An Arain freedom fighter

By:Ishtiaq Ahmed

The News : Saturday, December 15, 2007

Punjab's reputation as a loyalist province, which provided the British Indian Army with soldiers and a solid socio-political support base in the form of a dependent landed class, has eclipsed its rather variegated history, which includes heroic tales of resistance to occupation and foreign rule throughout the ages. Thus, for example, Raja Porus, who ruled a principality in northern Punjab in the ancient period, gave stiff resistance to the invading armies of Alexander the Great, but was defeated by the Greeks near Jhelum in 326 BC. The Khatris of Punjab claim him among their ancestors.

According to Kalpana Sahni -- daughter of the famous Rawalpindi-born, Government-College-Lahore-educated Bollywood actor, the late Balraj Sahni, the Khatris of Behra to which their family belongs -- trace their ancestry to Porus. She has narrated this story on the authority of another famous Punjabi Khatri family with a connection to Government College, Lahore, and to Bollywood: Chetan Anand, the noted late Indian filmmaker and elder brother of evergreen, matinee hero Dev Anand.

Then, there is the story of Dulla Bhatti, a Muslim Rajput who led a rebellion against the Mughals during the reign of Akbar. His story has been rendered in both poetry and prose. Rai Ahmed Khan Kharal, claimed both by Muslim Rajputs and Jatts, who took up arms against the British from western Punjab during 1857, is another hero in that tradition.

Closer to our own times, the legend of Bhagat Singh, a Sikh Jatt, has only grown bigger with time, and several Bollywood pictures have been made on that theme. The Kambohs take pride in Udham Singh from their caste who shot dead Sir Michael O'Dwyer, the Punjab governor who originally gave orders for harsh action at Jallianwala, on April 13, 1919. The actual carnage had been ordered on the spot by General Dyer.

However, one great freedom fighter from Punjab whose heroic struggle has not been given proper recognition is Shah Abdul Qadir Ludhianvi. His direct descendant, Maulana Habibur Rahman Sani, who is currently the chief imam of the main Friday Mosque in Ludhiana, in east Punjab, provided me detailed information on him in an interview recorded on Jan 4, 2005, in the courtyard of the mosque.

Maulana Sani's grandfather, Maulana Habibur Rahman, was one of the founders of the Majlis-e-Ahrar, a movement of anti-imperialist nationalist Muslims, who returned to India after spending one day in Lahore in August 1947, arguing that thousands of Muslims remained in east Punjab and they should not be abandoned. That is how that family remained in Ludhiana.

My attention to Maulana Sani was drawn by Baldev Raj Verma, owner of Naseem Hosiery in Ludhiana, whose father, Hansraj, was on the famous Japanese ship, Komagata Maru, in 1914 chartered by Punjabis, mainly Sikhs, to get to Canada. They were refused entry. It resulted in the emergence of the Ghadar Party and the first anti-colonial struggle in early 20th century in Punjab.

Mr Verma informed me that a famous Muslim family of freedom fighters from Ludhiana still lived in the town centre and were in charge of the main mosque, where thousands of Muslims congregated every Friday to pray. Ludhiana is the major industrial city of east Punjab. Indeed workers from all over India come and work there, among them a very large numbers of Muslims from UP and Bihar.

Maulana Habibur Rahman Sani informed me that his family belonged to the Arain biradari (patrilineage). His great, great grandfather, Shah Abdul Qadir Ludhianvi, was the first in Punjab to take up arms against the English East India Company in 1857. He collected a large fighting force, which included Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, that drove the English out of not only Ludhiana but also Panipat. He then headed to Delhi with his men to support Bahadur Shah Zafar. He fell fighting along with thousands of others at Chandni Chowk in 1857.

In British records Ludhianvi is described as a fiery speaker who exercised considerable influence on the people in that region. Some reports incorrectly describe him as a Gujjar. In any event, the British deprived his family of their property and subjected them to other forms of persecution. The Arains in general were branded as a dangerous group, their lands were confiscated and they were excluded from recruitment in the army; hence their classification as a non-martial group.

However, his descendants continued to support revolutionary struggles and both the Ghadar Party and later Bhagat Singh's associates were aided by them. They also helped Subhash Chandra Bose cross Punjab safely into the North-West Frontier Province. The Tribune, Chandigarh, of Jan 7, 2001, carried a story on the anti-imperialist services of that family.

It is worth remembering that the British adopted similar harsh measures against the Bengalis and Biharis, and some tribes and castes from UP that took part in the Uprising of 1857. They were also declared unfit for military service. Therefore, excluding Arains from the army was consistent with British policy on rebellious tribes and castes.

However, in the ancient, Mughal and Sikh periods, Arains had held prominent positions, such as governors and army generals. Many gotras, or sub-clans, of the Arains bear names that indicate soldiering as an occupation. For example: Ghalar, Gahgeer and Goheer (ferocious horse of armoured corps), Gatku (fencer), Kavali (soldier patrolling while others rest), Basroo (observation post), Bahman (brave, uncontrollable or insurmountable), Bhaila (alms-keeper who walks with the commander when he is giving away alms after a victory), Daulay (those who got land in return for military services), Khatora (spy), Ramay (archers), Rattay (bloody, red, ferocious fighters), Ramday (red -eyed soldiers), Labanay (an army column equipped with batons), Jatalay (victors), Qutub Shahi: (soldiers or their offspring who accompanied Qutubuddin Aibak), Sappal (marksmen), Bahalwan (driver of a chariot), Mudh (logisticians supplying logistics and reinforcement to the army), Teerandaz (archers), Katarband (users of katar, a weapon used by ancient armies) and Bhutto (dwellers of high places).

It would be interesting if some filmmaker in Pakistan could depict the saga of Shah Abdul Qadir Ludhianvi on the silver screen. It would be important to contact his family in Ludhiana for more details, but more importantly the script should remain faithful to the true legacy of that great man. He was by no means a religious fanatic, although he described his struggle against the British as jihad. He was a patriot who joined hands with all communities in the first major struggle against the colonial takeover of the subcontinent.


The writer is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS),

National University of Singapore. Email:

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