The town of Azamagarh in Eastern Uttar Pradesh has not had a particularly good run as of late, being infamously stereotyped for terrorism. Just a few days back, in fact, key Modi aid, Amit Shah, a man who was once barred from entering Gujarat due to the murder cases on against him, had described the town as a “base of terrorists”.
Azamgarh’s past, though, isn’t as bad as Shah might think. Given that today is the 157th anniversary of the Revolt of 1857—it was on this day that the sepoys of Meerut had revolted, riding immediately to Delhi to gain the Mughal Emperor’s support—it might be worthwhile to recall a remarkable document which was published in the town during the Revolt. Called the Azamgarh Proclamation (Azamgarh Ishtahār) this decleration was issued (most probably) by Firoz Shah, a grandson of the Mughal Emperor who fought in Awadh, and aims to set out a manifesto for what the rebels were fighting for.
The ishtahār is secular and largely democratic in tone, appealing to “both Hindoos and Mahommedans” who are “being ruined under the tyranny and oppression of the treacherous and infidel and treacherous English”. Moreover, its main appeal is to economic sentiment, laying out in great details how the British had ruined each class of citizen—zamindār, merchant, civil servants, soldiers, artisans and even the clergy—and promising them a better deal after the revolution.
While the Revolt is often criticised as being driven by concerns such as elite privilege and religion (all true to some extent), it is worthwhile to remember that the Azamgarh Declaration shows an indigenous modernity was also at play, tying together the combatants of North India in a very "contemporary" struggle for social, economic and political freedom. Moreover, the fact that a Mughal prince was trying to drum up support in the name of the “people of Hindustan” maybe show the underpinnings of a democratic consciousness, which might seem commonplace today, but was noteworthy for its age.
The original document, published in Urdu, has been lost to us. However, an English translation published by the British in the Delhi Gazette on 29 September 1857 survives. Here is the entire text:
It is well known to all, that in this age the people of Hindustan, both Hindoos and Mahommedans, are being ruined under the tyranny and oppression of the treacherous and infidel and treacherous English. It is therefore the bounden duty of all the wealthy people of India, especially of those who have any sort of connexion with any of the Mohammedan royal families, and are considered the pastors and masters of their people, to stake their lives and property for the well-being of the public. With the view of effecting this general good, several princes belonging to the royal family of Delhi, have dispersed themselves in the different parts of India, Iran, Turan, and Afghanistan, and have been long since taking measures to compass their favourite end; and it is to accomplish this charitable object that one of the aforesaid princes has, at the head of an army of Afghanistan, &c., made his appearance in India-and I, who am the grandson of Abul Muzuffer Sarajuddin Bahadur Shah Ghazee, king of India, having in the course of circuit come here to extirpate the infidels residing in the eastern part of the country, and to liberate and protect the poor helpless people now groaning under their iron rule, have, by the aid of the Majahdeens, or religious fanatics, erected- the standard of Mohammed, and persuaded the orthodox Hindoos who had been subject to my ancestors, and have been and are still accessories in the destruction of the English, to raise the standard of Mahavir.
‘ Several of the Hindoo and Mussulman chiefs who … have been trying their best to root out the English in India, have presented themselves to me, and taken part in the reigning Indian crusade, and it is more than probable that I shall very shortly receive succours from the west. Therefore, for the information of the public, the present Ishtahar, consisting of several sections, is put in circulation, and it is the imperative duty of all to take it into their careful consideration and abide by it. Parties anxious to participate in this common cause, but having no means to provide for themselves, shall receive their daily subsistence from me; and be it known to all, that the ancient works both of the Hindoos and the Mohammedans, the writings of the miracle-workers, and the calculations of the astrologers, pundits and rammals, all agree asserting that the English will no longer have any footing in India or elsewhere. Therefore it is incumbent on all to give up the hope of the continuation of the British sway, side with me, and deserve the consideration of the Badshahi, or imperial government by their individual exertion in promoting the common good and thus attain their respective ends…
‘No person, at the misrepresentation of the well-wishers of the British government, ought to conclude from the present slight inconveniences usually attendant on revolutions, that similar inconveniences and troubles should continue when the Badshahi government is established on a firm basis; and parties badly dealt with by any sepoy or plunderer, should come up and represent their grievances to me and receive redress at my hands; and for what-ever property they may lose in the reigning disorder, they will be recompensed from the public treasury when the Badshahi government is well fixed.
‘Section I - Regarding Zemindars.-It is evident the British government, in making zemindary settlements, have imposed exorbitant jummas, and have disgraced and ruined several zemindars, by putting up their estates to public auction for arrears of rent, insomuch, that on the institution of a suit by a common ryot yet, a maidservant, or a slave, the respectable zemindars are summoned into court arrested, put in goal, and disgraced. In litigations regarding zamindaries, the immense value of stamps, and other unnecessary expenses of the civil courts, which are pregnant with all sorts of crooked dealings, and the practice of allowing a case to hang on for years, are all calculated to impoverish the litigants. Besides this, the coffers of the zemindars are annually taxed with subscriptions for schools, hospitals, roads, &c., Such extortions will have no manner of existence in the Badshahi government; but, on the contrary; the jummas will be light, the dignity and honour of the zemindars safe, and every zamindar will have absolute rule in his own zemindary. The zemindary disputes will be summarily decided according to the Shurrah and the Shasters, without any expense; and zemindars who will assist in the present war with their men and money, shall be excused for ever from paying half the revenue. Zemindars aiding only with money, shall be exempted in perpetuity from paying one-fourth of the revenue; and should any zemindar who has been unjustly deprived of his lands luring the English government, personally join the war, he will be restored to his zemindary, and excused from paying one-fourth of the revenue.
‘Section II. -Regarding Merchants.- It is plain that the infidel and treacherous British government have monopolised the trade of all the fine and valuable merchandise, such as indigo, cloth, and other articles of shipping, leaving only the trade of trifles to the people, and even in this they are not without their share of the profits, which they secure by means of customs and stamp fees, &c., in money suits, so that the people have merely a trade in name. Besides this, the profits of the traders are taxed with postages, tolls, and subscriptions for schools, &c. Notwithstanding all these concessions, the merchants are liable to imprisonment and disgrace at the instance or complaint of a worthless man. When the Badshahi government is established, all these aforesaid fraudulent practices shall be dispensed with, and the trade of every article, without exception both by land end water, shall be open to the native merchants of India, who will have the benefit of the government steam-vessels and steam carriages for the conveyance of their merchandise gratis; and merchants having no capital of their own shall be assisted from the public treasury. It is therefore the duty of every merchant to take part in the war, and aid the Badshahi government with his men and money, either secretly or openly, as may be consistent with his position or interest, and forswear his allegiance to the British government.
‘Section III. - Regarding Public Servants.-It is not a secret thing, that under the British government, natives employed in the civil and military services, have little respect, low pay, and no manner of influence and all the posts of dignity and emolument in both the departments, are exclusively bestowed upon Englishmen; for natives in the military service, after having devoted the greater part of their lives, attain to the post of subahdar (the very height of their hopes) with a salary of 6Or. or 70r. per mensem, and those in the civil service obtain the post of sudder ala with a salary of 5OOr. a-month, but no influence, jagheer, or present. But under the Badshahi government like the posts of colonel, general, and commander-in-chief, which the English enjoy at present, the corresponding posts of pansadi, punjhazari haft-hazari, and sippah-salari, will be given the natives in the military service; and like the post of collector, magistrate, judge, sudder judge, secretary, and governor, which the European civil servants now hold, the corresponding posts of wuzeer, quazi, safir, suba, nizam, and dewan, &c. with salaries of lacs of rupees, will be given to the natives of the civil service, together with jagheers khilluts, inams, and influence. Natives, whether Hindoos or Mohammedans, who fall fighting against the English, are sure to go to heaven; and those killed fighting for the English, will, doubtless, go to hell, therefore, all the natives in the British service ought to be alive to their religion and interest, and, abjuring their loyalty to the English, side with the Badshahi government and obtain salaries of 200 or 300 rupees per month for the present, and be entitled to high posts in future If they, for any reason, cannot at present declare openly against the English, they can hearti1y wish ill to their cause, and remain passive spectators of passing events, without taking any active share therein. But at the same time they should indirectly assist the Badshahi government and try their best to drive the English out of the country.
‘All the sepoys and sowars who have for the sake of their religion, joined in the destruction of the English, and are at present, on any consideration in a state of concealment, either at home or elsewhere, should present themselves to me without the least delay or hesitation.
‘Foot soldiers will be paid at the rate of three annas, and sowars at eight or twelve annas per diem for the present, and afterwards they will be paid double of what they get in the British service. Soldiers not in the English service, and taking par in the war against the English, will receive the daily subsistence-money. according to the rate specified below for the present; and in future the foot soldiers will be paid at the rate of eight or ten rupees, and sowars at the rate of twenty or thirty rupees, per month and on the permanent establishment of the Badshahi government, will stand entitled to the highest posts in the state, to jagheers and presents -
Matchlockmen 2 annas a-day.
Riflemen 2 1/2 do.
Swordsmen l 1/2 do.
Horsemen, with large horses 8 do.
Do. with small do. 6 do.
‘Section IV. - Regarding Artisans. - It is evident that the Europeans, by the introduction of English articles into India, have thrown the weavers, the cotton-dressers, the carpenters, the blacksmiths, and the shoemakers, &c., out of employ, and have engrossed their occupations, so that every description of native artisan has been reduced to beggary. But under the Badshahi government the native artisan will exclusively be employed in the services of the kings, the rajahas, and the rich; and this will no doubt insure their prosperity. Therefore the artisans ought to renounce the English services, and assist the Majahdeens… [religious freedom fighters] engage in the war, and thus be entitled both to secular and eternal happiness.
‘Section V.-Regarding Pundits, Fakirs, and other learned persons.- The pundits and fakirs being the guardians of the Hindoo and Mohammedan religions respectively, and the European being the enemies of both the religions, and as at present a war is raging against the English on account of religion, the pundits and fakirs are bound to present themselves to me, and take their share in the holy war, otherwise they will stand condemned according to the tenor of the Shurrah and the Shasters ; but if they come, they will, when the Badshahi government is well established, receive rent-free lands.
‘Lastly, be it known to all, that whoever, out of the above-named classes, shall, after the circulation of this Ishtahar, still cling to the British government, all his estates shall be confiscated, and his property plundered, and he himself, with his whole family, shall he imprisoned, and ultimately put to death.'