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Book Review: British Savagery in Delhi After 1857 | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Friday 19 August 2022, by M R Narayan Swamy

Book Review

Tears of the Begums: Stories of Survivors of the Uprising of 1857

Khwaja Hasan Nizami
Translated by Rana Safvi

Hachette India
Paperback ‏ : ‎ 244 pages
ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 9393701148
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-9393701145

When the British finally reconquered Delhi with the help of loyal Indian troops after the 1857 revolt, the retribution was swift and brutal, without any regard for justice and fair play. Not only were combatants and sympathizers hanged or executed without any trial, but even their family members were dealt like animals. As far as Delhi was concerned, the British aim was to obliterate the Mughal dynasty without trace – in the process, vast sections of the Muslim community was targeted for daring to take on the colonial masters.

Born into a spiritual family some 20 years after the ghadar, author Khwaja Hasan Nizami recorded the painful experiences of those who survived the blood-soaked revenge. It was published in Urdu as Begumat ke Ansoo and, for a while, was banned by the British. Now, scholar Rana Safvi has come out with the first English translation of what is an invaluable piece of history. There could not have been a more fitting tribute to the martyrs of 1857 – the ones who fought and died and the ones who did not fight but were still brutally murdered.

There were around 3,000 royals living inside the Red Fort at the time of the uprising. They included Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar and his immediate family as well as the descendants of the previous emperors known as salatin. Most residents in the 17th century fort had immense riches. Some would sleep under a golden canopy, wrapped in costly velvet and silk shawls. Others used gold and silver beds. Many led an opulent life. The wayward ways of the princes and their predilection for courtesans were an open secret. They wore different dresses and ate different foods in every weather. Ordinary folks held the rulers in awe, more so when the royalty stepped out of the fort, displaying their might and wealth.

Despite the pomp and show, Bahadur Shah was very devout who always thought of God and wrote spiritual verses. He was ever eager to meet dervishes and mendicants. It was no surprise that he had divined the events of the revolt much before it happened, thanks to his spiritual powers. He could foresee the imminent decline of the empire. “For hundreds of years, my ancestors ruled Hindustan through force and fear. Now it is time for others to rule.” Although he was declared the titular head of the uprising, he admitted that the rebels were headstrong and trusting them was a mistake.

Much before he was sent off to Rangoon to die there after being arrested at Delhi’s Humayun’s Tomb, the British shot dead Bahadur Shah’s sons and presented their severed heads on a tray to the ageing emperor, who quipped with great fortitude: “Praise be to God, we have triumphed. Men of faith and courage rear their sons for just such a day.”

Much like Bahadur Shah, Hazrat Syed Nurul Huda, a 70-year-old whose face glowed with spiritual light, had an ominous dream a day before the rebels made their way to the Red Fort. He saw a fearsome fire raining from the sky, burning people and animals to death. He interpreted the dream as a warning for terrifying riots in the country. “God, in his mercy, has given me the ability to foresee future events up to a hundred years. I can see my martyrdom, your trials and your piteous conditions with my own eyes,” he told his stunned wife and daughter.

When a British military officer finally raided his home after the mutiny was crushed, a soldier mercilessly slashed Huda into two pieces right in front of his wife and daughter. Overnight, the two women were reduced to destitution. A man they trusted ended up murdering Huda’s wife and abducting the daughter. She was saved by a servant who killed the abductor. Failing to catch the servant killer, the British confiscated his house and auctioned everything. Zakia and the servant’s mother had no place to stay. People they knew refused them shelter. The elderly woman died in pain, and Zakia spent years begging.

Once the British captured the Red Fort and the adjacent Salimgarh Fort, the houses and mansions of the princes and salatins were razed. Knowing the importance of the Mughal Emperor and the royal family among the citizens, it was only after dealing with them that the British took action against other rebel hubs. Rough and ready and often cruel punishments were meted out to mutineers and suspected sympathizers often based on false evidence. Gallows were erected in the bazaar of Chandni Chowk to hang whoever the British pronounced guilty. Thousands were hanged every day. Some were shot, and others decapitated with swords.

Once members of the royalty were hanged and their houses looted, their ladies had no choice but to work as maid servants; the grandeur and dignity of Muslims was razed to dust. Men who lived royally until then now struggled for food and basic necessities. As if to pour oil on fire, when returned to Delhi, the British gave away Rs. 5 as pension to the survivors among the nobles. Many survived the rebellion but could not survive life’s agony after that. Some begged on the very streets where, earlier, they had walked in glory.

The author admits there was great amount of cruelty when the rebel soldiers initially set upon the British and their families and indulged in loot in Delhi. He also notes that some among the royalty suffered because of their sins. A grandson of Bahadur Shah, Mirza Nasir al-Mulk, had used a slingshot to break the leg of a fakir who objected to his killing small birds for fun. The fakir cursed him. After the ghadar, the prince became a pauper and had to drag himself near his former mansion as his legs were paralysed.

This book can emotionally choke you. It is difficult to even grasp that a colonial power perpetrated such horror on an entire people in a land where they had no right to be in the first place. The Muslims were undoubtedly the worst sufferers in Delhi; elsewhere, as history books say, the British set upon both Muslims and Hindus. Rana Safvi deserves praise for the timely English translation.

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