‘Yes Majnu Shah’, nodded Cherag Fakir. ‘Only he can make the Sahibs run in fear.’ Asif had of course heard about Majnu Shah and his heroic battles with the British. Villagers often talked about Majnu Shah’s soldiers who came down the hills to loot the British offices….
From: The Tattooed Fakir by Biman Nath
Very little is known about his early life of this Sufi warrior except that he was born in the Mewat region of Haryana. He succeeded Shah Sultan Hasan Suriya Burhana to the leadership of the Bihar based Deewanagan Madaria sufi order in the mid-eighteenth century. He was an organizer of great ability, great commander in chief who travelled in Bengal and Bihar to inspire people to join the rebellion and fight against the superior forces of the British in the second half of the 18th century. It was his Pir, Hamiuddin who motivated him to take up arms against the British:
There was a mazar of dervish Hamid
In the domain of Assadusman
There in the Khanaqa of the old Pir Khadim
Came Majnu Fakir to offer his Salam
Khadim urged Majnu in despair
Lakhs of people are dying in famine
Try to save their lives!
The company’s agents and landlords
Torture artisans and peasants
For exorbitant revenue
And people are deserting villages
Take up arms…
Distribute all provisions among the starved
And drive out the English
As no alternative is left.
-Majnu Shaher Hakikat by Jamiruddin Dafadar
Majnu Shah became a legend in the literature and folklore of undivided Bengal. The lines mentioned below refer to the united Hindu-Muslim revolt against the British known as the Fakir Sanyasi Rebellion which engulfed most districts of northern and eastern undivided Bengal and parts of Bihar during the early part of the British colonial rule in India. According to some historians this movement represented an early war for India’s independence. Whatever little popular imagination that exists about this rebellion, largely stems from the film ‘Anandmath’ which is based on a novel of the same name by Bakim Chandra Chaterjee. This novel was published in 1882, a century after the events actually happened. Notwithstanding its literary significance, the novel has overtones of Hindu revivalism and attitude of co-existence with the British rule which is a major departure from the actual incidents of this movement. There are official records documented by British officers of at least three incidents where the Fakirs and Sanyasis together fought against the East India Company.
Majnu calls out Bhabhani Sanyasi
Catch the Whites and hang them straight
Bhabhani roars and the Giris flash swords
They dispatch the Whites to Yama’s doors
This movement, which the British, in their arrogance, refused to call nothing more than a law and order situation, turned into a fifty thousand strong rebellion of Muslim fakirs and Hindu sanyasis, along with peasants, poor artisans, disbanded soldiers of the Nawabs and Mughal army and dispossessed zamindars that would traumatise the British occupiers for the last three decades of the 18th century (1767-1800). These bands of Fakirs and Sanyasis were very familiar with territories bounded by Brahmaputra in the north and Ganges in the south. Using the riverine paths and the forest covered hills, they out smarted the East India Company troops, waging a guerrilla war on them and plundering the Company’s treasuries and factories, intercepting the Company’s revenue in transit and snatching the possessions of the new landlords and Company’s agents with weapons and ammunition looted from the British themselves !!
It all began in the second half of the 18th century when popular resentment against the East India Company had begun to grow. For over a century the Madari Fakirs and Dasnami sanyasis (also known as Giris ) used to travel to their places of pilgrims in north Bengal and on the way collect alms and land grants from both Hindu and Muslim Zamindars, which was given willingly. However the situation changed after the East India Company took over the diwani of Bihar and Bengal. The British increased the land tax, the lands of many Zamindars were also confiscated, and many restrictions were placed on the movements of the Fakirs and Sanyasis because the British considered them thugs and looters. Moreover the unfair trade policies of the Company which consisted of one-way trading export of raw material, resulted in the crumbling of cottage industries like silk, muslin and handloom. This, combined with natural disasters and crop failure and the consequent Bengal famine of 1770-71, which killed one-third of the population, all contributed to the popular resentment against the British and their agents.
In the 18th century many Fakirs and Sanyasis had recruited themselves as soldiers under the Mughal administration in Bengal. When The East India Company began to gradually dismantle the armed forces of the Nawabs and erstwhile Mughal provincial administration, the disgruntled soldiers joined the Fakir Sanyasi rebellion.
This movement also had the support of dispossessed zamindars like Maharani Bhawani of Natore and Assad Usman Khan – the Nawab of Birbhum.
By the end of 1760 the extraordinary leadership qualities of Majnu Shah brought the Muslim Fakirs and Hindu Sanyasis under a common platform in their struggle against the British. Bhavani Pathak and Devi Choudhrani were two prominent leaders of the Sanyasis who supported Majnu Shah. Other prominent leaders of this movement were Musa Shah, Chirag Ali, Shobhan Shah, Parigullah Shah, Karim Shah, Mohan Giri and Ganesh Giri.
Majnu Shah build a fort in 1776 behind an ancient dargah at Mahasthangarh in Bogra. Here he made make- shift barracks, where he would retreat with his forces to regain strength and discuss their next strategy. Majnu Shah enjoyed the good will and support of the locals and he would station his spies among them to inform him of the Company’s movements. He made constant efforts to keep unity among the Fakirs and Sanyasis and to avoid confrontations among them. One such conflict was sparked off in 1777 but was amicably resolved due to Majnu’s efforts. He was shot at and wounded on December 8, 1786 in a battle at Kaleshwar, he managed to dodge the British and reach Makanpur where he was given shelter by ancestors of local landlord Mir Syed Hasan. The injury however proved fatal and he died on January 26, 1787. After him, his lieutenants, Musa Shah and Chirag Ali led the rebellion.
Although this rebellion of Sufis and Sanyasis could not achieve its ultimate goal, it left a blazing trail for others to follow. In Bangladesh, Majnu Shah is acknowledged among the first martyrs of India’s early resistance to the formation of the British Empire. His relentless struggle against the British is still preserved in Bangladeshi literature and folklore. A feature film based on this martyr was made by the Bangladeshi actor and Darashika titled ‘Fakir Majnu Shah’. Several years ago, the Bangladeshi government paid tribute to this brave heart by dedicating a bridge in his name. But in India, Majnu Shah has been forgotten and the grave of this great son of India lies in utter neglect in some forlorn corner of Makanpur in Kanpur district.
- Nath, B. 2012. The Tattooed Fakir, Pan Macmillan, India
- Khwabnama (Tale of Dreams). 1996. Akhteruzzaman Elias, Naya Udyog, Kolkata
- Dasgupta, A. 1982. The Fakir and Sanyasi Rebellion. Social Scientist. Vol. 10, No. 1 (Jan., 1982), pp. 44-55
- Khan, Muazzam Hussain 2012. Majnu Shah. Banglapedia: National Encyclopedia of Bangladesh(Second ed.).Asiatic Society of Bangladesh