Sunset at River Hooghly, Kolkata
In Mahasweta Devi’s novel Titu Mir, the eponymous protagonist is glorified as the charismatic freedom fighter who, in the 1830s, led the revolt against the British in Bengal. Utpal Dutt has directed a play which glorifies Titu Mir as a freedom fighter. But what is the real story of Titu Mir?
Born in 1782, Titu Mir began his life as a small farmer with a tendency for violence. He became involved in criminal activities and was forced off the land by the locals. He drifted to Calcutta, where he became a professional wrestler. Eventually he was hired by a landlord to work as a lathait (big stick enforcer). He was arrested by the police on the charge of being involved in a fight and sent to jail. After his release from jail, he found work as the bodyguard of a minor member of Delhi's Mughal royal family. In 1821, Titu Mir accompanied his employer to Hajj.
While he was in Arabia, Titu Mir met a fellow Indian who had a large following among Muslims in North India: the fundamentalist Wahhabi preacher Syed Ahmad Barelvi. Barelvi preached intolerance toward those who would not adopt the Wahhabi principles, including other Muslims, and he wanted to transform the Indian subcontinent into a Wahhabi empire. Titu Mir became a convert to Wahhabism. When he returned to India he began organizing the Muslim peasants in Bengal to wage war on disbelievers and propagate Wahhabism to the Bengalis.
Titu Mir’s militia caused little damage to the British; the biggest victims of his militia were the Bengali Hindus. He unleashed a reign of terror to evict the Hindu zamindars (landlords) and peasants who refused to convert to Wahhabi Islam and join his militia. He managed to gain control over a number of districts in the Bengal presidency, and declared himself as the badshah (king) of Bengal. He nominated a man called Muizz ad-Din as his wazir (minister of high rank) and his nephew Ghulam Masum Khan as his senapati (general).
To save themselves from Titu Mir’s rampage, some zamindars cooperated with the British. In 1831, Titu Mir’s militia was defeated and he was killed.
Despite his defeat and death in the battle, Titu Mir had a deep impact on Bengal’s culture. Wahhabism took root in Bengal and large-scale conversions to Islam started happening. Intellectuals like Mahasweta Devi and Utpal Dutt have given an incorrect portrayal of Titu Mir in their works. He was not a freedom fighter—he was a Wahhabi fundamentalist and a dangerous warlord who committed terrible atrocities on Bengali Hindus.