A Mughal leader of modern India

The last Mughal king built a system of governance blending democratic ‘peasant panchayati’ order with that of constitutional monarchy

Social media
Social media

Amaresh Mishra

A few months back, Narendra Modi, India’s Prime Minister, while on a visit to Myanmar, paid his respects to the last Mughal emperor’s, Bahadur Shah Zafar, grave in Rangoon, Myanmar.

One would have expected the PM to at least tweet something about the man on his birthday (October 24) or death anniversary (which fell on November 7). But no such gesture was made.

WSR Hodson, the notorious 19th century British officer, who murdered members of Zafar’s family in September of 1857, was killed in the final battle of Lucknow on March 11, 1858. He is buried in La Martiniere College campus. To this day, each year Hodson is commemorated as a ‘war hero’!

The episode about Hodson’s grave explodes the ‘nationalist’ pretentions of current party in power. But the problem runs deeper; Bahadur Shah Zafar, for example, remains unrecognised as being both the last Mughal and the first leader of modern India. Even the universally affirmed perception of Zafar representing the face of 1857, suffers from ambiguity. A lot of people question whether Zafar ‘wanted’ to lead the uprising; whether he was just a decadent poet forced to assume command or a man past his prime who lost his nerve.

The British, however were in no doubt about Zafar’s leading role in the 1857 uprising. That is the reason why they ‘tried’ and sentenced him. In the trial Zafar held firm that he did not ‘rebel’ against the British East India Company. He could not have, because of the simple reason, that you cannot rebel against your own vassal!

In 1803, when Company forces defeated Marathas and entered Delhi, they only displaced the Maratha position as plenipotentiaries of the Mughal Empire. The Company ruled in the Emperor’s name. Sepoys who fought as paid, professional soldiers of the Company, saw themselves as servants of a servant. Later, Sepoys too made it clear that it was not they, but the British, who were rebelling! They saw themselves as agents of restoration — to re-install legitimate authority after it was usurped by the Company!

And this act of Zafar, of holding firm to the fact that he rebelled against no one, is taken as proof of his prevarication. Years later in the Political Theory of the Indian Mutiny (1922), British scholar, FW Buckler found that legally, it was the British East India Company that had ‘rebelled’ against Zafar and not vice-versa.

Zafar was a modern man. In The Great Mutiny: India 1857, historian Christopher Hibbert describes him as an excellent archer and horseman during his youth; a poet and inventor; and also an ‘unusually’ tolerant, secular king, who chided his courtiers when they taunted a prominent Delhi citizen for converting to Christianity. The Delhi of Zafar’s time was a liberal but indigenous city. Here, poets, scholars, reformists rubbed shoulders in a manner unimaginable in Bombay, Madras or Calcutta, cities that owed its origin to colonial rule.

But secretly, Delhi was also planning a coup against the Company. Both Bahadur Shah Zafar and The War of 1857 in Delhi, written by Syed Mahdi Hussein, and The Great Revolt of 1857 Vol II, written by John William Kaye, the renowned 19th century British historian, mention how in the 1850s, the Company officials became extremely suspicious of meetings between Zafar and the Sepoys.

In a detailed note to Governor-General Charles Canning, the British Resident of Delhi specifically stated that Zafar “had taken upon himself to enrol Sepoys as his disciples”. And that “several of Bengal army soldiers” became “murids and referred to the old Mooghal as their Pir and King”. This was at least five-six years before the actual uprising!

Started by Akbar as a means to bind courtiers to him emotionally, the ‘pir-murid’ (master-disciple) tradition between the Mughal Emperor and his officers was extended by Zafar to include peasant Sepoys. This in itself is remarkable; any inclusion of peasantry in a medieval tradition signals modernisation of the radical variety. The Company officials were also highly suspicious of Zafar’s discreet overtures to Persia, Turkey, Afghanistan and Russia for help against the British.

This is the mystery, the answer to which still eludes historians: why did a predominantly Hindu peasant army, dominated by Brahmins, install a Muslim as their King? The answer lies in a simple reading of ‘native gestures’: Zafar was not seen as Hindu or Muslim by his subjects. Akbar started the practice of issuing firmaans to peasants and temples that specifically said: “The Emperor sees Hindus and Muslims as one”. But Zafar’s consummate, Sufi philosophy saw him dressing up as a Brahmin:

Butkhano men jab gaya main khenchkar kashqa Zafar

Bol utha voh but Brahmin yeh nahee to aur kaun hai

(When I entered the house of idols (temple) sporting a vermilion mark on my forehead O’ Zafar/ The idol exclaimed: who else is a Brahmin if not he)

Kashqa maathe pa hai,

zunnar gale men hain Zafar

Ban gaye ishq mein

us but ke Brahmin sachmuch

(Vermilion on my forehead, the sacred thread around my neck O’ Zafar/Caught in the love of that idol, you actually became a Brahmin).

In the The Political System of the Jats of Northern India, author MC Pradhan writes about Jat Khap Panchayat of Baliyan Khap (Mahendra Singh Tikait’s gotra) meeting twice, in 1574 and 1580, in Soron, Muzaffarnagar, to accept Akbar’s firmaans guaranteeing religious freedom and a direct tax-cash relationship with the peasantry.

The same Baliyan Khap can be found fighting — involving Gujars and other Jat Khaps of Haryana, Doab and Rohilkhand — as well as ancestors of present day Jatavs — for Zafar in 1857! On his part, Zafar issued proclamations to Jat-peasant Panchayats to “collect warriors” and fight for him. Zafar even promised a democratic set-up, that will include ordinary people in the ‘new Sarkaar’.

In Delhi, a 10-member Civil and Military Council, composed of peasant Sepoys, handled day to day affairs. There was separation of powers between Zafar and the council. ‘Mutiny Bastas’ of the National Archives, Delhi, contain the original documents. Zafar and the Council, called the ‘Sipahi Sarkaar’, issued written instructions daily. Similar to the way a modern day government works.

The Delhi Proclamation, a constitution in rudimentary form, talks of State investment in industries and shipbuilding, land to the peasants, wages to salaried officials and an official policy of religious tolerance. Zafar’s other proclamations include appeal to Sikhs. This demolishes the myth that Sikhs were seen as hostile forces.

Delhi in 1857 created a new State power, and a system of governance that blended village Panchayati democratic elements with certain aspects of constitutional monarchy. This distinctive Sipahi Sarkaar with the Mughal Emperor at its head ran for four months. It was the only time in Indian history when peasants directly participated in government. And this phenomenon had Zafar’s stamp written all over it.

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines