Russia helped launch the decolonial movement in the heart of the British Empire with the help of Rafiq “Roosi” Ahmed, one of the few freedom warriors invited to New Delhi in 1972 by the Indian government to commemorate the country’s silver jubilee of independence.
Rafiq “Roosi” Ahmed passed away forty years ago. However, his trips to the former USSR have been so little remembered that his descendants—who are still referred to as the “Roosis” (a Hindi/Urdu term for Russian nationals) of Bhopal—do not know the history of the name they bear or the significance of his illustrious legacy.
Comrade “Roosi” passed away peacefully in 1982, at the age of 93, in the central Indian city of Bhopal, after fighting lung cancer for three years.
The Nawabs had ruled Bhopal during British rule from 1818 to 1947 when it joined the Indian Union. Since then, the city’s socio-political landscape has seen significant transformation. Most people have forgotten about Roosi’s 1920 excursions to the USSR, sparked by the massive revolutionary upheaval in Russia and Central Asia.
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Rafiq Ahmed’s ancestral home is located in the historic Bhopal quarters in a normally unremarkable tiny alley at a short distance from the gorgeous Upper Lake. Despite its location, it is simple to locate because of its name, Roosi. Besides a few elderly citizens of the city, no one is fully sure where this name came from.
The family’s collective knowledge is limited to his second trip to Russia and some incredible anecdotes from his first visit. His daughter-in-law Saulat has done a great job of keeping his belongings safe, especially those related to his trip to the Soviet Union in September-October 1967 to attend the 50th anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution.
They don’t know that Roosi was one of the first Indian revolutionaries to enroll in the Indian Military Training School in Tashkent, that he was a founding member of the Communist Party of India in Tashkent, that he was tried and imprisoned, or that he was among the first group of Indian revolutionaries to travel to the Soviet Union for advice on overthrowing their British colonial rulers.
Old enough to know Bhopal’s history and inhabitants by heart, septuagenarian Khalid Ghani puts this down to Roosi’s simple upbringing. His family has a long history of being neighbors with the Ghanis. On the ground floor, Ghani’s family owned a sports store, while on the first floor, Roosi’s son operated a little motel known as “Moonlight.”
When Ahmed came back from Russia in 1923, people started calling him ‘Roosi’. “He had rubbed shoulders with the top Indian and Russian revolutionaries there, risked his life, and had been jailed. But he didn’t speak about it to anyone, let alone brag about his stay there. Even after the independence of India, he did not list himself as a freedom fighter and avail benefits – such as seeking a plot of land – and securing his future. He just went back to being the person he was before he had left Bhopal. This says a lot about the kind of man he was,” says Ghani.
Roosi came from a humble family and joined Nawab Hameedullah Khan, the last ruler of Bhopal, as the head of the kitchen after returning from his trip to Russia. Roosi began helping his son Jameel when he founded his own business a long time later.
Rafia-un-Nisa, Jameel’s sister, and his wife Saulat are the only two family members who are still alive who were with Roosi. Rafia-un-Nisa is a late eightieth-century woman who has trouble speaking. In 1969, five decades after Roosi’s return from Russia, Saulat wed into the family.
She is aware of her surroundings and can recollect the majority of information about her father-in-law, but she is unable to piece together the chronology of his life before her marriage.
“He would be at the hotel during the day and spend the nights writing. I saw him do that for eight years. It is unfortunate that we cannot find most of his writings,” she laments. She pulls out a newspaper clipping to show that Roosi was among the first Indians to write a book on Vladimir Lenin in 1923. However, she has no idea where the book is.
Trip to Russia
After a 1966–1967 story about him appeared in Soviet Land magazine, Roosi’s protracted time of invisibility ended abruptly. After receiving an invitation to visit the Soviet embassy in New Delhi, he quickly left for Moscow.
In the meanwhile, he was mentioned in the writings of fellow citizens like Shaukat Usmani, but they don’t appear to have received much attention.
Ghani recalls, “Nearly five decades after he had returned from Russia, Ahmed was invited to meet the Soviet ambassador in New Delhi. In 1967, he flew to Russia to take part in the 50th anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution. Later in 1972, he was acknowledged as a freedom fighter at former prime minister Indira Gandhi’s behest.”
He received a gold medal in Moscow for his combat with Russian revolutionaries. Upon being awarded the medal, he stated to the Patriot newspaper that the rebels who were imprisoned and eventually perished there were more deserving of the honor than he was.
“Twenty of my comrades died fighting there. They were all courageous people…I think they deserved this honor much more than me,” he said, adding that he was held hostage in Kerki (in modern-day Turkmenistan) for over a month along with 36 other Indians, as well as Russian and Turkmen revolutionaries. He spoke about how the British tortured the revolutionaries.
He went to the mausoleum of Lenin and laid a wreath there. His greatest misfortune, he told the publication New Age, was that although he had previously witnessed Lenin speaking at a conference, he was unable to meet him in person with his Indian allies due to illness. At that time, the New Age Journal characterized him as a tall, vigorous man.
In Moscow, Roosi met up with other rebels, Maria Fortus included. At the Communist University of the Toilers of the East in Moscow, she had taught him, and she knew every one of her Indian pupils by name. When she asked him about the other Indian revolutionaries, she was able to identify Roosi. Additionally, he got to know Avanes Baratov, an elderly Communist who had fought in the counter-revolutionary bands.
Hosted by the APN Board (Novosti Press Agency), Roosi traveled to Tashkent, where he attended an Urdu-taught school, and Kerki, where he had fought alongside the Red Army. Saulat has a few pictures of himself with Baratov and Fortus, as well as pictures from his trips to Kerki and Tashkent.
Later that year, N.M. Pegov, the Soviet Ambassador to New Delhi, awarded him another medal.
He was one of the few freedom warriors invited to New Delhi in 1972 by the Indian government to commemorate the country’s silver jubilee of independence.
A few years after his passing, in 1986, Qazi Wajdi-ul-Hussaini’s book “Barkatullah Bhopali” included a piece of Roosi’s lost memoir.
Hussani claims that in 1920, when the Khilafat Movement was at its height, the Delhi-based Khilafat Committee called for a conference. An emotionally excited and gullible group of Bhopalis, thinking this was a call to free India from the British, left for Delhi.
Aftab Ali Khan, Mohammed Ali, Abdul Hayi, Master Mashkoor, Mohammed Khan, Ahmed Kabeer Ahmed, Mohammed Shafi, and Mohammed Akhtar were among the fiery group members in addition to Roosi.
When these revolutionaries physically drove a spy out of their group and prevented the Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid from conducting the prayers because he was allegedly linked to the British, they distinguished themselves from the rest.
Roosi’s friends, however, decided to head back to Bhopal when they discovered that this was a call to demonstrate against the British position over the Turkish Caliphate. Inspired by the impassioned summons of Afghanistan’s King Amanullah Khan, the remaining individuals decided to proceed with the “hijrat” (migration) and departed for Kabul.
They left Peshawar, passed into Afghanistan, and traveled through Jalalabad on their way to Kabul. When they first saw King Amanullah Khan, he was kind to them but gave the order to send the refugees to Jabal al-Siraj, an old castle he had converted into a military outpost. The group realized that the Emir was buying time to make a deal with the British when he pledged to give them work.
Disappointed, the group fled from Jabal al-Siraj, walking 30 to 40 kilometers a day on foot, navigating perilous deserts and tough slopes before reaching the border with Turkistan and, eventually, Termez via Mazar-i-Sharif and Ghor. They heard the vehement speech of a Russian general at Termez, who declared that his nation had welcomed the laborers. They met the commander and went to Tashkent with his help.
In ‘The Indian Revolutionaries and the Bolsheviks – their early contacts, 1918-1922’, Arun Coomer Bose writes, “We have it on the authority of Rafiq Ahmed (Roosi) that the first four ‘muhajirs’ (migrants), including himself, reached Kabul sometime in May 1920. They were well received and were lodged at Jabal us-Siraz (Jabal al-Siraj), at some distance from Kabul. Others, who came after them, were also brought there, and by the beginning of July there were about a couple of hundred of them at Jabal us-Siraz (Jabal al-Siraj).”
It was planned that some of the Indian “muhajirs” would return to India to lay the groundwork for a communist movement there following the establishment of the Communist Party of India in Tashkent.
Roosi was among the larger party of ten that left for India via the Pamir road near the end of March 1922, according to Bose. They split out into smaller groups at Kharog, and except for a few, they managed to make it to Chitral, or the tribal regions in northwest India. However, nearly every one of them was captured by Indian authorities and put on trial in the Peshawar Conspiracy Case,” continues Bose.
For almost a year, Roosi was incarcerated. In the Peshawar Conspiracy Case (Crown v. Akbar Shah and seven others in the Moscow Tashkent conspiracy case), Roosi was arrested in the last week of October 1922 and released on May 18, 1923, according to a letter from the Indian government dated December 25, 1972. He served his term in the Peshawar District Jail.
The family restaurant, which serves Mughlai food, is currently owned by Saulat’s son. Bushra, her daughter, who was eight years old when Roosi died, has inherited her grandfather’s documents and intends to protect them.
The following generation of Roosis is happy to know that their great-grandfather traveled to Russia, but they are ignorant of his ancestry. So, is it possible to assign blame to the rest of Bhopal?