Book Extract: The arrival of General Bakht Khan

An excerpt from the memoir of Zahir Dehlvi gives a first-hand account of the turmoil in Delhi, just before the arrival of General Bakht Khan, who led the 1857 mutiny against the East India Company.

Book cover
Book cover

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The state of Delhi was such that when the sawars went to attack their enemies, the mischief-makers would also go with them and collect money, weapons and horses from the injured and dead. No Hindu or Muslim from the city ever accompanied the fauj baghiya—neither at the beginning of the fighting, nor at the end. From the very first day, it was these ignoble people who looted the city, along with the purbias.

They looted houses, the bank and even the bakshikhana and, now they had purchased horses and entered into the service of the rebels. Most of them were from Kaghazi Mohalla and from the area around Kashmiri Darwaza. They consisted of butchers, paper sellers, shoemakers, local musclemen such as Gami, cudgellers and sundry ruffians—there was no genteel person among them. In fact, the decent people had stopped coming out of their homes as they were busy trying to overcome their own troubles.

The royal employees had been living hand to mouth ever since these rogues entered the city, since they were not being paid salaries. In fact, even the Badshah’s stipend had been stopped; how could he pay salaries, then? The Badshah got a stipend of ₹1 lakh from the British treasury. When the British were uprooted and their treasury looted, there was no one to make the payment to the Badshah.

This was a scene of strife, trouble and destruction. Those who had some valuables at home were selling them and making ends meet, while soldiers with salaries of ₹4 were starving. Since factories had shut down, the people who earned a bit of money via their skills and craftsmanship had no means of livelihood left.

The poor Badshah was always in a state of worry and anxiety and had stopped coming out of his Mahal. He was always sad and teary-eyed. Sometimes, he would come out in the evening and sit in the tasbihkhana alone and curse the ingrates.

We were instructed to take turns and be present in the deorhi in the evenings.

The Emotions of the Emperor

It was the third quarter of one of my nights in the deorhi when the baridar called, “At attention.”

We quickly put on our turbans, adjusted our clothes and got ready. There were only a few of us there – Shahzada Mirza Qaiser, Hameed Khan jamadar khaas biradaran, Mir Fateh Ali jamadar kaharaan, and Hussain Baksh, the arz begi, when the Badshah came out of the palace.

We made our salutations and the Badshah sat on the marble throne in front of the tasbihkhana. Hameed Khan stood against one column while Mir Fateh Ali leaned against another. Mirza Qaiser was to the right of the throne. I stood next to him while Hussain Baksh stood beside me.

Huzoor addressed us. “Do you know what the outcome of the events unfolding before us would be?”

Hameed Khan replied with folded hands. “Huzoor, your glory has been revived after 150 years. The empire which had been taken away has been returned.”

Badshah Salamat replied, “You are all ignorant of the facts that I know. Hear me out. I had nothing to lose. The foundation of strife is wealth, treasures, land and kingdoms and, I had none of them. I was already living the life of a mendicant. Why would anyone have any enmity with me? Why would anyone be envious of a faqir? I was spending my life like a faqir living in his takiya, along with a few of my close people. I had nothing to lose.”

“Now, a fire was started in Meerut by God’s will, and is raging in Delhi at present. Trouble has begun and I have realized that the rebellious sky and wicked world (falak e ghadar aur zamana e na-hanjar) want to see my family destroyed. The family of Chaghtai Sultans had been reigning thus far, but now no traces of this name will be left,” he said.

“These ingrates who have rebelled against their masters and appeared here—they will go off soon. When they couldn’t stay loyal to their masters, how can I expect any loyalty from them? These rogues came to ruin my dynasty, and now they have destroyed it. After they leave, the British are going to cut my head off, along with those of my children and, hang it on the Qila merlons. None of you will escape their wrath,” the Badshah warned.

He went on, “If any of you are still alive, then mark my words: You will never be able to eat in peace, and the nobles of Hind will fall lower than village peasants.”

After these painful words, he went back into the Qila.

Four or five days after this, the emperor came out of the palace again at around 8 a.m. After getting on to his sedan chair, he went towards Salimgarh. On his return, he stopped in the garden of the late Wali Ahad Bahadur Mirza Fakhru, his second son, who had died a year before. I was holding one of the legs of the emperor’s sedan and he told me, “I have heard that Agha Begum is very fretful and worried. She cries a lot. You must go to her and try to carry out her orders to the letter. I am sending you because you have grown up in the palace, since the age of four. No one is a stranger to you. You can go and talk to her through the curtain.”

I folded my hands and accepted the work given to me.

The emperor continued, “You must tell them that Huzoor has said that the family of the prophets and saints of Allah have borne countless miseries and hardships, but these ended along with Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) and his progeny. Think of the calamities that befell them. In spite of them, they stayed calm and patient. Your honour is not more than that of the ladies of the Prophet’s family, the Rasool Zadiya’n. Find solace in recalling their misfortunes, and stay calm and bear your troubles with fortitude.”

Earlier that same day, Hakim Ahsanullah Khan had joined the people walking with the sedan on the emperor’s return. He had joined us when the sedan was passing under the apartments of Mahboob Ali Khan. Four or five purbias came and said something to Hakim Ahsanullah Khan. God knows what he said, but one of them pointed his loaded gun at Hakim’s chest and wanted to shoot him. However, one of the emperor’s bodyguards moved the gun’s muzzle towards the sky.

The emperor stretched his hand out from his sedan and caught the Hakim’s head and brought him in front. He began abusing the ungrateful purbias. All the purbia officers who were standing in the Diwan-e-Aam came running out and began apologizing with folded hands. Things were sorted out.

There was always a conflict between these uncouth purbias and us, the royal employees.

For twenty days, there were no battles, though the bombardment of the city continued as usual.

I must describe one more thing here. The 500 men from the British regiments who had come to join the rebel forces were very impatient. They would incite the soldiers to fight and take them to the places where the conflict was fiercest. Then they would remove themselves from the scene.

There was one old woman who would wear a headband and tie a dupatta around her waist and be right in front during the fighting, instigating the soldiers, “Come on, sons, let’s go for Jihad!” We didn’t know who she was. She would gather people from the market every day and take them to fight. Though she led them, she always returned safe and sound, while hundreds were slain because of her.

When the army entered the city, no one could find her. She simply disappeared.

Excerpts taken from the book Dastan-e-GhadarThe Tale of Mutiny by Zahir Dehlvi, translated by Rana Safvi, with permission from Penguin Random House India. Pages 350; 599.

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Published: 14 May 2017, 2:52 PM