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Hindutva eyes a Muslim fort in UP

Updated on: 13 March,2023 05:28 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Ajaz Ashraf |

Perennially in election mode, BJP is on an unstoppable mission to rewrite history, distorting clearly documented fact to sway an electorate that has, sadly, already bought into the hate ideology

Hindutva eyes a Muslim fort in UP

The watchtower and garden at the residential fort. A new-fangled outfit, Manhar Kheda Durg Kalyan Samiti, recently petitioned the district magistrate of Shamli, west Uttar Pradesh, claiming that the fort of Jalalabad was usurped by one Jalal Khan after poisoning a Rajput king in the 17th century. Documents prove these claims false. Pic/Ajaz Ashraf

Ajaz AshrafFrom demanding the restitution of mosques claimed to have been built after demolishing temples, the Hindutva brigade has now in its crosshairs a minor fort where the descendants of the person who built it have been living for over four centuries. A new-fangled outfit, Manhar Kheda Durg Kalyan Samiti, recently petitioned the district magistrate of Shamli, west Uttar Pradesh, claiming that the fort of Jalalabad, in Thana Bhawan block of the district, was usurped by one Jalal Khan after poisoning a Rajput king in the 17th century. They appealed to Chief Minister Adityanath to name the fort Manhar Kheda and hand it over to the Archaeological Survey of India, after, presumably, evicting the owners.

I asked the Shamli-based Samajwadi Party leader Prof Sudhir Panwar about this brewing contest over history. He said Manhar Kheda has never been part of popular memory. Panwar directed me to Noorul Hasan Rashid Kandhlavi, director of the Mufti Ilahi Bakhsh Academy and author of several books on the region’s history.

Citing from Mohammad Ali Khan’s Tareekh-e-Jalalabad, published in 1885, Kandhlavi said two brothers, Jalal Muhammad Khan and Dost Muhammad Khan, came from Afghanistan to India. Mughal emperor Shahjahan sent Jalal to Thana Bhawan, which was then densely forested, as its faujdar, with the task of establishing law and order there. Dost Muhammad went to what is now Madhya Pradesh, where he inaugurated a dynasty famously known as the Nawabs of Bhopal.

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Kandhlavi said Jalalabad had witnessed a fierce fight between the Mughals and Sikhs, a reference to the Battle of Jalalabad of 1710, which has an entry in Tony Jacques’s Dictionary of Battles and Sieges: A Guide to 8,500 Battles from Antiquity through the Twenty-first Century. The entry says Banda Singh Bahadur, the famous Sikh warrior, “resolved to recover a large number of Sikh prisoners and marched against Jalalabad, south of Saharanpur.” After a four-day battle fought, according to Kandhlavi, at Nanauta, Jalal retreated to the fort, which was besieged. Unable to storm the fort and with the monsoon setting in, the Sikh army withdrew.

A more detailed account of the 1710 battle is in Harish Dhillon’s First Raj of the Sikhs: The Life and Times of Banda Bahadur Singh. It seems Muslims in Unarsi village, Deoband, had embraced Sikhi, provoking Jalal to take them as prisoners. Banda Bahadur attacked Jalal’s fort. Dhillon writes, “The defenders fought with great courage in spite of the great hardships they had to endure due to lack of food and water.” With the monsoon turning the fort’s vicinity into a marshland, Banda Bahadur called off the 20-day siege.

I spoke to Ashraf Ali Khan, a Rashtriya Lok Dal MLA and a descendant of Jalal Khan. In 1863, the British divided Jalalabad into three pattis, one of which was assigned to Mansur Ali Khan, giving him the zamindari right to five villages. Presumably, Mansur, like India’s most other royals, did not join the 1857 revolt, else he would have been dispossessed of his estate. Ashraf, a sixth-generation descendant of Mansur, possesses the British document, the map of the patti, which includes the fort, and the family’s genealogy since then.

At the time of Independence, there were three brothers living together—Ghayoor, Shauqat, and Waqat. Ghayoor was childless, Shauqat’s son is Ashraf, who shares the family house inside the fort with Waqat’s six children. Ghayoor entered politics, was elected as an MLA in 1957 on the Praja Socialist Party ticket. In 1967, he won the Kairana Lok Sabha seat on the Samyukta Socialist Party ticket, lost in 1971, and was jailed during the Emergency. He became a Rajya Sabha MP in 1976, but resigned in 1980 to successfully contest the Lok Sabha seat of Muzaffarnagar on then Prime Minister Charan Singh’s Janata Party (Secular) ticket.

The fort is spread over just three acres. It has three watchtowers instead of four, as is usual for forts, which has Kandhlavi suggest that the fourth one must have weakened and collapsed because of attacks from the marauding Sikh and Maratha armies. Even the rampart had largely collapsed before Ghayoor rebuilt it to connect the three watchtowers. But these walls do not have a walkaway, as is typical of forts, for facilitating the movement of soldiers. The phatak, or gateway, to the fort was rebuilt in 1901-02, the family house reconstructed in the 1930s and the garden laid out only in 2004.

Electoral politics has led the Samiti to eye this minor fort. After narrowly losing from Thana Bhawan Assembly seat in 2012, Ashraf trounced, in 2022, Bharatiya Janata Party’s Suresh Rana, an accused in the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots and also booked for delivering hate speeches in 2017. Even as the BJP swept last year’s Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls, it won just six out of the 18 Assembly seats in Shamli, Muzaffarnagar, Baghpat and Meerut.

With the 2024 Lok Sabha elections a year away, the targetting of the Jalalabad fort is an outcome of Hindutva perennially inventing national, regional and micro-level symbols to widen the Hindu-Muslim chasm. Jalalabad is arguably the first instance of Hindutva coveting a Muslim-owned property. And yet the BJP complains every time Indian democracy is rated poorly.

The writer is a senior journalist.
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