Bahadur Shah Zafar: The Last Mughal who was also the Last Great Traitor

The story of how Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal, intrigued with the British to sabotage the First War of Indian Independence in 1857
Bahadur Shah Zafar: The Last Mughal who was also the Last Great Traitor
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Ghaziyoñ meñ bū rahegī jab tak imān kī
Takht London tak chalegī tegh Hindostān kī.

As long as there remains the scent of Iman in the hearts of our Ghazis, so long shall the sword of Hindustan flash before the throne of London.

It must take cosmic levels of delusion to compose a couplet like this after being comprehensively crushed. But then we’re talking about the granddaddy of all delusions, Bahadur Shah Zafar, the Mughal who led the fragmentary remnants of the Mughal Empire to extinction through a potent mix of servility, vice, verse, wine, and wantonness. Notable among the Himalayan delusions he harboured is a bizarre self-belief described by Syed Ahmad Khan, one of the original forerunners of Pakistan:

[Bahadur Shah Zafar] had a fixed idea that he could transform himself into a fly or gnat, and that he could in this guise convey himself to other countries, and learn what was going on there. Seriously, he firmly believed that he possessed this power of transformation.

Perhaps his delusions are forgivable given the fact that his authority didn’t extend beyond the walls of the Red Fort and the more realistic fact that he was fully aware of his own pathetic condition. Even within these walls, he was a protectorate of the East India Company living off the one-lakh-rupee monthly pension it gave him in exchange for allowing it to station a military contingent there. This prisoner of his own making also lived in constant dread: he knew that the British would take away this pension and other nominal privileges the moment he died. He was also a prisoner of a sicker sort: even at that ripe age, Bahadur Shah Zafar had become an accomplished puppet of his favourite wife, Zeenat Mahal who called the shots.

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All this apart, Bahadur Shah Zafar was a great betrayer of the Great Revolt of 1857 or the First War of Independence. Quite naturally, members of the secular cult of Indian history writing regard him as a tragic hero and a freedom fighter. It must take a special talent in perversion to write a fat tome dedicated to projecting this weakling and traitor as a “tragic figure of the eponymous monarch… and abidingly fond of the arts of peace,” as William Dalrymple has done in The Last Mughal.

Fully conscious of his pitiable status, Bahadur Shah Zafar often went out of his way to show his loyalty to the British and ensured that he was not perceived as hostile to them.

Until 8 A.M., May 11, 1857.

A band of triumphant sepoys had burst right inside the palace after killing British troops in Meerut and now stood beneath his windows clamouring that Zafar should now take leadership of the Great Revolt. A stunned Zafar didn’t know what had hit him, in fact, he wasn’t aware that the Great Revolt had actually taken place so near to Delhi. It quickly became clear to Zafar’s courtiers and his personal physician, Hakim Ahsanullah Khan, that things would dangerously go out of hand unless something wasn’t done immediately. Eventually, orders were issued to the Princes to take command of various regiments so that the tempers of the sepoys could be cooled for some time.

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However, Bahadur Shah Zafar knew that he was firmly caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Supporting the sepoys would automatically earn the wrath of the British. Failing to do so would endanger his physical safety. Indeed, a measure of the pressure and menace the sepoys had instilled in the aged Mughal’s heart is recorded in the diary of his news writer, Munshi Jivanlal:

All trade in the city ceased entirely, for every shop that was opened was cleared of its contents…The turbulent mob of soldiers…demanded of the King that he should pass through the city accompanied by his Army…When the King returned to the Palace, he found the courtyard of the Diwan-i-Khas crowded with troopers and horses.

This sight revealed the full extent of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s powerlessness. It was fantastic and unbelievable, something that was not even in the realm of imagination. Ordinary sepoys, lowly men, fighters for hire, who could never dream of even being in the Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audience) had not only barged their way in, but began to abuse Zafar, “Are Badshah!” “Arre Budda!” and yanked his luxuriant old, white beard and pulled his frail hands. In response, the petrified Mughal scampered into his private apartment, assembled some servants and began hollering about the misfortune that had struck him and wept copious tears about his sorry fate.

And then gave in to the demands of the sepoys. This was how he became the “emperor of Hindustan,” and supposedly led the First War of Independence from the front. The sepoys bestowed this title on him only because they were looking, desperately hoping for leadership. Bahadur Shah Zafar reluctantly took the leadership but betrayed the sepoys. Acharya R.C. Majumdar’s analysis is quite decisive:

The sepoys were not perhaps solely to blame for this sorry state of things. The character and personality of Bahadur Shah were also partly responsible for it. He was advanced in age and almost a dotard, a plaything in the hands of his favourite Begum Zinnat Mahal. He had no administrative experience, nor any knowledge of men and things. He spent his time composing verses in Urdu and took delight in such peaceful activities. He lacked military knowledge and personal bravery.

It doesn’t stop there. Whereas the sepoys demanded steely leadership, Zafar gave them this pious advice: leave this worldly life and adopt the life of Fakirs. As a British historian notes, Bahadur Shah “assumed the responsibility of the position which had been forced upon him. It is more probable that the old man, left to himself, would have shrunk from the position.”

Capture of Bahadur Shah Zafar
Capture of Bahadur Shah ZafarWikimedia

Even as Bahadur Shah maintained the façade of leading the fight against the British, he opened a secret parallel track with them: he offered them full support to crush the sepoys. To return to R.C. Majumdar:

Not only had Bahadur Shah no confidence in the sepoys or sympathy for their cause, but even after he had joined them he maintained his loyalty to the British.

Bahadur Shah sent out letters to various British military officers, for example, to the Lieutenant Governor of Agra, informing the location and other details of the sepoys in Delhi. The selfsame Ahsanullah Khan wrote some of these letters. His testimony during the trial after the 1857 Revolt and Bahadur Shah Zafar’s own testimony are further corroborations of his betrayal. However, one of his most macabre acts in this treachery occurred after a month the Great Revolt erupted.

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Even as the sepoys were engaged in intense fighting with the British in and around Delhi, a fight they fought in Bahadur Shah’s name, he sent a message to General T. Reed, Commander-in-Chief who headed the British unit besieging Delhi. In turn, T. Reed conveyed this message to John Lawrence, the Chief Commander of Punjab. The letter dated 4 July, 1857 reads as follows:

One of our Gomasthas [clerk], who was in Delhi…brought a message from the King that if we would guarantee his life and pension, he would open the gates for us…

The name of the Gomastha was Fateh Mohamed who made the following statement:

…the King was most desirous of making terms with the British and if a promise (a formal one) were given to him that his pension of 1 lac Rupees a month and his former position should be secured to him, he would have the “Jerdarojah” opened for the admission of the British troops. The “Jerdarojah” is a private entrance into the Palace under the Summund Boorj on the river side. The King also offered to arrange to have any other of the city-gates opened at any time the British might wish.

Then, Bahadur Shah unleashed his favourite Begum Zeenat Mahal and his Princes. On August 19, the Commissioner of Meerut, H.H. Greathed recorded in his diary that

I am beginning to get letters from the Princes, declaring that they have been…fondly attached to us, and that they only want to know what they can do for us.

And the entry for August 23 reads as follows:

An emissary came out from Zeenut Muhul, the favourite wife of the King…offering to exercise her influence with the King, to bring about some arrangement.

Scores of such primary evidence exist, all of which lead to the same inescapable conclusion, that Bahadur Shah Zafar, far from “leading” the First War of Indian Independence, actually betrayed it. Once again, Majumdar’s words are definitive:

Bahadur Shah and his family betrayed the cause not only of the mutineers, but also of the whole country.

Cynical as it may sound, the terms of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s betrayal were rather cheap, he offered to sell himself for a pittance given his own tall claims about being an emperor and royal pensions. However, the British ruthlessly crushed the Great Revolt before Bahadur Shah could carry out his betrayal and had to abjectly surrender. The story of how he was flung into Burma and spent his last days wallowing in misery and squalor need not be narrated here.

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But the more sickening postscript to his betrayal was former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Bahadur Shah Zafar’s grave in 2012 at Yangoon where he offered a Fateha (prayer) to the traitor.

That is what India needs to recover from.

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