Remembering Ashfaqulla Khan: The martyr of Kakori
Ashfaq was probably the first among Indian revolutionaries who called himself a socialist. He envisioned a society not only free from imperialism but also from the exploitation faced by working class
In a society where the Patriotism of Muslims always ends with a question mark, it is not surprising that the religious identity of a Muslim martyr becomes the primary point of remembering him. Today, and probably since 1927, Ashfaqulla Khan is not just remembered as a martyr like Ramprasad Bismil or Chandrashekhar Azad or Bhagat Singh, but as a ‘Muslim’ martyr.
While those who hold secular beliefs mention his religious identity to emphasize that Muslims equally contributed to India’s Freedom struggle, the right wing mentions his religious identity to show that they are not as bigoted as they are accused of being. For the Right wing, Ashfaq is a ‘good’ Muslim who proved his nationalism by embracing gallows for Mother India. Whatever be the case, the foregrounding of his religious identity, while remembering him, is only a reflection of deep seated communal consciousness among Indian masses.
What is forgotten in this narrative of ‘Muslim Martyr’, is the fact that Ashfaq was probably the first among Indian revolutionaries who called himself a socialist. He was one of the first to align himself with Socialism and envision a society not only free from Imperialism but also from all forms of exploitation faced by working class and peasants.
The great October Revolution had huge impact upon Indian revolutionaries and Ashfaqulla too was impressed by it. In probably his first political letters written to his friend Banarsi Lal, Ashfaq expressed his desire to write a letter to Vladimir Lenin. While on run, Ashfaqulla Khan contacted communist activist Mir Abdul Majid to help him to go to the Soviet Union and work with Communist International, but was arrested by Colonial police on the basis of information provided by his friend with whom he was staying.
In his last letter titled as ‘message to countrymen’ smuggled out just a few days before his martyrdom, appealing to Communists, Ashfaq wrote: “I am greatly in agreement with you and want to tell you that my heart always weeps for the poor peasants and helpless workers…whatever they grow or produce, they have no share, they always remain sad and in bad shape. I do agree that for all these things our white Masters and their agents are responsible…I have deep regards for you in my heart and while dying, I fully agree with your political aim”. His advice to the Communists was to “go to village, to Industries, live among them, study their condition and make them politically aware”.
Expressing his ideas about what kind of Freedom he envisioned for India, Ashfaq writes: “I want that kind of freedom for Hindustan where [the] poor should live happily and with ease…. If India attains freedom and instead of [the] British, our own people come to occupy the Government and the discrimination on the basis of rich and poor and between landlord and peasants remains, I would pray to God that don’t grant us freedom until equality gets established, for believing in this I can be called a ‘communist’…” These lines are still relevant in the present context as differences which Ashfaq wanted to go from Indian society still remain and are only getting exaggerated every other day. Though it would not be correct to assert that Ashfaq’s idea of Socialism was based on Marxist tradition, but nevertheless there was a clear movement towards it. Ashfaq wanted to write a separate tract on economic exploitation in Indian society but was not able to do so from prison.
Born on October 22, 1900, in a wealthy landlord family in Shajahanpur, the journey of Ashfaqulla Khan as a revolutionary began from his school after he witnessed the arrest of one of his senior Rajaram Bhartiya in the Manipuri conspiracy case. Later, under the influence of one of his teachers who provided him with books on Nationalism and Patriotism, Ashfaq decided to fully immerse himself in the anti-colonial movement and started to seek out Ramprasad Bismil, who was declared an absconder in the Mainpuri conspiracy case and belonged to the same district of Shahjahanpur. Initially Ramprasad, an ardent Arya Samaji, was reluctant to admit Ashfaq in the revolutionary party as he was suspicious his of intentions. Ashfaq, quite clearly was a victim of what today is known as Islamophobia.
But through his consistent efforts, Ashfaq was able to change the mind-set of Bismil and later on they became great friends who were martyred on the same day. Together, they carried out several campaigns in riot hit areas of Rohilkhand in 1924 with the message of Communal harmony and participated in many holdups to fund revolutionary activities. On August 9, 1925, the members of the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA) looted Government treasury at Kakori train station.
Ashfaqulla was initially against this action because he believed that by looting Government treasury, the revolutionary party would directly challenge the British Government, a challenge which the HRA was not capable of facing at that point of time due to lack of resources and organisation. But after the decision of central committee to undertake the action, Ashfaq participated in the action with complete dedication and in fact, he was the one who broke open the heavy locker. Later, Ashfaq’s observation came true as the British Government took the Kakori robbery as challenge to their authority and hunted down the HRA members which led to the sentencing of 19 members out of which four were sentenced to death. Ashfaq, who initially was able to avoid arrest, was one among the four along with Ramprasad Bismil, Rajendranath Lahiri and Roshan Singh who were sentenced to death.
In their last messages addressed to countrymen, both Ashfaq and Bismil appealed to Indians to forget religious differences and fight unitedly both against the British and Indian oppressors.
Today, when we remember Ashfaqulla Khan, and other Kakori revolutionaries and analyse their contemporary relevance, we must keep certain things in our minds. We must remember that it was Ashfaq who had to go out of his way to prove his Nationalism to Bismil. Ashfaqulla Khan had to bear the burden of being a Muslim in a predominantly Hindu society and he was consciousness of the fact. When the Muslim magistrate in Kakori trails tried to convince Ashfaq to become Queen Approver, his reply was: “I am lone Muslim [accused in the Kakori Conspiracy Case] and that is why my responsibilities are huge. If I do something wrong [by becoming an approver] then entire Muslim community will be smeared. Let me die with respect”.
Even today, there is no dearth of Ashfaqulla Khan’s in Indian society. There are many Muslims who are carrying the burden of being Muslim and have to go out of their way to prove their nationalism and patriotism.
In an increasingly communal atmosphere where hatred for Muslims is normalized, where language and colours are being identified with Muslims and targeted by bigots, what India certainly needs is a lot of Ramprasad Bismils. India needs Hindus who can shed their communal lens and suspicions and extend hands of friendship towards their Muslim brethren and fight together against exploitation and communal propaganda. Only that can be the real tribute to Kakori Martyrs who were the messengers of communal harmony and dreamt of an egalitarian India.
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