The Last Mughal
The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857

Pages: XXVII+578
Price: Rs 695

WILLIAM DALRYMPLE’S account of 1857 is meticulously documented and makes absorbing reading

As we prepare to observe the 150th anniversary of 1857 events we are once again apt to ask ourselves the same old, unanswered questions: Was it a mutiny, first war of independence, or Jihad for the sake of Islam? William Dalrymple’s account clearly shows that it had elements from all the three.

By the time the Meerut cantonment broke into a sepoy mutiny the Mughals had virtually lost the whole of India and were confined to Delhi. Much before Bahadur Shah Zafar’s reign began the saying about his grandfather’s rule was: Sultanat-e-Shah Alam, Az Dilli ta Palam (The realm of Shah Alam stretches from Delhi to Palam).

By the time Zafar’s days on the Great Mughal throne began their effective control did not extend even up to Palam (where today’s airport is located), because the British Resident had firmly established control over this small area as well. Even within the Mughal court nothing could happen without the permission of the British Resident.

Well before the 1857 revolt the entire royalty, including the emperor, had an undeclared status of prisoners, their source of sustenance being the pension that the British East India Company condescended to give them. Gradually the courtesies due to the emperor were also withdrawn and officials were no longer inclined to pay even the customary respect to him. The Delhi Resident wrote to the British Governor General that there was no point in continuing the hollow ritual.

Shorn of all power and every source of income, the House of Timur, the Great Mughals of India, also forfeited respect of the British. However, Indians -- both Muslims and Hindus -- held him in great respect. This is a point that Dalrymple repeatedly emphasises. Many simple folk thought that Zafar was a sufi and came to get his blessings as a spiritual mentor. The Mughals, right from Babur till Zafar (with the exception of Aurangzeb), were some kind of syncretists who held sufis and saints in great regard.

The Mughals always visited sufi shrines and practised a syncretic, folk version of Islam, which was a cause of annoyance for purists like Shah Waliullah and his successor Shah Abdul Aziz. This school of thought, though annoyed with Mughal syncretism, stood for overthrow of East India Company rule, through armed Jihad, if need be, as the Company was actively promoting deracination and religious conversion of Indian Hindus and Muslims to Christianity. The aggressive prolytising and arrogance of European missionaries was a source of great tension. Muslim fears, suggests Dalrymple, were not unfounded.

Before the outbreak the Company had stopped paying nazr  to the emperor and also stopped stamping Company coin in his name. Nobles from outside Delhi were prevented from visiting with the emperor without the British Resident’s permission. Nobody was allowed to present gifts to or receive from him either. This was the background against which the revolt occurred.

To make matters worse, the British had recently seized the rich and important nawabdom of Avadh on the silly pretext that the dynasty had no heir to the throne. This they called the Doctrine of Lapse. Dalrymple gives documentary evidence of the British planning to terminate Mughal rule in Delhi after the octogenarian Zafar died, which meant within the next few years. To this end they refused to recognise any heir apparent to the Mughal throne despite repeated pleas from Zafar. That means the British were determined to terminate the Mughal dynasty. They would have done that even if there was no uprising.

Around this time a crucial element was introduced into the volatile environment. The Company had introduced the newly built Enfield rifles, whose cartridges were unfamiliar to the sepoys. They had to bite away a part of it before using it. The greasy cartridges had an offensive smell and taste, and the sepoys loathed having to bite them. Then the rumour spread slowly all over north India that the new cartridges had lard and tallow in them.

Power-drunk British officials refused to withdraw them in view of the Hindu taboo on putting beef fat in their mouth and a similar Muslim taboo about pork and lard. That turned out to be the last straw on the proverbial camel’s back, and there was an outbreak of revolt at Meerut Cantonment, which quickly spread all over north India. Dalrymple says the tallow and lard episode was not the figment of somebody’s imagination, but something real.

Soon the mutineers began to pour into Delhi. Despite its best efforts the Mughal court failed to keep them out of the city walls. From the second week of May 1857 the Company’s sepoys erupted into a rebellion, putting to the sword and shooting their officers, their families, and every white person in sight. They began to pour into Delhi as the disturbances spread to other areas.

In Delhi also they killed every white they found and burned down all Company establishments. The whites fled towards Punjab, but Gujjar tribes just outside the Delhi borders attacked and looted them, even stripping them of the clothes on their body.

In the meanwhile, the sepoys billeted themselves in the Red Fort, in the emperor’s gardens, the Diwan-e-Aam, even the emperor’s private quarters, and in shops and other premises all over the city. Soon they began to intimidate common people, started stealing and robbery. Some began a protection racket, others refused to pay for goods that they bought from shops. They refused to leave the city when the emperor told them that he had no weapons to fight the British, nor money or other resources to feed them and sustain such a large force. They did not listen to him and forced him to "bless" the rising and accept its leadership. He had to accept because they would not budge from his palace, garden, or city. They were so disorderly that they called him Arrey Badshah, Arrey Buddhey.  In reality, it was not the king who was leading the mutinous sepoys but the other way round. Zafar’s prime minister advised him to accept their proposal as rejecting it would invite a disaster for the Mughal dynasty.

To the extent that everything began with the rebellion of the Company’s sepoys, it was a mutiny. But soon another element entered the arena  -- droves of mujahideen , fiercely determined to fight the British and lay down their lives, if need be. Supreme sacrifice (shahadat) being their preferred way of meeting with death turned out to be a great challenge for the Company.

By September the British had begun the counter attack. Sikhs, Gurkhas and Pathans in the company army saved the day for the British. These troops constituted nearly three-fourth of the British army. Hence Dalrymple questions the very basis of the British pretensions of having fought and won the 1857 battles on their own.

In the process of narrating the fascinating (and, sometimes horrifying) story of 1857 Dalrymple questions many myths and presumptions. One of these is the contemporary Hindu chauvinist propaganda that Mughal rule was some kind of external imposition that did not enjoy popular support. Dalrymple forcefully argues that the Mughals enjoyed great popular support. Despite the fact that most of them were believers and reposed faith in Islam, they truly respected other faiths of India. They did not discriminate between their subjects on the grounds of religion.

At the end of it the British emerged victorious and unleashed a reign of terror. Towards the end of the book Dalrymple makes an important observation. The Jihadis of 1857 were like Jihadis of today: the 1857 Jihadis had risen to fight European (British) highhandedness as today’s Jihadis are the products of Western highhandedness against the Muslim world.

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