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Zafar and the Raj: Anglo-Mughal Delhi C. 1800-1850 By Amar Farooqui, Primus, Rs 850

Some of the sipahis who mutinied in Meerut on the evening of May 10, 1857 sped away as night fell towards Delhi. By next morning they were in the Lal Qila pleading with Bahadur Shah and trying to persuade him to accept the leadership of the war that the sepoys had started against the firanghi. This gesture of the mutineers to appeal to an old emperor bereft of power has mystified historians. Why did they choose this particular figure head — a ruler whose writ did not run beyond the walls of his palace? Yet it is undeniable that through this gesture the rebellion acquired its legitimacy, not just in Delhi but across north India. A rebel ishtahar declared khalk khoda ki, mulk Badshah ka, hokum subahdar sipahi bahadur ka (the world is God’s, the country is the Emperor’s, the order is that of the sepoys).

In this book Amar Farooqui provides the context which made possible this quest for legitimacy in the name of an Empire that in terms of effectivity was an entity of the past. Farooqui’s analytical narrative also subverts the accepted historiography of the hundred years stretching from Plassey to the uprising of 1857. This period is always read as the period of the expansion and the consolidation of British power and how sections of Indian society responded to these changes. The view has as its location Calcutta, the seat of British power. There was, however, a different history, a different perspective. This was the view from Delhi and what was happening to the Mughal Empire and the upholders of its tradition and its status.

Politically, the descendants of Babur, had become subservient to British power after the defeat in the Battle of Buxar in 1764. Yet it was Shah Alam II’s most generous grant of the diwani of Bengal in 1765 to the English East India Company that gave the latter the unique opportunity of utilizing the revenues of Bengal for its own investment. The very idea of a grant has embedded in it a sense of hierarchy and indeed of patronage. Even a defeated Mughal Emperor enjoyed this position and privilege. Throughout the late 18th century right up to 1857, the British took care not to directly challenge the authority and legitimacy of successive Mughal Emperors.

The nuanced and calibrated relationship is evident in the tone and the content of the letter that Lord Auckland as governor-general wrote to Bahadur Shah Zafar on his accession in 1837. Auckland wrote, of “the pleasure which I derive from Your Majesty’s accession to the Throne of your illustrious ancestors… I trust that under the favour of Divine Providence Your Majesty’s Reign may be prosperous and happy, and to convey to you the assurance that the British Government will at all times be happy to manifest every attention to Your Majesty’s welfare, and to the security of the Happiness, dignity and tranquillity of Your Majesty and the Royal Family.’’ The letter may have had its share of dissembling but there was no hint of hostility in it.

The last of the Mughals — from Shah Alam II to Bahadur Shah, a period stretching for a little less than a century — maintained their position and their dignity within the palace by meticulously following the court rituals that had been laid down by their predecessors. They maintained all the trappings of power and prestige. This gave them an exalted status which the British also respected and permitted. What is equally important is that the regional princes, potentates and big landholders all looked up to the Emperor as the ultimate sanctioning authority of the power that they enjoyed. Farooqui’s detailed research unearths many examples of this. This position of the Mughal Emperor when his domain was splintered and his power had shrunk is missed out in the existing historiography. Farooqui adds a new and important dimension to our understanding of the decline and fall of the Mughal Empire.

The Emperor’s realm was confined to his palace whereas the administration of the city was in the hands of the British Resident. The distinction was carefully preserved and respected. Yet as Farooqui shows through some telling examples often the common people of Delhi appealed to the Emperor when they felt that their traditional rights were being threatened by the British administration. In Bahadur Shah’s time, he was careful to divert such complaints and petitions to the Resident when he felt that they fell in the latter’s jurisdiction. What is important, however, is that in common perception, the Emperor was still the ruler — the protector and the ultimate court of appeal. The power lingered long after the Emperor had become a shadow of his former glorified self. The Emperors, Farooqui tries to show, were conscious of their own position as sovereign.

In spite of the detailed archival research, in Urdu, Persian and English sources, this is an easy book to read because the narrative is clear. I have two complaints. One is the space devoted to Ghalib. The career of the poet, important, of course, in itself, is less than a side story in the analysis that Farooqui so ably presents. The other is a little more significant.

The only place where Farooqui’s analysis somewhat falters is in his handling of Bahadur Shah’s role in the revolt of 1857. Reflecting on those dramatic moments when Bahadur Shah accepted the leadership of the rebellion, Farooqui writes, “It was in those few moments that he had decided… the course he ought to take if he was concerned about his place in history. His rejection of their plea would have been a repudiation of the conception of sovereignty he had inherited from his father and grandfather, and upheld throughout his reign. It would have seemed to him that this was the moment he had prepared for all his life. As the sovereign power he had the prerogative to choose who should serve him, the sipahis or the Company. In exercising this prerogative he was making a statement about where he stood in history.’’

This seems to be a trifle overblown. There is nothing in the career of Bahadur Shah to suggest that he was conscious of where he stood in history. His nominal (and this adjective is used advisedly) leadership of the uprising is not part of a chronicle foretold. In fact, the evidence shows — Farooqui does not use this evidence — that his acceptance of the leadership was as smooth as Farooqui makes it out to be. The sepoys, uninvited, had entered the private courtyard of the Emperor. They were clamouring all around him, paying scant regard to protocol. Bahadur Shah was angry and frightened. He had no one to protect him. What choice did he have? His acceptance of the leadership can hardly be described as a voluntary gesture towards history. What is equally important is that across north India, smaller regional leaders and taluqdars were also pressurized by the sepoys and the common people to join the rebellion and accept the leadership. It is undeniable that Bahadur Shah’s acceptance of the leadership gave the uprising its legitimacy but this has to be separated from his plight as a helpless king. He was a king with a past but with no future.