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Khwaja Usman


Khwaja Usman Afghan chief, champion of Afghan independence and the most formidable opponent of the Mughals in Bengal. He was the son of Khwaja Isa (Isa Khan Lohani Mian Khel) and nephew of Qutlu Khan Lohani, the ruler of North Orissa. After the death of Qutlu Khan Lohani (1590), his brother and minister Isa Khan Lohani placed Qutlu's minor son Nasir Lohani on the throne and declared allegiance to the Mughal authority. But with the death of Isa Khan Lohani, the Afghans in Orissa rose in rebellion. Raja Man Singh, the Mughal subahdar of Orissa, sternly suppressed the rebellion (1593). With an object of dispersing the Afghans, Man Singh assigned fiefs to the prominent Afghan chiefs in different regions outside Orissa. He assigned a fief to Khwaja Usman in Fatehabad Pargana (modern Faridpur) in Bengal.

Khwaja Usman along with his brothers, Khwaja Sulaiman, Khwaja Wali, Khwaja Malhi and Khwaja Ibrahim proceeded towards Bengal. But before Usman could arrive at his jagir Man Singh cancelled his grants. Perhaps he did not think it wise to settle Usman so close to the other Afghan chiefs in Bengal. This betrayal on the part of Man Singh seriously alarmed Khwaja Usman, and he broke out in open rebellion, ravaged South Bengal and then joined isa khan Masnad-i-Ala of Bhati. Later Usman established himself in the region east of the Brahmaputra in Mymensingh district with the city of Bokainagar as his stronghold. He had two other fortified posts, one at Hasanpur and the other at Egarasindur, both on the eastern bank of the Brahmaputra which was the dividing line between the territories of Usman and the Mughals.

In alliance with Isa Khan, Usman fought more than once with Raja Man Singh and eluded Mughal subjection. He continued his political alliance with Isa Khan's son musa khan and proved always eager to attack the Mughals in the course of their campaign against Musa Khan. Usman maintained friendly relations also with the Afghan chiefs bayazid karrani of Sylhet and anwar khan of Baniachang.

After the fall of Musa Khan, Usman was the main target of Mughal subahdar Islam Khan. Towards the beginning of October 1611, Islam Khan gathered a large army for the campaign against Usman. The land force under Shaykh Kamal and Shaykh Abdul Wahid marched from Dhaka to Hasanpur (25 miles north of Bokainagar) and encamped there. Shaykh Kamal and Abdul Wahid marched from Hasanpur towards Bokainagar, making block houses all along the way with trenches around. The advance of the invaders with the help of small forts was opposed by Usman almost at every stage, and skirmishes occurred frequently.

The triumphant march of the invaders, the strength of their numbers, the abundance of their equipments soon broke the back of the Afghan opposition and created confusion and dissension in the ranks of Usman. Nasir Khan and Dariya Khan, two Afghan chiefs of Tajpur, left Usman and joined the imperialists. Alarmed at this desertion and apprehensive of further defection of his ranks, Usman decided to evacuate Bokaingar and seek refuge in Sylhet with Bayezid Karrani. Usman seized 250 Afghan soldiers of Nasir Khan and Dariya Khan and finally retraced his steps towards Sylhet. The abandoned fort of Bokainagar was occupied by the Mughal army (7 December 1611).

Usman created a new centre of authority in the hilly tract in the southern part of Sylhet with Uhar as the fortified capital (Uhar is identified with Patan Ushar, 16 miles east of the northeast corner of Hail Haor in Maulavibazar district). He stationed his son Khwaja Mumriz and brother Khwaja Malhi in the neighbouring tract of Taraf.

The Mughal subahdar Islam Khan made grand preparation for the expedition against Khwaja Usman. Many high officers from outside Bengal were employed in it. Shujat Khan was summoned from Deccan and entrusted with the chief command. With an object of trying peaceful measures to win over Usman, an urgent message was sent through a courier in which the Afghan leader was advised to give up hostilities and tender submission. In reply, Usman retorted that 'after many vicissitudes of fortune, he had retired to a quiet corner of the country where he wanted to live in peace, leaving the Mughals masters of the entire region, and that if the latter were determined to oust him even from that corner, he would have no alternative but to take up arms and try his luck again'.

The force under Shujat Khan consisted of a large body of horse and foot including 500 picked cavalry of Islam Khan, and 4000 musketeers, with a large number of elephants and the whole of the imperial fleet in charge of Ihtimam Khan, together with the war-boats of Sona Ghazi, the vassal zamindar of Sarail. The land force resumed its march along the banks of the Meghna towards the northeast and reached the fort of Taraf. Khwaja Mumriz and Khawja Malhi after a short resistance abandoned the fort and retreated to join Khwaja Usman at Uhar. Shujat Khan then marched northwards till he came near the fort of the hill-pass of Putia and encamped there. Khwaja Wali, brother of Khwaja Usman, who was guarding the hill-pass with two forts did the greatest disservice to the cause of Usman by abandoning the forts guarding the hill pass of Putia. Shujat Khan captured the two forts (4 February 1612) and then resumed his march.

At the news of the advance of Shujat Khan towards his capital, Usman marched forward to face him. He himself led the centre with a force of 2000 picked cavalry, 5000 infantry, and 40 war elephants. Khwaja Wali was placed on the left wing with 1000 cavalry, 2000 infantry, and 30 elephants, and Shir-i-Maydan on the right wing with 700 cavalry, 1000 infantry and 20 elephants. The van was entrusted to Khwaja Malhi and Khwaja Ibrahim, brothers of Usman, and Khwaja Daud, his nephew, with 1500 cavalry, 2000 infantry, and 50 elephants. From his capital Uhar, Usman proceeded eastward for about 12 miles and reached the village of Daulambapur (about a mile north of Hail Haor, four or five miles south of Maulavibazar) and entrenched behind a big quagmire which was fringed by a large and thick row of areca-rut trees. By means of planks fastened to these trees, a sort of raised battery was made on which guns were mounted. Usman thus selected an almost impregnable position for defense behind the quagmire compelling his assailants to take the offensive and fight in an inconvenient position. The Mughal general moved forward and made his entrenchments near the bog at a distance of a mile and a half from those of Usman.

Hostilities commenced in the morning of Sunday, 12 March 1612 when the imperialists opened the attack on the right wing of Usman. But in the first phase of the battle confusion arose in the Mughal army. Their right and left wings were thoroughly defeated with heavy casualties, the commanders of both the wings, Shaykh Achchha and Iftikhar Khan, were slain and the rest were chased up to the main imperial entrenchment. The Afghans succeeded in breaking the centre and insolated the commander-in-chief Shujat Khan who narrowly escaped capture.

When the imperialists had thus been reduced to a perilous position as a result of bitter fighting from early morning till mid-day and the victory of the Afghans seemed certain, the tide of fortune rolled back owing to an unforeseen accident. This was the infliction of a mortal wound upon Khwaja Usman by a Mughal horseman, named Shaykh Abdul Jalil, a devoted follower of Iftikhar Khan, who determined to avenge the loss of his leader, rushed towards Usman and shot an arrow at him at so close a range that it passed through his left eye into the brain. Usman instantly pierced his assailant through with his javelin, and then drew out the arrow with his own hand. But in doing so he lost also his right eye which came out of its socket, and became totally blind. Nothing daunted, the valiant Afghan covered his eyes with a kerchief with his left hand so as to conceal his fatal wound from the gaze of his followers, while with his right hand he beckoned his elephant-driver to proceed towards Shujat Khan. But he rapidly lost his speech and succumbed to death.

The news of the death of Usman was carefully concealed, and his son Khwaja Mumriz promptly conveyed the body of the dead chieftain on the back of his elephant to the camp, and himself returned to the field. Afghans, deprived of their great leader, continued desultory fighting till the end of the day and then decided to flee to Uhar at night.

The brothers and sons of Usman with the mortified Afghans left the camp quietly for Uhar after midnight. The body of Usman was conveyed to Uhar and buried in a secluded spot between two hills, while a false tomb was prepared in the yard of his palace.

Khwaja Usman was probably the most romantic figure in the history of medieval Bengal. Driven out of Orissa, Usman had established himself in Bengal challenging the Mughal aggression and invigorated the Afghan strength in this region. Usman has been immortalised for his 'personal valour, dash and vigour, tenacity of purpose and above all his love of freedom, all of which combined to inspire and sustain him in his defensive war against the expanding Mughal power till his death in the field of battle'. [Muazzam Hussain Khan]