People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 22

June 03, 2007

Imam Bakhsh Sahbai and the Massacre at Kucha Chelan (Delhi)


The tragedy of Imam Bakhsh Sahbai (1802-57) is illustrative of the fate that befell a large section of the intelligentsia as well as the common people due to the savage brutality unleashed by the British colonial state in order to suppress the Revolt. Imam Bakhsh, better known by his takhallus or pen-name Sahbai, was a prominent scholar, teacher, and poet. He came from a humble background and was educated at Delhi. From 1840 till 1857 he taught Persian at Delhi College (the leading institution for higher education in north India during the first half of the 19th century). At the time of the selection process for the post of Persian teacher at Delhi College, the three leading scholars of Persian who had been shortlisted were the two great poets of Delhi—Ghalib and Momin—, and Imam Bakhsh. Imam Bakhsh soon acquired the reputation of an outstanding teacher. Felix Boutros, the principal of the college, commissioned him to write several textbooks. These included a selection of poetry in Hindustani/Urdu/Hindi and popular folk songs. Imam Bakhsh was himself an accomplished poet. His poetry is entirely in Persian, and he was a regular participant in the mushairas of Delhi.


Imam Bakhsh wrote numerous commentaries on some very difficult Persian prose texts that show his command over the language, as well as his very extensive knowledge of Persian, Arabic and Urdu literature. He was also a great master of the art of word-puzzles, or muamma. The muamma is a word-puzzle resembling crossword puzzles, but more complex, requiring a very thorough familiarity with literature (especially poetry). Imam Bakhsh was admired for his great skill in devising muamma word-puzzles in which clues were provided through references contained in Persian poems. He wrote some books on this pastime.


When the British recaptured Delhi in the third week of September 1857 they resorted to large-scale indiscriminate killing of the residents so as to strike terror as well as to punish the city. One of the worst massacres took place in the locality of Kucha Chelan, located at a walking distance from the Red Fort. The colonial army is estimated to have massacred more than a thousand residents of the locality. The men were taken from their homes and forced to line up along the banks of the river Yamuna. They were then fired upon by the troops. Most were killed instantly. Among those shot dead was Imam Bakhsh Sahbai. Later, his body was reportedly picked up by some of his friends or pupils and quietly buried in an unmarked grave in Delhi College, although this is not confirmed. Lamenting Sahbai’s tragic killing, one of his close friends, the poet and scholar Sadruddin Khan Azurda who himself underwent much suffering during and after the Revolt, wrote:


Why should Azurda not be driven insane

When the innocent Sahbai is thus murdered?