I looked long for Zaheer Dehlavi’s Dastan-e-Ghadar, as it had been mentioned by a number of writers as an accurate account of the impact of our First War of Independence on Delhi. But it was only about a month back that I found a copy from its 2009 edition.

The somewhat archaic language is superb. Well who can compete with Dilli-wallas? Urdu is their language. We all got it from them. But Zaheer Dehlavi’s politics is deplorable. How can one be so depolitise, so cut off from the flow of history?

But he is not alone here. If his narrative is true, the inhabitants of the town, ranging from the Emperor to the modest owner of property, resented, actually disliked actively, the coming of the rebel soldiers of East India Company to Delhi.

As the soldiers told them, they had rebelled against the British, as they were being forced to bite bullets which were sealed with the fat of either pork or cow, one objectionable to the Muslims, the other to the Hindus. They had, therefore, mutinied and decided to come to Delhi, where the legitimate emperor of India resided. They hoped he would lead them in their struggle against those who were perpetrating sacrilege against the two major religions of the country.

However, Delhi’s inhabitants did not feel happy at this intrusion and had no desire to wage war against the British. This may have been the general feeling of the Indians of those days. An Indian of the period mentions in his memoirs that when he told an inhabitant of a native state that he lived under British rule, the other replied he was lucky, as under the British, there was both security and justice for the ruled.

The inhabitants of Delhi, including the Emperor, felt the same way. The Emperor received his pension from the British and, though shorn of power, was shown the necessary courtesies. The city dwellers had security of person and property, and went about their business undisturbed. They thought any challenge to the British rule would upset this tranquillity. They had apparently depoliticised themselves fully.

The rebelling soldiers, when they requested the Emperor to lead them, mentioned only the affair of the bullets as the cause of their disaffection. They did not speak about the need to overthrow the foreign rule. Neither did the Emperor. In fact, he told them he had no interest in politics and only wanted to be left in peace. Later, among his close entourage, the Emperor referred to the rebels as “namak haram”, implying that they had conducted themselves disgracefully in defying the British. A rebel officer said to a group of senior palace officials: “We have restored the Emperor. Now he should advance, (presumably, against the British.)” This annoyed Zaheer Dehlavi so much that he pushed the officer.

Well, one imagines that the prolonged anarchy of the eighteenth century had convinced the Indians that the Moghuls had “lost the mandate of heaven”, which had now been bestowed upon the alien adventurers from far away.

But what about the Emperor? Maybe he had no hope of reclaiming power. But, he could, at least, try to win a place in history. How many more years of tranquillity was he looking forward to at ninety? When the British broke through the Kashmiri Gate and were advancing towards the Red Fort, the Emperor escaped to Humayun’s tomb. He thus gave up any pretence to power. But he also surrendered his place in history. If he had joined the rebel soldiers fighting on the streets and been killed, he would have gone down in history as the last “Great Moghul”. Instead the remnant, the faint memory of a great dynasty ended with a whimper.

It appears that Awadh did not share Delhi’s lack of interest in politics. Lucknow held out against the British another seven months. And then, the defeated soldiers spread out all over the province, where they were backed by the peasants from whom they were drawn. Their resistance could not be crushed until late into 1859.

The Queen-Regent of Awadh, Malka Hazrat Mahal, who led the army into the Battle of Alambagh and who, like the Rani of Jhansi, refused to surrender upon being defeated, went into exile in Nepal. She ended her days there, having refused with contempt Queen Victoria’s “amnesty”.

The writer is a retired  ambassador. Email: abul_f@hotmail.com