At 4 pm on a dark, wet winter’s evening in November 1862, a cheap plywood coffin was buried to the eerie sound of silence: no lamentations, no panegyrics, for as the British Commissioner in charge of the funeral insisted, ‘No vesting will remain to distinguish where the last of the Great Moghuls rests.’ — William Dalrymple in The Last Mughal
And there lay India’s lost Mughal for a century and a half. Till a British author’s attempt to atone for the injustice done by his forebears to the emperor revived Bahadur Shah Zafar in the nation’s consciousness.
Now the country’s veteran freedom fighters are trying to take a leaf out of William Dalrymple’s book to try and see that the somewhat hesitant figurehead of India’s first war of independence is paid his due.
Shashi Bhushan, member of the National Committee of Freedom Fighters, has proposed that the last Indian emperor’s exile from his land and its memories should now end with his remains ferried back from Yangon to Delhi.
Making it happen now, when the nation is gearing up to celebrate 150 years of its first, chaotic, attempt to shake off the colonial yoke, would be historically appropriate. It was Bahadur Shah’s last wish, too.
The emperor had died in obscurity in Yangon, aged 87, four years after the uprising was crushed and he was exiled with his wife Zeenat Mahal, granddaughter Raunaq Zamani, grandson Sikandar Bux, two daughters and a literature teacher.
The captive poet-emperor’s longing, in far-off Myanmar, for “do gaz zamin” (two yards of earth) in a “ku-e-yaar” (graveyard in the midst of friends) has been reverberating at the recent meetings of the committee drawing up the anniversary programmes, of which Bhushan is a member.
But walking those two extra yards could be difficult on the slippery terrain of international diplomacy.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who heads the committee, has preferred not to make a commitment, saying only that he has taken note of the suggestion.
Human resource development minister Arjun Singh, too, dodged an answer at a news conference. “It’s an international issue,” was all he said in reply to a question.
One problem is that Pakistan, too, lays claim to Bahadur Shah’s tomb on the ground that he was the last Muslim emperor of the undivided subcontinent. The other is that the banished Mughal is touted by India and Myanmar as an emblem of their shared colonial legacy.
In Yangon, the tomb is looked after well and the local population reveres Bahadur Shah as a “saint-emperor” who can fulfil their wishes. His mausoleum draws crowds every day and prayers are held there on Fridays.
While Bahadur Shah died in Yangon, Myanmar’s rebellious king Thibaw was packed off by the British to Maharashtra, where he is buried at Ratnagiri. Just as Dalrymple resurrected the Mughal, most Indians have come to hear of Thibaw thanks to Amitava Ghosh’s The Glass Palace.
Dalrymple has claimed that like the Raj, historians have been unkind to Bahadur Shah. The emperor wasn’t half so vacillating as has been made out by generations of scholars, he writes.
At least, he was decisive enough in those trying times not to give in to the “demands of the jihadis” among the rebels and “alienate his Hindu subjects”.
Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research, tacitly acknowledged that it was the Scotsman who had thrust him into the spotlight.
“In 1968, an excellent book (on Zafar) was written by Mahdi Hassan but it did not get the kind of publicity that was given to Dalrymple’s book,” he said.
The Last Mughal provides a moving portrait of the emperor as he suddenly found himself sucked into a whirlpool of events at the age of 82.
When the revolt broke out, the sepoys streamed into Delhi to ask for his support. He thought them uncouth and boorish. He dithered, but overcome by the desire to reclaim his inheritance, he agreed. The aura of his title gave the uprising a legitimacy and a focus.
But he was never quite in control, never able to unite his motley mob of mutually suspicious forces.
His page Zahir Dehlavi, in his memoir Dastan-e-Ghadr, describes the old emperor’s horror when he learnt the sepoys wanted to slaughter the British families held prisoner in the fort. He pleaded with them saying the massacre of helpless women and children could never be condoned by any religion. But in the end, he failed to prevent it.
Nevertheless, Bhushan’s letter to the Prime Minister says: “He (Bahadur Shah) was chosen Shahenshah-e-Hindustan by the rebel army of the British oppressors as well as the civilians and the rebel rulers of the entire northern India.
“All the freedom fighters desire that in the year when we are observing the 150th anniversary of the first war of Indian independence, the last known wish of Bahadur Shah Zafar should be fulfilled.”
The letter proposes that the Mughal’s grave and remains, with the surrounding earth, be shipped to Calcutta and then driven to Delhi.
“The long journey will give us an opportunity to halt at places, hold meetings and inform the masses about the ideals which were dear to him,” the letter says.
Bhushan chooses the world’s most famous tomb as historical precedent for the shifting of graves.
“Mumtaz Mahal was buried first in Burhanpur (in Madhya Pradesh). Her grave was brought to Agra after more than 15 years when her mausoleum, now known as the Taj Mahal, was completed.”
Still, he would know that every proposal in the past to relocate the remains of Bahadur Shah and Thibaw to their homelands had been nixed in the name of the two countries’ historical and cultural ties.
Sources familiar with the vexed history cite another potential spanner in the works. In 1991, labourers had stumbled on a subterranean grave near the ground-level ones believed to be those of Zafar, his wife and granddaughter.
This, many now hold, is his true grave while the official one was a decoy built by the British, who were so cautious that they would not allow any visitor into the premises for 30 years after Bahadur Shah’s death.
“There could, therefore, be a dispute over identifying his remains,” the source said.
The Prime Minister’s reply to Bhushan was non-committal. “I have also made a note of your suggestion regarding the possible transfer of the grave of Bahadur Shah Zafar from Rangoon (the old name of Yangon) to Delhi,” he wrote.
Bhushan, as proof of the emperor’s desire to be buried in India, cites the empty grave the Mughal had reserved for himself at Zafar Mahal in Delhi.
“Not only the nation but the entire subcontinent owes do gaz zamin to the hero of the 1857 revolt,” he says.