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March 2006
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Back to the Past

Sher Ali Khan: A Forgotten Revolutionary
By Zubair Ahmed


Sher Ali Khan, a revolutionary deported from the Northern Frontier Province to Andamans by the British, assassinated Lord Mayo, the Viceroy of India on 8th February, 1872. It has been a long wait for this patriot to find a place in history.


February 8, 2006 was just another day for the Islanders. Our sense of history seems to be dead. The apparent silence of the administration as well as media seems more innocent negligence than any shrewd game plan. It was on the night of 8th February, 1872, that Sher Ali Khan, a revolutionary took the life of Richard Bourke, 6th Earl of Mayo, the Viceroy of India.


During the British Rule, occasionally, the media would highlight the sufferings of the prisoners of these Islands and report about the torture methods of the British. As a result of which the government would be pressurised to be lenient to them.


In 1869, Lord Mayo, the Viceroy of India devoted special attention to the issue of the plight of the prisoners. In this regard, he gave some benefits to the prisoners in 1871 which increased his popularity by two-folds. It was his wish that he personally go to the Andaman Islands to see the condition of the prisoners with his own eyes. Hence according to the programme, he visited Andamans in the early morning of the 8th of February, 1872. He was also accompanied by Lady Mayo and other high ranking officials. Since this was the first ever visit of a Viceroy to the Islands, special security measures had been taken.


The Viceroy’s arrival was welcomed with 21 cannon fires and the officers lined up to meet him. He spent his entire day touring the workshops, barracks, and factories of the prisoners where they dwelled and worked. At night fall, he insisted visiting Mount Harriet. The place was quite high and had been renovated as a tourist resort for the special guests. There, he marvelled at the beauty of the Island and witnessed sunset from atop Mount Harriett. So much was he immersed in the surroundings, that he was not aware that darkness had set in. It was then that he decided to go back. On the way, he had to pass through the small bridge called ‘Hope Town Bridge’ in order to board a Launch that was ready to transport him back to the Royal Navy Ship where he would be spending his night. Two men with torches were walking ahead of him to light up the path and his private secretaries and bodyguards were on his either side. An armed police guard was following them as well. But these were traditional methods and the Viceroy and his secretaries were walking with their own pace enjoying their trip.


As soon as they boarded the small ship, there was some noise. When the private secretary looked back, he saw that a man was stabbing the Viceroy in his back. The security personnel reacted immediately and snatched the knife from the attacker. The private secretary succeeded in saving the life of the attacker who was a prisoner; otherwise the security personnel were ready to kill him. In all this mayhem, the torch lights also died out creating an atmosphere of fear. When the torches were lit, they saw that the Viceroy had fallen down the tier after being stabbed. For two to three minutes, the Viceroy tried to keep his balance, but then his feet started to shake and he fell. He tried to get back up on his feet again and managed to tell somebody, “Hold my Head”. These were his last words after which he died.


This assassination attempt was made by a prisoner, ‘Sher Ali Khan’. He belonged to Tirah Valley in Khyber Agency. By nature, Sher Ali was a kind man, but a family feud had brought him to this situation. Sher Ali was a man who gave great respect to everybody. The English officers were served well by him. His overall nature was well cultured even after receiving the death penalty. His death penalty was switched to deportation to Kalapani, when he made an appeal. In 1869, he reached the Andaman Islands to serve his sentence. By this time, he had already made up his mind to kill a high ranking English Officer for revenge.


The little amount of money that he would earn while serving here would always be given away to other poor prisoners as charity. Moreover, every second or third month, he would provide some food for the orphaned prisoners as well. The officers did not strictly monitor his activities because of his charitable nature. It was not long that he was appointed as a barber for the labourers in the Islands. Lord Mayo’s murder sent shockwaves throughout the British Empire. Sher Ali Khan told the courts that he had waited for almost all day near the small ship which the Viceroy would board. After killing the Viceroy, he was asked by the courts about who had hired him to do this job. He would simply reply that, “I killed him by the Order of Allah!”


Sher Ali was again tried for murder and was given the death penalty once again. On the 11th of March 1873, when he was brought to the gallows, there was a look of satisfaction in his eyes. He kissed the rope from which he would be hanged and exclaimed, “When I made this intention (of killing the viceroy), I had already envisioned myself over here”. He addressed the gathering who had come to watch the penalty being enforced, “Brothers, I killed your enemy. You be witness that I am a Muslim.” With this, he recited the Kalma Shahadah. Twice he was able to complete it. The third time, he was not able to do so because of suffocation.


(The writer is based in the Andamans and can be reached at zubairpbl@gmail.com)