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June 17, 2007
Organiser Home
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June 17, 2007

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Home > 2007 Issues > June 17, 2007


The rebellion and British brutality

By M.V. Kamath

The Last Mughal: The fall of a dynasty, Delhi 1857; William Dalrymple; Penguine Viking; pp 578, Rs 695.00

If you have tears to shed, read this book. It is all about the fall of the last Mughal, Bahadur Shah Zafar, the capture of Delhi by British-led forces and the destruction of an entire culture. It is a story of British scum acting as administrators, the story of British brutality and vandalism such as never before been seen, and the end to the Timurid Dynasty. When, finally, on September 14, 1857 the British and their hastily assembled army mostly of Sikhs and Pathans captured Delhi, what followed is still hard to believe.

The soldiers sacked and looted the capital, massacred ?great swathes? of the population with 1,400 citizens killed?cut down in just one mohalla. Most of Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar?s sixteen sons were captured, tried and hung, while three were shot in cold blood after being asked to stand naked. Zafar himself was put on show to visitors, displayed ?like a beast in a cage?, according to one British officer. Zafar?s palace was torn down. The great majority of Delhi?s leading inhabitants?poets and princes, mullahs and merchants?were hunted down and hanged. Those who were spared were left in humiliating and conspicuous poverty.

According to Dalrymple who examined literally hundreds of hitherto unread documents, ?the fall of Delhi was followed by something approaching a genocide?. The British had not just one aim? capturing power, but an even more sinister one: the spread of Evangelical Christianity to convert the ?poor benighted heathen? and the ?licentious pagans?- and never mind if the British employees of the then East India Company were more licentious than any Indian, living with Indian ?bibis? in wanton manner. Dalrymple says that ?as the Indian participants were concerned, the Uprising was overwhelmingly expressed as a war of religion and looked upon as a defensive action against the rapid inroads missionaries and Christianity were making in India, as well as a more generalised fight for freedom from foreign domination?.

Dalrymple quoting from the Mutiny Papers remarks that the Indian participants of the revolt were resisting ?a move by the Company to impose Christianity and Christian laws on India?something many Evangelical Englishmen were indeed contemplating?. But who were the people who wanted to stand by Zafar? The truth comes out: mostly Hindus. They had their own reason. Dalrymple quotes a British officer, Edmunds, as saying: ?The land is being leavened and Hinduism is being everywhere undermined. Great will some day, in God?s appointed time, be the fall of it?. Fall of Hinduism, that is. No wonder Hindus in the East

Indian Company?s army?mostly Brahmins?rose in revolt. To them Zafar was a true secular monarch who was against conversion of Hindus to Islam, who prohibited the slaughter of cows and was a Sufi. When a party of two hundred Muslims turned up at his Palace demanding to be allowed to slaughter cows at Id, Zafar told them in ?a decided and angry tone that the religion of the Musalmen did not depend upon the sacrifice of cows?. True, the culture of the Palace was to a great extent Islamic, but Hindus seem to have accepted it.

Dalrymple says that the Christian missionaries re-inforced Muslim fears? and adds with a hundred per cent logic: ?The histories of Islamic fundamentalism and European imperialism have often been closely and dangerously, intertwined. In a curious but very concrete way, the fundamentalists of both faiths have needed each other to re-inforce each other?s prejudices and hatreds. The venom of one provides the lifeblood of the other?. Hindus with their broad outlook could make peace with any faith. Evangelical Christianity and Islam had to fight it out.

While Dalrymple?s research is deep and profound, it is strange that it has not resulted in a sociological study of the period, the first half of the 19th century. Stranger still is his downgrading of Mangal Pandey and Rani Laxmi of Jhansi. Hindus get little credit for the revolt. Says Dalrymple: ?Such was the prevalence of jihadi rhetoric at the outbreak (of the revolt) that some went so far as to term the sepoys mujahedin, even though the overwhelming majority of them were Brahmins and other high caste Hindus?.

So deep was the hatred against Evangelical Christianity, Dalrymple reports, that the sepoys chose to kill anyone in Delhi who called himself a Christian. Dalrymple?s reportage is excellent. It is almost a day-to-day account of what happened in Delhi during the siege. The sepoys were merciless. But the British excelled the sepoys in killing and barbarity. They went about systematically destroying Delhi. Four of the city?s most magnificent palaces were completely destroyed as were some of the finest mosques such as the Akbarabadi Masjid. Women were abducted and raped. Gorgeous harem apartments were ruthlessly pulled down and there was nothing in history comparable to the ?full-scale of the viciousness and brutality of the British response to 1857 in Delhi?.

Dalrymple does make an attempt to describe the social conditions prevalent in Delhi and surroundings. It is interesting to know that Zafar ?banned the butchery of cows, forbade eating of beef and authorised for anyone found killing a cow the terrible punishment of being blown from a cannon?. Such a man in his last days had to leave Delhi in a bullock cart. It was the end of the timurid dynasty after it had ruled India for 332 years.

Reading Dalrymple is reliving the past. If the Muslims thought of the British as descendants of apes, the British considered Muslims as ?sub-human? to be despised. In the end what was the 1857 First War of Independence all about? Dalrymple?s answer is clear. As he puts it: ?Whether 1857 was a mutiny, a peasant?s revolt, an urban revolution or a war of independence?, in effect it was all these and many other things too.

The book is incomplete in many ways. But it tells a story and it makes one cry, but history has its own way of unrolling. What is past is past. Yet it had a lesson that cannot easily be forgotten. Dalrymple merely provides the background and says, quoting Edmund Burke: ?Those who fail to learn from history are always destined to repeat it.? And he adds: ?Throughout the uprising (Zafar?s) refusal to alienate his Hindu subjects by subscribing to the demands of the jihadis was probably his single most consistent policy?. His mother was a Hindu. And, perhaps, that explains it all.

(Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110 017.)

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