Another Lesson in History

 

Another Lesson in History

 

Mr. Javed Chaudhry is a fairly experienced Urdu columnist in Pakistan. Presently he writes a column titled ‘Zero Point’ in the Daily Express. For all I know, he may also be anchoring some T.V. talk show owned by the Express Group. He has however published several volumes of his evidently very popular columns. A few days back he decided to write on the present abysmal state of governance in Pakistan and the proposed talks with the Taliban. A noble and timely task. But then he decided to open his column with a reminder of the fate of the last Mughal Emperor—to underscore his argument that when a state’s writ disappears the state itself soon disappears ignominiously. The column, sub-titled Mazākarāt se Pahle ‘Before the Talks,’ appeared in the Daily Express of September 17, 2013. Here is my translation of its ‘Historical’ prelude, a tour de force by any measure of rhetoric and fantasy.

“Captain Hodson was in charge of the operation. The last Mughal Emperor was alive. Twenty-five crore Indians held him in honor. But Hodson knew that though the State existed, the Emperor with his Prime Minister and advisors was present and the Mughal currency was still the coin of the realm, the ‘writ’ of the State did not exist. The Police had become ‘dysfunctional,’ the army had no life in it, and decades had passed since the country’s judicial system had breathed its last. People, first of all, didn’t go to the courts to seek justice, and if they perforce did then the judges took five or ten years to decide the case. And then, if a decision was announced no one put it into effect. The posts in the administration were auctioned off to the higher bidder. If you wished to become the Kotwal, then you contacted Mirza Mughal and made him an offering to get the job. If you wished to become a Munshi or Mir Munshi, then you had to contact the junior prince, Mirza Khizar and place a bag of gold coins in front of him. If you were someone powerful, you could go out riding in the city, kill a score of people, and then come home safe and secure. No one could touch you. But if you were powerless and poor, then death was your fate anyway. You died, whether due to indigence or under the hooves of the Turkish horse of some prince or government officers. It didn’t matter.

“Captain Hodson knew that when a state had become that powerless, even an army of millions couldn’t save the country. And that is exactly what happened on 22 September 1857. At the final moments of that War of Independence, the Emperor took refuge in Humayun’s Tomb. The princes were with him, as were six thousand soldiers and heavy artillery. The six thousand were ready to lay down their lives for the Emperor, but Hodson knew that if the Commander were weak and unwilling to take up arms personally then even the most loyal soldier would walk away from him. And so Hodson did something strange. He took only three native soldiers with him, and rode his horse to Humayun’s Tomb. The aged Emperor, sick and indolent from opiates, was standing, leaning on a staff. He was so weak that his shoulders could not bear the weight of the royal robes nor could his head bear the weight of the Timurid crown. The great state of Hindustan had collapsed at its own feet (sic).

“Hodson ‘presented’ himself before the Emperor, bowed and offered his ‘salaam,’ then made this offer: ‘If you surrender to me I guarantee the lives of you and your queen.’ The last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was then 82. He was up to his waist in his grave but his lust for life compelled him to make the deal. He pulled out his two swords from their sheaths, and handed them over to Captain Hodson. One was the sword that Nadir Shah Durrani had presented to Emperor Muhammad Shah before returning to Iran; the second was the sword that had belonged to Jahangir and was traditionally given to a Mughal Emperor at his coronation. Hodson took the two swords, and walked out triumphantly. When the six thousand loyal soldiers saw the swords in Hodson’s hands they lost all will. They could see their own future in the Emperor’s swords.

“Hodson went and deposited the swords in the office of the Company Sircar, then took one hundred native soldiers and returned with them to Humayun’s Tomb. He then set ninety soldiers to that task of disarming the six thousand Mughal soldiers. The remaining ten he took with him and arrested the two sons of the Emperor, Mirza Mughal and Mirza Khizar, and influential grandson, Mirza Abu Bakr. Placing the princes in an open buggy, he set out in Delhi. The people of Delhi followed. Within moments there were four thousand spectators walking behind the royal buggy. But not one man dared to raise a cry in support of the princes. The procession reached the Kotwali. Hodson ordered the princes to step out of the carriage and take off their clothes. They stood naked before four thousand people when Hodson shot them dead and walked away leaving their naked corpses in the dirt.

“The corpses of the three princes remained lying by the road for three days and vultures and beasts tore into them, but in the entire city of Delhi not one man dared to take the corpses away for burial and prayers. Meanwhile, the ninety troopers of Hodson disarmed those six thousand Mughal soldiers and marched them back to the Red Fort. There in the open, they hanged them one by one. Only those survived for whom no ready rope was available to the ‘gora’ force. Bahadur Shah Zafar’s two swords are still with the English Royal Family, and tell the owners every day that when a state becomes weak then kings surrender to just three enemy soldiers, despite having six thousand soldiers standing by. Hodson’s ten soldiers also proved that if the state had no life in it then only ten soldiers could force princes to strip, and then shoot them down in front of four thousand spectators. And the ninety soldiers of the British army sent a clear message to all the conquerors in the world that if a state had no strength in it then six thousand fully armed soldiers would throw down arms before ninety enemy soldiers, and then lose their lives instead of gaining safety.”

Whenever I read such ‘historical’ accounts, and it is sadly too often, my first impulse is to wonder: do Pakistani Urdu newspapers have editors and sub-editors? Or do they have only wealthy and privileged owners, with hordes of cowering minions, and a changing stable of fantasizing columnists? Some of the latter seem equally privileged, for many often describe the meals and trips they enjoy with assorted bigwigs of Pakistan. One of them, Abdul Qadir Hasan, only this week wrote a column on poverty in Pakistan by describing why his three domestic servants were not going home for the Eid—they could have more ‘meaty’ meals at his house!

Returning to the history lesson offered by Mr. Javed Chaudhry (henceforward JC), let me begin by pointing out that when the British took Delhi in 1803, the city was held by the Marathas, while the Fort itself was held by their French allies. Emperor Shah Alam, blinded by Ghulam Qadir Rohilla in revenge for having been castrated by the Emperor earlier, had no say either in the Fort or in the walled city. Forget the rest of the country. The Mughals had along ago been abandoned by their erstwhile nobles who quickly had made their own fortunes. The most prominent being Nizamul Mulk and his descendents in Hyderabad and Burhanul Mulk and his descendents in Avadh. Neither cared a hoot what happened to the Emperor. In fact, the Emperor was delighted when the British moved in, for they gave him more money than the Marathas had. From 1803 onward, it was the British who governed Delhi. The Emperor was in name alone; he had no army or police, not to mention judges and magistrates. And his ‘writ’ was limited to the Red Fort, and that too in compliance with the Resident’s wish.

Bahadur Shah Zafar was not his father’s favorite. He gained the throne because the British forced upon his father their own rule of primogeniture. JC should recall that the traditional Mughal system was to kill all rivals, as it happened from Jahangir to Farrukhsiyar, when the noble in power started choosing the Emperor. And the first thing any new Emperor did was to make sure the possible rivals were killed, blinded, or held in house arrest. Actually, in the good old days, Zafar would have got rid of both Mirza Mughal and Mirza Khizar, for he wanted Jawan Bakht, the son from his favorite Zeenat Mahal, to be his heir. Not to the throne but to whatever the British were in the mood to give. The two princes made a bid for fortune during the Ghadar, and were despised by those who were doing the fighting. Prior to 1857, they had no say even in the Fort. The walled city was governed by the British. The Kotwal who sent Ghalib to jail for gambling was an employee of the British, and not of the Emperor.

Coming to the events of September 1857, here is what William Dalrymple tells us in his The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi 1857 (New York, 2007). No doubt some would call him a ‘Gora Kafir,’ but he also happens to be a meticulous scholar and quite sympathetic to Zafar. According to Dalrymple, Zafar, with members of his immediate family and some retainers, had escaped from the Fort by boat and took shelter in Humayun’s tomb on the 17th of the month. The place was full of soldiers—around three hundred—and civilians who had fled there with the same aim.  On the 21st, Hodson went there with a small contingent of native soldiers—they were probably Muslims and Sikhs from Punjab—and got Zafar out of the tomb complex. Hodson himself did not go inside; the Emperor rode out in a chariot—with the help of Hakim Ahsanullah Khan, Mirza Elahi Bakhsh, and Maulvi Rajab Ali. Hodson delivered the Emperor to the freshly established British civilian administration, and the Emperor and Zeenat Mahal were confined to quarters within the Fort. The next day, Hodson went to Humayun’s Tomb, and with his Indian helpers got the three princes to surrender. There were several hundred jihadis in the tomb at the time, plus hundreds more of ordinary men, women, and children. There were three hundred or so more jihadis not too far away in Basti Nizamuddin. (Dalrymple’s total of six hundred became six thousand in JC’s piece.) But no soldier made any effort to challenge Hodson on either day, nor did any civilian. The three princes were killed in cold blood by Hodson, at a place now known as the Khuni Darwaza. And yes, they were stripped naked before they were killed. The corpses were then taken to the Kotwali in Chandni Chowk and cast on the ground for display. Three days later they were buried in unmarked graves. No soldier was taken into custody at Humayun’s Tomb and marched back to the city to be hanged from the gallows.

What happened at the tomb complex on two days clearly indicates the low esteem in which the Emperor and the princes were held by most of the civilians and soldiers who had sought shelter there. There was no issue of the Emperor’s writ, for the poor man never had any, not even within the Red Fort. And many of the elite and clergy of Delhi held him in much contempt before 1857 for his peccadilloes and his inclination towards Shi’ism.

JC should read Hasan Nizami and Rashidul Khairi again—they don’t indulge in his fantasies—if he cannot be bothered to read Dalrymple, or Mahmood Farooqui’s Beseiged: Voices from Delhi, 1857 (New Delhi, 2010), an invaluable selection (translated) from the Mutiny Papers in the National Archive of India. He may be right about the two swords and their identities, but he is dead wrong when he talks of a Timurid crown. The first Mughal king to wear a crown was Zafar’s father, Akbar II; Zafar imitated him. And both had imitated the British practice, as had the Nawabs of Avadh when the British made them Kings. The Mughals in India, from Akbar onward had worn only turbans decorated with jewels and crests.

Finally, the British couldn’t have run out of ropes while hanging people. After all, the same rope and knot is commonly used over and over again. Of course, reality does not make for the rhetorical effect JC most desires. And so fantasy triumphs over reality.

 

(September 19, 2013)

 

 

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