Thursday 3 April 2008

Peepul ke Neeche--Conversations

Ghadar Jari Hai, Vol 2, No. 1, Jan-March 2008

Delhi: 1857

We present a freewheeling discussion between Mahmood Farooqui and Shivanand, regarding Delhi around 1857. Mahmood is a historian, who has extensively studied archival material in Urdu regarding 1857 and particularly about the uprising in Delhi. He is currently writing a book on Delhi in 1857. He has also studied the vanished performing art of ‘Dastaangoi’. He has tried to revive the form by putting up a series of performances as well.

Shivanand: Let us start with some basic information about Delhi of those days, like population, geographical extent, political and cultural life

Mahmood Farooqui: By 1857 Delhi’s population was about a lakh of people and it was surrounded by the outer walls of the city built by Shahjahan, that is Shajahanabad, with 12 gates; Ajmeri gate, Kabuli gate, Lahori gate, Kashmiri gate etc. Delhi had many cities before like Mehruali, Kilokari, Tughlakabad etc. A few new settlements had come up. Outside Paharganj thana, subji mandi etc, also near Mehrauli, near Nizamuddin, a settlement near Badarpur etc.
The city was almost equally divided between Hindus and Muslims with some Jains. The court was a centre for certain kind of culture; for production of Urdu poetry, and music. The city had its own autonomous existence not revolving around the court. The king was fondly looked upon. A lot of Urdu poets congregated around him since he himself was one, but it was not as if he commanded the city’s culture and people had mushairas in houses etc.
From 1830-35 there was the experiment of Delhi College which taught European science in Indian language (Urdu), English was a subject they studied. Master Ramachand was a great mathematician of Delhi College who later converted to Christianity. Zakaullah, Sir Syed studied there and so on. There was a rise of a new kind of intellectual in Delhi. In Calcutta also it happened, but in Delhi it was different, because here they were supremely confident of their cultural self. Acquiring new knowledge but confident of what he had already. There was an intellectual efflorescence based on enquiry. Among Muslims there was religious activity based on followers of Shah Waliullah in Madarasa Rahimiya. The English called them Wahabis. However there were no Wahabis in India who were with Abdul Wahab of Saudi Arabia. These were not Wahabis but Waliullahis, who were engaged in resurgence and rebuilding and contesting English claims. Some of them like Syed Ahmed Shahid, Shah Ismail and so on, actually went out to fight a jihad against the English and only against the English not against Sikh rulers or Hindus or anyone else. Rahimiya madrasa was also a new kind of institution because it used print to propagate its views, to debate with English missionaries, to convert etc.

Was it just a theological seminary or were there other braches of knowledge like medicine, mathematics?

Standard madrasa then was based on a watered down Aristotelian system: works of logic based on Greek philosophy, some mathematics etc it was not just theology it depended also a lot on the teachers. It was not standardised and it could vary. So and so might be very good in Arabic theory or Persian prose so people went to study under him. It was like a gurukul, centred around the reputation of the guru. This was the intellectual ferment in the city.
The city had a lot of Muslim Punjabi merchants who had interest in the religious debate that was going on. There were also a lot of Khatris in the city and of course the English presence was there; the magistracy, the courts and the settlement in civil lines, which was coming up and the English were very much at home among the elite society of Delhi. That is why Ghalib had so many English friends and there were Englishmen writing in Urdu etc. This essentially was Delhi on the eve of 1857.

How was the administration organised? Was it mixed British and Mughal ?

I have tried to investigate it but a lot of administrative records of the time are not available in the national archives. For example, I could not ascertain who the police were reporting to? Judiciary was English but with the cooperation of Indians and they were using mixed laws. Criminal law was Islamic and civil was mixed. The postal system was under British control. There was revenue collection from principalities around Delhi by the English. There were seven of them in Pataudi, Dujana, Ballabgarh, Bahadurgarh, Jhajjar and two more. The wider hinterland was governed by tahsildars appointed by the English. The king, Bahadurshah Zafar was a pensioner and had revenues from some villages and rent from some shops in the city.

To give a little background, in 1761 Shah Alam the Mughal prince who was living outside of Delhi (Delhi was in anarchy), fought along with Nawab Shujauddaulah of Awadh, the Battle of Buxar against the English and lost it. So he and Shujauddaulah had to cede some rights to the English. After meandering for sometime in Allahabad etc he came to Delhi. He began to live under the protection of Mahadji Scindia, who was then controlling Delhi, around 1780. Then in 1803 British marched westwards and defeated the Marathas in the battle of Patparganj and the Mughal king came under the protection of English. The King became a pensioner of the English with increasing interference from the English in his rights and privileges. He died in 1837 and Bahadurshah then became the king. By then the English were even trying to interfere with the protocol and who will succeed etc. Clearly, Bahadurshah knew that he probably would be the last in Mughal lineage.

It is said frequently that Zafar was a reluctant leader and it was thrust upon him etc. At the same time the firman issued by Zafar on 12th May displays a lot of sagacity and well thought out statecraft. So what was his role and that of other members of his family?

There was a great deal of commotion in the city on the day that the soldiers arrived from Meerutt. Meanwhile some soldiers reached Bahadurshah and told him ‘come lead us we will win all of Hindustan for you’. His chief advisor, his hakim, was very reluctant and remained sceptical right through. He said, “these soldiers have turned against their masters do not depend on them”. However, the king did not commit to anything. The soldiers were hungry. They did not speak with one voice. Some were even disrespecting. Some pulled his beard and said ‘ye buddhe, come and fight’. They looked down upon royalty. They felt the royalty are useless people, where as soldiers were fighting for the country.

However, what he did the next day is very intriguing. He wrote a letter to all the Rajputana princes to come and help him fight. He would not have done so unless he was sure that these soldiers were going to stick around. If he were taken by surprise, he would wait and see. There is something there, which I have not figured out.

However, the princes were very popular with the army. That tells us something. They would not be so unless they were very much active against the English. Mirza Mughal was made the Commander In Chief at the insistence of the army. He was very influential. There were two or three other princes who were also active. Firoz Shah had gone to Haj and when he came back, he went directly to Awadh and fought. He was not Bahadurshah’s son.

What was the ‘court of mutineers’?

It was formed sometime in early July. I saw a document, which says Court of Administration qayam kiya jaata hai. Then it goes on to explain its composition and constitution (dastavez); two members from cavalry, infantry and artillery and four civilians with the Commander in Chief acting as the president; voting by majority; in case of disputes the matter to be referred to the king. If the king disagrees with the court about any matter then it will be discussed again in the court and if they do not change and decide to stick by their decision then it would be binding on the king and so on. They dealt with administration, finance, everything. Similar courts were formed in Lucknow, Kanpur and even Jhansi. Soldiers insisted on this and even though we only remember the royal leaders, everywhere they were circumscribed by these courts of soldiers. They often mistrusted the old rulers. They did not want the old to dominate. They clearly wanted a consultative role, a republican concept of governance.
Most orders are coming from CIC, but even the CIC is questioned, e.g. there is a note from the accountant to the CIC that how is the expenditure on the elephant used by CIC to be accounted for. He says the court will not accept it as a military expenditure. Then the CIC says do not put that in the account. I will speak to the members of the court and then see who should pay. This is a month later. So obviously the court was very important and hovering behind every order of CIC. For example there is a letter from a spy, which says, ‘the soldier’s court met and they denounced the officers and said these guys do not want to fight, they are pilfering our money and promoting their favourites. Today we are dismissing all of them and taking over and so on.’

What was the role of Bakht Khan?

Before Bakht Khan’s arrival with the Bareily contingent, every new group of soldiers that arrived went to the Ridge first, fought with great valour and then came to the city and settled down. In between there is bhang and courtesans and so on. When Bakht Khan came in early July, he introduced a great amount of vigour. He superseded Mirza Mughal and he was appointed the Lord Governor by the King, since Bahadurshah trusted him. He was close to Moulvi Sarfaraz Ali who was the leader of Mujahideens (they came for jehad against the English and other volunteers). Bakht Khan organised proper battles by turns, he also organised salary distribution, tax collection etc. But there was rivalry between him and Mirza Mughal. In about a month he started losing steam. There was no unified command; soldiers were loyal to their own regiment. There was also a lot of rivalry between the Bareily and Neemuch contingents. Bakht Khan decided to go and attack the English from behind and cut off the supplies from Punjab. It was an obvious thing to do, but no one had thought of it. However, in the battle he refused to help the Neemuch brigade led by Sidhara Singh and Hira Singh for which he was reprimanded by the King. But Bakht Khan said I am not anybody’s naukar to go and help anybody.
There was no proper hinterland for supplies. There is shortage of sulphur of vegetables of atta and almost everything else. The thanedars were then asked to organise supplies and they managed to do so. Over all what is significant is not that they lost but they held out for four months under these circumstances!

What would you consider as the major cause of defeat at Delhi? Also supposedly Bakht Khan asked Zafar to leave Delhi with the soldiers but Zafar refused to do so. Why was that?

You have to see it from Bahadurshah’s point of view. What he saw was infighting and indiscipline. They were not fighting under unified command. A number of times he said “I am leaving Delhi I am going to the shrine in Mehrauli, I will go for Haj, I will commit suicide” and so on. He was trying to use many stratagems to bring them under control. Bakht Khan was brave and a great strategist but had failed to bring Delhi under unified command. He also did not go and help Hira Singh and Sidhara Singh at a critical point. The situation worsened. Soldiers were coming into deewan e khas with shoes on, sometimes with their horses and arms etc. This had not happened even in the times of Nadir Shah or even English.

Therefore, he had many reasons to be unhappy with the soldiers. Zafar fighting from Delhi was potent but Zafar fighting from elsewhere would not matter much. He knew that the dynasty is over. He did not expect to be spared by the British.

What role did religion play in Delhi during 1857?

There was an enormous amount of religious rhetoric. The firmans and the press kept saying ‘protect deen-dharam’. They were openly inciting people against the English using religion. There is nothing wrong with that. I do not know how Prof Irfan Habib says that religion did not play a role in 1857. They were creating a constituency for war in people’s mind. Not that religion was very important to these soldiers, after all they were using the same cartridges which are supposed to be coated with animal fat. Second thing is the appeal for Hindu-Muslim unity. This was the first time that Indians themselves created two categories of Hindus and Muslims. ‘India is where both Hindus and Muslims live’. This is not self evident. It was created in 1857. The whole secular nationalism still talks about unity of Hindus and Muslims. Why don’t they talk of India as a land of taluqdars and peasants or of five rivers etc? The people did not see themselves as Hindus and Muslims but 1857 made them think so. These are not descriptive categories but constitutive categories.
It made everybody into Hindus and Muslims. We should question this construct. While we laud 1857, we should note that it essentialised us as Hindus and Muslims. There are all kinds of ways India can be seen.
After 1857, we started fighting Europe on its terms. During 1857, we fought Europe on our own philosophical and epistemological grounds.

Can you comment on the need to study 1857 today?

There was wide spread resentment against the British and hence there was support for the Ghadar even among those who did not take up arms or contribute monies. That is why we should not study 1857 in terms of victory and defeat but in terms of sentiments. We have only asked nationalistic questions in studying 1857. Do we study 1857 for Indian bravery, for military strategy for nationalism? If we do, we would be disappointed. We will only see English triumphalism. Not all patriotic struggles need be nationalistic struggles. We need to ask more intelligent questions. The soldiers became radical. Why did this not proceed further? Why are there no accounts of julahas (weavers) of Allahabad fighting. What was Kunwar Singh inspired by, what was Tatya Tope inspired by and so on. There should be monographs on Kanpur, on Lucknow or even Deccan and so on. Let us depict what actually happened.

Mahmood, your book on Delhi would be looked forward to and I hope there will be more such empirical studies instead of tepid and simplistic accounts. Thank you.

(Ghadar Jari Hai is a quarterly magazine produced from New Delhi, India. For more information write to S Raghavan, Editor,

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