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Mainstream, VOL LI No 22, May 18, 2013

How Long Will Bahadur Shah Zafar’s Exile Continue?

Saturday 18 May 2013, by Shamsul Islam

India’s First War of Independence (described by the British colonial masters as ‘Mutiny’) began on May 10, 1857 at the Meerut Cantonment. The rebel sepoys of the East India Company marched to Delhi, the seat of the Mughal King, accompanied by thousands of villagers who had joined the rebellion on the way to Delhi. On May 11, this mass of rebels, of which more than 75 per cent were Hindus and Sikhs, had an audience with the 82-year-old King Zafar and prevailed upon him to lead the liberation struggle against British rule as he, being a secular ruler, symbolised the unity of the country.

The contemporary documents prove that Rani Laxmi Bai, Nana Saheb, Tatia Tope, Azimullah Khan and Begum Zeenat Mahal of Oudh supported this move. Zafar agreed to take up the fight and issued the following decree on May 12: “To all the Hindus and Muslims of India, taking my duty by the people into consideration at this hour, I have decided to stand by my people... It is the imperative duty of Hindus and Mussalmans [Muslims] to join the revolt against the Englishmen. They should work and be guided by their leaders in their towns and should take steps to restore order in the country. It is the bounden duty of all people that they should, as far as possible, copy out this Firman and display it at all important places in the towns. But before doing so, they should get themselves armed and declare war on the English.”

Despite being decried as a Mutiny of sepoys by the alien rulers and their henchmen, the contemporary memoirs of the British military as well as civil officials make it clear that it was a ‘national war’ jointly launched by ‘Hindus, Muslims and commoners’. It as a war in which the ‘Black people rose in revolt against the White masters’ in order to ‘overthrow the yoke of foreign rule’. Major George H. Hodson, who played a prominent role in the capture of Delhi in September 1857 and killed two sons and a grandson of Zafar brutally, while echoing the view of contemporary British rulers, wrote in a letter to his wife dated July 26, 1857 that it was “an entire army and a whole nation” which was in revolt.

King Zafar became a rallying point of this First War of Independence. Zafar’s simplicity and secular credentials resonated among his people. He was a Sufi who celebrated, in his Court, Hindu festivals like Holi, Dussehra and Diwali with the same gusto as Muslim festivals. The contemporary documents show that whenever a new gun (artillery gun) was deployed, it was mandatory that Maulvis would offer prayer and Pandits would garland it and offer ‘aarti’. Zafar, through a decree, banned cow-slaughter on the eve of Id-ul-Zuha in July 1857 so that communal unity is not fractured. He had seats for Pandits in his Court like ulemas. He believed that both Hinduism and Islam shared the same essence.

However, due to the treachery of British spies and stooges in Delhi (Maulvi Rajab Ali, Munshi Jeewan Lal and Mirza Ilahi Baksh being the most prominent ones), the British Army captured Delhi on September 14, 1857. Of course, rivalries amongst the rebel elite made the job of the British easy. It is to be noted that despite the fall of Delhi, the armed struggle against the British continued till 1859. Zafar, the Mughal Emperor, surrendered to Major Hodson on September 21. In the meantime his two sons and a grandson were shot dead publicly by Hodson and his men outside the Delhi Gate. Zafar was tried by a military tribunal which began its proceedings on January 27, 1858 and delivered judgment on March 9, 1858. Zafar, for his complicity to murder and treason, was to be exiled to Rangoon (Yangon) in Burma (Myanmar) with his close family members, a decision which was executed in October 1858. No contacts or visitors were allowed. For the ousted King, Zafar, who also happened to be a renowned poet, the pen, ink and paper were the three things which were completely forbidden. Zafar died as an unsung hero on November 7, 1862 and was buried at an unmarked place. The idea was that in a few years’ time it would be lost amidst overgrown grass and nobody would know where Zafar, a symbol of resistance to British hegemony, was buried. Nothing else could have been expected from the colonial rulers. However, the enclosure where Zafar stayed became a shrine for visitors and it was believed that he was buried there only.

Most shockingly, after India’s independence the rulers did not bother about this great leader of the anti-colonial struggle whose leadership ignited one of the most glorious liberation struggles in world history. His exact burial site was found in 1991, almost 130 years after Zafar’s death, by a group of Burmese who had been searching for decades for the grave of a saint-poet whom they revered. No government or non-government organisation from India bothered to locate it.

It is on record that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose started his “March to Delhi” campaign in 1942 after paying his respect to Zafar’s shrine in Rangoon. Rajiv Gandhi, during his official visit to Myanmar (December 1987), came to pay tribute to Zafar and wrote the following in the visitor’s book placed at the shrine believed to be Zafar’s grave: “Although you (Bahadur Shah) do not have land in India, you have it here, your name is alive...I pay homage to the memory of the symbol and rallying point of India’s first war of independence...” in fact, Rajiv Gandhi, through this note, was echoing the sentiments of Zafar expressed in the following couplet of his:

Kitna hae bad-naseeb Zafar dafn ke liye

do gazz zamin bhi na mili ku-e-yar maen.

(How unfortunate is Zafar! For his burial

not even two yards of land had to be had,

in the land of his beloved.)

However, nothing was done to undo this wrong or to fulfil Zafar’s wish. Recently, Manmohan Singh as the Prime Minister of India, and Hamid Ansari as the Vice President of India visited Zafar’s grave. It is unfortunate that this great commander of the First Indian War of Indepen-dence remains buried in a foreign land. It is high time that steps are taken to bring his remains to India so that we and the coming generations have the opportunity to emulate Bahadur Shah Zafar’s deeds for a free and secular India. How long will Zafar’s exile continue?

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