The assassin

Omair Ahmad | Updated on August 22, 2014

Shadows of the past: A panaromic view of Viper Island, near Port Blair, with the gallows and the safe anchor for boats in the foreground. Photo: R Ravindran   -  The Hindu

Omair Ahmad   -  Business Line

There is a statue, built by Indians, of Lord Mayo on Viper Island, but of Sher Ali the Afridi, there is no mention anywhere

In February 1872, an Afridi by the name of Sher Ali prepared a meal for his fellow convicts on Viper Island, part of the larger Port Blair penal colony in the Andaman Islands. Port Blair had been selected as a strategic outpost and penal colony in 1789, but had been abandoned seven years later due to malaria. Also the indigenous tribes had a habit of killing any sailor who found himself shipwrecked there. Port Blair served as a staging post for the forces of the East India Company for their attack on Burma in 1824, but no real settlement had been set up.

This changed after the 1857 Uprising and the penal colony was revived. The first 200 prisoners arrived there in 1858. They were under the powers of the first superintendent, a Dr Walker, who believed that any infraction was worthy of an execution. The prisoners built roads, buildings, and the jails that would house more of their own people. The conditions were horrible, and many died under the whip, were executed, or perished as they encountered the native inhabitants. Nevertheless more and more prisoners were sent to the Andamans as India seethed and squirmed under the heel of British rule. By 1872 there were more than 7,000 prisoners in Port Blair, with the worst of them kept on Viper island, among them Sher Ali.

This was an unusual choice. Sher Ali had not been part of the 1857 Uprising, or actually he had, but on the British side, as a part of the Punjab Mounted Police that saw action in Rohilkhand and Awadh. He later went on to serve in the Peshawar Police, and was the personal orderly of Colonel Pollock of the Peshawar Police. His was no nationalist crime, but a family feud. He was accused of killing a man in 1869, from a tribe that his family had been feuding for years, and while he protested his innocence, he was sentenced to death for the crime. Colonel Pollock commuted his death sentence, and Sher Ali was transported to Port Blair, specifically to Viper Island. It is odd that a man so close to the British authorities would be sent to share prison space with rebels, radicals and revolutionaries, the hardened edge of seething rebellion against British Rule.

It did not seem to radicalise him, though. He was known for good conduct, and the only transgression on the records against him was being found to have five pounds of flour on his person, probably stolen from the kitchen. By May 1871 Sher Ali was operating as barber, and anybody who was being trusted with a blade of sharpened steel around the necks of others must obviously have been considered a reliable man. He earned a little money from this, but in February 1872 he spent it all to buy some flour to bake cakes for Muslim prisoners, and some sugar to distribute among the Hindu ones. It was an act of celebration, or thanksgiving, but no prisoner admitted to knowing why he had done so. Unlike Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the more famous prisoner in the Andamans, Sher Ali did not write or reveal his plans; unlike Savarkar he did not reconcile himself to British justice, or plead for his release either.

A few days after Sher Ali distributed flour cakes and sugar, Richard Southwell Bourke, the 6th earl of Mayo and the 4th Viceroy of India arrived at Port Blair. These were tense days for Lord Mayo, as he was called. The Afghan frontier was seething, instances of assassinations and attacks on the British were rife throughout the Empire. He had stopped off at Burma with great fanfare, spending the first week of February being grand before heading to the Andamans. Nevertheless, at the back of his mind would have been the assassination of Judge Norman, the acting chief justice of Calcutta High Court on September 20, 1871. The thought was uppermost in the mind of the colonial authorities in Port Blair. No convicts were allowed free from their work gangs, a detachment of armed police moved with the viceroy, stationed before and behind him, and covering his flanks, and on Viper and Ross islands, another troop of armed infantry was added.

Thus guarded, the viceroy spent the whole day touring the islands, including a short trek up Mount Harriet, which made him a little late. It was evening by the time the viceregal party reached the jetty. The vicerine saw them and ordered the band to play Rule Britannia, and to those tunes Lord Mayo and his men stepped upon the jetty where Sher Ali had been hiding. Ali leapt up, and buried a kitchen knife once, twice, into the viceroy’s neck before he was torn away. The viceroy died soon after, and Ali was hanged for his crime a month later. I am told that there is a statue, built by Indians, to commemorate Lord Mayo on Viper Island, but of Sher Ali, there is no mention anywhere.

( Omair Ahmad is an author. His last book was on Bhutan; >@OmairTAhmad)

Published on July 25, 2014

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