Brave or Bahadur in Hindi, when this adjective is used before a historical figure’s name, it creates a picture of a warrior, who has extraordinary determination and courage in the face of extreme adversity even if success is unlikely. A warrior, who is mounted on horse with sword, is fighting to protect his country, his people and his Dharma. History is full of such brave warriors, who fought and shed their blood for the sake of their honour, their people and their country. Unfortunately, history has also falsely glorified gutless and spineless characters as brave.
One such character in history is Bahadaur Shah Zafar, the last and 20th ruler of Mughal Dynasty. Was he really brave? Why was he glorified as Bahadur?
Bahadur Shah Zafar was born on 24 October 1775 in Delhi to Akbar Shah II and Lal Bai. Zafar, who had seen continuous downfall of his dynasty since he was born, was crowned in September 1837 at the age of 62 after his father’s death. Decline of Mughal dynasty had begun with the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 AD. Within 50 years of his death Mughal Empire had begun to disintegrate. Its power had ceased to exist. The successors of Aurangzeb had turned into powerless puppets at the hands of British East India Company, a trading company of English merchants, who had landed in India in 1608 to trade in Indian spices and other commodities such as silk, cotton, tea, opium etc. Later East India Company, a bunch of ruthless British business men—who rose to rule India from 18th century to mid-19th century—transferred power to British Crown.
Bahadur Shah Zafar was not his father’s first choice as his successor. His father Akbar Shah II had chosen Mirza Jahangir to be his heir apparent under the pressure of his mother Mumtaz Mahal. Mirza Jahangir happened to attack British resident Archibald Seton, in premises of Red Fort. An enraged East India Company, the de facto ruler of region, exiled Mirza Jahangir. Such was the state of affairs Mughals.
The helpless old man, Zafar, was aware that it was impossible to reverse the political decline of Mughals. Neither he ever tried to reclaim the lost glory of Mughal dynasty. Braves are those who are not discouraged at the face of extreme adversity. It is meek and timid, who submit himself to adverse circumstances. The humble ruler—who was expected to take decisions on serious matters regarding his subject with help of his courtiers—spent his days listening to Mushaira, vising garden, eating fresh mangoes during the day, then enjoying moonlight in the night. His authority didn’t extend beyond the walls of the Red Fort. Within walls of Red Fort, Bahadur Shah Zafar was a mere pensioner, who received one lakh rupee monthly pension from East India Company.
However, fate had offered Bahadur Shah Zafar a chance on platter to fight for his honour as Great Revolt of 1857. On 11 May 1857, a band of sepoys from Meerut Cantonment barged their way into Red Fort, after they had killed British soldiers a day ago on 10 May 1857. They had gathered beneath his window with an earnest demand from Bahadur Shah Zafar to lead the revolt.
The Revolt of 1857 was not the consequences of sudden outburst, but the climax of century old oppression, brutality and suffering at the hands of the East India Company. The uprising against British had produced many heroes and warriors, who fought till their last breath to come out of subjugation. They were Rani Laxmibai from Jhansi, Tatya Tope from Kanpur, Begum Hazrat Mahal from Awadh, Kunwar Singh (he was also 80 years old) from Jagdishpur and many more unsung heroes.
But, Bahadur Shah Zafar could have fought like a fighter and made supreme sacrifice on battlefield. But a coward Zafar found himself stuck in dilemmas. If he supported the sepoys, he would earn the wrath of British and lose the pension of Rs.1 lakh. If he failed to do so, his life would be in danger. Such was the menace and pressure the sepoys had instilled in old Bahadur Shah Zafar. Crowds of sepoys including farmers, peasants, daily wage earners, barbers, shoe makers, sweet sellers and others, who could never dream of even being in the Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audiences) had not forced their way in, but also they were also demanding Zafar to lead the revolt. Eventually, orders were issued to the Princes to control the tempers of sepoys from Meerut and Delhi combined.
But a reluctant and gutless Bahadur Shah Zafar failed to provide a steely leadership. At the same time, he opened a secret parallel way with British to crush the sepoys. R.C. Mazumdar writes “Not only had Bahadur Shah Zafar no confidence in the sepoys or sympathy for their cause, but even after he had joined them he maintained his loyalty to the British.
On 19 September 1857, he was arrested from Humanyun’s tomb along with his wives and sons and found guilty after long trials. On 7 october 1858 Zafar with his wives and sons were sent to Burma in Bullock cart. He died a miserable death in 1862 at the age of 87.
Is there any reason why Zafar a spineless and gutless Mughal ruler be glorified as brave or Bahadur? Did he possess an ounce of bravery in him?