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Vignettes from an age of war

Remnants: The Sheesh Mahal constructed by Fateh Bahadur Sahi.  

This is a semi-wild terrain on the UP-Bihar border hemmed by the two tributaries of the Ganga — the Ghaghara and the Gandak. Though remote and backward, its environment is enticing. Kushinagar, where the Buddha breathed his last, is situated on its west, and Balmiki Nagar, the abode of Valmiki, the author of the Ramayana, in the east. In between the two, one may hear of great yogis Gorakhnath and Bhartharihari. Move on and hints of history wobble out everywhere. To add to the romance of the ambiance, you may hear folklores admiring an obscure but conspicuous hero of the region — Maharaja Fateh Bahadur Sahi. Historians do not talk of him; but the locals remember him for his valour and love for freedom.

Who is this mysterious hero?

Fateh Bahadur Sahi was an independent ruler of this region whose territory spread across the Bihar-UP border. He belonged to the erstwhile Huseypur estate of the old Saran district of Bihar, from which descended the later-day Tamkuhi Raj of the Kushinagar district of Uttar Pradesh and the Hathwa Raj of Gapalganj district in Bihar. Of his forefathers, Mayyur Bhat is believed to have come from western India to study Sanskrit and astrology at Varanasi, well before the Christian era. Impressed by his talent, the king of Srawasty married his daughter to him. Initially, Mayyur settled in Azamgargh before moving to Gorakhpur from where he established himself in Saran in Bihar.

Among his ancestors, Kalyan Mal was an illustrious king and a contemporary of Akbar. The latter decorated him with the title of “Maharaja Bahadur”, which Jahangir reconfirmed with an additional title of “Shahi”, on the 87{+t}{+h} raja, Kshemkaran. Kalyan Mal founded his capital at Kalyanpur (named after him) near Gopalganj, which was later on shifted to Huseypur. It was here that Fateh was born a son to Sardar Sahi, and was crowned as the 99{+t}{+h} king in 1750 — seven years before the battle of Plassey.

Fateh Sahi's estate spread into the territories of Awadh and Bengal. So, when the East India Company gained control over these areas after the battle of Buxur in 1765, it demanded revenue from him. But he refused to oblige, challenging their legitimacy, and mobilised his supporters against them in 1767. He could be dislodged only when the British troops were sent in from Patna, after which he fled into the jungles of Gorakhpur. But this was not the end of the Company's woes. Many factors helped him pursue his designs, keeping the British in constant panic, such as the geopolitical conditions conducive to his tactical manoeuvres, people's attachment to him, and the popular dislike for the British.

Raids from the jungle

Although dislodged from Huseypur, Fateh Sahi continued to obstruct the collection of revenue in his former territory by launching raids from the jungle. In 1772, he marched into Huseypur and killed the Company's district revenue farmer. Yet, the British kept Fateh in good humour, fearing his disruptive activities. The district collector recommended his pardon for the murder, and he was allowed to return home at Huseypur. He was offered pension with a promise to stop any military action against him; additionally, he was advised to get full autonomy within his territory in lieu of a payment of Rs. 25 lakh and permission for the circulation of British currency in his estate. But Sahi did not agree; instead, he chose to be on war forever. Two months later, he left home and returned to his Gorakhpur hideout in the Bagjogni jungle. The British then designated Mir Jamal as their superintendent of the Huseypur revenue and the estate was farmed out to Basant Sahi, a pro-British cousin of Fateh Sahi.

Taking lead from Fateh, several local chiefs challenged the British authority during 1773-74 and refused to pay taxes. Biding his time, Fateh again marched into Saran in 1775. On May 3, on intelligence about the enemy camping at Jadopur near Huseypur, he dashed through darkness with a 1000-strong cavalry to reach the enemy camp just before dawn. In the bloody skirmish that followed, he killed cousin Basant Sahi and Mir Jamal, and escaped with the booty to his forest fastness. Hundreds were left behind dead and wounded. This happened in spite of the vigil of two companies of sepoys stationed in the neighbourhood to contain him. Basant Sahi's head was cut off and sent to his widow, who committed sati along with 13 aides whose husbands too were killed in the battle. The 14 stupas containing their ashes at Huseypur are worshiped till date.

During his rebellion in August 1781, Raja Chait Singh of Banaras tried to take advantage of the anti-British uprisings in Bihar. He financed Fateh Sahi, a relation, and encouraged him to kill the British and their sepoys. A formidable alliance was forged among the rajas of Huseypur and Majhauli, and the Padrauna and Narrowneys zamindars. Several zamindars from Saran supported Sahi secretly. In October, they assembled a force of 20,000 men at Munjoora and plundered and captured the Company's military station (established to suppress Fateh) at Baragaon. Panicked and helpless, the Saran Collector Grome approached, for help, the anti-Fateh clique of the royal family headed by Dhujju Singh, a family friend and guardian of Basant's minor son. Together, they fought a bloody war with Fateh and compelled him to retreat to the jungle. His Huseypur fort was razed to ground. In reward, Dhujju was called for by Warren Hastings at Banaras and decorated with a khelat of gold cloth. The British, however, did not dare punish any of the supporters of Fateh, fearing a mass revolt against the British in the region.

Fateh did not launch any major attack after that, except periodic incursions. His last raid to Champaran occurred in 1795. There is little information about his life thereafter. According to the Hathwa Raj chronicle, he became an ascetic in 1808. Definitely, he was not caught or killed by the British. Had it been so, they would surely have trumpeted the capture of their dreaded enemy.

Generations later

In fact, the British were so haunted by Fateh that his confiscated estate of Huseypur was conferred, by Cornwallis, on Chattardhari Sahi of the pro-British branch of the family, much later in 1791 and the title of “Maharaja Bahadur” not until 1837 (there could not be two rulers — Fateh being the original — of the same estate). After the demolition of the Huseypur fort, Fateh had established his capital at Tamkuhi where the 114{+t}{+h} generation of his dynasty lives today; the descendents of Basant Sahi moved to Hathwa. The remnants of the Huseypur fort are still extant with numerous memorial spots in the surroundings.

Fateh Sahi was probably the first Indian ruler to revolt against the British on such a scale. He waged a guerrilla war against them for about 30 years, without any wavering in his goal to oust them. The British countered him with all their strength and resources. The hectic correspondence among the Company officials, however, vividly describes their frustration and travels, as they were unable to rein him in. They also declared a reward of Rs. 20,000 on his head, but in vain. Frustrated and distraught, they stooped to nasty tricks. Presuming that Fateh would participate in the marriage of his daughter, they surrounded the fort with the British forces and intelligence, waiting for the kill. But they could know of him only after he had left. He dressed as a pundit and walked on the traditional wooden sandals ( kharaun) well in front of the waiting soldiers!

During the hostilities, Fateh Sahi is believed to have collaborated with the king of Banaras, Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II, nawabs of Awadh and Bengal, and many chieftains and zamindars of UP and Bihar. He received wide and sustained support from the common people and his subject who paid him taxes even in exile. His war against the British may probably be considered as India's First War of Independence and he as its hero. He was a contemporary of Tipu Sultan whom the British defeated and killed brutally; but Sahi was never caught or surrendered to them. He rose against them before Tipu and almost a century before the Revolt of 1857 — India's First War of Independence. In terms of determination, and intensity and duration of aggression, Sahi's rebellion surpassed almost all uprisings before and after him. Sadly, no historian has worked on him seriously. Of late, there is a sudden surge of interest in him, however. The locals have produced tracts, novels, plays, even an epic on him.

(Help received from Vaidurya Pratap Sahi, a 114{+t}{+h} generation scion of Fateh Bahadur Sahi, his family, and Prof. Rai Murari of Patna University is acknowledged gratefully.)

The author is Associate Professor of History at the University of Delhi. Email: jnsinha@rediffmail.com

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Printable version | Jan 17, 2021 8:54:29 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/vignettes-from-an-age-of-war/article2037700.ece

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