Ahmed Khan Kharal and the Raj
Originally Published in The News (online) 17 October, 2016. Article by Shahid Siddiqui
The great War of Independence in 1857 brought different ethnic groups of India together to challenge the British Raj. A large number of local soldiers left the British army under protest and stood up against the despotic rule of the East India Company (EIC). The Company, in this situation, was in dire need of human resources to combat with the freedom fighters.
In the pursuit of fresh recruits a British envoy was sent to Sahiwal in Punjab to seek support from the local chiefs. The British envoy met Rai Ahmed Khan Kharal, the leader of the Kharals who were concentrated in Gogera near Okara. Rai Ahmed Kharal, a popular and bold chief of the Kharal tribe, turned down the request of providing recruits to the British and openly declared that he was loyal to the king in Delhi and not to the British. The British did not expect such a response as they had successfully bribed a number of local landlords with ‘jagirs’ and titles.
Rai Ahmed Khan Kharal was born in 1803 in Jhamra a village of Sahiwal, close to Gogera Bangla in district Okara. He had great political acumen and enjoyed cordial relationships with leaders of different tribes. Rai’s upfront dismissal of their request infuriated the British.
Another development that invited the colonial wrath was that tribes in and around Sahiwal refused to give revenue to the British government. This was an open rebellion which posed a serious challenge to the authority of the British administration. The British were not expecting such a revolt from the local tribes.
Sensing the impending storm of resistance, the British ordered Berkely, the assistant commissioner of Sahiwal, to suppress the resistance at any cost. His task was to penalise those who challenged the British authority by refusing to pay the revenue to the British Raj. A large number of ‘rebels’ were arrested and put in Gogera jail. Gogera in those times was the headquarters of Sahiwal. The arrest of innocent people at such a large scale was unacceptable to Rai Ahmed Kharal. After consultation with his comrades, Rai decided to free those who had been arrested by the British.
This was a daring step but Rai was ready to embrace all the consequences. On the night of July 26, 1857 Rai Ahmed Kharl attacked the Gogera jail and set all the prisoners free. During the process a number of casualties took place but the objective of freeing the prisoners was successfully achieved. Rai Ahmed escaped the scene with a large number of his comrades and went to the jungle of Gishkori situated a few miles in the neighbourhood of Gogera. This act was an open defiance to the British Raj and the British administration resorted to extreme actions – including burning down villages.
It was important for the British to get rid of Ahmed Khan Kharal, the leader who inspired the people to stand up against the British Raj. The British arrested his family members and threatened to kill them. Rai, in order not to risk the life of his mother and other family members, presented himself for arrest. His arrest led to enhanced unrest created by the strong protest of various tribes.
The administration succumbed under the pressure and freed Rai Ahmed Kharal on the condition that he would not leave Gogera. Rai came out of jail but his objective was to unite the tribes and put up a resistance to the foreign rule. In a covert meeting of his close friends and allies held in a jungle it was decided that all tribes from both sides of River Ravi would get together and attack the check posts, which were symbols of the British establishment in the area.
It was not easy to catch or kill Rai in straight battle as he knew the terrain quite well. There was, however, one technique to trap him. It was the same technique that was used against Tipu Sultan and Sirajuddaula – by buying the loyalties of an insider who would give inside information. Two persons offered their services to further the cause of the colonisers by betraying their friend and leader. One was Sarfraz Kharal and the other was Nehan Singh Bedi.
Rai Ahmed Kharal could not imagine that his professed friends and colleagues would sell their friendship and the freedom struggle for petty worldly gains. Both Sarfraz and Bedi were part of this secret meeting. Soon after the meeting Sarfraz Kharal leaked the proceedings of the secret meeting to the British administration. According to the plan, Rai Ahmed had to cross River Ravi to meet with his allies. Berkely, who had been told about Rai Ahmed Kharal’s movement by Sarfraz Kharal, hastened to River Ravi to pin Rai down before his crossing of river Ravi. Rai Ahmed Kharal, however, was faster and crossed Ravi before Berkley could reach there.
Rai Ahmed Kharal and his comrades fought bravely against the Berkley troops and forced them to retreat. It was a great victory for them. Rai Ahmed decided to offer his prayers. Berkley and his forces were not very far away. As Rai Ahmed was offering his prayers Berkley attacked. Rai’s friend, Bedi identified him and according to some sources, it was he who fired the first bullet. The day was September 21, 1857 – the 10th of Muharram – and the great freedom fighter breathed his last.
To celebrate their victory, the British set the villages of the rebels on fire. Rai’s death was a big blow to his friends and to the local tribes. One of his friends, Murad Fatiana, promised to avenge Rai’s death and killed Berkley just two days after Rai’s death.
Rai Ahmed Kharal’s valiant struggle against the British has become immortal. He has become a legendary character in Punjabi folk poetry dholas, written by different poets and sung by the masses – eulogising the revolutionary role of Rai Ahmed Kharal, who laid his life but never bowed to the might of British Raj.
The writer is an educationist.