When a 38 year old Muslim aristocrat was hanged in Bareilly jail in 1901, it was the height of the British Raj. Malik Mohammad Sardar Wali Khan was born in 1863 in Adhkata, Nawab Gunj, Bareilly, his ancestral home. His father, Malik Shah Wali Khan, was one of the largest landowners of the area; he had upwards of 200,000 acres of agricultural land, which included a 100 or so villages.
The family were Hassan Khel Khattak Pathans who had migrated from Akora Khattak and settled in Rohilkhand, Uttar Pradesh, at the invitation of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb in the 17th century.
Malik Shah Wali Khan’s ancestral haveli was a sprawling structure with the Ramgan river flowing before it, dividing the land into two halves; hence the name ‘adh kata’. A newborn Sardar Wali Khan was greeted by cool spring breezes and the fragrance of lavender and chambeli floating in through the wide open windows of the verandah early that morning. He was also greeted by four little boys, excited to have another little brother to conspire with. Meanwhile, his mother was being fussed over by the midwives and an army of house maids. The blissful scene that unfolded before Malik Shah Wali Khan as he proudly cradled his fifth son could never have foretold what tragedy lay ahead.
This was a time when India was witnessing a dramatic change — She was being forced by her colonial masters to “Anglicize”. The British had just replaced Persian with English as the official or court language, and had also introduced a new, English-based curriculum in schools. The Mughal dynasty was limping to an end with the lonely death of the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, in exile in Rangoon.
According to the order of the day, the Sardar and his brothers were educated privately by English tutors in their early years. The boys used to swim and go boating in the river and ride their horses around the dense mango groves that stretched over their vast lands. No little boy could have wished for a better life.
The day Sardar turned 7 was supposed to be a big celebration. He had completed his first reading of the Qur’an and was now ready to begin offering his five daily prayers on a regular basis. Preparations had started well ahead of time: charitable donations had to be made, sadqas had to be distributed, village people had to be showered with gifts. But on the eve of this special day, the British Deputy Commissioner arrived at the haveli, accompanied by a horde of police officers. They had orders to arrest Shah Wali and his older sons — on charges of rebellion in the “Mutiny” of 1857.
It was a night Sardar would never forget. Amid the wailing and the shrieking of the women, his father and two elder brothers were dragged away in handcuffs. They were then herded onto a ship bound for the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, along with some 200 other political prisoners. One of the brothers contracted cholera on the ship and died en route; Shah Wali and his other son reached the islands and were imprisoned in the Cellular Jail — the infamous Kala Pani — where they lived till the end of the lives.
Thus the birthday celebrations turned into mourning, and life for seven-year-old Sardar and his brothers took a drastic turn. The British Deputy Commissioner proclaimed them wards of the Court, and took over the management of their lands until they reached adulthood.
Sardar grew up to be a brave, rebellious young man, handsome and strongly built. On one of his riding escapades, he fell in love with a village girl from Pilibhit and promptly married her, much to the displeasure of his mother. The union did not bear any children, however, and five years later, he was made to take a second wife. The woman, called Rabbani Begum aka Bhabba, was of noble lineage, and at the time of marriage, the family’s ancestral village was named after her. Unfortunately, this marriage too, was childless. Finally, in 1894, at the age of 31, Sardar got married a third time to Majeedunissa Begum, the daughter of a Raja of Nanpara and Mohammadi. Majeedunnissa Begum was 14 at the time. The couple had their first child exactly nine months later, a beautiful blue-eyed cherub named Malika Shams Tajdar Begum.
Just when things finally seemed to be falling into place for Sardar Wali Khan, something happened that was to throw his life into disarray once again.
In 1896, the year after the birth of his first child, the British Deputy Commissioner was found to be camping on Sardar’s lands with a group of his men. The Commissioner had not asked for Sardar’s permission to do so, and the proud Pathan lord ordered the trespassers to vacate the area within three days, or suffer the consequences. When the Commissioner and his group did not comply, an infuriated Sardar sent men to force them out. In the scuffle that ensued, the Deputy Commissioner was killed. Though the incident had not been ordered nor anticipated by Sardar, the British colonial government charged him and 14 of his men with murder
In 1896, the year after the birth of his first child, the British Deputy Commissioner was found to be camping on Sardar’s lands with a group of his men. The Commissioner had not asked for Sardar’s permission to do so, and the proud Pathan lord ordered the trespassers to vacate the area within three days, or suffer the consequences. When the Commissioner and his group did not comply, an infuriated Sardar sent men to force them out. In the scuffle that ensued, the Deputy Commissioner was killed. Though the incident had not been ordered nor anticipated by Sardar, the British colonial government charged him and 14 of his men with murder.
Sardar, aided by his brothers, pleaded innocent to the charges and requested that his case be presented to Queen Victoria, the then Empress of India. The case was heard by the Queen’s Privy Council, and they found that Sardar was indeed clear of blame, as murder had not been proved. But fate had other plans for Sardar. The newly appointed Deputy Commissioner was eager to rid himself of such a fearless opponent, who would no doubt give him trouble down the line; so he took action before the decision of the Privy Council could reach India. The penalty for murder, death by hanging, was carried out in 1901, when 15 people — including Sardar Wali Khan — were executed at Bareilly’s District Jail. Sardar was just 38 years old. He left behind two young children, his daughter Malika Shams TajdarBegum, and a son, Malik Mohammad Saeed Wali Khan, who had been born just a few years earlier.
Thus, the brave lord of Bareilly, who, like his brothers and father before him, had dared stand up to the Raj, paid the price with his life.