1857: Reminiscing a lost war and a way of life 

The year 2017 marks the 160th anniversary of India’s first war of independence. Historian Rana Safvi brings alive fascinating facets of the events that destroyed independence and a way of living

NH Photo
NH Photo

S Khurram Raza

Kitnaa hai bad_naseeb "Zafar" dafn key liye

Do gaz zamin bhi na mili kuu-e-yaar mein

(How unlucky is Zafar! / Denied even two yards of land in
the land (of the) beloved)

The poignant lines from the poem of the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar sum up his tragic life, a part of which was brought alive in a presentation at the Modern School, Delhi by the Delhi Heritage Foundation.

“Hindus and Muslims are both my children and they should not be punished for deeds and faults of mine” recalled Kulsum Zamani, daughter of Bahadur Shah Zafar while recalling the last prayer her father made to the Lord before leaving Delhi,” narrated historian Rana Safvi while making the presentation. Before performing the last Namaz the last Mughal emperor’s parting words to his daughter were, ‘Now you should leave as the end is near’.

Safvi held her audience spell-bound with the presentation to mark the 160th anniversary of the first war of independence in 1857. The historian, author, columnist and blogger transported her audience to the five-month siege of Delhi in 1857 from 11th May, when the war reached Delhi, to 21st September, when India finally lost the war and was taken over by the British crown.

She describes how the first war of independence or uprising or Ghadar called by Britishers started, why it failed, what were the repercussions and how the emperor handled the situation.

“Bahadur Shah was a multi-talented person, an expert horse rider, among the best archers of his time, an accomplished swordsman, a master calligraphist, a renowned poet who was Sufi by instinct and was the disciple of a saint named Kale Sahib.

Although a King, his kingdom by 1857 was confined to the Qila (Fort) and he enjoyed little power. Safvi quoted Urdu writer Mirza Farhatullah Baig as saying, “As Bahadur Shah Zafar didn’t have any work, whenever he would visit Deewan-e-Khaas in the morning, he would recite his latest poems. ”

“On 8th March the cavalry in Meerut refused to use the greased cartridges which were said to contain cow and pig fat. Following the refusal, 85 Indians were arrested and the remaining members of the battalion were suspended. Zaheer Dehlvi writes that when these suspended men reached home, their women taunted them by saying that if they could not do anything to release their arrested colleagues, then the men should put on bangles and the women themselves would go and fight for their release. Stung by the insult, sepoys stormed the jail, freed their colleagues and killed several European officers. After this these sepoys came to Delhi”.

This was a time when Hindus, who arrived to offer Pooja (prayers) on the banks of the Yamuna, believed that their pooja would only be complete with the darshan of the emperor. The emperor routinely offered jharokha darshan from Musalman Burj, the balcony of the emperor’s residential quarters. That is where courtiers and common people would also come with their pleas and grievances; the emperor would address them to the best of his ability.

On the morning of 11th May 1857, which was also the 16th day of Ramzan during this morning Jharokha darshan, the emperor asked his men to find out what the commotion was all about. He was told that some soldiers were headed that way and they seemed to be in a foul mood.

When the soldiers reached the Musalman Burj, the emperor enquired why they had come to him and received the reply that their religion was being destroyed by the Englishmen. The emperor replied, “I can’t do anything because my grandfather King Shah Alam has given away all the power to the British and the only thing that I can do is plead your case before them.”

The emperor called two British officers Captain Douglas and Simon Frazer. These officers tried to placate the rebels and wanted to go down and meet them. Bahadur Shah dissuaded them by pointing out that the rebels had already killed several people.

Although on 11th May Bahadur Shah refused to lead these men, on the very next day he actually changed his mind and agreed. The rebels then proclaimed him as the Emperor of India.

In an interesting aside, Safvi discussed the role played by an Urdu newspaper ‘Dili Urdu Akhbar’ in the first war of independence. “Maulvi Mohd Baqar was one of the heroes of 1857. He was the owner of the newspaper called ‘Dilli Urdu Akhbar’. It is said that Maulvi Baqar introduced ‘spot journalism’ in India.

“Ahead of Baqareed, posters were pasted around Jama Masjid to create differences among Indians. The posters read that Muslims and Christians were Ahle Kittab (followers of Quran and Bible, books from God) and are part of similar ‘abrahmanical’ religion; so instead of fighting each other, they should fight infidels. It was suspected that British spies were behind the mischief.

To counter this, Maulvi Baqar’s Dilli Urdu Akhbar came up with the story on the front page that “we are Ahle Watan, people of the same land and are fighting the same enemy. Bahadur Shah made an announcement that whoever had a cow should get it registered and there would be no cow slaughter inside the walled city”.

“Bahadur Shah came to Nizamuddin Dargah. Sajjad Nasheen (custodian of Dargah) came to him and asked him what he could do for him. The emperor said he was hungry and he could arrange some food. Sajjada Nasheen requested the emperor to come to his place but the emperor refused as it could endanger the life of Sajjada Nasheen. The emperor ate ‘Besan ki roti and Lahsan ki chatni’.

The informative talk spoke of festivals including ‘Rakhi’ that was celebrated in the palace; how Kabuli Darwaza came to be known as Khooni Darwaza and the sad plight of the emperor’s younger daughter, who never walked.

In 1857 the country did not just lose the first war of independence but also a harmonious way of life that was destroyed.

Delhi Heritage foundation, a brainchild of former Chief Election Commissioner SY Quraishi aims to promote heritage, culture, traditions, monuments, cuisine, history and literature of Delhi.

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