Why Exactly Should Bengal Honour A 19th Century Wahhabi Radical?
No, Titumir was not a ‘freedom fighter’. He was an Islamist radical who propagated and practised jihad against Hindus.
He preached a purinatical form of Islam, desecrated temples, killed Brahmin priests and attacked Hindus in Bengal. He also organised Muslim peasants against Hindu zamindars (landlords), and this brought him in direct confrontation with the British, who proved to be his nemesis.
However, in what can be termed as a selective reading of history, Syed Mir Nisar Ali, better known as , is celebrated by many (including the current ruling dispensation in West Bengal) as India’s first ‘freedom fighter’ since he fought the British. An important at Barasat, the headquarters of North 24 Parganas district adjoining Kolkata, was named after him during the rule of the communists. There is even a move to name a on the under-construction route through Kolkata’s New Town after Titumir. And then there are sundry playgrounds and private bodies named after this radical who is hailed as a hero.
Titumir was born in January 1782 at Chandpur village in what is now the North 24 Parganas district into a family of Islamic preachers. Titumir’s ancestor Saiyid Shahadat Ali is said to have come to Bengal from Arabia to preach Islam and Shahadat’s son Saiyid Abdulla was appointed chief qazi of Jafarpur (a town near Chandpur) and given the title of ‘Mir Insaaf’.
Titumir received Islamic education in a madrassa and gained proficiency in Persian and Arabic. He met , and Islamist supremacist and ardent advocate of jihad, in Kolkata and became a preacher of the regressive and jihadist movement.
At the age of 40, Titumir travelled to Mecca and came in contact with more preachers of the puritanical, intolerant and jihadist movement. After returning to India, Titumir started organising Muslim peasants against Hindu zamindars. The peasants under Titumir refused to pay any revenue to the zamindars and Titumir led them in attacks against the landlords, most prominent among them being Krishnadev Roy of Purha, Kaliprasanna Mukhopadhyay of Gobardanga, Rajnarayan of Taragonia, Gauri Prasad Chowdhury of Nagpur and Devanath Roy of Gobra-Gobindapur.
Earlier, Titumir was a muscleman in the employment of a zamindar and was said to be proficient in martial skills. These he taught to his band of bigots who formed into . Historians who contest the ‘freedom fighter’ honorific bestowed on Titumir point out that Titumir’s rebel army did not comprise of a single Hindu, though there were as many impoverished Hindu peasants in Bengal as there were Muslims.
Also, Titumir never attacked any Muslim zamindar, though there were quite a few of them in North 24 Parganas and Nadia provinces where he was active. Titumir also preached, and enforced, Salafi Islam and prohibited the Sufi traditions of shirk (like lighting candles and praying at a ) and (scientific reasoning and innovation). He prohibited Muslims from wearing the dhoti (since it was associated with Hindus), and enjoined them to wear a tahband (piece of cloth wrapped around the waist) over their lungis. He also enforced the Islamist code of keeping beards without moustache and made it mandatory for women to wear the burqa.
John Russell Colvin, a British civil servant who was Lieutenant-Governor of the North-West Provinces during the 1857 revolt, wrote this about Titumir:
“Titu Mian, to the authorities as Mir Nisar Ali. This man had begun life as a small cultivator. It was whispered that he had been the leader of a robber gang. He drifted in course of time to Calcutta, where he became a wrestler. Thence he passed into the service of one of the large landed proprietors, who kept each in his pay a retinue of swashbucklers. The business of these bullies was to break each other’s heads over their masters’ disputes, whenever a boundary question or the right to a plot of land had passed beyond the power of argument. This occupation brought Titu Mian, who was an expert at it, within the four walls of one of the Company’s jails. The experience seems to have led to a distaste for engaging in other people’s quarrels. On his release, he took the ship to Mecca, where salvation awaited him. For Sayyid Ahmad met him; made him a disciple, and sent him back an Apostle to India. He preached the Wahabi tenets to the north and east of Calcutta. Many adhered to the Apostle; some doubted; others made a scoff of him. But Apostles are not to be lightly scoffed at. Titu Mian, though now enlisted in the service of a divine master, had not forgotten the cunning of the right hand which had been once raised in earthly interests”.
“The zealots had begun to assemble in great numbers. By November 6 they had gathered. Then began their operations in the time-honoured way in which the Muhammadan in India declares war against his Hindu brother. They seized and killed a cow, sprinkling the blood over the walls of a Hindu temple, and hanging up the carcass in front of that building. Then, a Brahman was killed. With the slaughter of a cow and a Brahman, vengeance had begun prosperously. The Hindus turned out to oppose Titu Mian and his host. Another Brahman was claimed by vengeance”.
Even eminent Marxist historian Narahari Kaviraj had painted a grim picture of Titumir. Kaviraj (b: 1917, died: 2011) was the last disciple of Bhupendranath Dutta, the youngest brother of Swami Vivekananda.
A paragraph (describing an attack on Hindus by Titumir) from Kaviraj’s book that was quoted by Sita Ram Goel in his book Muslim Separatism: Causes and Consequences is telling:
“They first sallied forth in a body of about 500 persons to attack the marketplace of the village known as Poorwa, where they slaughtered a cow. With the blood of the animal they defiled a Hindu temple. Then they hung up the four quarters (of the cow) in the different parts of the marketplace. They maltreated and wounded an unfortunate Brahmin and threatened to make him a Muslim… The village of Laoghatty in the Nadia district was their next object attack. Here they commenced operations by the repetition of the same outrage to the religious feelings of the Hindus which they had committed at Poorwa, viz, the slaughter of a cow in that part of the village exclusively occupied by Hindu residents. But being opposed by Harideb Ray, a principal inhabitant of the village, and a Brahmin, at the head of a party of villagers, an affray ensued in which one Debnath Ray was killed and Harideb Ray and a number of villagers were severely wounded… Titu’s party went on increasing and with growing confidence they went on killing cows in different places, making raids on the neighbouring villages, forcing from the raiyats agreements to furnish grain, compelling many of them to profess conformity to the tenets of their sect… They openly proclaimed themselves masters of the country, asserting that the Mussalmans from whom the English usurped it, were the rightful owners of the empire… The rebels issued parwanas to the principal zamindars of the district. Their tenor was as follows: ‘This country is now given to our Deen Mohammed. You must, therefore, immediately send grain to the army.’ In a written report the magistrate of Nadia states that a paper written in Bengali and signed in Arabic characters, was put into his hand, purporting to be an order of Allah to the Pal Chowdhuries of Ranaghat to supply russud (rations) to the army of fakirs who were about to fight with the government”.
With Titumir’s mujahids increasing in numbers, the British were alarmed and despatched a small force against him. But the British were routed in a small battle. An emboldened Titumir then attacked the Gobardanga zamindar Kaliprasanna Mukhopadhyay and Purha zamindar Krishnadev Roy.
Titumir had, by then, erected a bamboo fort surrounded by a high double curtain wall of bamboo stakes filled in with mud cladding and sun-baked bricks at Narikelberia (near Barasat town). This fort has been romanticised in many Bengali novels. He then declared independence from the British and established Islamic rule in a large area comprising the present-day districts of North 24 Parganas and Nadia in Bengal and Faridpur in Bangladesh.
Titumir’s jihadists had by then become proficient in guerilla tactics and could repel attacks by the private armies of the zamindars who were supported by the British. Ultimately, the British decided to crush him and a strong force under Lieutenant Colonel Stewart and comprising a hundred cavalry, 300 native infantry and artillery with two cannons, attacked the bamboo fort on 19 November 1831. The fort was destroyed and Titumir with many of his followers were killed.
Today, many historians defend and glorify Titumir. In , historian and scholar of Islam Gautam Bhadra, who was formerly with the Centre for Studies of Social Sciences, is quoted as saying: “Titu destroyed one Hindu temple and killed one priest who worked in the temple of a talukdar (tax collector holding land) Deb Roy. (And) that is not because of any communal reason but because of the nature of his movement, [which was] directed against an irrational tax regime implemented by the land holders”.
But this scholar fails to explain how the priest was responsible for the taxes imposed on peasants by his employer. Bhadra also admits that Titumir spearheaded the (or Salafi movement) in Bengal and that, in itself, is a strong and severe indictment of Titumir since Wahhabism (or Salafism) is a regressive and puritanical form of Islam that preaches intolerance, bigotry, killing of kafirs and jihad.
Prof. Atis Dasgupta, formerly with the Sociological Research Unit of the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata, writes in his essay Titu Meer’s Rebellion: A profile (1983) that Titu preached Wahhabism, advocated Sharia and was against the Sufi and folkish, syncretic form of Islam in Bengal. But then, Dasgupta places Titumir’s revolt against the larger context of uprisings of peasants in Bengal. Again, this is simply whitewashing the bigotry of Titumir and justifying his jihad against Hindus.
Incidentally, this issue snowballed into a public controversy in March 2017 when it came to light that Class X ‘History and Environment’ textbooks approved by the West Bengal Board of Secondary Education contained a chapter stating that Titumir and his Wahhabi followers “killed several Brahmins and destroyed many temples...Muslims opposing Wahabism also were not spared”.
The chapter ‘Wahabi movement in Bengal (1822-1831)’ read: “After return from Haj in 1822, Titumir preached Wahhabism to rural Muslims of North 24 Parganas and Nadia districts, who followed folk Islam that included aspects of Hinduism and Animism. He also built people’s resistance against taxes on mosques and beard imposed by landlord Krishna Dev Roy, besides protesting against indigo farming of the British. This movement came to be known as Tariqahi-Muhammadiyah” (read ).
This chapter was removed after protests by many, including Bengal’s mass education minister . Tellingly, Chowdhury was the president of the Bengal unit of the Jamaat Ulema-i-Hind and is quite a controversial figure. After the Supreme Court’s triple talaq verdict, he had that the apex court has no right to interfere in Islamic customs and that the Quran will prevail over the Indian Constitution. Chowdhury, who received his Islamic education from the hardline Darul Uloom Deoband, had opposed the death sentences passed on responsible for the horrific by the in Bangladesh. He has also been strong critic of the crackdown on Islamists by the Sheikh Hasina regime in that country, but is considered to be close to Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee.
Now, once again and with covert encouragement from many, including those in Bengal’s ruling party, efforts are underway to paint Titumir as a patriot and find a place for him in India’s freedom struggle. All, say many, simply in order to appease minorities.
Incidentally, Titumir is regarded as a by Pakistan and the pro-Pakistan Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) government in Bangladesh issued a commemorative stamp honouring Titumir in 1992.
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