Maulvie Ahmad Shah (Hero of 1857) : A Chapter from Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s Book

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(This is the text of Chapter. IX, Maulvie Ahmad Shah from the book THE INDIAN WAR OF INDEPENDENCE: OF 1857 by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar the book was written under the pseudonym AN INDIAN NATIONALIST)

Cover page of The Indian War of Independence written by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar


After the fall of Lucknow, there remained no powerful nucleus to concentrate the forces of the Revolutionaries in the provinces of Rohilkhand and Oudh. The tide of British conquest that had been sweeping over the Doab and Bihar had driven all the Revolutionaries from these provinces into the ever-narrowing circle of Oudh and Rohilkhand. By this irresistible pressure on all sides and by the want of a powerful stronghold, the Revolutionaries had to give up the old system of open warfare and pitched battles and to take to guerilla tactics. Had they done so at the very start, the chances of success had been overwhelmingly innumerable. But, better late than never! For, though success was rendered extremely difficult, yet there was not the least suggestion in the Revolutionary camp of surrender or desertion. So, the leaders of Oudh and Rohilkhand decided to continue the War of Independence by pursuing guerilla tactics, and issued the following Proclamation and military order all over the provinces: ” Do not attempt to meet the regular columns of the infidels in open battle, because they are superior to you in discipline and they have big guns. But watch their movements, guard all the Ghats on the rivers, intercept their communications, stop their supplies, cut up their daks and posts, and keep constantly hanging about their camp. Give the Firangi no rest!” Moulvie Ahmad Shah at once began to put into execution these orders. He began to hang about the camp of the British forces which were at Lucknow and camped at Bari, a place twenty-nine miles away from the English camp. The Begum Hazrat Mahal was encamped at Bitaoli with six thousand men. In order to break both these forces, Hope Grant started from Lucknow with a strong force of three thousand soldiers and a powerful artillery, first in the direction of Bari. The next day brought with it an incident which showed the wonderful courage and cleverness of the Revolutionary scouts. The Moulvie had sent out some of his scouts to get correct information about the British force. That same night they entered the camp of the English with perfect nonchalance. The English watchmen stopped them and asked, “Who goes there ?” ” We are the men of the 12th regiment!” was the answer. This answer was literally true, for all of them had indeed belonged to the 12th regiment. But how were the poor watchmen to know that this 12th regiment was one of those which rose in rebellion as far back as the July of the previous year and had killed their English officer? The steady and firm step of these men, that resolute answer, and that fearless simplicity of behaviour drove away all suspicion about them, and the watchman replied ” Alright!” The daring band entered unopposed into the English camp, obtained all the information that they wanted, and came out all unscathed to report it to their master!

These 85 Indian soldiers started the 1857 Revolt

Having thus informed himself of the exact situation and the plan of the British camp, the Moulvie quickly formed his plans, marched ahead, and took possession of a village four miles from Bari. The plan of the Moulvie was that, while his infantry should hold this village against the enemy, his cavalry should march ahead by a secret route and should wheel round and attack the rear of the British forces. He knew it for certain that the next morning the British general was coming to that very place, suspecting no harm and in a perfect sense of security. As soon as this unwary prey came into the trap, the Moulvie’s infantry was to attack him from the front, while his cavalry was to fall on the enemy’s flanks or rear. Malleson says: “It was really a brilliant idea and did credit to his tactical skill.”

There were two things most necessary for the success of this brilliant design. The one thing was to keep perfect secrecy about the forces of the Moulvie in the village; and the other was that the cavalry that was to make a flank attack should not sally forth and put the enemy on his guard before the front attack should be begun. The Moulvie did whatever he had to do. He sent his cavalry from Bari that same night by the route agreed on; he quietly took possession of the village and succeeded in concealing himself there, and so cleverly that the next morning actually saw the unsuspecting British general approaching the banks of the river. Half an hour more and the British forces would be done for!

A Burqa Clad Woman Commander of Indians in 1857

But in that half an hour, the splendid plan of the Moulvie was shattered to pieces by the impetuosity of the cavalry men. They had already occupied a very convenient place on the flank of the British forces and had been holding themselves ready to pounce upon the foe. But their leader, while lying in ambush, saw some guns unprotected in front of them and, forgetting the strict orders of the Moulvie, made for them with the intention of capturing them, and even captured and obtained possession of them for a while; but soon, the English woke to their danger, the guns were recaptured, and the whole plan of the Moulvie was shattered. For, this fighting at the rear opened the languid eyes of the English commander and he saw the danger in his rear as well as in his front. Seeing his plan thus nullified by the rashness of his cavalry, the Moulvie who was holding the village left it after a skirmish and marched off to find another opportunity and to mature another design.

While Hope Grant was pressing the Revolutionaries upwards and upwards, from Bari to Bitaoli, with a view to drive them out of Oudh, there on the other side, on the 15th of April, was being fought a hotly contested battle, near the fort of Ruiya. We have seen how, sometime before this, in the province of the Doab, the English army, being divided into separate divisions and marching by separate routes, pressed on the Revolutionaries simultaneously and systematically, sweeping off the whole province, till they drove them all into the town of Fatehgarh. In the same manner, a campaign had been organised and put into execution to sweep the Revolutionaries off the whole province of Oudh, by different British forces, from all possible quarters, pressing them onwards and upwards towards the northern frontier of Oudh.

Patna Conspiracy of 1846: Before 1857 a Revolt that could not happen

About the 1st of April, 1858, the total number of the white forces in India had risen to ninety-six thousand soldiers, besides which there were the loyal armies of the Sikhs. The brigades consisting of the Pathans, Pariahs, and other raw recruits, though originally raised in haste, had by this time become quite like veterans through constant experience on the field. Again, the ‘contingent’ forces of the native princes which had been sent forth to the assistance of the English, were also busy in the field. The pick of these innumerable brown and white troops were now engaged in the supreme effort of reconquering Oudh.

As described in the last chapter, Lugard and Douglas were sent into Behar, Sir Hope Grant was sent towards Bari and Bitaoli, and Walpole was ordered to march up from the banks of the Ganges. Thus, these different forces, including those of the commander-in-chief and others, were marching in a line to drive out the Revolutionaries to a man further and further to the north till they were pushed into Rohilkhand; and, then, the idea was to annihilate them by one supreme effort. With this intention, Walpole too had started to do his own part on the 9th of April, 1858 ; and now, on the 15th of April, he was busy in attacking the fort of Ruiya which is fifty-one miles from Lucknow.

Peer Ali: Fearless Patriot Who Chose Martyrdom Over Life Of A Traitor in 1857

It was not that either the fort of Ruiya was very strong or that its owner Narapat Singh was a very big and mighty chieftain. But small Zamindar though he was, ever since this great sacrificial fire was lighted up on the field of liberty, this Narapat Singh had offered himself with his all-in-all, as a willing victim for the regeneration of his nation. The 15th of April saw a mighty English army, armed with the most modern artillery, attacking this little chief in his tiny fort. As he had not even two hundred and fifty men with him in the fort, the English naturally expected that the chief must have already evacuated the place. But, on that very morning, one of the white prisoners whom Narapat Singh had released came to the English camp and informed the general that he had heard Narapat Singh say that he would evacuate the fort but not until he had had his vengeance.—Not until a gory fight is fought, not until one bloody defeat is inflicted will Narapat leave his fort!

What! This little chief is to inflict a bloody defeat? And then alone is he to evacuate the fort? Walpole was furious and ordered his men to attack the fort. The English forces, as usual, circulated a rumour that the forces of Narapat Singh numbered about two thousand ! When we are sure of crushing this Narapat Singh, what other way of magnifying our sure victory than of exaggerating the strength of the adversary? So even Walpole agreed that the forces with Narapat must be at least a thousand and five hundred. This released English captive who attests to the fact of only two hundred and fifty men defending the fort, though an eye-witness, might be a mad man!

Waris Ali, the lesser known hero of 1857 in Tirhut

The English forces advanced—and that too, not on the weak side of the fort though its weakness was well-known to them, but the brave general would insist on marching against the strongest face of the fort! The defenders of the fort began to pour a shower of bullets as soon as they saw the British attacking the fort from among the trees in front of it. The shower grew hottest when the enemy approached the ditch. Out of a hundred and fifty who marched, forty-six English soldiers were killed on the spot. Grove could not move one step forward on account of the fire of the Pandays. Now then, the skilful Walpole, seeing this crisis at the strong face of the fort, took his guns and rushed against the weak side of it; and with such accuracy he aimed his guns, that the English cannon balls sent from this side crossed over the fort and fell right amidst the English forces on the other side! Many are the generals who fight with their enemies, but matchless and the first without a second is General Walpole, who would fight with both friend and foe with equal skill and bravery! At the sight of this matchless skill of the veteran general, another general, Hope, came forth to save the day— but alas! he is killed and gone through the unbearable fire of the Revolutionaries. Even Grove is retiring—confusion worse confounded ! The confused British army left the field,and fell back, disgracefully repulsed!

The death of this brave general, Hope, came as a shock over all Englishmen resident in India. Lord Canning and Sir Colin, why, all England was overwhelmed with grief. Not even the death of hundreds of soldiers would have inflicted such a sorrow and mourning on the English nation as did the death of this Hope — one of the bravest and most energetic of the English officers of that period. The tiny chieftain, Narapat Singh, had done what he said, ” he had his vengeance, ” and then left the fort with his handful of men, and went on fighting with the unsullied banner of liberty in his hand!

Eid-ul-Adha of 1857 : Bahadur Shah Zafar banned the sacrifice

After these different divisions had swept off the Revolutionaries from the province of Oudh towards the north and thence to Rohilkhand, the commander-in-chief got all the forces united and marched on to Rohilkhand in person. All the leaders of the Revolutionaries had now assembled in Shahjahanpur. There was Nana Sahib of Cawnpore and Moulvie Ahmad Shah. These two men had baffled all the innumerable attempts of the British generals to get hold of them and were still as energetic and unconquered as ever. So, when the news was brought to Sir Colin that these two leaders of the Revolutionaries were within his reach in the same place and perhaps ignorant of his movements. Sir Colin formed the shrewd plan of closing the town from all sides. He marched and closed on Shahjahanpur—but only to find that his birds had flown away ! It was but natural that Sir Colin should be extremely piqued at this, as he had ordered four different forces to guard all the four sides, and the Revolutionary leaders escaped by the side guarded by the commander-in-chief himself !

Now that the plan of Shahjahanpur was frustrated, Sir Colin was desirous of reducing at least the city of Bareilly. So, leaving a division of his forces with four guns in Shahjahanpur, he started and arrived on the 14th of May within a day’s distance of Bareilly. The Rohilla, Khan Bahadur Khan was still holding out in this city. After the fall of Delhi and Lucknow, the Revolutionaries had been pouring into this still independent town of their party. Mirza Feroze Shah, the brave prince of the Delhi dynasty, Shrimant Nana Sahib, Moulvie Ahmad Shah, Shrimant Bala Sahib, Begum Hazrat Mahal, Raja Teja Singh, and many of the lesser leaders, had retreated into Rohilkhand and Bareilly, its capital, where still was waving the flag of a free people, to the joy of every Revolutionary. And it was for this very reason that Sir Colin had vowed vengeance against this city. But in the Indian camp there was no talk of making any stand at the city itself, as the leaders of the Revolution had determined, even according to the general order they had just issued, to resist the enemy by guerilla tactics. Their plan was to evacuate the city and get scattered all over the fields of Rohilkhand. All preparations had been made for leaving the city and only the last order of evacuation remained to be given. But when the brave Rohillas actually saw the hated Firangi just near the town, the majority of them refused to evacuate the city without first tasting the blood of the foe—until, at least once, they had given proof of their readiness to die for the cause of their nation and their faith.


The English forces that had surrounded that city were exceedingly strong. Their artillery was well-equipped and they had numerous guns; their cavalry and their infantry were well-armed and well-disciplined; and the command was in the hands of no less a general than the commander-in-chief Sir Colin Campbell himself. Against these, the guns of Khan Bahadur Khan could make no impression, and so, on that 5th of May, the Revolutionary gun had to be silent and the Revolutionary sword flashed forth. The sword belonged to the Ghazis—martyr spirits who, in spite of the hopelessness of success, nay, in virtue of the hopelessness of success, instead of leaving the battle-field, preferred to embrace death with a smile on their lips and the unconquered and unconquerable faith in the holiness of their cause in their heart. To die while fighting in a good cause is the key to the gates of Heaven, and that was their belief; and they knew that the cause of the freedom of a people was one of the best causes for the sake of which one could lay down one’s life. So they unsheathed their swords and dashed like thunderbolt on the English forces. With green turbans on their heads, with a Kummerbund girded round their loins, and a silver ring inscribed with chosen sentences of the Koran in their finger, these terrible-looking Ghazis rushed up from the right, holding their heads behind their shields, with their swords shining aloft in the sun, and shouting wildly their warcry of “Din, Din!” They closed with the British troops with a tremendous shock, and, at this desperate attack, though they were very few, the British soldiers were startled and confused and swept away; the 42nd Highlanders tried to check their onrush—but the death-dealing Ghazis still advanced, while some of them even succeeded in reaching to the rear of the British forces ! Not one of them returned back—all of them fell while fighting and mowed down the English soldiery like sheaves before the scythe! They fell; they fell like lions, despising even the thought of retreat or surrender ; one only fell without being bayoneted by the enemy. Why? Wait a minute and the answer comes ; for, there is coming up to this spot the Commander-in-Chief of the British forces; nay, he has come here! And just then this Ghazi, who had been pretending death, jumps up from among the corpses and falls on the commander, but alas! a loyal Sikh standing by the commander scents this danger and cuts the Ghazi off ! 

Of the few instances of the immortal bravery of martyrdom in the history of the world, none can be greater than this!

Next day, having bafified the attack of the British to capture them, the Revolutionaries, with Khan Bahadur Khan at their head, marched out of Bareilly on the 7th of May, 1858, and the English forces took possession of the evacuated capital of Rohilkhand.

Disappointed on account of the safe escape of Khan Bahadur Khan out of his clutches, but still feeling triumphant for the capture of Bareilly, Sir Colin was standing in his mighty camp. Just then, there rose one deafening cry all over the camp—the cry of “The Moulvie! The Moulvie!! The Moulvie, again!!!”

It was an extremely surprising design that the Moulvie was hatching there at the town of Shahjahanpur. Having baffled Sir Colin, it was not simply to avoid a fight that Nana Sahib and the Moulvie had left Shahjahanpur. All the government buildings in the town had been demolished by the order of Nana Sahib even before they left the town. The keen-sighted leaders had rightly guessed that the English commander would leave only a few troops in Shahjahanpur, and would proceed to Bareilly; and they had decided that, when he was thus away, the Moulvie should wheel round and fall on the city, crush the English forces there, and thus avenge the loss of Bareilly by the sack of Shahjahanpur. This was their plan and all things turned up as they guessed. For the British commander did go to Bareilly, leaving only a small detachment, though with a strong complement of artillery composed of four field-pieces. And the English detachment had to encamp on a plain, unprotected and open, as Nana Sahib had already caused all fortified places to be pulled down. On the 22nd of May, Moulvie Ahmad Shah started for Shahjahanpur by rapid marches, while his prey was indulging in false security. But, after midnight, the forces of the Moulvie—-none can say by whose foolish obstinacy—stopped for a while within four miles of the town. This stay made the excellent plan barren of fruits, as “native spies employed by the British were on the alert, and one of them flew with the intelligence of his dangerous vicinity to Colonel Hale at Shahjahanpur.” As soon as this traitorous spy brought the news, the British commander moved into the newly-built fortified position with his soldiers. The Moulvie pressed on, though now his prey was awake and occupying a strong position. He attacked and occupied the town, captured the fort, and levied a tax on the rich inhabitants of the place for the supplies of his forces. Even Malleson admits that, “in acting thus, he simply conformed to the custom of war in Europe.” Not only this; but in a war of independence, when a handful of noble spirits offer their fresh blood to wipe off the shame and slavery of a whole nation, it is the duty of the people to support them voluntarily. After taking possession of the town the Moulvie brought eight guns, and began a cannonade on the fortified place where his foe was under shelter.

When this news reached Sir Colin at Bareilly on the 7th of May, though he was surprised, his joy knew no bounds. The lost opportunity, which had worried the Commander-in-Chief so much ever since the escape of the Moulvie some days before, seemed now about to be restored by the action of the Moulvie himself. And therefore, taking the utmost precaution possible, Sir Colin started by forced marches to pounce upon his prey. Now, it was clear that there was no loop-hole whatsoever left through which the Moulvie Ahmad Shah could escape. From the 11th of May, for three days there was a continuous fight. It was, indeed, impossible for the Moulvie to escape. So, from all sides the different Revolutionary leaders brought all their forces together, in order to save this most popular and most energetic of patriots. The Begum of Ayodhya, Mayyan Sahib, the King of Mahmadi, the Prince Feroze Shah of Delhi, Nana Sahib of Cawnpore — all these leaders poured in with their forces, before the 15th of May, to help the flag of liberty, now in such immediate danger in Shahjahanpur. Thus reinforced, the Moulvie marched out of Shahjahanpur, warring night and day with his now discomfited foe, and again escaped the toils that the commander-in-chief had prepared for him. So sure was Sir Colin of capturing the Moulvie that, in view of the certainty of the ruin of the Revolutionary party at Shahjahanpur, he had already issued orders for dividing his forces once again and sending them to different directions. And, having dashed to pieces these orders and hopes of the enemy, where did the Moulvie go? He entered Oudh—the very province which the English had, after a year’s trouble and bloodshed and with the greatest difficulty, succeeded in sweeping clear of the Revolutionaries. Sir Colin conquered Ayodhya — the Moulvie occupied Rohilkhand; now. Sir Colin comes and conquers Rohilkhand—the Moulvie wheels back and again occupies Oudh!

In such a dogged manner and with such bravery did the Moulvie fight with the foreign foe. And he fought for the honour of his nation and on behalf of the millions of his countrymen.

The British power now despairs of crushing him and putting an end to his  dangerous activities. Is there anyone who would assist them in this plight ? Whose sword is mighty enough to kill this powerful head of the Revolution, whom the sword of Sir Colin has proved too blunt to cut? What is the best way to accomplish this end?

What is the best way? There need not be any such anxiety in the English camp. Is it not true that the British sword had, many a time before the present, proved equally helpless and unsuccessful in eradicating the enemies of British power in India? Well then, those who could and did save England in all those periods of danger and despair would come forward to save her once more. If the English sword is too blunt to cut to pieces this Indian’s fair image, let the dagger of treachery accomplish the task!

After his re-entry into Oudh, while trying to offer as much and as dogged a resistance to the foreigner as he could, the Moulvie thought it would be a great help to the new storm that he was preparing to raise in Oudh if the Raja of Powen would lend the little might he possessed to drive out the alien from the land. With this purpose, he sent a request sealed with the Royal seal of the Begum to this Raja at Powen. This tiny Raja, fat and unwieldy in body, lazy and slothful in action, and crazy and dull in intellect, was quite shocked at the mere mention of war and battle-field. Yet, as treacherous as he was cowardly, he wrote back that he would like to see the Moulvie personally. In answer to this invitation, the Moulvie started to see this Raja. But, to the Moulvie’s great surprise, he found the gates of the town closed and the walls of it guarded by armed men; and in the midst of them, he found standing the Raja Jagannath Singh himself, with his brother by his side. Though the Moulvie knew the meaning of this sight, still undaunted, he began to hold a parley with the Raja. The wretch on the walls of the town was naturally the last man to appreciate the eloquence of this brave heart who had determined not to lay down the sword until either the foreigners had been expelled out of the land or his life should be crowned by the death of a martyr. When it became clear that the coward was not going to open the gates willingly, the Moulvie ordered his Mahut to goad on the elephant on which he was sitting to break open the gates of the fort. One stroke more of the mighty animal’s head—and the gates would have been forced. But, the brother of the Raja took aim and Moulvie Ahmad Shah was shot dead by the hand of that wretched coward! The fat Raja and his brother at once came out of the gate, severed the head of the Moulvie from his body and covering it up in a cloth, ran forth to the nearest British Thana, thirteen miles from the place,—to the city of Shahjahanpur. Here, the British officers were at their table in the dining-room. The Raja came in, unpacked the burden which he had held forth as a trophy, and let roll on the ground, by the feet of the officers, the head of the Moulvie still gushing with blood! Next day, the civilised Britishers hung on the kotwali the head of an enemy who had fought against them so bravely and so honourably, and the fat brute of Powen was rewarded with fifty thousand Rupees for this, his nefarious act of treachery!

As soon as the news of his death reached England, the relieved Englishmen felt that “the most formidable enemy of the British in Northern India was no more !” In person, the Moulvie was tall, lean, and muscular, with large deep-set eyes, beetle brows, a high aquiline nose, and lantern jaws. It is impossible to find a character who has illumined the history of this nation with more noble patriotism than this hero. The life of this brave Mahomedan shows that a deep faith in the doctrines of Islam is in no way inconsistent with, or antagonistic to, a deep and all-powerful love of the Indian soil; that a Mahomedan, dominated by an uncommonly spiritual impulse, can, at the same time, nay, by the very fact of his being so dominated, be also a patriot of the highest excellence, offering his very life-blood on the altar of Mother India, so that she might hold her head as an independent and free country; and that the true believer in Islam will feel it a pride to belong to, and a privilege to die for, his mother-country! Even the English historian Malleson, in no way inclined to assess rightly—far less to exaggerate—the virtues of the Revolutionist leaders, is carried off by his inner feelings and, forgetting for the moment that he is an Englishman, remarks: “The Moulvie was a very remarkable man . . . . Of his capacity as a military leader many proos were given during the revolt, but none more decisive than those recorded in this chapter. No other man could boast that he had twice foiled Sir Colin Campbell in the field!… . Thus died the Moulvie Ahmad’allah of Faizabad. If a patriot is a man who plots and fights for independence, wrongfully destroyed, of his native country, then most certainly the Moulvie was a true patriot. He had not stained his sword by assassination; he had connived at no murders; he had fought manfully, honourably, and stubbornly in the field against the strangers who had seized his country; and his memory is entitled to the respect of the brave and the true-hearted of all nations.” 


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Saquib Salim

Saquib Salim is a well known historian under whose supervision various museums (Red Fort, National Library, IFFI, Jallianwala Bagh etc.) were researched. To his credit Mr. Salim has more than 400 published articles on history, politics, culture and literature in English and Hindi. Before pursuing his research and masters in modern Indian History from JNU, he was an electrical engineering student at AMU. Presently, he works as a freelance/ independent history researcher, writer and works at