Friday, November 10, 2006

The Last Mughal - By William Dalrymple

This book covers the events of 1857 from the persepective of the decaying Mughal court, the citizens of Delhi and the englishmen who used to live in pre-revolt Delhi and those that 'took' the city. The old Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, is the focal point of the book.

When William Dalrymple was researching this book, he discovered a veritable treasure trove of documents dating from this period. He has used them to reconstruct the events in Delhi prior to, during and after the 1857 Rebellion. The history of the 1857 rebellion is taught very superficially in school. There's mangal pandey, a passing mention made of Bahadur Shah and the rest of the list is devoted to the The Rani of Jhansi, Tatya Tope and Nana Sahib. This book focusses only on Delhi and the events there and brings to light some very interesting facts. The siege of delhi really had five parties to it, The Mughal court, the citizens of Delhi, the sepoys, the English and the oppurtunists, like the gujjar tribesmen.

Here's one thing we should get out of the way first. The British had started by getting the permission of the Mughals to levy tax on their behalf in Bengal, which made them vassals of the Mughals. So, when Zafar joined the Sepoys, it was the british that were mutinying against their masters, not the indians. I think it's really ironic that the british should consistently refer to the events as the Mutiny of 1857 :-)

The book really gave me some insight into Zafar. Apparently, Delhi was undergoing a cultural renaissance under him. He also seems to have been made in the mold of Dara Shikoh rather than Aurangzeb. He was a lover of the arts, a sufi, a pretty good poet himself and treated hindus and muslims equally. In fact, at the risk of alienating the extremist muslims, he forbade the killing of cows in Delhi. Unfortunately, by the time the revolt rolled around, he was eighty two years old and not in very good shape to provide strong leadership. His court was divided and in effect, there was no one in Mughal Delhi who could weld this group of sepoys into a single coherent force. If there had been someone in Delhi who actually knew how to lead an army and understood logistics, it was one of Bahadur Shah's sons, Mirwaiz Mughal, but he was being constantly undermined by other courtiers and Zafar's own wife and minister who were in touch with the british. One faction backed the sepoys and their rebellion while another was in touch with the British with the fond hope that when the rebellion was crushed they would be put in power. They acted as spies and effectively undermined Bahadur Shah's already enfeebled leadership. One of them, Hakim Ahsanallah Khan even convinced him not to prevent the killing of the british women and men who were under his protection, which was later to become the excuse for the wholesale reprisal by the british. This particularly egregious traitor was also responsible for convincing the emperor not to leave Delhi with Bakht Khan when all seemed lost, and then later guiding the British to him,

The siege of Delhi, as it were, was actually carried out by gujjar tribesmen who looted anyone that entered or left the city, effectively choking the city out. Once the sepoys entered and all civic control was lost, the criminal element in the city promptly went on a looting spree, and caused quite a lot of damage before some measure of control was reasserted.

The citizens of Delhi were the hapless group stuck in the middle. Life in Delhi before the revolt was a syncretic mix of hindu and muslim culture. Ghalib, when asked, responded that he was half-muslim. Asked to explain, he said 'I don't eat pork, but I drink wine.'. That about epitmoizes the Delhiites of that time. They were unflinching in their faith that theirs was the best city, their language the most cultured, their food the tastiest, their culture the finest. I guess little has changed :-) There was a regular newspaper in town, which reported right through the rebellion, of which, all copies have survived. There were courtesans' mansions, places where poets could gather and all-night mushairas (poetry symposium) were held, fast-food joints, bazaars and quite a nice night-life.

When the rebellion started, the delhiites were mostly pro-sepoy. But mismanagement of the sepoys and the subsequent looting caused them great suffering. They complained to Bahadur Shah, but there was little that he could do. There was a faction in the city (just like in the palace) that was pro-british, which helped them by spying and reporting on the activities. But none of this helped the populace when the British finally took the city.

The Sepoys and the British, next..

1 comment:

Mudra said...

You say "Apparently, Delhi was undergoing a cultural renaissance under him." But Jaffar's Dilli was just the walled city - his writ did not run much beyond where his shout could be heard. By the time he came the throne the Mughal empire was but a shadow of its former self. Of his ancestor Shah Alam's rule people would say... "Saltanat-e-Shah Alam, Dilli te Palam" (The empire of Shah Alam stretches from Delhi to Palam"