May 10, 1857 — the day the spark of revolt was struck at Meerut, to spread like a forest fire all over north India. The year 1857 is well remembered as the year of First War of Independence.
Unfortunately, the recent past has indelibly associated Ayodhya in our minds with war cries of mandir wahin banayenge, with images of a demolished masjid and tragic, bloody communal violence. How many of us recall that Ayodhya, adjoining Faizabad, and the entire Awadh region of which it is a part, were storm centres of the 1857 War of Independence? Many believe Ayodhya was the Janambhoomi of Ram; in a sense, it really is the Janambhoomi of India as a nation. For the first time in history — in 1857 — thousands forged the first bonds of Indian identity, bravely uniting across region and communities to challenge the colonial British authority.
Dalhousie’s forced annexation of Awadh in 1856 had infuriated the ‘sepoys’ of the East India Company’s army. Some 75,000 of them came from Awadh. Even before the sepoys revolted on May 10, a young soldier — Mangal Pandey — had revolted single handed in Barrackpore, and had been hanged on March 29. Mangal Pandey was a native of Faizabad and, even today, the people of Awadh proudly claim him as a son of their own!
The Begum of Awadh, Hazarat Mahal, had with the masses of peasants and sepoys led the famous but unsuccessful siege on the Lucknow Residency. One of the most interesting figures of the Revolt was Maulvi Ahmedullah. While still a native of Madras, he had begun to preach armed rebellion. In January 1857, he moved to Faizabad where he fought a large scale battle against a British battalion sent to stop him from preaching sedition. At Faizabad, he had led a virtual guerrilla war, not only against the British, but also against the money lenders and merchants of Awadh who collaborated with British. Even to this day, the by-lanes and brick archways of old Faizabad town, with its abundance of old Mughal architecture, are associated with oral stories about the brave Maulvi and the 1857 Revolt.
The rebels of 1857 had called for ‘land to the tiller’ and an end to zamindari. They issued all their proclamations in Hindi and Urdu. Hindus and Muslims were equally represented in their ‘Court of Administration’. The sepoys overcame their deep seated religious prejudices. They had begun to revolt over the fact against the cartridges greased with pig or beef fat, but in the course of their brave war, they freely used the same cartridges to fight the British.
Even senior British officials acknowledged the unity of the Hindus and Muslims. One of them, Aitchinson, complained that ‘‘in this instance, we could not play off the Mohammedans against the Hindus. How ironic, that what the British failed to do in 1857 is being done in modern independent India!
Awadh’s and Ayodhya’s ‘other legacy’ did not end with 1857. These continued to be key centres of the Kisan Sabha movement in the 1920s. It would indeed be tragic if, in the hate killings in the name of ‘Ramjanambhoomi’, we were to forget that Ayodhya was also the ‘Karmbhoomi’ of another ‘Ramchandra’. Baba Ramchandra Das, who went to Faizabad as a sadhu in 1909, was a popular leader of Awadh Kisan Sabha, and continues to be a legend in the villages of Awadh. He used to quote Tulsidas’ Ramacharitmanas and his Sita Ram was a cry that mobilised Hindu and Muslim peasants alike. In the Awadh Kisan Congress, held at Ayodhya in 1920, he asked a huge peasant gathering to ensure Hindu-Muslim unity along with demands to end the exorbitant levies and arbitrary evictions by the British.
Today, 145 years later, this moment speaks to us urgently. Now, more than ever, we need to think — is it wise or accurate to claim that nationalism means imagining divisive, endless fictions of ancient communal strife? Isn’t the history of the brave and mostly unsung heroes and heroines of 1857, a more precious and relevant legacy of nationalism?
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