It was the fine day of October 24, 1775 when the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah, later remembered by his takhallus (which means pen name) Zafar (which means victory), was born. An Urdu poet, musician and, calligrapher Bahadur Shah is painted as an ode to restlessness, sorrow, and humiliation.
Even as we revisit Zafar on his 243rd birth anniversary, it is important for all of us to learn of his dreams, his ambitions, and his downfall. As a student of history, I am familiar that people are usually mystified with the life of the last Mughal emperor, especially due to the Revolt Of 1857 and its aftermath.
While revisiting Zafar’s life we realize that his life was full of tragedies. He had inclinations towards poetry and culture and was least interested in polity. In the autumn of 1837, Akbar Shah II (his father), was on his deathbed. The original heir was irascible Jahangir Bakht, who died an unexpected and early death. After much chaos, in September 1837, the 61-year old Zafar ascended the throne upon his father’s death. Bahadur Shah Zafar was now the emperor of a crumbling Mughal empire; a dreamy bard burdened by the weight of his dynasty and an empty treasury.
During his period, the empire had weakened to a great extent and the king’s command had ceased to carry weight beyond the four walls of the Red Fort. The major part of his poetry revolves around his personal experiences and gloom, an individual who personally experienced downfalls, bereavement, and hopelessness. If we talk about his court culturally, it was the hub of poets, many celebrated poets of the Urdu language who are still considered as jewels of Urdu literature were a part of his declining court. He was surrounded by Aazurda, Shefta, Ghalib, Momin and Zuaq.
On the morning of May 11, 1857, the city of Delhi was asleep when a band of sepoys from Meerut, who had defiled and killed an officer the previous day, crossed the Jamuna, set the toll house on fire and marched to the Red Fort. They entered the fort through the Raj Ghat gate, followed by an excited crowd, with an appeal to Bahadur Shah II, the Mughal emperor who was the pensioner of the Saltanat –e-Bartania (British East India Company) and possessed nothing but the name of the mighty Mughals, to became their leader and thus give legitimacy to their cause. Bahadur Shah unwillingly took responsibility as he otherwise anticipated capturing of the imperial city of Delhi by the sepoys. After great struggle and chaos, on September 20, 1857, the British forces consolidated their hold over Delhi. September 21, 1857 marked the end of the Mughal Empire.
The rebellion officially ended by July 1858. In the same year, the East India Company was abolished in favor of direct rule of India by the British government.
Bahadur Shah Zafar, who wished to be buried in the precincts of the Zafar Mahal and the famous Dargah of Khwaja Qutubuddin Bakhtiar Kaki in Mehrauli, Delhi, was deported by the British to Rangoon, and his last wish remained unfulfilled. With his death, one of the world’s greatest dynasties came to an end. The British buried him in an unmarked grave to keep his followers away. News of his death took a fortnight to reach India and almost went unnoticed. Then, for more than 100 years, Zafar faded from people’s memory. His legacy had only been revived by his poems. In words of Zafar:
Kis ki bani hai alam-e-na paedar mein
Kitna hai badnaseeb “Zafar” dafn key liye
Do gaz zamin bhi na mili kuu-e-yaar mein
(My heart, these dismal ruins, cannot now placate,
Who can find sustenance in this unstable state!
How unlucky is Zafar!
For burial, even two yards of land were not to be had, in the beloved land).”
Even today we recall Zafar for his poetry, his sentiments and for preserving Hindu-Muslim unity or the Gangi-Jamini tehzeeb. Author Zafar Dehlvi in his book ‘Dastan-e-Ghadar’ mentions, “Bahadur Shah Zafar [foresaw] trouble and banned cow-slaughter in the areas he nominally controlled… Bakr-Eid passed peacefully in 1857 thanks to the wise decisions of the emperor.” Bahadur Shah also continued Phool Walon Ki Sair and Jharokha Darshan. In today’s world of hatred and rampant communalism, it is essential for all of us to understand the mixed ethos of our past.