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Almost 200 years before the IAF bombed the terror camps at Balakot, a man from Rae Bareli, Syed Ahmed Barelvi (1786-1831), had used the place as a launch pad for what is considered by many to be the first “jihad” of the modern era.
Syed Ahmed, not to be confused with Syed Ahmed Khan, founder Aligarh Muslim University, was called Syed Ahmed Barelvi as he was born in UP’s Rae Bareli. A religious man, he dreamed of establishing puritanical Islamic rule in the sub-continent. He despaired at the decline of Muslim power in India as the Marathas, Sikhs and Jats had taken over Mughal territory, and the British had emerged as a formidable contender.
Barelvi moved to North West Frontier Province (NWFP) or present-day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) in Pakistan, thinking the people of KP and neighbouring Afghanistan would back him in his call to recover “Islamic lands” from the hands of “infidels.” He was also banking on locals’ unhappiness with the Sikh rule of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Raising a 2,500-strong army of mujahideen comprising volunteers from as far as Patna, he reached Peshawar.
According to Pakistani writer Aziz Ahmad, Barelvi moved from place to place in the frontier province for five years before he reached Balakot in 1831. He was then 46 and had married a third time. In a letter to the Nawab of Tonk (Rajasthan), Barelvi hoped: “Since Balakot is located at a secure place, surrounded by hills on one side and bounded by the river on the other, God willing, the kuffars (infidels) will not be able to reach us.”
Hari Singh, governor of Kashmir and NWFP, represented Ranjit Singh, who ruled from Lahore. Hari Singh’s commander Sher Singh and his forces lay in wait for Barelvi and his mujahideen. Some of Sher Singh’s forces occupied the hilltop overlooking the town of Balakot. Ahmed says Barelvi had the paddy fields between Balakot town and the hills flooded and hoped that the Sikh army would advance and get mired in the muddy fields. It didn’t happen that way, and on May 6, 1831, the mujahideen and the Sikh forces met at Balakot. Narratives vary, but between 300 and 1,300 mujahideen, along with Barelvi and Shah Ismail (nephew of Islamic scholar Shah Abdul Aziz), were killed. Barelvi’s followers hailed him as a martyr.
Barelvi, who had proclaimed himself to be the imam or supreme religious leader and was addressed as Khalifah (Caliph), lives on as a source of inspiration for Islamic fundamentalists who aspire to impose Islamic supremacy on the sub-continent.
Shah Ismail and his family too still occupy a place in jihadist memory. Jihadis belonging to Jaish are followers of the Deobandi school, whose founders were ideologically close to Ismail’s grandfather Shah Waliullah. The writer Ayesha Jalal in her book ‘Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia’, notes the agony of Muslims over the loss of power led (Shah Ismail’s uncle) Shah Abdul Aziz to issue a fatwa to declare India was no longer ‘dar-ul-Islam’ (land of Islam) but ‘dar-ul-harb’ (land of war).
Aziz’s categorisation of India as a land where it was legitimate to wage war represented irredentism or revanchism, which is an important dimension of jihad. Put simply, it denotes the conviction that a land once under Muslim rule shall always remain so. Jihad makes it obligatory for the “faithful” to strive to recover such territories if they are lost to “non-believers.”
Balakot therefore holds an important place for jihadis like Lashkar chief Hafiz Saeed, who are not reconciled to the loss of Delhi and Hyderabad to “non-believers” and want to take control of J&K.