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.
This archaic Fifth Estate comprised outsiders who disregarded rules of both ethics and hygiene. What could be more racist than that? There can be no doubt that the British reprisal was racist in nature, and not religious at all, even for the brief period when British-led Sikh troops occupied the Jama Masjid. A source of religious conflict like this present day anger against coerced conversion, and a concomitant effort to halt it, livid as it may be, is a far cry from the blazing rage of the Uprising. Neither was it a martial contest for possession of a religious site.
If religion itself were the underlying issue, Colonel Skinner's St. James Church and any other churches within the walls of Shahjahanabad/Delhi would certainly have been demolished first, early in the game. But this was a contest for Shah Jehan's Red Fort and walled city, for the symbol of the Indian Empire of the Great Mughals, for which the British had, as it were, set their collective cap! My suspicion is that during the Uprising, religion served, more than anything else, as a clearly evident badge of loyalty. Preserving Indian religions and protecting the right to practice them was certainly a call to action that all classes could heed. Asserting those rights, however, could not have been more than an expedient means to putting an end to several aspects of social engineering the British had been engaging in on the way to seizing land and resources.
One especially aggravating piece of British social engineering that had been going on for nearly a decade at the time of the Uprising was a series of annexations of entire principalities and kingdoms under the Doctrine of Lapse, a policy devised by the Lord Dalhousie of the day, who was created a Marquess for his many pains. This unilateral initiative gave the East India Company (EIC) leave to seize any principality or kingdom where the succession had to be arranged according to Indian law and customary adoption, or where the rulers were judged to be incompetent — by EIC officers.
This doctrine enabled a sharp acceleration of, and in terms of scale, a leap beyond the earlier established British practice of foreclosing on landed estates in a creative manner, by claiming for steeply escalated and therefore unpayable and unpaid taxes. This systematized robbery had been going on since the Mughal emperor Shah Alam had granted the East India Company (EIC) the diwani (right to collect revenue) of all of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa as well as the upper Gangetic valley, in 1765 — in return for an annual tribute of a mere 2.6 million rupees, which Warren Hastings stopped paying after 1772, probably to line his own pocket.
This so-called firman was in any case actually wrested from Shah Alam after the Battle of Buxar and the Battle of Plassey (or, actually, Polashi) had made a de facto British puppet of him. By then, the Mughal dynasty was already eleven reigns into its decline. The formality only confirmed what had already happened, officially elevating the EIC from the tax exempt coastal trading entity it had earlier become by virtue of the firman of 1717, bestowed on them by the inguinally challenged emperor Farukhsiyar. Permission to buy 38 villages was certainly a disproportionate gift, made in gratitude for deft surgical treatment by one William Hamilton in the EIC party. But in 1765, instead of being tax exempt, the EIC became a virtual nizam — out and about, collecting taxes, seeing and being seen, and handling imperial revenues as if they were private and personal cash in hand.
Certainly, the granddaddy of all the unilateral initiatives launched on an unsuspecting world, which gave rise to so much of what Jan Morris has called "tchootzpah" would have to be the Royal Charter that created the EIC in the first place. That strange firman conferred legal authority on the EIC in territories where the British Crown had no sovereign rights or authority to start with, making its officers answerable to nobody in the theater of operation, and only a wee bit responsible to that distant Crown — so long as the spooky feeling lasted. As a direct descendant of that cheeky Royal Charter from that other Elizabeth, Dalhousie's Doctrine was as bald a pretext for seizing land and resources as any invented ever since — as unilaterally imposed, heedlessly arrogant, and provocative as the Bush Doctrine is today. I'm still wondering where he got it from.
How would the Doctrine of Lapse have applied, say, to George III's family? When the Prince Regent's only child died in childbirth in 1817, the King himself was cuckoo in his old age. According to Lytton Strachey, the Prince Regent was too fat to father another child. There had not been a single legitimate child born to the six royal dukes, one of whom was a murderer, another a transvestite, a third living in a menagerie. Of the King's five daughters who had survived into middle age, every single one was either barren or unmarried. It took nearly two years to arrange a marriage for the cosily unmarried Duke of Kent with yet another German cousin, and to produce Princess Victoria. Had this happened in India during Dalhousie's tenure, the kingdom would have been annexed in a flash!
Instead, in just the same manner as the sepahis sought out Zafar after their massacres of the British in and around their cantonments, the British, whose ideas of statehood and sovreignty were apparently still vested in their monarch, did exactly the same thing after carrying out their genocidal reprisal. One of the Delhi coterie, who enjoys a starring role in The Last Mughal, wrote that her husband had taken or "bought" (from whom?) what they decided must be Bahadur Shah Zafar's crown, taken it to Queen Victoria right after the collapse of Delhi and sold it to her for five hundred pounds. The 38-year-old Queen quibbled over two chairs that she said ought to come with the headdress.
In 1858, Lord Canning completed the gesture by proclaiming Victoria's assumption of sovereignty over all the East India Company's possessions, although this could have been The John Company's way of avoiding multiple charges against its officers and other kinds of challenges. Twenty years would pass before things settled down enough for Queen Victoria to "graciously" assume the title of Empress of India and pass it down for three more generations to women of decreasing grandeur.
Image source: Indoislamica