Bahadur Shah Zafar, the Last Mughal

Bahadur Shah II captured by Capt. Hodson, 1858
Bahadur Shah II and his sons are captured by the British, 1858. via Wikimedia

His pen name and nickname, Zafar, means "victorious," yet Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last emperor of the Mughal Dynasty in India, was anything but a victor.  Also known as Bahadur Shah II, he was a poet and a Sufi mystic, with a dreamy, otherworldly outlook that was not suited to the tumultuous times in which he lived.  Despite his warrior ancestors, including Genghis Khan, Timur (Tamerlane), and Babur, Bahadur Shah Zafar is depicted in history as ineffectual, dithering, and impotent.

  British contemporary sources call him "the king of Delhi," rather than affording him his title as the Timurid Emperor of India.  Those sources are obviously biased, yet it does seem that too little of his fierce ancestors' blood ran through his veins.  In the end, Bahadur Shah "the Victorious" lost it all.

Early Life:

On October 24, 1775, a second son was born to the Mughal emperor Akbar II; the child's mother was the emperor's Hindu consort, Lal Bai.  The boy was named Abu Zafar Sirajuddin Muhammad Bahadur Shah Zafar. 

Bahadur Shah Zafar was not meant to be his father's successor to the throne.  However, his favored half-brother, Mirza Jahangir, ended up being exiled to Allahabad by the British East India Company (BEIC) after he attacked their Resident in Delhi. As a result, it was Zafar who took the throne on September 28, 1837, upon Akbar II's death.

Bahadur Shah II's Reign:

The new emperor showed little interest in statecraft.

  He spent much of his time composing ghazals, Urdu language poems about pain and loss, under the pen name of Zafar.  He was also considered a Sufi master, who tutored students in Sufi beliefs.  Zafar lived in a simple and ascetic style quite unusual for a Mughal emperor, but appropriate for a Sufi saint.

As the son of a Muslim father and a Hindu mother, Bahadur Shah II exemplified the multicultural flavor of Mughal rule.  One of his poems explicitly asserts that Islam and Hinduism are of the same essence.

While the emperor contemplated life's deep questions, outside his palace walls, the BEIC had taken control of most of the subcontinent.  Using both a web of alliances with local princes and outright land grabs, the British were the true rulers of most of what is now India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.  Although Zafar was an emperor, his effective empire was really just the Red Fort in Delhi.

For twenty years, life continued in this manner.  Inside the palace, the emperor wrote poems and taught mystical lessons.  Outside, the British stranglehold on India grew ever tighter.  In 1857, some of the emperor's subjects decided that they had had enough of BEIC rule, and a crisis erupted.

The Indian Uprising of 1857-58:

The Indian Uprising, called the "Sepoy Rebellion" by the British, was sparked by new rifle cartridges that offended the religious sensibilities of both Hindus and Muslims alike.  However, Indian outrage at their treatment by the ever more tyrannical British went much deeper than that.

Bahadur Shah seems to have been taken aback by the rebellion.  Rebelling sepoy regiments seized control of Delhi, and likely forced Zafar to make a public statement of support for the uprising on May 12, 1857.  Four days later, they executed 52 British prisoners of war in the courtyard of the Red Fort, despite Zafar's protests.  This act essentially sealed the emperor's fate.

The emperor tried to assert some control over the situation by appointing his eldest son, Mirza Mughal, as commander in chief of the sepoy forces.  The troops refused to obey his orders, however, knowing that he had no military experience and no ability to enforce his authority.  Over the course of the summer, the BEIC's troops were reinforced with British regular military forces, and the situation grew increasingly dire for the uprising.

As the British closed in on Delhi, Zafar, his two sons, and his grandson took refuge at the tomb of Humayun, the second Mughal emperor.  British forces led by Major William Hodson discovered their location, and forced them to surrender on September 20, 1857.  The emperor received assurances that he would not be executed; his sons and grandsons had no such guarantee.  Hodson ordered all three of the princes summarily executed the following day.

Zafar was put on trial for two counts of aiding rebels, one of treason (an interesting charge to apply to the ruler of an empire), and complicity in the murder of 49 people due to the execution of the POWs outside his window in May.  The trial lasted forty days, and Zafar was found guilty on all counts.  He was spared the death penalty because of Hodson's promise at his surrender, but the frail 82-year-old Bahadur Shah II was deposed and sent into exile in Rangoon, Burma.  His wife and other surviving family members accompanied him into exile.  Meanwhile, British troops rampaged through the Red Fort and looted it of valuables, many of which can now be seen in British museums.

Death of the Last Emperor:

On November 7, 1862, Zafar died in Rangoon (now Yangon).  He was 87 years old.  The mighty Mughal Empire passed away into history, but its impact on India's culture continues to the present day.  The last Mughal emperor's sadness and dismay at the loss of his empire is evident in the poetry he wrote while in exile.

"My heart has no repose in this despoiled land / Who has ever felt fulfilled in this futile world? / The nightingale complains about neither the sentinel nor the hunter / Fate had decreed imprisonment during the harvest of spring. / Tell these longings to go dwell elsewhere / What space is there for them in this besmirched heart? / Sitting on a branch of flowers, the nightingale rejoices / It has strewn thorns in the garden of my heart. / I asked for a long life, I received four days / Two passed in desire, two in waiting.

/ The days of life are over, evening has fallen / I shall sleep, legs outstretched, in my tomb./ How unfortunate is Zafar! For his burial / Not even two yards of land were to be had, in the land of his beloved." - Jee Nehein Lagta Ujrey Diyaar Mein, Bahadur Shah Zafar