175 Years

1857 from TOI archives: The last emperor

Frail and gaunt, Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar gave himself up to the British at Humayun's Tomb at the end of a tense day on September 21, 1857. The captors had sent him a terse message that he'd be shot if he tried to escape. After a long wait, the Last Mughal emerged from the resting place of his ancestor to embark upon the last phase of his journey - one of unimaginable tragedy, hardship and humiliation.

Historians quote British officers who formed the escorting party that summer day to say the journey back to Delhi seemed never ending, the palanquin bearers shuffling shoulders, a gaggle of hangers on, court followers and attendants adding to the edgy grimness of the trek.

Zafar was first incarcerated in his wife Zeenat Mahal's Lal Kuan haveli. But he wasn't kept there for long and moved to Red Fort, his palace and seat of whatever limited power he wielded. There, on a rezzai lay a wiry man, bearded face, searching, weary eyes, a hookah by his side. The trial of the "ex-king of Delhi" was big news for TOI and the paper reported the two-month trial. Quoting the Delhi Gazette of January 30, 1858, it reported the opening day thus: "The trial of the ex-king of Delhi commenced on Wednesday, the 27th. It was 12.30pm when the prisoner was brought in. He was in attendance in a palanquin outside under a guard of rifles.

"He appeared infirm, and tottered in supported by Jumma Bukht (presumably his son Jawan Bakht), and a servant, and coiled himself into a small bundle upon the cushion assigned to him; he presented such a picture of helplessness, as under other circumstances, must have awakened pity. Several European gentlemen were in court as spectators. The prosecutor read the charges. He concluded that though the prisoner might be convicted, no capital sentence could be passed upon him, his life having been guaranteed to him. The prosecutor then put the question: "Guilty or not guilty", which the prisoner did not (seem) to understand. There was some delay in explaining it to him.

He declared himself profoundly ignorant of the charges, although a translated copy of them was read to him some 20 days previous. The prisoner pleaded "not guilty". The charges read out in court were myriad - from the depredations of the rebels, excesses of the princes, to the disposal of liquor.

There were charges connected to the "new reign" of Bahadur Shah and the claim that it would last till the world lasted and the massacre of European women and children in Red Fort. All documents displayed in court bore "the prisoner's signature. The court was occupied with these documents; during the reading of which the prisoner appeared to be dozing and contemplating his toes".

The next day, Bahadur Shah came to court at 11am with his wakil. He "endeavoured, by voice and gestures, to impress the court of his innocence." A while later, the prosecution demonstrated a document urging the king not to allow the mass killings of European and women and children sheltered at Red Fort. For, this would be against Islam. This document, the prosecution, said "is the only one in the heap in which the spirit of mercy and kindness to Europeans can be traced." Apparently, Bahadur Shah's signature didn't figure on this paper.

"The prisoner, who had for some time being reclining in a lethargic state, began to groan and to complain of feeling unwell. He begged to be allowed leave" and the court closed for the day at 1.30pm. Witnesses talked of a mysterious proclamation poster from the king of Persia that had apparently been found on a wall of Jama Masjid. This had generated an excitement and had to be taken down post haste. They mentioned chapattis deliberately circulated in "government villages" to incite a similar class of people who ate similar food. Asked to comment, Bahadur Shah asked: "Are the Russians and Persians the same people?" As the prosecution stacked witnesses against him, the paper writes of the king's reaction one day: "The prisoner was more lively than usual today; declared his innocence several times; and amused himself by twisting and untwisting the scarf round his old head, and asking for a stimulant occasionally."

The king's defence, the paper reports, was feeble and claimed that he was "the victim of circumstances" and he blamed his son Mirza Mughal for his "forged" signature on most of the parwanas. On August 24, 1858, the court pronounced Bahadur Shah guilty and ordered his transportation to Rangoon.

Puppet king installed

Intelligence has reached Bombay, that the mutiny ... has assumed political form. A puppet king... placed upon the imperial musnud in the person of the son of the Emperor of Delhi and proclaimed King of India. At Umballa, at Meerut and at Lucknow, the flames of insurrection are raging with great fury. The probability is that Delhi already is in the hands of troops from that station... A steamer is to be dispatched to Suez today to convey news of this very serious rebellion at home.

King's sons killed

After the assault on Delhi had been brought to a successful issue on September 20th, Hodson's horse was employed in following up the retreat of the enemy from the city, succeeded in capturing the King of Delhi. On September 22nd, three of the Shahzadas, sons of the king, were captured by Captain Hodson, and executed on the spot. ... He took a carbine from one of his troopers and deliberately, with his own hand, shot to death his unarmed and unresisting captives.