Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Bakht Khan Ruhela, the hero of 1857 war India

Bakht Khan belonged to the family of Nawab Najib-ud-Daulah (Najib Khan Yousafzai). His father Abdullah Khan was son of Sultan Khan, a brother of Najib-ud-Daulah. Bakht Khan was, therefore, a cousin of Ghulam Qadir Khan Ruhela [1].

In Bareilly, the garrison rebelled on May 31, 1857. After the routine of initial confusion, disorder, looting and killing, Khan Bahadar Khan was proclaimed leader. Bakht Khan was a Pashtun related to the family of Rohilla chief Najib-ul-Daula, from omar khel branch of the Yusufzai tribe. He was born in Bijnor in Rohilkhand and later became a subedar in the army of the East India Company, gaining forty years of experience in the Bengal horse artillery and seeing action in the First Anglo-Afghan War .

Bakht Khan arrived at Delhi on July 1, 1857, with an immense troopps of rohilla sepoys and 4000 muslim jihadis loyal to maulvi sarfraz ali. His reputation as an able administrator and a shrewd military strategist had reached Delhi much before his arrival.

The poor Mughal King, after much reluctance, decides to award the just landed General ,a royal sword and a buckle but Bakht Khan still refuses to present the ‘nazar’ (a mandatory monetary gift to be offered to the King) when meeting him. Soon after, this Khan then begins to give a piece of his mind to the king, he begins, “Your good for nothing princes [sons] enjoy full powers over your military. Give all the power to me as no one else but I know the norms of the English army, who knows them better than me?” This was blunt and undiplomatic at its best, but the man in question, meant business. He was duly appointed the Governor General of the army, effectively displacing Mirza Mughal the headstrong son of Zafar.

Munshi Jiwan Lal in the notes to his British Masters appreciates measures taken by Bakht Khan. There were to be no taxes on salt and sugar, looting [by the just arrived rebel soldiers]had to be stopped else their plundering hands would be cut off, shopkeepers were to be given full protection and even encouraged to use weaponsif they had none, then would be duly provided from the state armory], soldiers were to be removed from the Dilli bazaars as it created difficulties for the general public and relocated in camps outside Delhi gate, their salaries were to be restored and promises of jagirs were made to them in return of their services to the army. He further informs that the General’s men had also killed three spies working for the British [M.Baqar Ali, father of Muhammad Husain Azad, the famous Urdu writer, too, had complained in his first report that, he is followed by the spies of Bakht Khan wherever he goes,

General Bakht Khan always worked on new strategies to defeat his enemy. Soon after his arrival, on the ninth of July he made a massive attempt to destroy the British forces and one of his strategies was to clothe his men in British white uniforms. This took the opponents by surprise and a deep access was gained into their camp.

Mirza Mughal had nursed a grudge since the General caused his removal from the military affairs. Bakht Khan’s undiplomatic ways too didn’t help. He was ruthless enough to ask the princes to keep away from military and administrative affairs as he believed ‘everyone knew that they were good for nothing fellows’.

Bakht Khan informed the king that Prince Khizar and others were stashing away the taxes collected from the city traders and due to this salaries of the army could not be paid. Prince Khizar was asked to return the booty. The commoners were pleased with him while the Mughal princes vowed vengeance.

The Neemuch brigade-his force- was well-known for its valor; but the two of its generals Ghaus Khan and General Sidhari Singh [supporter of Mirza Mughal] parted ways, from Bakht Khan, as they couldn’t digest the fact that, an officer of the similar rank as theirs should get so much importance from the King. During the battles he was left alone to fend for himself. A most ridiculous charge of his being a British spy also came along. All this put him under great pressure and he had to issue a statement denying all these charges. Whether it was failure to capture the army bastions at Alipur, Manali Bridges and the Ridge and almost all the failures were wrongly attributed to the General. Zafar too now was infected with doubt and the devious designs of his foes resulted in Bakht Khan’s removal as Governor General by the end of July. A Court of Administration was established to run the affairs of the Mughal Darbar. The General and his Bareilly brigade kept their distance from it but their assaults grew weaker and the tremendous pressure that he was able to put on the British began to diminish. Dalrymple remarks, “…the end of Bakht Khan’s military system brought instant relief to the British on the ridge”.
“And so, when we were scarcely able to stand, the attacks ceased, as if by a dispensation of Providence, and gave our force the repose they so much needed.”. The one man who possessed the potential for defeating the enemy was thus, rendered impotent.

His military achievements despite the hostilities he faced were amazing; be it capturing three hundreds of British horses taking supplies to their masters, or one of his final determined attacks with his Bareilly and Neemuch troops, which forced the British to make a hasty retreat, from Hindu Rao’s house. Bakht Khan’s advance up to the house of Hindu Rao was no mean achievement; it threatened to cut off the British troops from their camp.

On September 14 when, the British assaulted the Kashmiri Gate and the scene grew bleaker , bakht khan continued persuading Zafar to join him in the inevitable retreat as the area outside Delhi was still under the rebel control and help could be at hand. The former Subedar in his last ditch attempt, insisted to Zafar, that, the name and status of Mughal King would surely bring victory to the Indians. Never say die spirit of Bakht Khan is here for all of us to see. The fragile eighty year old King Zafar, last descendant of the Timuri lineage had even agreed initially. But schemers like Hakeem Ahsanullah Khan, the court physician and Mirza Ilahi Bakhsh, father in law of Zafar’s deceased heir Mirza Fakhru, superseded the Khan one more time, eventually leading the last Timur to be a hapless royal British prisoner. Bakht khan himself fled Delhi and joined rebel forces in Lucknow and Shahjahanpur

Historians in Swat claim that it was there that he came when the war was lost. Bakht Khan spent his later life under the protection of the Akhound of Swat.

Historian Fazal Mahmood Rokhan says, “General Bakht Khan was called ‘The Prince’ by Swati people of the day but they had no knowledge of his role as a freedom fighter. He kept his heroic past to himself to keep the British away.”

Professor Shad Khan, a former professor at Jahanzeb College, Saidu Sharif, said, “I would go to the tomb of a brave man with my grandmother, who told me that this is the tomb of the ‘Prince’ who had fought bravely against the English. It was the tomb, not of a prince from India, but a general, Bakht Khan.”

Rokhan said, “I have regularly visited the tomb of the unknown prince (presumably Bakht Khan) with Professor Shad Khan and have seen its condition deteriorate over the decades.”

He added that the grave was once looted by gravediggers hoping to find treasure as many consider him a saint. Incidentally many people continue to visit the grave, hoping the “prince” will answer their prayers.

1- "Bakht Khan, a leading sepoy general of 1857", Iqbal Husain, PIHC (1885)

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