Emotional, yet superb account of 1857 mutiny
It happened 165 years ago, in May. Some Bengali soldiers of the British-Indian army in Meerut refused to use the new breech-loading Enfield rifle. The cartridge of the rifle was greased with pork and beef fat and had to be bitten off to prepare it for firing. Being Muslims and Hindus, soldiers or sepoys as they used to call, refused to do so as they found it a planned move by Christian British to negate their religions. Their mutiny led them to imprisonment. Their comrades, however, came to rescue them, shot the British officers and marched towards Delhi. The Indian battalion in Delhi joined them. They occupied the city and Mughal fort and also proclaimed the 80-plus Bahadur Shah Zafar II, the last Mughal emperor in name only, as the national leader. Thus the first great revolt against the British ruler, East India Company to be precise, sparked off.
Meanwhile, the revolt had also erupted in different parts of India where sepoys were accompanied by local leaders and ordinary people. Rani Lakshmibai, the Queen of Jhansi, fought fearlessly against the British troops. Nana Saheb Peshwa from Gwalior emerged as another leader while Tantia Tope drove assault against the British and later joined Lakshmibai.
The English rulers, however, ruthlessly crushed the great mutiny thanks to their military supremacy and cunning strategies. Mutineers were also unorganised and there was no efficient leader. Initially, they got the support of local people from Delhi in the west to Benares in the east. At one stage, the uprising became extremely violent and several mutineers got involved in looting to collect their provisions. Thus their local support eroded. They also did not have adequate arms and ammunition to fight against the well-organised British force. Local collaborators also joined the English rulers.
Thousands of Indian mutineers faced brutal punishment as the British tried to spread terror across India. One common punishment was to tie mutineers to the mouth of a cannon and then fire the cannon which completely obliterated the victims. Mass hanging to death was another common method of punishing the rebels and their associates. In many cases, when mutineers were captured, they were killed on the spot.
DASTAN-E-GHADAR: Delhi, the capital of the Mughal empire, witnessed the most terrible destruction. Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal king, and his family members faced cruel punishment. Zahir Dehlvi was a young poet and an official in Bahadur Shah Zafar's court. He was also an eyewitness of the 1857 great mutiny, bloodshed and tragedy at the age of 22. Based on his close survey of the eventful days, he later wrote a book in Urdu. Having the initial title of Taraz-e-Zahiri, the book was published as Dastan-e-Ghadar (A Tale of the Mutiny) in 1914, three years after the death of the writer, from Lahore. More than 100 years after the original publication, an English version of the illustrative and emotional accounts of the great mutiny finally appeared in 2017. Indian historian and writer Rana Safvi translated it from Urdu to English which makes Zahir's wonderful work easily accessible to a large number of readers. Shanjid Arnob translated the book from English to Bengali which hit the bookstand last year.
There are a number of books available on the great mutiny in English, Bengali, Urdu and Hindi though the number of eyewitness accounts is few. Famous poet Mirza Ghalib's small book titled Dastamboo was a personal diary in Persian where the poet recorded the various events from the second week of May 1857 to end-July, 1858. Though the book briefly illustrates the situation of Delhi and the British army, Ghalib's bias towards the British ruler was clear.
Zahir's book, however, provides a detailed picture of the episodes that took place inside and outside the Red Fort. Some 56 European women and children and a few men were captured by the sepoys and taken to the Red Fort. When the 82-year-old Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, came to know the imprisonment of these white people, he ordered that they should be taken into his safe custody. But the order was not dully carried out and the massacre took place on May 16. Zhair writes: 'One early morning, I left my house for the Qila, and entering through the naqqarkhana reached the Diwan-e-Aam. From there I decided to go to the khan-samaani and meet Hakim Ahsanullah Khan [the prime minister] to find out if Huzoor [Bahadur Shah Zafar] had given any orders. With this in mind, I avoided the lattice door and entered the khan-samaani door. When I had walked a little beyond the Mehtab Darwaza, I saw the purbias bringing the prisoners out of the Bag … I sent a message to the emperor through the khwaja-sara stating that the purbias had taken the prisoners whom Huzoor had kept in his special protection. The emperor gave immediate orders to call Hakim Ahsanullah Khan so that he could make arrangements to save the prisoners … Suddenly we saw that two companies of purbias, bearing loaded guns on their shoulders, were coming from the door of the Lal Purdah. As soon as they came into the Diwan-e-Khaas, they surrounded us and stood in front of us with guns pointed at us. All of us were praying to God and reciting the kalima. There were ten or twelve of us and we thought that they would blow us up at any moment. For a few moments, they kept standing there like that. After that, two sawars lofted a red flag outside the Lal Purdah, which was an indication to the other sawars to put their guns back on their shoulders and leave. A messenger came after a few minutes and gave us the news: The prisoners have been murdered" (P-124-126).
Only the third and fourth chapters of the book depict the turbulent time in Delhi during the mutiny. Zahir presents vivid accounts of five months-May to September. On September 20, 1857, the British recaptured Delhi and established full control over the city. He describes how his family fled the city once British troops had entered to retain control. He writes: "The evening the emperor left the Qila and reached Humayun's tomb, Nawab Hamid Ali Khan's servant came to my father at midnight and gave him a message: "Why are you waiting free of care in your house? The emperor has left the Qila and the locals are fleeing the city. For God's sake, leave your house and depart from the city with your family. Can't you see that the city is being murdered? I am going out of the city with my family. You can send the women of your family along with mine." Nawab Hamid Ali Khan's house was near the Kashmiri Darwaza, but a month earlier he had rented a house in our mohalla. After this message, everyone left the house in whatever clothes he or she was wearing. My mother didn't even pick up a ring from her jewellery in her state of panic. My wife had stitched a mattress in which she had stuffed the valuable clothes she had got in her trousseau, along with her jewellery. Thus, my parents, my wife, all my siblings and all the women of Nawab Hamid Ali Khan's house went to Matia Mahal to my in-laws' house" (P162-163).
According to Zahir's description, Bahadur Shah Zafar was arrested from Humayun tomb the next day by Charles Saunders, the British commissioner of Delhi and some 30 Mughal Timurid princes including sons, grandsons and in-law sons of Zafar were brutally killed by Sandars on the following day. It was, however, Major Hodson who arrested the emperor and later killed the princes. The killing followed more massacres in Delhi by the British. While describing the plight of the Delhiites, at one place he writes: "My pen is advancing no more. I don't have any courage to write about these things. I couldn't personally investigate the events. I wrote what I had listened from others" (P 176).
In the following chapters, Zahir describes their journey from Delhi to other places and the trouble they faced during the time. It was at least eight years later that he returned to Delhi only for a brief period. Before that, he passed four years in Rampur and another four in Alwar where he spent probably the best time of his life. Later, he lived in Jaipur for nineteen years and passed another sixteen years in Tonk. All these years were a mix of joys and sorrows. He, however, got necessary jobs and earned well most of the time. Zahir praises the nawab of Rampur, king of Alwar and also the king of Jaipur for their generosity and virtues. He reached Hyderabad during the last years of his life, where he died. Here he wrote the book when he had lost some memories. This is reflected in some places in the book. This is basically his dairy and memoir. He, however, doesn't write anything regarding the post-mutiny tragedies including the mock trial of Zafar. The British had humiliated and sentenced the last Mughal king to Rangoon where he died ending the 332 years of the great dynasty in India. Though Zahir came to know the details, he briefly touched on one of the most tragic events in history. In some cases, he rather praises the British rulers which is not unusual due to the political environment of that time.
Nevertheless, the book is considered a superb ringside description of the fateful days of the great mutiny. Shanjid Arnob, a young and enthusiastic writer and translator, puts tremendous effort to prepare the Bengali version following the Rana Safvi's English translation. Bizbangla media, the publisher of the daily Bonik Barta (a vernacular Bengal business daily) published the quality hardbound book. Readers will get the flavour of those eventful days that later became labelled as the first 'War of Independence' of India.