This three-part series looks at British imperialism in India, and specifically the Indian Uprising of 1857, partly through the lens of William Dalrymple's book The Last Mughal, which follows the downfall of the last Indian emperor, and draws some parallels to current events. Read parts one and three.
In his quest to bring attention to some startling similarities between the Indian Uprising of 1857 and the Iraq War, William Dalrymple either avoids or misses a key opportunity to emphasize the crossover nature of the Uprising. During a central episode of this dramatic, year-long revolt against British authority, the HIndu majority among the mercenary soldiers of the British Bengal Army joined hands with their Muslim compatriots as well as with other Jihadists from the area near Delhi, in a bid to overthrow foreign rule once and for all — at the point in the book where the sipahis start calling the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar "Prithviraj," Dalrymple offers a literal translation, i.e., Ruler of the World.
If this meaning had been their intention, the sipahis might have called him Shah Jehan IV. Though he was also considered a Sufi pir, Zafar was more Rajput than Timurid by blood, so the sepahis were more likely referring to the heroic and legendary 12th century Rajput emperor, Prithviraj Chauhan III, the last Hindu monarch to be seated at Delhi. But of course, at 82 years of age, though he might be the rightful emperor, Zafar could be no Prithviraj.
Dalrymple suggests that if Zafar had led the charge to defend Delhi while the defense was on an upswing, he might have reversed the course of history. But at that point in the book, he has already established that the aged cultural and spiritual leader was far too physically feeble to do anything of the kind. Except for the occasional nut job, most European monarchs were by then pretty far distanced from being military leaders, and even if Zafar hadn't been as ancient and scholarly as he really was, his assuming military command would probably have been about as useful as having the present-day watercolorist and gardener, Prince Charles, lead a mounted cavalry charge — or for that matter, as helpful as planting Prince Harry in a foxhole in Baghdad.
In any event, the proposition that the Uprising was a religious war seems unnecessarily polite. In its bloodiness, both sides seem to have been, rather, engaged in an out and out race conflict, with everybody shouting ethnic slurs and racist epithets — one side yelling, "Kafir!" and "Mlechha!" and the other roaring back, "Pandy!" The ancient word, "mlechha," incorrectly translated in the text as "foreign barbarians," is not included in the glossary. The unsatisfactory wiki definition wanders into archaeological matters in an obsolete and incorrect direction, but a site I found provides a definition closest to my understanding of the word. Consonant with its rude sound, and more likely in the context in which it's mentioned, "mlechha" denotes a person or a people belonging to a designated Fifth Estate, beyond the first four, that is — priests, warriors, merchants, and tillers of the earth.