People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 24

June 17, 2007

Bahadur Shah Zafar And The 1857 Revolt


Akbar Shah (Akbar II)


Amar Farooqui


MUCH has been written about Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor, in the context of the Great Revolt of 1857, and there is a general perception especially in colonial historiography that the Meerut sipahis showed their immaturity in naming a doddering old fool as their nominal leader. The action of the sipahis is regarded as being futile and meaningless since the Mughal emperor was by this time politically impotent. However this view discounts the symbolic importance of the emperor in legitimizing the comprehensive rebellion in the Bengal army—the mutiny of over one-and-a-quarter lakh well-trained soldiers. In order to make sense of the action of the rebels, and its implications, it is necessary to understand the position of the Mughal emperor within the overall framework of the East India Company’s colonial empire in the Indian subcontinent during the first half of the nineteenth century.


Following the outbreak of the rebellion on 10 May 1857, the Meerut sipahis as a body marched to Delhi, where they arrived early next morning. They put an end to the company’s administration in the city, and assumed control of Shahjahanabad and its immediate outskirts. Bahadur Shah Zafar, who at that time occupied the Mughal throne, was declared the emperor of the whole of India with the title Shahenshah-i-Hind. This was a reflection of the popular perception that the Mughal emperor was the legitimate sovereign of India.


It would be incorrect to assume that the Company’s soldiers were politically naive. Their revolutionary decision to march to Delhi transformed the character of the mutiny—their aim was to overthrow the East India Company’s government. The rebel sipahis of the Meerut garrison clearly understood that the colonial state could be successfully overthrown only by establishing an alternative source of authority with wide acceptability. They attempted to create their own state with the Mughal emperor as its nominal head.


It is not easy to speculate as to what the shape of that state would have been had the Revolt been successful. However, the evolution of the sipahi government at Delhi did contain seeds of democracy. Real power was firmly in the hands of the soldiers. The Court of Administration established by them (organized essentially on democratic principles) was the main organ of the new state, but Bahadur Shah was formally the head of the state. He had the right to be present at all sessions of the Court, but the elected members of the Court took the actual decisions. The emperor’s approval would then be sought, and his seal would be put on documents recording these decisions. It needs to be emphasized that through this arrangement the rebel regime gained widespread support and was able to undermine the legitimacy of the Company over a vast area in northern, central, eastern, western and even southern India. After all, the sipahis were aware that the Company too had reluctantly recognized the de jure authority of the Mughals and had strictly adhered to the rituals of the Mughal darbar.


It was during the last three decades of the eighteenth century that the Mughal emperor eventually ceased to have any real power. The defeat of the combined forces of emperor Shah Alam (1759-1806) and the nawab of Awadh by the Company at Baksar in 1764, and the blinding of the emperor in 1788 by the Rohilla chieftain Ghulam Qadir, were two events that did much to shatter the prestige of the Mughals. From 1785 onwards Shah Alam was under the protection of Mahadji Sindia, who was entrusted with the administration of the Delhi region.


In 1803 the East India Company’s forces led by Lord Lake captured Delhi after defeating the Daulat Rao Sindia’s troops (Daulat Rao was the successor of Mahadji) at the battle of Patparganj. Percival Spear points out that Shah Alam ‘was the nominal suzerain of both the contending parties, for the British held Bengal by the grant of the Diwani in 1765, and Sindia was his Vakil-i-Mutlaq or imperial Regent. One of the declared objectives of Lord Wellesley [the governor-general] was to seize Delhi and the Jumna Doab, and “the possession of the nominal authority of the Mughul”.... Officially, of course he [Shah Alam] sided with his Regent and treated the Company as a rebellious vassal’ (Twilight of the Mughuls, p.32).



Following Lake’s victory, the administration of Delhi and its adjoining areas was taken over and Shah Alam was placed under the protection and control of the Company. He was assured of an income, amounting to about twelve lakh rupees per year at this stage (technically this was a portion of the tribute promised to the emperor in return for the grant of diwani; this tribute had been withheld for a long time).


The emperor’s authority was now confined to the Red Fort and to members of the royal family (several hundred members of the royal family resided in the Fort). Actual administrative control over Delhi and the surrounding areas was in the hands of the British resident. The resident also exercised some indirect control over what went on inside the Fort.


It is necessary to mention that full respect was outwardly shown for the emperor’s majesty right up to 1857. British officials strictly adhered to court etiquette. They had to dismount at some distance from the Diwan-i-Am and approach on foot; only high officials (mainly the resident) had access to the emperor; entry to the Diwan-i-Khas was a special privilege and was strictly by invitation; there were appropriate forms of greeting when approaching the emperor; one had to always face the emperor when withdrawing from his presence; and letters had to be written in the appropriate formal style. When one of the residents, Francis Hawkins (1829-30), was discourteous to the emperor he was promptly recalled.


Besides, token tribute or nazr was presented to the emperor on important occasions. The presentation of nazr signified that the Company’s officials were theoretically vassals of the Mughal emperor. Nazr on behalf of the governor-general was presented seven times a year (the governor-general’s nazr amounted to 101 gold mohurs on each occasion). This practice was discontinued under Lord Hastings (1813-1823). Nevertheless, other officials, including the resident, continued to present nazr down to 1844. When the Company’s officials in India decided to stop the nazr in 1844, the decision was over-ruled by the Court of Directors in London though this was never conveyed to the emperor. He was merely compensated by being paid the monetary equivalent of the nazr as part of his income. One might also mention that till 1835 coins were struck in the name of the emperor.


Following the death of Shah Alam in 1806, his son Akbar Shah (Akbar II) assumed the throne. Throughout the period that Akbar Shah was on the throne (1806-1837) there was a prolonged conflict with the Company over the income or peshkash due to the emperor (the Company referred to the amount as stipend). The dispute involved questions of international law, sovereignty, and the position of the Company vis-a-vis the emperor. Ever since the British occupation of Delhi in 1803 the question of the amount of peshkash to be paid to the emperor had remained unsettled.


For the Mughal darbar this was not just a financial matter, but involved defining the status of the emperor. From the point of view of the Mughals, the Company was governing the empire on their behalf. The Company too acknowledged this position as is evident from their relationship with the emperor. In fact the Company was able to legitimize its authority by recognizing the de jure status of the emperor. It was for this reason that the British were forced to take the claims of the Mughal darbar seriously. It is an indication of the importance that the Company attached to the nominal overlordship of the emperor that when Akbar Shah died in October 1837 orders were issued for an 82-gun salute, ‘eighty-two being the number of years of the deceased’. The salute was to be ‘fired from the Ramparts of Fort William and at all the principal stations of the army as a mark of respect for the memory of His deceased Majesty’. This high honour was not seen as something unusual; but it would have conveyed the Company’s acceptance of the ceremonial standing of the Mughal emperor to the sipahis stationed in the garrisons where the gun salutes were fired.


An important step taken by Akbar Shah was to appoint Raja Rammohun Roy as his envoy to the British king (William IV), in order to draw the attention of the British government in London to the violations of the East India Company of its treaty obligations with regard to the Mughal emperor. In 1829 Rammohun Roy accepted this assignment ‘in obedience to the orders of His Majesty, having attentively perused the Treaty between the Hon’ble Company and his late father [Shah Alam]’. He agreed that the agreement had certainly been violated. Rammohun Roy received the title of ‘raja’ from Akbar Shah, and proceeded to England in 1830 (where he passed away in 1833). One of the points raised in the address to William IV, drafted by Rammohun Roy, was that the Company could not evade ‘mutual obligations of the contracting parties’ as this was a ‘national contract’. Moreover that ‘I cherish the confident persuasion that your Majesty will not sanction the principle that in my case a National contract ought not or need not be fulfilled because I am powerless to enforce its obligations’ (Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, General President’s Address, Indian History Congress, 2004, pp.15-17).


Unfortunately the Mughal darbar assumed that the colonial state in India was distinct from the British state. By the 1830s the colonial state represented the interests of the British ruling class as a whole, rather than just of the shareholders of the East India Company. Since it was necessary for the stability of the colonial state that the nominal position of the emperor be respected, it was realized that the claims put forward in the address should receive due consideration. Whereas there was no major change in the symbolic status of the emperor, the issue of a raise in the peshkash remained unresolved right upto 1857.


Bahadur Shah ascended the throne in 1837. He was nearly sixty-two years old at this time. His ‘reign’ of twenty years coincided with the most creative period of Urdu literature—especially Urdu poetry—during the nineteenth century. Delhi was the main centre of this development and Bahadur Shah himself was an active participant in the creative endeavour. This was the period that produced three towering figures of Urdu poetry: Ghalib, Momin and Zauq. Zafar was a key figure amidst this literary circle. He was a poet of some distinction. He had initially been a pupil (shagird) of Shah Nasir who had nurtured several up-and-coming poets during the 1830s. When Shah Nasir left Delhi around 1840, Zafar became a pupil of Zauq, and after Zauq’s death in 1854 he acknowledged Ghalib as his ustad. Many of the literary figures who were part of the circle with which Zafar interacted were also associated with the vibrant intellectual life of Delhi College (Azurda and Sahbai for example). From the 1830s till the Revolt, Delhi College was the centre of what many historians have referred to as the ‘Delhi Renaissance’.


The fact that Bahadur Shah was so intimately associated with such a rich literary and intellectual tradition, added to his stature particularly among the north Indian intelligentsia. We should remember that Urdu-Hindustani was the common language of this intelligentsia. Even as an individual, therefore, Bahadur Shah enjoyed a prestige that went beyond his political position.


When we see the action of the rebel sipahis in this broader historical context it is not surprising that they should have decided to set up their new state in the imperial capital (Delhi) with the Mughal emperor as its nominal head. They were not acting on impulse. They had a fairly good idea of the implications of this move, namely, that it would convince people that the government of the East India Company had been definitely overthrown. We should bear in mind that most of the rebel governments in different parts of northern, central and eastern India invariably sought the formal sanction of the emperor to establish their legitimacy. For the Company too, destroying the Delhi regime was the foremost priority.


During the four months and four days that the sipahi state was in existence in Delhi, Bahadur Shah was not just a passive onlooker. There were several occasions when he did intervene, or tried to intervene. We have already noted that the emperor had the right to attend all sessions of the Court of Administration and that the decisions of the Court could only be enforced with his consent/signature. What is more, the Court had to reconsider any decision that the emperor did not approve of. One should not take too literally Zafar’s statement at his so-called ‘trial’ in which he projected himself as a mere prisoner of the sipahis.


Two instances of Bahadur Shah’s intervention may be cited here. On the day after the soldiers had taken over the city and the situation was chaotic, Bahadur Shah personally went round the city to instill confidence among the residents. The second is his well-known intervention to successfully prevent cow-slaughter on the occasion of baqar-id in July 1857. In this effort he was assisted by Mufti Sadruddin Azurda. Incidentally, he had earlier tried to persuade Azurda to accept the position of city magistrate. Azurda had declined, but continued to counsel the emperor. Bakht Khan too partly owed his leading position, especially in military matters, to the support of Bahadur Shah. Finally, there is enough evidence that the emperor was actively engaged in consultations, deliberations, receiving petitions, hearing appeals, and recommending appointments.


After the recapture of Delhi in mid-September 1857, the British carried out a mock trial of Bahadur Shah. This sham show was conducted by a military commission. It lasted from 27 January to 9 March 1858. At the end of the trial Bahadur Shah was convicted of treason and of having abetted the killing of Europeans. Neither of these charges had any legal substance. In October 1858 Bahadur Shah, along with some of the members of his immediate family, was transported to Rangoon, where he died in 1862.


The mock trial and the charge of treason against the emperor served the purpose of demonstrating that the Company was the real sovereign power against which Bahadur Shah had committed high treason. This was an absurd position. In a well-known essay, ‘The Political Theory of the Indian Mutiny’ (1922), the British scholar F.W. Buckler argued forcefully that it was the Company that was the rebel, and that the sipahis were duty-bound to support the emperor. In other words that the Company’s government had no independent constitutional basis. Its authority derived from the various farmans issued by the Mughals.


The trial and exile of Bahadur Shah was one step in the direction of asserting the exclusive sovereignty of the British. The next step was the assumption of the government of India directly by the British crown, followed by Victoria’s proclamation of November 1858 by which all inhabitants of the British Indian empire were declared to be subjects of the British monarch. Nevertheless the colonial state constantly felt the need to invoke symbols of royalty derived from India’s past so as to claim legitimacy for itself. In 1877, Lord Lytton held a grand ‘darbar’ in Delhi—not Calcutta—incorporating many rituals of the Mughal darbar. This ‘darbar’ was held to announce Victoria’s new title, Kaisar-i-Hind (‘the Indian Caesar’). Lord Curzon held another ‘darbar’ in 1903, in Delhi, to commemorate the coronation of Victoria’s successor, Edward VII. The last British ‘darbar’ was held in 1911, again in Delhi. The British monarch, George V (successor of Edward VII), was personally present at this ‘darbar’ to lend additional prestige to it. It was at this ‘darbar’ that the decision to transfer the capital of the British Indian empire to Delhi was announced. Most historians agree that the transfer of the capital, as well as the tradition of organizing British ‘darbars’ at Delhi, must be seen as attempts to emphasize that the British empire was the legitimate successor of the Mughal empire.


Colonial historiography has generally trivialized or even ridiculed the gesture of the sipahis in proclaiming Bahadur Shah as Shahenshah-i-Hind. Communal historiography has only seen him in terms of religious identity. Consequently, the motives of the sipahis have often been obscured. Yet the sipahis understood much better than we possibly can the political significance of associating the name of Bahadur Shah with their struggle against colonial rule.