The ‘brave-heart’ of Punjab

Remembering the unsung hero of Punjab in the 1857 War of Independence

Mel Gibson’s Braveheart won five Academy Awards including those for best picture and best director at the 68th Academy Awards in 1995. The story of the movie revolves around the Scottish war for freedom from the British. The plot is based on the life of William Wallace, the Braveheart of Scotland, who leads the Scottish freedom struggle.

Little is known about the historical Wallace other than what an old epic poem tells — that Wallace rallied (mobilised, organised and unified) the clans of Scotland. He won some famous victories against the British. However, in the end he was captured, tortured and executed as a traitor. Some critics say that Gibson filmed a myth rather than a real story.

Braveheart’s plot bears striking resemblance to the life of Rai Ahmad Khan Kharal of Jhamra, a part of Gogera district of colonial Punjab (now a part of Faisalabad district of Pakistani Punjab).

There are numerous similarities between the protagonist of Braveheart and Rai Ahmad Khan Kharal of Jhamra: first, that both rally their countrymen to their belief that a war was necessary to win freedom; second, that both fight against the same enemy, the British; third, that both are inspired by the condition of their own people; fourth, that both record a few famous victories against a mighty enemy; fifth, that both are betrayed by the local nobility; sixth, that both prefer death over making an appeal for mercy; and seventh, that both are hailed as patriots and freedom fighters by their countrymen.

There are several divergences as well: first, that Wallace was quite young while Kharal was over seventy when he fought against the British; second, that Wallace was trapped, captured, tortured and executed while Kharal was shot dead while offering his prayers; third, that Wallace’s rebellion was motivated by the murder of his childhood love, Murron, while Kharal was moved solely by the pain of people of his land; fourth, that Kharal’s murder was avenged by his supporters while Wallace’s killing could not be avenged; and fifth, that Wallace is dubbed as a mythical character, while Kharal is a well-known historical figure.

The War of Independence that first broke out in Meerut in May 1857 spread to other parts of India within no time. The British, who were struggling to quell the mutiny, were in dire need of soldiers to combat the freedom fighters. In this connection, Capt Elphinstone, the deputy commissioner of Gogera, sent an envoy headed by Lord Berkeley (extra-assistant commissioner of Gogera) to secure the support of Kharal and other local chiefs. The envoy asked these notables for men and horses to defend the British Raj. Responding to the request, Kharal famously said: “We don’t ever share our land or horses.”

The response enraged the British on one hand and alerted them on the other to an imminent rebellion. That is why all the local chiefs, including Kharal, were imprisoned in Gogera Jail. However, they were released later after submitting machalkas (guarantees) that they would not participate in the fighting against British.

Rai Ahmad Khan Kharal called a meeting of local chiefs, mainly the tribal leaders - Qureshis, Wattoos, Makhdooms, Khakwanis, Dahas and Gardezis - to launch a joint attack on the colonial forces. However, only a few sided with Kharal. Others advised caution.

Despite submitting the guarantees, Kharal and others decided later to join hands with the freedom fighters. The British had imprisoned many innocent men, women and children in Gogera Jail. On hearing about this, Kharal and his comrades attacked the prison and rescued the inmates on July 26, 1857. It did not stop there. The Kharals and Wattoos, along with some other tribes, refused to pay revenue to the British, thereby challenging the authority of the Raj.

The British tasked Berkeley to quell the rebellion and to teach the rebels a lesson. Berkeley wrote to Martin of Montgomery (now Sahiwal), who in turn, informed Hamilton of Multan. The British administrators of Gogera, Sahiwal and Multan gathered their reinforcements and decided to attack Jhamra and the neighbouring areas in order to suppress the revolt.

On receiving this news, Rai Ahmad Khan Kharal called a meeting of local chiefs, mainly the tribal leaders - Qureshis, Wattoos, Makhdooms, Khakwanis, Dahas and Gardezis - to launch a joint attack on the colonial forces. However, only a few sided with Kharal. Others advised caution. Many of them eventually sided with the British, for which they were rewarded with allotments of land and with titles. Sarfaraz Khan Kharal of Kamalia, a rival of Rai Ahmad Khan Kharal, informed the British about the meeting and planning for insurrection. He was rewarded both politically and economically.

The two sides faced each other in the forest of Gashkori (about six miles short of Gogera) after Kharal had gathered his comrades and the British had mustered their reinforcements. Kharal and his comrades fought bravely and many of them embraced martyrdom. He himself was shot dead on the orders of Berkeley on September 21, 1857, when he was offering prayers by Gulab Singh Bedi.

After killing Kharal and crushing the rebellion, Berkeley decided to return to Gogera. While he was crossing the Ravi, Murad Fatiana, a comrade of Kharal, stabbed and killed him.

While the people of Punjab hail Kharal as a hero, successive governments of post-colonial Punjab have done nothing to preserve the buildings attributed to him. Gogera, for example, has a jail where he and his comrades were imprisoned; his tomb is near his native village Jhamra; and Berkeley’s grave is in a small Christian cemetery on Gogera-Sheikhu Sharif road. The Archaeology Department should take over and look after these sites.

The writer has a PhD in history from Shanghai University and is a lecturer at GCU, Faisalabad. He can be contacted at [email protected] He tweets at @MazharGondal87

The ‘brave-heart’ of Punjab