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Bahadur Shah Zafar biography

Bahadur Shah Zafar

biography

    Shah is considered as the last Mughal king, though he was only de jure king by the courtesy of the East India Company. Bahadur Shahs grandfather Shah Alam II and father Akbar II were pensioners of the East India Company. So was Bahadur Shah, getting one lakhs rupees as monthly pension.
However, like his father the Company had allowed him to be the titular head of a non-existing empire.Bahadur Shah II (Zafar)
Bahadur Shahs earlier name was Abul Zafar and he was born in 1775. Little is known of Abul Zafars childhood. There is no certainty even about the place of his birth and where he spent his childhood. He received instruction in Urdu, Persian and Arabic from private teachers and also learnt military arts of horse riding, sword craft and shooting with firearms and bows and arrows. We get only faint glimpses of him during his youth. His father Akbar II did not want him to succeed, and preferred his younger son Jahangir, who even tried to poison his elder brother twice, perhaps with the connivance of their father. However, the East India Company intervened and declared that they would recognise only the elder brother as heir apparent. Besides, being younger, Jahangir was of doubtful character. There is no doubt that he (Bahadur Shah) was the best fitted of Akbar’s sons to succeed.
During the period of his youth, Bahadur Shah appears throughout the records as a man of culture and upright character. In 1806, when he was thirty-two, and his father was trying to pass him over in favour of Jahangir, he was described as a very respectable character by Charles Seton, the British Resident in Delhi. As a prince, he lived and dressed simply; was of spare figure and stature and always dressed plainly without ostentation. These habits he retained during his reign as well. In the palace-diary of later years, there are glimpses of him spending whole days reading and writing, studying the Koran, and composing verses. Bahadur Shah was educated to the life of a mediatised prince, and the role fitted him perfectly. Whether he could have developed the qualities of action, we shall never know, for he was denied all opportunities in his early years and the Mutiny experience came far too late. But as a philosophic prince he would have adorned any country." Bahadur Shahs interests and tastes were essentially literary and aesthetic.
On ascending the throne in 1837, when he was sixty-two years old, he assumed the name Abu Zafar Mohammad Sarajuddin Bahadur Shah Ghazi. However, he has come to be known as Bahadur Shah Zafar – Zafar being his nom de plume. As he was only a de jure king he had not much administrative work to do. But as king of India, he looked upon the British as his subjects, owing allegiance to him under the terms of the Diwani of Bengal, signed by his grandfather, Shah Alam in 1765. The East India Company and the British authorities, however, treated him as their pensioner whom they had granted a nominal status of a king, whose jurisdiction did not extend beyond the walls of the Red Fort. A regiment of Company guards always camped in the Red Fort. Bahadur Shah accepted this humiliating status stoically. Though a religious man, he was no bigot. He did not suffer from the vice of addiction to strong drink but he was a gourmet and loved a variety of food. He married several times and had in addition a number of concubines, slave girls and mistresses, whom he had accumulated during his long life. His favourite wife, however, was Zeenat Mahal whom he married late in life and who shared, though unwillingly, the misfortunes of his last years in exile,
But above all, Bahadur Shah was a poet and a literary patron. He seriously tried to write Urdu poetry under the guidance of first Zauq and later Ghalib – two outstanding poets of the era. He composed several volumes of lyrics, some of which attained considerable popularity. Though not quite in the same rank as Ghalib and Zauq, he has his niche in the Urdu literary pantheon and his merit cannot be denied. It is this gif, much more than his crown, which gave him his place in the life of Delhi, and it is this even more than his political misfortunes, which has caused him to be affectionately remembered by the people." He used to have mushairas (poetic gatherings) in his palace which were attended by leading poets and intellectuals of the city Life in the city was placid and the majority of the citizens, rich and poor, seemed to be contented. Bahadur Shah did not interfere in the administration of the city and let the British do the job in his name. It gave the British an aura of legality and Bahadur Shah got unfettered time to indulge in poetic and aesthetic pursuits, secure in receiving his pension regularly, though it was inadequate to maintain his large establishment. He appealed to the British authorities several times to increase his pension but each time the appeal was rejected.
Then came the Mutiny in 1857 when Bahadur Shah was an old, infirm man of eighty-two. A body of mutinous sepoys and officers from Meerut (about forty miles from Delhi) marched to Delhi and forced their way into the Red Fort on 11 May 1857. The soldiers forced leadership on the reluctant Bahadur Shah and compelled him to sign documents under his seal. The rebels killed forty-nine Europeans, mostly women and children who were hiding in the Red Fort. They also killed many Christians living in nearby DaryaGanj. The rebels also searched every corner of the city for Christians and killed all those they could lay their hands on. Bahadur Shah watched all this helplessly. Although the assumption of leadership by Bahadur Shah gave the mutiny of sepoys in Delhi a general character of popular revolt, it was nothing of the kind. Bahadur Shah had no real heart in the business and only yielded to the importunities of the sepoys. He had not the capacity to lead the sepoys and was really led by them." The reluctance of the king was more than compensated by the eagerness of his sons (princes), especially Mirza Mughal, to join the rebels and to provide them with fractured leadership. But the turbulence of the rebels knew no bounds. They paid scant respect to the king and often insulted him. In the city itself, the sepoys indulged in loot and extortion and the people at large had no sympathy for the mutineers. The leaderless mob became a curse for the city and the citizens prayed for the return of the Company rule. The mutineers insisted that the king hold a durbar every day and he was paraded by them through the streets of Delhi.
Jiwan Lal, (whose ‘Diary’ is one of the most authentic sources of the events of 1857) wrote:
From house to house the unwilling king was distracted by the cries and petitions _ now from the servants of Europeans, who had been murdered, now from the shopkeepers, whose shops had been plundered,now from the higher classes whose houses had been broken into all looked to the king for immediate redress. However, seated on a howdah through the streets of Delhi, ‘he was like a cork on the swelling Waves of mutiny’.
Within four months it was all over. British enforcements poured into Delhi from Meerut and other nearby areas and the British re-took Delhi by the end of September. Bahadur Shah escaped to the Humayun Tomb but surrendered when the British forces surrounded the tomb, and brought him back to the Red Fort. He was tried under the military commission constituted under Act XIV of 1857, contrary to all established norms of national and international laws. The trial started on 27 January 1858, and lasted till 18 September. During his captivity in Red Fort, he was treated disgracefully huddled in two small, filthy rooms. Bahadur Shah was found guilty and was sentenced to transportation for life. He was not executed like his two sons, including Mirza Mughal, because Lt. General Sir Arcllidale Wilson had promised Bahadur Shah his life before arresting him and taking him into custody.
    In October 1858, Bahadur Shah was exiled to Rangoon. The royal assemblage left Delhi on 7 October 1858 in the dead of the night. The entourage of the emperor consisted to his beloved wife Zeenat Mahal, her minor son Mirza Jumma Bakht, another wife, four harem women, and sixteen attendants, both male and female. The royal caravan travelling in bullock-carts and palanquins took several months to reach Rangoon, where he lived for a little more than three years, pining for his beloved Delhi and writing some memorable plaintive Urdu verses, which are sung to this day by millions of Indians:
Lagta nahin hai ji mera ujde dyar mein
Kis ki bani kai alme nepaiedar mein
Hai kitna badnasib Zafar dafn ke liye
Do gaz zameen bhi Na mili koi-i-yar mein

[I am not at ease in this devastated shelter,
But whoever has been happy in this fleeting world?
How unlucky is Zafar that for his burial he could not get two yards of land in his beloved’s place (meaning Delhi).]
His poetry has kept alive his memory. Indian opinion never regarded him as a rebel, and always showed compassion towards him. With the passage of time even a halo of martyrdom and an aura of romantic sympathy have collected round the aged figure. But Bahadur Shah was neither a hero nor a villain. “His role in the uprising of 1857 has been grossly exaggerated by some Indian historians. Bahadur Shah was too weak, too ignorant, too inexperienced in the art of warfare and too resource less to have taken an effective part as king and leader of a campaign against the British forces. His trial and conviction were clearly a travesty of justice and in the nature of a reprisal.” There was an ample proof of his unwillingness to do anything against the British. Still, the Company treated him badly, which led to a fate that certainly he did not deserve.

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