We have come to a time where fanaticism is fashionable and no longer frowned upon. The search for another Ashfaqullah Khan appears to be more and more elusive. A few days back, fanatics killed Kamlesh Tiwari in UP, for having made what they assumed to be a blasphemous statement about the Prophet of Islam. Even those who advocated alternate reading of Hindu scripture denigrating Hindu mother Goddess, Durga, on national TV, calling it freedom of expression, maintained a shameless, stoic silence, on the imposition of a draconian NSA, which threw Kamlesh Tiwari into the prison for more than a year.
I often wonder, why that famous dimpled anchor of NDTV was never put behind the bars under the same act for denigrating Durga? Maybe, better English saves one from many difficulties, even today, decades after the British left. Whenever I read the history of Ram Prasad Bismil and Ashfaqullah Khan, I regret the fanaticism fanned by the lawyer from South Africa who suddenly descended on India, backed by an affluent and elite lawyer’s lobby, in order to sideline people like Tilak, BC Pal and Lala Lajpat Rai from Hindu side and those like Jinnah from the Muslim side, by aligning with a Maulana who could wrap secularism around the ideal of trans-national idea of Muslim brotherhood.
As fanaticism, religious intolerance and even terror in the name of religion is getting more and more normalized from Editorials (there have been on-roll journalists on crafty medial platforms like The Print worrying about who will represent the Muslim voice, citing lack of Muslim MPs among BJP parliamentarians as if Muslims need Muslim leaders to represent their voice as an extension of two-nation theory creeping into India, claiming how the peaceful (not the people, but the religion as she defines Islam) rock after the gory killing of Kamlesh Tiwari, when the names of criminals was not yet out, to the TV debates where JD (S) spokesperson Abdul Razzak Khan instead of condemning the gory murder justifies it, claiming that Kamlesh Tiwari earned it, and to the United Nations where Imran Khan justifies even nuclear war as a valid response to blasphemy.
We have come a long distance from the times of Ashfaqullah Khan. Today, Ashfaqullah Khan and APJ Kalam and Abdul Hamid, stand isolated in a highly polarized world populated by the hate-machines like Owaisi and such hate figures. The search for an Ashfaq becomes more and more elusive. It has come to such a state that many Muslims would not even want to acknowledge the brave son of the motherland. The way people like Tajamul Hussain who kept on fighting against the term ‘minority’ in the Constitutional assembly anticipating the eventual fracture it will bring about to the Indian society, Ram Prasad Bismil who would today be called a Hindutva fringe for his unapologetic faith in Hinduism and even the brazen sidelining of the great triumvirate, Lal-Bal-Pal, of the Congress under the later westernized and atheist leadership of Congress under Nehru, the family rule he left after him, explains why Ashfaq has been forgotten today. This political forgetfulness also explains, why we must not forget him.
Born on 22nd of October 1900, Ashfaqullah Khan, in Shahjahaanpur of UP, always had the blessing of a divine vision which could see the truth with great objectivity and a clean soul which could speak the truth without confusion. He explains the aristocratic background of his family on the paternal side, when he explains the affluent lives they led but decidedly kept themselves away from any education and could not produce one graduate. One cannot but feel at once disarmed at such large-hearted honesty. His wit also comes out as nothing short of splendid in this self-descriptive essay, Ashfaq wrote. Bismil, his mentor and closest friend, also refers to this charming honesty of Ashfaq’s soul, when he writes that people looking at the ‘Shuddhikarn’ (purification) or reconversion of converted Muslims to Hinduism which Bismil used to undertake as a staunch Aryasamaji questions why he does not purifies Ashfaq; he says, almost surrendering- “how do I purify a soul which is inherently so pure.”
Ashfaq without hesitation laments about how his paternal ancestors kept out of the struggle against the British, luxuriating in their laziness. On the mother’s side, he had a family of bureaucrats, pro-British who faced the wrath of revolutionaries of 1857. Ashfaq was a nationalist from the beginning and saw the spirit of nationalism first hand when in 1918, Rajaram from Class X was arrested in Mainpuri conspiracy from his school. Ashfaq was in Class VII then. Faced with the spirit of nationalism at such a young age, Ashfaq says he wept when in the course of studies, they were taught ‘Love for Country’ by Sir Walter Scott and a story of Horace. It was around that time, he came in touch with Ram Prasad Bismil and after reading Bankim’s Anand Math (yes, the same which has Vande Mataram which causes much heartburn to many modern 21stcentury Muslims of India), jumped into freedom struggle whole-heartedly, with high spirit and some disenchantment with his own community where he did not find support.
It takes a rare honesty and courage of conviction to accept plainly when Ashfaq writes that as a Pathan, I was stupid and also believed in the beginning on Pan-Islam, and prayed that the Afghans or the Khalifat attacks and defeats the Christian British. He then writes that once he started looking at the selfless sacrifices of the revolutionary, he understood that loyalty towards anything foreign over the nation was such a stupid thing. He mentions a school teacher who was subtly promoting anti-Hindu feeling among the students in the school. Influenced by nationalistic fervour of Rasbihari Bose and Kahaiyalal Dutt, Ashfaq cursing people like his teacher joined the revolutionary organization, Hindustan Revolutionary Army.
9th August 1925 (Congress was still five years from the declaration of Total Independence) an audacious attack on the British treasury was organized under the leadership of Bismil at Kakori. His lawyer during the Kakori trial, Shri Kripashankar Hajela writes that when Ashfaq’s brother-in-law suggested that he should turn approver and gain clemency, Ashfaq was much saddened. Ashfaq responded- “I am only Muslim in this case and I was advised to get a Muslim lawyer to represent me but I trusted you and do not expect you to suggest such betrayal.” He writes the day a bold and buoyant Ashfaqullah entered the court of Sessions Judge wearing Saffron dress, people were amazed at his courage and confidence. When his brothers Riyasatullah Khan and Shahanshah Khan visited him with the nephews, Mr Hajela mentions and I quote, Ashfaq said, “Please tell my brothers not to weep for me. Among Hindus, there have already been martyrs like Khudiram Bose and Kanhaiyyalal Dutt, laid down their lives for the nation; I, among the Muslims, am the first fortunate one to lay down my life for the motherland. My brothers should rather rejoice.” In his last letter, Ashfaq tells his nephews to read about his trial to understand the idea of nationalism.
Sadly, the histories have been written post-independence, these details, where Bismil would walk into the courts singing ‘Vande Mataram’ followed by Ashfaq have been pushed to unread pages of the history. When reading about these revolutionaries, two things stand out- one is their understanding of the ground realities of India which were alien to those who lived in houses with 32 bedrooms and two swimming pools, and their incredible intellectual understanding of the world around them. Ashfaqullah Khan then admonishes the communists as well when he charges them for bringing in foreign philosophy to India.
Since it would be of some interest to people who are these days talking way too much about Savarkar and clemency appeal he made to the British; Ashfaq and Bismil too wrote to the British for clemency. Bismil writes that there was a definite purpose to the appeal. One, it exposed the much hallowed British Justice System. Since there was only one bullet fired, and only once death during Kakori, why hang four people. Bismil further writes, “I also wanted to leave an example for my fellow countrymen, that if it comes to charges of sedition under the British, do not count of British benevolence. Make your points strongly because mercy is not going to come anyways. Bismil also says that by postponing a certain death, he wanted to see if there would be a mass uprising of youth in the country on this account. One of the greatest revolutionary and bravest soul India had, Bismil then advises young people to shun violence and try not to get themselves killed. Since it is Congress which has been raising the point of Savarkar’s mercy petition, at the risk of muddying the waters on this solemn occasion, I would want to point out here that the senior lawyer who fought the case against the Revolutionaries in Kakori case was a senior Congress leader and friend of Motilal Nehru, Pandit Jagat Narain Mulla. There is a road named after him, his son was given Iqbal Award because Judge in Allahabad Highcourt in independent India and was sent to Rajya Sabha by Congress during the seventies.
India misses Ashfaq, awaits Ashfaq and pays Tribute to Ashfaq. The torn thread of communal faith around which Congress and Communists tried to weave Indian politics, needs Ashfaq much like we need God in Pascal’s Wager where he contends that if there was no God, we need to invent him. Similarly for the sanity of modern India, if there was no Ashfaq, we need to invent one.