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A requiem for the last “King” and the first war for “Freedom”

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Bahadur Shah Zafar in his last days in Rangoon

Shunning all religious and imperial biases that for so long had stopped the British Historians from recognizing the Revolt of 1857 as anything more than a mutiny, William Dalrymple was able to take an objective and respectful look at what the revolt of 1857 against the British occupation of India was about.

I was happy to note that Dalrymple was brave and informed enough to understand that for a large chunk of the soldiers and citizens who were revolting, it was their first war for independence. Embittered by forced Christian conversions, inhuman taxation, and ruthless domination, there was also a sizeable number of people who believed that they could rout the British and take over the control of Delhi and then entire India. I was also amazed at the amount of respect that Dalrymple shows to this very notion of the revolutionaries and goes on to justify it with the chain of events and the sheer strength of numbers of the revolting soldiers and a host of others who joined the war. He understands and tries to articulate effectively why the citizen believed that they could actually win freedom through the strength of arms and that all they needed was a beacon at the summit of their revolution. They believed that it had to be the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Jafar.

If it was not for Dalrymple’s book, I would never know that there was something known as the “Mutiny Papers” that consisted of British government’s notes and orders, Bahadur Shah Jafar’s court orders and minutes, documentation and correspondences during the mutiny in Delhi, pictures, spy notes, vivid accounts of the atrocities meted out by the British and also the information about the looting, pillaging and murder of British women and children by the Indian sepoys. All this and more exists in our country today and is stored in the National Achieves of India. Dalrymple anchors his work on the information available in these papers and a plethora of other sources (Indian, Pakistani, British) which results in his work turning out rational and level-headed and to a great extent authentic.

Mirza Jawan Bakht and Mirza Shah Abbas who joined the king in exile

As the title suggests, the book is primarily about the last 5 years of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s life. The story starts on the day of Mirza Jawan Bakht’s (Zafar’s son and his heir apparent who was exiled with him to Rangoon) marriage and ends with Zafar’s death in exile in Rangoon. While Zafar is an integral part of the story, Dalrymple also spends considerable time on the British living in Delhi who were involved in the events of the revolution, the different court officials of Zafar, his sons and their politics, his wives and concubines, his poets like Zauq and Ghalib and also the men of the imperial army who were involved in the mutiny. However, one should note that the film is not a treatise about the complete revolt but only narrates the events within the city of Delhi in great detail. It chooses to move out of Delhi on a few occasions to trace a particular character or the genesis of his rage but then invariably turns back to Delhi only to document what part that particular character played in the revolt, the siege of Delhi by British or the turning of the city into a “city of the dead”.

The book also vividly records the conducts of the revolutionaries within the Delhi walls after they had taken the city in May 1857. The fact that the revolutionaries consisted of upper-caste Hindus, Shia, and Sunni Muslims, Wahabis, etc only added to the politics and uneasy dynamics of the army within the city and in the end, proved to be one of the most important reasons for the failure of the revolt in addition to a serious lack of food and supplies and effective leadership. The book shows how the British were always on the back foot during the war and had to endure insufferable torture and hardship during their days outside the city of Delhi which further fueled their rage against the revolutionaries. The writing successfully deciphers and puts forth the reasons that made the British vicious in their pursuit of retribution on the men who they believed not only killed innocent British but also mass raped their women and didn’t even spare their children.

the author, William Dalrymple

The book is characterized by some very well drawn up characters about whom there must have been a lot of information that was used to paint an absorbing picture. Ghalib is often used as one of the most important narrators to describe the sorry state of the city of Delhi after the British took over the city. He is also used to convey the dilapidation of state of the culture and heritage of the town that was all but destroyed after the siege. In addition, he is also instrumental in singling out the atrocities that the Muslims had to endure post the occupation by the British as the Muslims were now considered sub-human in British eyes for their part in the revolution. Theo Metcalf and his mindless murdering were used to describe the British mindset post the occupation of Delhi. He starts off as an unruly son to his father and gradually metamorphs into a person who meant death for the revolutionaries after their defeat. His barbarism is such that after a while even the British didn’t want anything to do with him and ensured that he never held any office that gave him the power of life and death.

Subedar Bakht Khan and Gauri Shankar Sukul are shown as polar opposites in the rebel army. While Bhakt Khan was the military head of the army and up to a great extent routed the British with his strategy and military ingenuity. He is gradually shown losing his ground because of his religious inclination and distance from the Hindu soldiers who were a majority in the army. Gauri Shankar Sukul, on the other hand, is portrayed as a black sheep who not only collaborates with the British but also tries to sabotage the rebellion by incapacitating Bakht Khan with his false accusation of the man colluding with the British. The book also tells us the story of the Tytlers (Robert and Harriet) who give testimony of how they had to escape the city in May 1857 and then re-entered a ghost town in September 1857. Harriet and Robert were keen photographers and Harriet’s notes of the period were a source of invaluable insight into how the British looked at the uprising and the days that followed.

prime minister Narendra Modi paying tribute at the shrine of Bahadur Shah Zafar in Rangoon

The Last Mughal is one of the most exhaustive and well-written accounts of not only the end of one of the greatest dynasties of the country but also of one of the most brutal and spirited war for independence that the British ever had to face. Its accuracy and objectivity will immediately strike a chord with most of the readers and will give them a version of the events that are well balanced and is not decisive or divisive. Dalrymple’s manner of approaching the subject leaves room for different readers to have their own interpretation of the book and that is one of its greatest qualities. It would be wrong to complain about its lack of coverage of the revolution outside Delhi as the book aims to put to paper the end of the Mughal Dynasty and its last emperor only and that it achieves effectively.

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