declared loyalty to them. In 1860-1861, he published another tract, An Account of the Loyal Mohomadans of India, in which he claimed that the Indian Muslims were the most loyal subjects of the British Raj because of their kind disposition and because of the principles of their religion. He attached a fatwâ (religious decree) by Jamal ibn Abd Allâh Umar al-Hanafî, at the end of the book. This fatwâ stated, “as long as some of the peculiar observances of Islam prevailed in [India], it is Dâr al-Islam (Land of Islam).” And therefore, Jihad against British Raj was un-Islamic.

This was to counter the Fatwas that had been issued by many Indian Ulama. The Ulama of Deoband were the pioneers, stating that the Indian subcontinent had become a Darul Harb, the land of war. This political overture of Sir Sayyid was favorably received in the British ruling circles in India as well as in Britain. And this, perhaps, was the root of all differences between Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, and Maulana Muhammad Qasim Nanotwi, founder of Darul Uloom Deoband which later became an ideologue for composite nationalism in India and a pure Islamic learning centre in the sub-continent, and not acquiring modern education or Islamic education by Muslims as wrongly portrayed by even some Muslim writers.

India is still Paying the Price of Divide and Rule Policy

The 1857 revolt, which had forged an unshakable unity amongst Hindus and Muslims, was an important milestone in our freedom struggle – providing hope and inspiration for future generations of freedom lovers. However, the aftermath of the 1857 revolt also brought about dramatic changes in colonial rule. After the defeat of the 1857 national revolt – the British embarked on a policy of “Divide and Rule”, fomenting religious hatred as never before.

Resorting to rumors and falsehoods, they deliberately recast Indian history in highly communal colors and practiced pernicious communal politics to divide the Indian masses. That legacy continues to plague the sub-continent till today. However, if more people become aware of the colonial roots of this divisive communal gulf – it is possible that some of the damage done to Hindu-Muslim unity could be reversed. If Hindus and Muslims could rejoin and collaborate in the spirit of 1857, the subcontinent may yet be able to unshackle itself from it’s colonial past.

Let us attempt a real reconstruction of our strength in India – the unity in diversity. 1857 was a year for rebellion against tyrants and let the year 2007, after 150 years, bear the acknowledgement of all the brave souls who gifted us freedom.#

[The author, a Darul Uloom Deoband graduate and Editor of‘Eastern Crescent’, is also a poet and Director of the Mumbai-based institute, ‘Markazul Ma’arif Education and Research Centre’. He can be contacted at his email address: The views expressed by him are entirely his own]