By Zaman Khan

October 7, 2021 in Features, History, Legacy

Zaman Khan attends a session with a Lahore-based organisation that is quietly working to keep alive the anti-colonial legacy of Punjab

Description: Remembering An 1857 Folk Hero From Punjab: Rai Ahmad Kharal And The History Society Lahore

Believe it or not, there is a society in Lahore which is doing a very important and basic work in the field of history and to create awareness amongst the public. It calls itself the ‘History Reading Society’ but is shy of publicity. History Society Lahore (HSL) is a “non-political, non-profit and non-emotional body” and its mandate and deeds are aimed purely at a better understanding of history that concerns us.

According to its mission statement, “Pakistan as a nation does not enjoy sovereignty or independence. The society of this country can be saved, however endangered it may be. One cannot observe and remain a silent spectator. One has to contribute how-so-ever little it may be, in saving the society of Pakistan.
Ignorant people can never ever change their fate and destiny. If they study their history they will come they will come out of this spell cast by their rulers. Now the rulers say that there is no way out. Once the people study history they will know their past and present; and they will know there is a way out, because the study of history is futuristic.”

There are 16 founder members and these include Prof. Dr. Ajaz Anwar (son of Nana), as well as veteran family physician and colleague of Col. Dr. Illahi Bux, Dr. Zafar Omer, but the basic spirit and moving force is Main Tariq Mahmud.

At a recent event, the speakers included among others veteran journalist and human rights defender Mr. Husain Naqi, leading poet and writer Hussain Majroh, veteran journalist Khalid Kashmiri and academician Dr. Turab ul Hasssan. Hafiz Tahir paid tribute in poetry.

Mr. Ross Masud presented introduction of society. Advocate Rana Bilal conducted the meeting and Mian Tariq Mahmud, founder of the society, presented a vote of thanks. The HSL adopted a resolution on the renaming of Shadman Chowk as Bhagat Singh Chowk – for the reader’s reference, this effort has not succeeded because a religious organisation obtained a stay from the Lahore High Court (LHC).

Speakers reflected on the state, nationalism and Punjabi identity through the colonial and post-colonial eras.

Veteran journalist and human rights defender Mr. Husain Naqi said “Urdu has been a tool in the hands of a Punjabi elite to exploit other federating units.” In the last seventy years of his life, he recalled, only his gardener and domestic help spoke in Punjabi with him.

Mr. Hussain Majroh, leading writer and former Secretary of Halqa-e-Arbab-e-Zauq, discussed in detail Ahmad Khan Kharal’s life. He said although he was defeated but he is still remembered.


Monument in honour of Rai Ahmad Khan Kharal, Sahiwal

Bilal Rana recounted the names of various freedom fighters, some known and some not so much.

The theme of anti-colonial fighter from the Punjab Rai Ahmad Khan Kharal kept coming up again and again. He was born in 1803 in Jhamra, a village of Sahiwal, close to Gogera Bangla in district Okara. Already an old man in his 70s by the time the 1857 rebellion broke out in various parts of British India, Kharal led his band of fighters in an uprising against the colonial rule of the East India Company.

Mian Tariq Mahmud, founder of the society, stated that history as we find it written is Delhi-centric. There is no mention of freedom fighters like Ahmad Khan Kharal in our text books. Mahmud went on to reflect on Pakistan’s historical struggles with identity and religion. He added that so far, Punjab’s history has been written only by bureaucrats. He then stated that he would like to share a folk narrative around a scion of Ahmad Khan Kharal, Rai Naeen Kharal, in Punjabi.

Rai Ahmad Khan was chief of the Kharal tribe. He was respected by Mughal court and later Ranjit Singh too. Among other things, Rai was always concerned about condemned prisoners. So he would visit Delhi and later on Lahore – as the centre of power shifted there in Ranjit Singh’s era – to get them pardon. As the British consolidated their control over the region post-Ranjit Singh, Rai Ahmad Khan was a thorn in their side.

Already an old man in his 70s by the time the 1857 rebellion broke out in various parts of British India, Kharal led his band of fighters in an uprising against the colonial rule of the East India Company

When the British put behind bard some people and their families, Ahmad Khan Kharal attacked the jail and got them released. He was betrayed by Sarfraz Kharal and Jeewy Khan Arain. The British attacked him while he was alone and offering prayer. After killing him, they took away his head as a trophy and displayed it to deter others.


Yet, Murad Fatyana took revenge for Ahmad’s murder and killed Assistant Commissioner of district Gogera, Leopold Oliver Fitzhardinge Berkeley. Eventually, the tribes of this area united and fought against the British. They fought a modern colonial army with homemade weapons in a desperate struggle. The British punished these tribes by abolishing District Gogera – and never developed this area. The Kharal tribe’s land was divided in three districts. Lyallpur, Sheikupura and Okara.

Now the Kharal tribe has constructed a mausoleum and holds a mela (festival) every year. Names of heroes of the anti-colonial resistance are motioned in folk poetry.

Mian Tariq Mahmud stated that in 1971, Punjabis deviated from the tradition of Ahmad Kharal and supported military action against East Pakistan. “It is time that Punjabis should side with the downtrodden, the wretched of the earth and stand with the oppressed federating units and religious minorities,” he opined.

Dr. Turab-ul-Hassan, teacher and author of recently published book Punjab and The War of Independence 1857-1858 – From Collaboration to Resistance (which needs a separate review), stole the show. He in a few words threw light on various aspects of the 1857 War of Independence and the role of people’s hero Rai Ahmad Kharal in resistance against the British rulers.

This author particularly took exception to the often repeated idea that Punjab generally cooperated with the British colonial authorities in suppressing the 1857 revolts. He pointed out a very basic point of history-writing about 1857: stating that it has been written by those who failed in their objectives during that uprising. Later on, having became rulers in Pakistan, they put all the blame on Punjabis for the failure of uprisings in 1857 and accused them of collaborating with the British, which, according to Dr. Turab-ul-Hassan, is simply contrary to the facts. There is ample proof that Punjabis put up a resistance against the British and one example is Rai Ahmad Kharal.

Rai Ahmad Khan Kharal’s home, Jhamra

He noted the historical facts that at Gogera, Murree, Jhajjar and parts of Haryana there was fierce resistance against the British – and it has been acknowledged in official Mutiny Records. Robert Montgomery, Financial Commissioner in the Punjab during 1857-58, mentioned twelve places where sepoys rose against the British.

Most princes, rulers, and Nawabs of princely states such as Pitiala, Jind, Nabha and Kapurthala and many chiefs and feudal of the Punjab collaborated with the British. These rulers were not true representatives of the wishes of the people, according to Dr. Turab-ul-Hassan.

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Ahmad Khan Kharal, Bahawal Fatiana, Murad Fatiana, Muhammad Katia, Lal Katia, Nathu Katia, Nadir Shah Qureshi, Walidad Murdana and Salabat Tarhana etc were popular leaders in their respective areas of the Punjab, who led the resistance movement at various places in the province. They were neither rulers nor sepoys, but “freedom fighters” in the stirring narrative of Dr. Turab-ul-Hassan.

He regretted that there was still today a road in Lahore named after the name of Frederic Cooper who was Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar and was notorious for his cruelty. This colonial official was responsible for killing several native sepoys of the 26th Native Infantry (NI) who rose up against the British at Mian Mir and wanted to join the freedom fighters at Delhi. The British were so afraid that they put a ban on the use of the dhol (drum).

British troops depicted in action at the Battle of Gujrat, 1849

According to Dr. Turab-ul-Hassan, British reprisals in Punjab included 386 people who were hanged, 1,998 people who were shot, 1,471 who were sentenced to imprisonment, 1,501 who were flogged and 272 who were fined.

As I listened to this narrative, I thought that it was indeed a travesty that there is no commemorative stamp, no monument and no Chowk is Islamabad or Lahore named after a freedom-fighter as eminent as Rai Ahmad Kharal.

The best part of attending this event was that the learned and conscious audience remained seated till the end. One hopes that the HSL continues its important work and organises many more such events to raise public awareness about aspects of our anti-colonial history that have been ignored or suppressed.