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REPUBLIC DAY FEATURE

ASHFAQULLA KHAN : THE IMMORTAL REVOLUTIONARY

N P Shankaranarayana Rao

   It was December 19, 1927. The winter sun rose late. But its golden rays brought warmth and joy to people shivering in the biting cold.

    At the same time, in the District Jail at Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh, 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 carefully inspected the rope, the sandbags and other things necessary for his execution . 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

    The hero in chains walked upright and with resolve between soldiers who led him to the hangman’s post. Those who were there forgot their positions and prestige and gazed at 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, he 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 Ashafaqulla, the immortal revolutionary.

    Born in the early part of the twentieth century in Shahjahanpur, Uttar Pradesh, Ashfaqulla was the son of Shafiqulla Khan. In 1921 the clouds of the non-cooperation movement were gathering all over India. Mahatma Gandhi had called on Indians not to pay taxes to the Government or cooperate with the British. This had kindled the fire of freedom in the hearts of all Indians. But at a place called Chauri Chaura people indulged in violence and set ablaze a police station resulting in the death of some policemen. Gandhi became sad on hearing this. It pained him much. So he called off 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.

    Ashfaq had one great difficulty in winning the friendship of Ramaprasad. He was a member of the Arya Samaj. He was eager to explain the greatness of the Hindu religion to those belonging to other faiths. 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 his religion did not come in the way of his attempt to win the friendship of Ramaprasad. Though initially Ashfaq met with some resistance from Ramprasad, eventually his relentless pursuit to strike up a friendship with Bismil bore fruit and they became friends. They ate and lived the revolutionary lives together. In the end both became martyrs on the same day but in different jails.

    The young revolutionaries wanted to make use of revolver, bombs and other weapons to fight the British. Kashi (Varanasi) was the centre of their activities. They formed the Hindustan Republican Association. Their main objective 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. The manifesto 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 to such things. Ramaprasad became the chief organiser of the Shahjahnpur wing of the Association. To meet their financial needs Ramaprasad and his assosiates looted some villages. Ashfaq took part in these activities with his brother’s licensed rifle.But the money they got by this means was not enough for their activities.

    The idea of the Kakori train robbery was conceived in the mind of Ramaprasad while travelling by train from Shahjahanpur to Lucknow. At every station he noticed moneybags being taken into the guard’s van and being 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 time table. 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 the famous train dacoity at Kakori.

    At a meeting with revolutionaries from Kashi, Kanpur, Lucknow and Agra, Ramaprasad explained his plans to them . 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 mealy talk but act".The members liked his idea.

    Ashfaq listened silently. From the day he had heard it from Ramaprasad, he had thought about it thoroughly. 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 does in such cases. It will be a different tale when he meddles 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 sounded 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.

Kakori Train Robbery

    On August 9, 1925 when the No.8 Down Train from Shahjahanpur to Lucknow was approaching Kakori , some one pulled the chain and the train stopped abruptly. Ashfaqulla got off the second class compartment with his friends Sachindra Bakshi and Rajendra Lahiri. He had done the first part of his duty in the Kakori plot that day.

    The guard got down to find out in which compartment the chain had been pulled and why. Two revolutionaries fell on him and made him lie down on his face. 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, "Travellers, do not be afraid. We are revolutionaries fighting for freedom. Your lives, money and honour 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. There was an opening on the top; through this opening they could drop moneybags into it. But nothing could be taken out of it.The revolutionaries started dealing blows with hammers to break it open. Ashfaq was the strongest of the group and ran towards the box. He dealt blows after blows on the opening of the box to widen it.

    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.

    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 track. The slit in the box was widened and the moneybags were taken out. During this time all passengers remained quiet including the British officers thinking that a big gang of dacoits had attacked the train.

    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 head. Just ten young men had done this difficult job because of their courage, discipline and patience, leadership and, above all, love for 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, Chadrasekhar Azad, Keshab Chakravarty, Banwari Lal, Mukundi Lal, Mammathnath Gupt and Ashfaqulla Khan.

    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 hid in a sugarcane field half a mile from his home. The police grew tired of searching for Ashfaq. All except Ashfaq had been taken into custody. He managed to reach Kashi after a difficult journey and 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 Palamau district. He worked in the firm for about ten months. This long and forced rest became tiresome for him. So he went to Delhi to find out how he could go abroad and began making 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 sound 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 handed Ashfaq to the police.

    The police wanted to use Ashfaq to suit their plans; they tried very hard to do so. An army officer, Tasadruk Khan, was in the police department and had rendered useful service to the British as their agent in Arabia during the First World War. He met Ashfaq in prison and tried to make him agree to give evidence against his former friends. But Ashfaq did not like his advice. The police 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. Motilal Nehru was the chairman. There were eminent men like Jawaharlal, Sriprakasha, Acharya Narendra Dev, Govind Ballabh Pant and Chandra Bhanu Gupta on the committee.

    Life in prison had made Ashfaq very pious. He said his prayers regularly and during Ramzan fasted very strictly. 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 judgement. 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 petitioned the Viceroy to reduce their death sentences into 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.

    The four revolutionaries sentenced to death died with a smile on their lips and a prayer that they be born again in India so that they could fight again for the country’s freedom. And so they became martyrs.

    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 Hazarat. 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. Love for the motherland, clear thinking, courage, firmness and loyalty were embodied in Ashfaq to the hilt. He deserves to be remembered and cherished by all Indians for his noble qualities.