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RETURN OF THE PRINCE OF AWADH 

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BY RUKUN ADVANI   |   Published 27.05.01, 12:00 AM

In the course of writing history, historians and biographers often pass judgment on the dead. These judgments, as often as not, are detrimental to the reputation of those who are written about, and since a lot of history and biography is still focussed on kings and rulers, it is very much a part of the ethos of intellectual freedom for practitioners of these genres to be able to assert that so and so was actually quite a swine, this other fellow was a bit of a bum, this third was a rapist who should have been hanged before he ever got to the throne. It is, in fact, an axiom of law in India, Britain and most 'liberal' countries that the dead cannot be defamed, they cannot be made sub judice. The dead, apart from being dead, have absolute legal immunity by virtue of finally having found a little peace, and, in a country like India, entry into the Happy Hunting Grounds seems a low price to pay for the achievement of eternal prophylaxis from the law courts. In Islamic monarchies, such as Saudi Arabia, an area renowned for just deserts, the immunity of the dead from defamation by the living is a trickier matter. You can try calling the dim ancestors of Prince Fahd a bunch of bad smells, but only if your tongue has failed to understand that its movements have consequences for the subsequent condition of your upper spinal cord. It must have been with the legal contexts of modern India and contemporary Britain in mind that the British historian of the Indian 'mutiny' of 1857, P.J.O. Taylor, in collaboration with a dozen Indian and British scholars (including, coincidentally, the biographer of Indira Gandhi, Katherine Frank), compiled his excellent encyclopaedic work, titled A Companion to the Indian Mutiny of 1857 (Oxford University Press, 1996). There is no other single-volume reference work on 1857 which can equal the dip-and-devour pleasures within this book. If, for example, you have seen Awadh's last nawab, Wajid Ali Shah, immortalized on film by Satyajit Ray and Amjad Khan in Shatranj ke Khiladi, and so wish to find out what happened to this nawab and his family, P.J.O.Taylor is your best companion. A curious and harmless question, one would suppose: what happened to the deposed Wajid Ali Shah, his most famous wife, Begum Hazrat Mahal, and the best known of the nawab's progeny, the allegedly illegitimate Birjis Qadr? Did their line, like Tipu Sultan's, fade into the gutter and cause the occasional rickshaw-puller to pop up now and again as the claimant of Awadh's privy purse? Not so simple to answer this question, as Peter Taylor found to the cost of his book. Soon after the appearance of his Companion, a man claiming to be the Prince of Awadh appeared to file a defamation suit against Taylor and his book in the Bombay high court. This Prince of Awadh, now a resident of London who wished to reinscribe the Empire and reclaim his share of it, said he was the legitimate descendant of Wajid Ali Shah's legitimate son, Birjis Qadr, and that he had been indirectly defamed by Taylor's answer to our supposedly curious and harmless question. His accusing finger pointed in the direction of four entries in the book: Wajid Ali Shah, Begum Hazrat Mahal, Birjis Qadr and Mammoo Khan. Wajid Ali Shah, there is little doubt, was systematically defamed by the British in a desperate effort to give their take-over of Awadh the colour of legitimacy. In Sir John Kaye's three-volume colonial history of what he charmingly called 'The Sepoy War', the last nawab is depicted as a sort of latter-day Nero, fiddling while Lucknow burned, or more precisely, 'a harmless and lachrymose individual...an appalling fool, a practical joker, a profligate, and a self-styled musician who liked to show off in the streets of Lucknow, beating on a tom-tom.' If there had been functioning law courts in mid-19th-century Lucknow (we're still waiting for them), Wajid Ali Shah could certainly have put Sir John Kaye in the dock on the charge of infamy and sued him down to his stockings. In our own time, Maneka Gandhi has for the past several years been advantaged by the dilatory process of Indian law in preventing the publication of Khushwant Singh's autobiography on the grounds of slander. If this stalemate continues, we can only pray that Khushwant Singh outlives Maneka Gandhi so that his libel is able to live while she is safely immunized from it by death. The question is, however, whether a living putative descendant of Wajid Ali Shah can put P.J.O. Taylor in the dock for supposedly giving support to a British view of the Awadh nawab merely by reiterating (and thus 'seeking to perpetuate') Kaye's prejudiced opinion. The legal answer is that this is not reason enough for Taylor to be arraigned. This is not only because Taylor is a scrupulous historian who takes exceptional pains to point out that Wajid Ali Shah had plenty of support within the subject populace (who refrained from looting his palaces during the mutiny in the hope that he would reclaim the throne). The point is not Taylor's scrupulousness, though that would go in his favour within a courtroom: it is quite simply that Taylor is a historian discussing a dead ruler and can say what he likes about his man. For the same reason, Murli Manohar Joshi and his cohorts can say what they like about Aurangzeb. But as we would expect of the law, the law is a tricky customer and has a card up its sleeve. Both the British and the Indian laws make provision for consequential or indirect defamation of the dead which could legitimately be seen to rub off on the living. This means you can say what you like about Wajid Ali Shah, but if you accuse him of having spawned a bastard progeny - the nawab is reckoned by the British to have had 60 concubines and 72 children - and one of the descendants of these 72 shows up to argue that his pedigree is legitimate all the way down from Birjis to himself, you could be on your way to court. Wajid Ali Shah's chief spouse, Begum Hazrat Mahal, was said to have begotten Birjis Qadr not by her husband but by an alleged lover called Mammoo Khan (whom she later disowned; he was hanged by the British). 'Says who?', asked the man claiming to be the current Prince of Awadh. To which the unsatisfactory answer could only be, 'Say the Brits'. Taylor and his publishers were therefore issued a summons and the Companion was withdrawn from the market for several months. The current Prince of Awadh claimed his ancestor's illegitimacy was a part of the British fabrication of Indian history to suit their imperial ends. The Companion cast a slur upon him indirectly by supporting the idea that he was illegitimate. The Indian courts admitted his plea on the grounds that, legally, a charge of indirect defamation could be sustained. Fortunately the matter seems to have been settled out of court and the book is back in the market. If you look the book up, you will discover what happened to Wajid Ali Shah, his Begum, some of his offspring, and a whole mine of other curiosities. The nawab was imprisoned in Fort William, Calcutta, where even the British admitted his demeanour was regal and his behaviour dignified. His Begum ended her days as an exile in Nepal. Birjis Qadr was ten when the mutineers crowned him king. On account of his tender years, he survived the mutiny and accompanied his mother on her exile. P.J.O. Taylor, who is perhaps the ultimate fund of information on the mutiny, now lives in exile in Britain. His heart is in Awadh, and in the most real sense, he alone is its true crown prince.    


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