Freedom Fighters: Ashfaqulla Khan
The Pathan patriot who kissed the hang- man's noose with the name of Allah on his lips. A youth endowed with a body of iron and a will of steel, he dedicated everything to the service of India and of freedom and challenged the cunning and the strength of an empire.
Author - N. P. Shankaranarayana Rao
It was December 19, 1927. The winter sun rose late. His golden rays brought warmth
and joy to people shivering in the biting cold.
At sunrise that day, in the District Jail at Faizabad, officials were getting ready to put an end to the life of a man. He was a revolutionary. Officials, both high and low, were busy. The Chief Jailer inspected the rope, the sandbags and other things necessary carefully. He was fully satisfied with the arrangements; then he called out to his subordinate, "Bring the convict here." The official went with ten soldiers. The door of the cell of the man who was to die opened, with a loud harsh sound. That was the last time the door opened for this man.
The brave patriot was waiting for this call; he asked cheerfully, "Is everything ready?"
The Lion among Men
His firm voice showed he was ready to die. It unnerved those that had come to take him. The officer said with great difficulty, "Yes." The hero shut the Koran he was reading, put it under his arm, stood up and said, "Let us go."
He stood six feet tall, with a broad chest; he was strong as steel and had the heart of a lion. His beard added charm to his
face. There was always a smile of firmness on his lips and it shone even now.
The hero in chains walked upright and with a firm mind between soldiers who led him to the hangman's post. Those who were there forgot their position and prestige and gazed on him with wonder and admiration. Once at the foot of the steps leading to the post, he covered them in two leaps and stood facing the post. When they removed the chains, lie put forward his arms, drew the rope towards him and kissed it. He said, "My hands are not soiled with the murder of man. The charge against me is false. God will give me justice."
Then he prayed in clear ringing tones "La ilahi il Allah, Mohammed Ur Rasool Allah."
The hangman's noose came round his neck. The moment the lever was pressed, the plank on which he stood moved quickly and he went down into the pit below. He joined the band of the brave immortal heroes of the land.
This hero was Ashfaqulla, the revolutionary.
Ashfaqulla was born in the early part of the twentieth century in Shahjahanpur of Uttar Pradesh. Shafiqulla Khan was his father. In 1921 Ashfaq was in the High School. India was still a subject country. All over India the clouds of the
non-cooperation movement were gathering. Mahatma Gandhi was the leader of the movement. He called on Indians not to pay taxes to the government and not to cooperate with the British. The call of Gandhiji had kindled the fire of freedom in the hearts of all Indians. But at a place called Chauri Chaura people forgot nonviolence and became violent. In their anger against the British, they burnt some
policemen. Gandhi became sad on hearing this. It pained him much. So he called of the non-cooperation movement in February 1922. The youth of the country were greatly disappointed and dejected on account of this.
Ashfaqulla was one such dejected youth. The country should become free as early as possible - this was his yearning and so he joined the revolutionaries. It was then that he decided to win the friendship of Ramaprasad, the revolutionary of Shahjahanpur.
Pandit Ramaprasad Bismil was already a famous revolutionary. He had been collecting weapons and money by dacoity under the leadership of a
teacher, Gendalal Dixit.
Ashfaq had one great difficulty in winning the friendship of Ramaprasad. Ramaprasad was a member of the Arya Samaj. He was eager to explain the greatness of the Hindu Religion to those
belonging to other religions; he was eager to take back to the Hindu fold those who
wished to return. He had almost taken a vow to do this. Ashfaq was a devout Muslim.
But Ashfaq's religion did not come in the way of his attempt to win the friendship of Ramaprasad. He met Ramaprasad once in his own school. 'Who knows who he is? A Muslim student. He may not really wish to become a revolutionary; it may all
be sham" - so ran Ramaprasad's thoughts. So his talk was formal and not very friendly. Ashfaq noticed his reserve. But he did not give up his attempt. They had some common friends. With their help Ashfaq tried to convince Ramaprasad of his sincerity. Fortunately Ramaprasad and Ashfaq's brother were classmates. On account of his untiring efforts they became friends. They ate together and lived the revolutionary lives together. In the end both became martyrs on the same day but in different jails.
Revolutionaries Come Together
Mahatma Gandhi withdrew his non-cooperation movement. After this revolutionary ideas grew strong among the youth in the country. The British Empire was large and strong. It had a big army and powerful weapons. Could soft words make the British leave India? Surely they could not. Therefore the young revolutionaries believed in
violence. They wanted to make use of revolvers, bombs and other weapons to fight the
British. They wanted to create a sense of fear in the hearts of the British, so that they would leave India. As a result of this strong belief, the scattered revolutionaries became united and strong. Kasi (Varanasi) was the
center of their activities. They formed the 'Hindustan Republican Association'. Their main object was to win freedom for the country through armed revolution.
This Association published a manifesto called 'Krantikari' in 1925, spelling out its aims and objectives. It was brought out on the same day in all towns from Calcutta to Lahore. The Government was scared. The manifesto explained the goals of the Association.
It said it was wrong for one man to become rich by making another man work hard ; it was also wrong for one man to be the master of another. The Association wanted to put an end such things. Ramaprasad became the chief organizer of the Shahjahanpur wing of the Association. With his experience he was an asset to the Association.
We Need Money, But Where Is It?
The revolutionary party lacked one thing - money. To get arms, to maintain the members and to
canvas a support for the party, money was needed. They raised some money by way of subscriptions from members. Some of them got money from their homes by either begging of stealing. Some got it from friends. But they needed thousands to reach the goal. Money was needed for the nation's work - but how could they get it?
Under the leadership of Ramaprasad, they looted some villages. Ashfaq took part in these activities with his brother's licensed rifle. Even the money they get by such looting and dacoity was not enough for their activities, because they got just one or two hundred rupees in some villages.
Moreover, Ramaprasad was not happy about looting the villages; true, the money was used to fight for the
country's freedom; but the villagers were their own country men, and Ramaprasad did not like to harm them.
Here It Is!
One day Ramaprasad was traveling by train from Shahjahanpur to Lucknow. He got off the compartment when the train stopped at a station and stood watching. At one station he noticed the stationmaster bringing a bag of money and getting into the Guard's Van. He wanted to watch more closely. So he took his seat in the compartment next to the Guard's. At every station he noticed moneybags being taken into the Guard's Van. They were dropped into an iron safe. At Lucknow he observed that there were no special security arrangements. He ran up and noted down the time and number of the train from the timetable. It was a No. down train. He calculated that the money would amount to at least ten thousand rupees. He decided
not to miss this chance.
This was the beginning of a later dacoity at Kakori.
Money in Plenty, But....
After a few days the revolutionaries met. Members from Kasi, Kanpur, Lucknow and Agra attended the meeting. Ramaprasad explained his plans to the members. He said, "If we loot the money belonging to the Government, we will get enough for our activities. Moreover we will not have to harm our own people for money. The task is difficult. It needs to be done with great care. But our efforts will bring excellent rewards. The Government also will come to know that the revolutionaries do not merely talk but act."
The members liked his idea. They were eager to do acts, which would show their courage and strength. Therefore almost everyone said, "It is good. It is
an excellent idea."
Ashfaq listened silently. From the day he had heard it from Ramaprasad, he had thought about it thoroughly.
But now everyone was saying. "Yes, yes, let us go ahead." He did not think it right to sit. Quietly. So he got up and said, "Friends, I consider it a hasty step. It may be a good plan in some ways. But let us think of our strength and the strength of the Government. In an ordinary dacoity, much money is not involved. Besides, the Government will treat it as one of the many usual occurrences. So we shall have to face only what the police normally do in such cases. it will be a different tale when we meddle with money belonging to Government. The entire Government machinery will be used to trace and crush us. In my opinion we cannot escape detection and punishment. Our party is not strong enough. Let us drop this plan."
But the revolutionaries were caught up in a flood of enthusiasm; they were not prepared to listen to sense. After debating the plan for a long time they decided to go ahead and entrusted the task to Ramaprasad. At the outset he gave a word of caution. He said, "Friends, we should not fire at any one unless they fire at us. As far as possible let us do this deed without bloodshed." The meeting broke up.
The Train Is Stopped
The No. 8 down train from Shahjahanpur to Lucknow was approaching Kakori on August 9, 1925. The sun was going down in the west.
The train stopped abruptly. Some one had pulled the chain.
Ashfaqulla got off a second class compartment with his friends Sachindra Bakshi and Rajendra Lahiri. He had done the first part of the duty in the Kakori plot that day.
The guard had got off his van by now. He was trying to find out in which compartment the chain had been pulled and why. Two revolutionaries fell on him. They made him lie down on his face. They warned that he would be shot dead if he tried to raise his head. Two others pushed the driver from the engine to the ground and stood guard over him. One revolutionary stood at each end of the train and both fired shots with their pistols. In the meantime
they shouted, "'Travelers! Do not be afraid. We are revolutionaries fighting for freedom. Your lives, money and honor are safe. But take care not to peep out of the train."
Four young men entered the Guard's Van. They managed to push the box to the ground. It had a strong lock. Neither the driver nor the guard had the key. There was an opening on the top; through this opening they could drop - money bags into it. But nothing could be taken out of it.
The revolutionaries started dealing blows with hammers to break it open. But even ten hard blows with iron hammers could not break the box. Ashfaq who was keeping guard saw this. He was the strongest of the group. He handed the pistol in his hand to his comrade, Manmathnath and ran towards the box. He dealt blow after blow on the opening of the box to widen it. The metallic sound of his heavy blows echoed through the silent and lonely place.
Alas! Another Train in Sight!
Suddenly they heard the sound of a train coming from Lucknow. Ramaprasad was frightened for a moment. He trembled at the thought of the moving train colliding with the train they had stopped. He would be responsible for the death of hundreds of innocent men, women and children. What a dreadful sin! Fortunately, there were two lines at that place. When he saw this, he heaved a sigh of relief.
But what if the driver of the moving train stopped it? Or, suppose the driver and the guard lying on the ground stopped the train by raising alarm! The passengers also might shout for help and stop the train.
All eyes were on Ramaprasad. He ordered, "Stop firing. Turn down the pistols. Do not strike the box. Ashfaq, wait a little." The few minutes were like an age. The fast moving train passed by on the other lines.
Here's the Money!
When the other train was out of sight, they got busy again. The metallic sound of the blows on the box began to echo as before. The slit in the box became wide and the moneybags were taken out. During this time all passengers remained quiet. Among them were British officers who carried pistols with them. But they also remained quiet thinking that a big gang of dacoits had attacked the train.
There was a newly married young man in the men's compartment; his young bride was in the women's compartment. So he was worried and put out his head. A revolutionary fired his pistol and the young man died on the spot.
The revolutionaries did not notice any thing. The safe lay open. They were busy taking out the moneybags bundling them in rugs. Some of them walked towards Lucknow with the bundles on their heads.
Just ten young men had done this difficult job because of their courage, discipline, and patience, leadership and, more than all, love of the country. They had written a memorable chapter in the history of India's fight for freedom. These revolutionaries were: Ramaprasad Bismil, Rajendra Lahiri, Thakur Roshan Singh, Sachindra Bakshi, Chandra- sekhara Azad, Keshab Chakra- varthy, Banwari Lal, Mukundi Lal, Man- mathnath Gupta and Ashfaqulla Khan.
The Lion Escapes
A month passed after the Kakori Dacoity, and yet no one was arrested. But the Government had
spread a big net.
On the morning of September 26, 1925, Ramaprasad was arrested. Before the police could arrest Ashfaq he
had escaped from his home and concealed himself in a sugarcane field half a mile from his home. His friends used to send him food only at night hoodwinking the police. The police grew tired of searching for Ashfaq. They withdrew his brother's gun license and took away his rifle. All except Ashfaq had been taken into custody. Therefore he thought it useless to conceal himself near Shahjahanpur. He got some money from home and left the place. He wanted to go to Kasi. There were a few revolutionaries there, who had escaped. He wanted to consult them and then decide the next course of action. He managed to reach Kasi after a difficult journey. He met a few
friends in the Benares University. They advised him to live quietly at least for some time. With the help of these friends he went to Bihar. He got a job as a clerk in an engineering firm at
Daltonganj in Palamu District. No one knew who lie was. He told them that he was from a farmer's family in Mathura. He worked in the firm for about ten months.
A Friend Betrays!
Ashfaq was a poet and wrote verses in Urdu. A couplet form of versification in Urdu is called the 'Sher'. Composing and singing these couplets is popularly known as 'Mushaira'. The proprietor of the firm in which Ashfaq worked was very fond of 'sherg'. When he came to know that he composed and sang 'shers', he became fond of Ashfaq and felt proud of him. At a 'Mushaira' organized there Ashfaq sang a few 'shers' of his own composition. The people who heard him were delighted and there were exclamations of joy. The proprietor was also so pleased that he raised Ashfaq's salary.
In such an encouraging atmosphere Ashfaq improved his knowledge of Hindi. He also learnt Bengali. Besides singing Hindi and Urdu songs, he began to sing Bengali songs. If Ashfaq wanted only to escape arrest, he could have lived happily at Daltonganj for the rest of his life. But this long and forced rest became tiresome.For a moment he wished he could go to some foreign country. He felt it would be more useful to him and the country if he studied engineering.
So he went to Delhi to find out how he could go abroad, and to make preparations. He met a Pathan friend from Shahjahanpur. They had been classmates at school. He was happy to meet Ashfaq after a long time. He took Ashfaq to his room and ordered a nice meal for him. They went on talking about old times till 11 o' clock at night. Then Ashfaq went back to his room.
The next morning Ashfaq was sounds asleep. Suddenly there was a loud knock. Ashfaq was still sleepy-eyed as he opened the door. And at once he fell into the hands of the police! Friendship, duty and even the feeling of belonging to the same place - none of these could check the Pathan's greed for money. The Pathan had fed him, talked to him in a very friendly way and then had betrayed Ashfaq to the police.
The police wanted to use Ashfaq to suit their plans; they tried very hard to do so. There was an army officer in the police department; his name was Tasadruk Khan; he had rendered useful service as the British agent in Arabia during the First World War. He was one of the few Indians who had risen to the post of the Superin- tendent of Police. He met Ashfaq in prison and tried to reason with him. His main aim was to make Ashfaq agree to give evidence against his former friends. He said, 'The Hindus are fighting to win back their kingdoms. Why should the Muslims become involved in this affair? Why should we face danger when there is no benefit to us? The Muslims should not take any part in it. Even now I can find a way to help you if you can understand what pays you and what does not." This is how Tasadruk Khan tried to mislead Ashfaq. But Ashfaq did not like his advice. He was tired of hearing the evil advice. In the end he told Tasadruk to his face: "Khan Sahib, I am quite sure that Hindu India will be much better than British India."
The British Court of Justice
In this way the police tried to win him over to their side and failed. They charge- sheeted him in the court. By this time the Kakori Case had progressed much; the case against Ashfaq was combined with it. A committee had been formed to defend the accused in the main case. Pandit Motilal Nehru, father of Jawaharlal, was the chairman. There were eminent men like Jawaharlal, Sriprakasha, Acharya Narendra Deva, and Govind Ballabh Pant and Chandra Bhanu Gupta on the committee.
After some progress had been made in the case against Ashfaqulla, Sachindra Bakshi was arrested at Bhagalpur. He was tried in a lower court separately and then the cases against both Ashfaq and Bakshi were combined and tried in the Sessions Court as one.
Both of them tried to behave as if they did not know each other. But they were very good friends and had worked together in the party. Now that they were charge- sheeted together and met in the court they could not pretend to be strangers. They embraced each other in the court with great emotion. The officers of the jail remarked, 'We too had been waiting for the reunion of Rama and Bharata."
Life in prison had made Ashfaq very pious. He grew a beard. He said his prayers regularly. During Ramzan he fasted very strictly. Now and then the
friends discussed religion. Sachindra Bakshi had no faith in God. But Ashfaq used to say, "I consider the unseen power as supreme. It is above us and is greater than the world. That is my faith. But you do not agree. Faith is an entirely personal matter." He believed that religious faith is the greatest concept uniting God and man in a single principle. His considered opinion was that it was not a matter for discussion in the streets.
The main case and the complementary case relating to the Kakori train robbery came to an end. The Court of Justice under the British rule gave its judgment. Ramaprasad Bismil, Ashfaqulla Khan,
Rajendra Lahiri and Roshan Singh were to be put to death; the others were given life sentences.
The whole country protested against the death sentences. Members of the Central Legislature represented to the Viceroy that the death sentences should be reduced to life sentences. Appeals were sent to the Privy Council, the highest court in those days.
But British imperialism was thirsting for the blood of the Indian revolutionaries.
'Death comes but once; Why fear it?'
So Ashfaq has sung in one of his poems. This is the faith of all revolutionaries. The four revolutionaries sentenced to death died with a smile-on their lips. They had only one prayer: they wanted to be born again in India so that they could fight for the freedom of the country. And so they became martyrs.
Poetry Kindled by Revolutionary Zeal
Ashfaq and Ramaprasad were poets just as they were revolutionaries. Ashfaq had composed poems mostly in Urdu and a few in Hindi. His pen names were Varasi' and ' Hazarath'. In one of his poems he complains, 'Alas! We are suppressing ourselves. Those that are suppressing us are neither the English, the Germans, the Russians nor the Turks but Indians themselves.' In another poem he declares, 'Oh my motherland, I live only to serve you. Whether I am sentenced for life or given a death sentence, I shall sing thy glories even with my chained hands.' In one long poem this is what Ashfaq sing: 'did not Lord Krishna say to Arjuna in the battlefield that life and death are unreal?
Alas! Where is that wisdom? A man is bound to die; so why should any one be afraid of death? Let our motherland become free and shine through the ages. What matters whether we are alive or dead T In his poems we can see his pure love of the country and her freedom. He feels sorry that his countrymen do not have this spirit of patriotism and freedom.
In one poem he thinks of the punishment of death; he shows his revolutionary spirit in this poem. He says, 'Sick of the tyranny of the British, we walk from Faizabad Jail towards Heaven.'
In the Dark Shadow of Death
Ramaprasad Bismil wrote his auto- biography (the story of his own life) in the prison a few days before his death. Had the authorities known about it, it would not have seen the light of day. But
Ramaprasad had it secretly sent out of prison. He has given a moving account of his friendship with Ashfaq. He says, 'I remember clearly my first meeting with you in Shahjahanpur School; we met after the British Government declared its policy towards India. You were sincerely trying to meet me. You wanted to talk to me about the Mainpuri plot. I suspected your intentions because you were a Muslim and I talked to you in an insulting way. You were then greatly pained. You tried to convince me through friends that you were honest and earnest and that there was no pretence in you. You were determined to work hard for the good of the country. At last you won the day. By your efforts you won a place for yourself in my heart.'
Ramaprasad describes with great warmth how his friendship with Ashfaq grew after he had pulled down the walls of suspicion. He says, 'You became my brother in a few days' friendship. But you were not content to remain in the position of a brother. You wanted equality; you wanted to be one of my friends. You succeeded in your efforts. You became my honored and loved friend. Every one was surprised. I was a devout member of Arya Samaj; you were a devout Muslim. They wondered how we could be
friendly. I used to invite Muslims to become Hindus. I lived in the hostels belonging to Arya Samaj. You never troubled yourself about it. Though my friends suspected you, you always walked the straight path firmly. You also used to visit the Arya Samaj Hostel. When there was a clash between the Hindus and the Muslims some of your people scolded you and called you a 'Kaafir' (non-believer). But you never joined them. You always supported Hindu-Muslim unity. You were a true Muslim and a great patriot. If you worried about any thing it was about Hindu Muslim unity. You wanted them to work for the betterment of the country. When I wrote an article or a book in Hindi, you used to ask me why I did not write in Urdu; you wanted that the Muslims also should read it. You learnt Hindi and became a scholar in it. You also used Hindi words while speaking at home. This surprised all.'
When Ashfaqulla tried to win Ramaprasad's friendship Ramaprasad suspected him. When they became friends, some people had needless doubts about Ashfaqulla. In this context Ramaprasad says, 'Some of your people feared that you would give up Islam. When there was nothing impure in your heart, where was the question of purifying you ? I understood the purity of your purpose; then I was completely won over. Some friends warned me that I should not trust a Muslim and get cheated.
'But success was yours. Nothing could stand between us now. We ate from the same plate almost always. I began to get over the feeling that there is difference between Hindus and Muslims. You had great love for faith and me in me. You stopped calling me by my full name. Always I was just 'Ram' to you. Once you lost consciousness. Then you called out 'Ram, Ram' often. The Muslims around you were shocked that a Muslim was calling on a Hindu God 'Ram' in his last moments. They told you to call on Allah. But you went on saying 'Ram, Ram'. By chance a friend who knew the meaning sent word to me. When you saw me you became calm.'
Where did this friendship lead these two souls? Ramaprasad himself describes it. 'What was the result of this friendship finally? Your ideas were shaped by mine. You became a revolutionary. You had then one goal. You wanted to spread these ideas among the Muslim youths. You tried hard to kindle their interest. You wanted to induce them to take part in revolutionary activities. You wanted to influence your friends and relatives. You never disobeyed me. You were always ready to carry out my instructions like an obedient disciple.’
Ashfaqulla choose the path of service to the motherland. That path led him to the hangman’s noose. His
leader Ramaprasad, himself standing on the threshold of death, bids farewell to him in these words: ‘It makes me glad that you made me shine brighter in the world. It is worth mentioning in Indian History that Ashfaqulla took part in the revolutionary movement in India. Even though you were put in prison your ideals never changes. You are strong both physically and mentally. Your soul is nobly prepared. On account of all these virtues the judge named you as my right-hand man. When he delivered judgment he gave you the garland of victory in the form of the hangman’s noose. My dear brother, you will feel glad that he who sacrificed his ancestral properly for the motherland, he who reduced his parents to beggars, prosperity for the sake of the country and he who sacrificed his all including his own life for the freedom of the country, sacrificed his dearest friend, Ashfaq, for the sake of the motherland.’ These are the words of love and admiration that one martyr, Ramaprasad, spoke about another martyr, Ashfaqulla Khan.
An Indian Lives And Dies for India
Ashfaqulla was an ideal revolutionary. His devotion to the cause he admired made him the foremost among those who gave their lives to win freedom for the country. He fully understood the real danger to the revolutionary movement in India from activities like the Kakori Train Robbery. But when all his friends and fellow workers jumped into the field, he did not keep away. He knew the danger, but he was not a coward. He was not afraid of speaking out his mind and warning others of the danger he foresaw so clearly. But when the leader went forward with his plan he followed in his footsteps. He knew full well that it would cost him his life. But his duty was to follows the leader.
Love of the motherland, clear thinking, courage, firmness and loyalty were embodied in Ashfaqulla in a very great measure. He deserves to be remembered and cherished by all Indians for his noble qualities.
After a country becomes free there is no need to use force and violence. But when Ashfaqulla and his friends were fighting for the freedom of the country they needed money. They needed it not for themselves but for the sake of the country. They stopped the train carrying money and took it. Now that we have won freedom we need not do such deeds. But Ashfaqulla remains in our memory because of his noble example during a very difficult period in our country's history. We cannot forget his service to the nation and we ought not to forget it.
It is the birthright and good fortune of every Indian to serve India. To whatever religion a man may belong, his first and highest duty is to serve the country - this was the lesson Ashfaqulla wrote in the hearts of all people with his blood. He has left a lasting impression on the life of every Indian by his noble martyrdom. May his ideal ad his example shine forever in our hearts!