The Great Patriotic Revolt -II Imperial Nostalgia And Cultural Genocide

DR. FATIMA SHAHNAZ presents a study of how brazenly the British colonisers made a frantic attempt to de-Hinduise and de-Muslimise the Hindoostan of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s time  a deliberate political strategy of cultural imperialism.

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DR. FATIMA SHAHNAZ presents a study of how brazenly the British colonisers made a frantic attempt to de-Hinduise and de-Muslimise the Hindoostan of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s time  a deliberate political strategy of cultural imperialism.

The strategy to “demystify” the Great Revolt, or the uprising by Indians during the Mutiny of 1857 has innumerable historic parallels, particularly in thecontemporary Anglo-American policies. One incident of the flagrant genocide of a civilization and culture was testified in the early phase of the US occupation of Iraq, when the national museum of Baghdad was pillaged under the watch of American troops, steps away from the US-occupied Ministry of Petroleum. Similarly, Bahadur Shah Zafar’s Lal Qila was transformed into a British military barrack, its bejewelled architecture and treasures looted and transported to the English Crown. Indeed, the re-writing of the historic narrative of the Uprising itself shows how a significant, and scintillating, period of Indian history was entirely “deleted” through a deliberate political strategy of cultural imperialism. In today’s idiom, these strategies fall into the ‘clash of civilizations.’ According to William Dalrymple in his recently published The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857, “There were in fact two parallel streams of historiography which utilized almost completely different sets of sources.”

Linguistic Apartheid

While post-colonial histories used sources only in the English language (biased historic deformation and propagandist motivations often lurking behind these,) histories written in the Urdu language “by contemporary Muslim scholars in India and Pakistan, on the other hand, tend to make use of an entirely separate and often very rich stream of Urdu primary sources.” Some of these include Aslam Pervez’s “fine Urdu biography of Zafar, which remain unknown to English-speaking readers.” Other sources are in Persian and shikastah (‘broken writing’) written in late Mughal scribal script, some of which can be obscure.

My late grandfather, Professor Agha Hyder Hassan Mirza, a professor of Urdu who spoke and wrote the language used by the royal family in the Lal Qila (from whom he hailed), has had several volumes of his writings published in the exclusive court language spoken at the Red Fort. While he was alive my grandfather perhaps gave a last glimpse into the vanished world of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s era; not only did Agha Hyder Mirza speak the lost language of the courtly culture, but he had an uncanny resemblance to Zafar. He even dressed in the colourful mughlai fashion, with the high Mughal velvet cap, bejewelled with talismanic rings (a passion for talismans he shared with Zafar), scented with ancient attar perfume, and wearing the embroidered pointed shoes that were fashionable in Bahadur Shah’s old Delhi. Also shared with Zafar was his keen interest in semi-precious stones and their healing properties, and in a vast collection of tasbees, Agha Hyder allegedly had an emerald rosary once belonging to the emperor Shah Jehan.

A Renaissance Man

Bahadur Shah Zafar, a renaissance man of extraordinary vision for the cultural revival of his nation, was a patron of the arts and indigenous talents, making his capital, Delhi in the early 1850s the most liberal and literate city in Hindustan. The contemporary poet, Mir, wrote of the Mughal metropolis: “In this beautiful city the streets are not mere streets, they are like the album of a painter.”

Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan, the Muslim reformer and founder of Aligarh Muslim University, wrote in his youth: “The water of Delhi is sweet to the taste, the air is excellent, and there are hardly any diseases.” And, “By God’s grace the inhabitants are fair and good looking, and in their youth uniquely attractive. Nobody from any other city can measure up to them … In particular the men of the city are interested in learning and in cultivating the arts, spending their days and nights reading and writing. If each of their traits were recounted it would amount to a treatise on good conduct.”

The poet laureate of Zafar’s court, Zauq, wrote: “Kaun jaye Zauq par Dilli ki galian chhor kar?” “How could anyone, O Zauq, forsake Delhi and its lanes?” The poet Ghalib, a luminary of Zafar’s literary circle, reshaped the Urdu language with his genius. Urdu itself, born in Delhi, was described by the literary poet/historian Azad as “an orphan found wandering in the bazaars of Shahjahanabad.” Maulvi Abd ul-Haq wrote, “Anyone who has not lived in Delhi could never be considered a real connoisseur of Urdu. It is as if the steps of the Jama Masjid are a school of fine language.” The poet Altaf Husain Hali noted, “There gathered at this time in the capital, Delhi, a band of men so talented that their meetings and assemblies recalled the days of Akbar and Shah Jehan.” But the linguistic elegance of Delhi was not exclusive to Muslims, the elite, or males only.

The Composite Mughal Culture

All the peoples of Delhi, women as well as men, Hindus and others, were steeped in the composite Mughal culture. Hindus knew Persian poetry and quoted Hafiz. Bahadur Shah also sponsored the study of Sanskrit in Banaras. A moderate, Bahadur Shah visualised himself as a protector of Hindus. In a poem, he wrote that Hinduism and Islam “share the same essence,” affirming the Indo-Islamic civilization that was a hallmark of his Mughal antecedents. Zafar’s actions toward Hindus testified his fairness when he refused to accompany the punkah into a Sufi saint’s shrine as he could not accompany it into a temple. The emperor also kept Hindu astrologers constantly at his side. Hindus gravitated to the shrines of Sufi saints, just as the royal family and Bahadur Shah himself celebrated Hindu festivals and temples. Like upper-caste Hindus the emperor only drank water from the holy Ganges.

The Madrasas

But Zafar, and the royal family’s excessive liberalism and Hindu connections (through marriages with Hindus) often earned the Mughals the criticism of the Muslim orthodoxy, the ulema. However, the ulema fully supported the emperor’s Great Revolt against the colonisers. In matters of education, Bahadur Shah fully supported and sponsored the excellent madrasas run by the Muslim clergy and scholars, schools of such high learning standards that Hindus studied there also. The education of the madrasas was superior even to the English language institutions through which the colonisers fiercely fought to replace Urdu and Persian. The poet Hali reportedly fled his marriage and walked 53 miles to Delhi to study at the famous schools. He wrote, “Everyone wanted me to look for a job, but my passion for learning prevailed.” And, “Although the old Delhi College was then in all its glory, I’d been brought up in a society that believed that learning was based only on knowledge of Arabic and Persian …nobody even thought about English education, and if people had any opinion about it at all it was as a means of getting a government job, not of acquiring any kind of knowledge. On the contrary our religious teachers called the English schools barbarous.”

Admitted into the “very spacious and beautiful” madrasa of Husain Bakshsh, Hali observed in his old age, “I saw with my own eyes this last brilliant glow of learning in Delhi, the thought of which now makes my heart crack with regret.” Colonel William Sleeman, an administrator of Indian courts, commended the superior madrasa education in Delhi. “Perhaps there are few communities in the world among whom education is more generally diffused than among Muhammadans in India.”

Delhi had then six notable madrasas, and four smaller schools, nine newspapers in Urdu and Persian, five intellectual journals published out of the Delhi College, countless printing presses and publishers. Western scientific discoveries were translated into Persian and Arabic, and, writes Dalrymple, the many colleges and madrasas of Delhi had “the air of intellectual open-mindedness and excitement that was palpable.”

White Mughals

It was this fabulous culture and prosperity of the composite Mughal culture of India that was targeted by the most vicious and egregious envy of the British. Sir Thomas Metcalfe, the British Resident at the time, epitomised the British love-hate relationship with Mughal India. Jealous of Zafar’s genius and culture, Metcalfe attempted to compete with the emperor’s legendary architectural and artistic endowments. The Resident’s fascination with Delhi is expressed in a letter to his daughter, Emily: “The ruins of grandeur that extend for miles on every side fill it with serious reflection. The palaces crumbling into dust … the myriads of vast mausoleums, every one of which was intended to convey to futurity the deathless fame of its cold inhabitant, and all of which are now passed by, unknown and unnoticed …These things cannot be looked at with indifference …” Yet it baffles the mind that the British sacked every stone of the inner city of the Lal Qila and its surroundings, turning it into a Babylonian ruin, leaving nothing left of Zafar’s splendours.

This pattern of cultural destruction, however, falls into the classic pathology of the usurper, his mission aiming at the demolition and obliteration of that which he cannot possess, subjugate and virtually exterminate. This lies in extinguishing the very spirit, the essence, of what the Mughal era symbolised, a power threatening to Western conquest, subjugation and commercial exploitation. The puritanical merchants and Christian missionaries of the East India Company match the born-again Christians of U.S. President George W. Bush today, or the ‘globalists’ with their world-empire of freemarket economics. The imperial nostalgia of the overlords of the East India Company and Metcalfe’s brand of ‘burra sahibs’ vied to displace the Mughals and establish themselves as ‘White Mughals’ over the subcontinent. This is the root-core of political opportunism, to supplant the former order with a new one that virtually strives to duplicate the envied past: Such was the case of empires such as Napoleon’s, who married into the Habsburg dynasty to revive a new French aristocracy. This, too, is the root of the tragic self-hatred instilled in many Indians by their British masters, making them reject their own history, ashamed of patriotism or nationalism, and making their indigenous rulers and maharajahs cartoonish caricatures, the ‘decadent nawabs’ besotted with a kebabi culture devoid of substance, meaning or direction. The British propagandists further unleashed a class and linguistic war to displace the Mughals, radicalising socialist forces as well as anti-Muslim Hindu extremism, distorting the historic legacy of both Hindus and Muslims. Bahadur Shah himself was not only pro-Hindu but of Rajput and Muslim blood.

The Christian Crusade

Infiltrated with messianic Christian evangelists such as the fanatic Reverend Midgeley John Jennings, chaplain of the Christians in Delhi, the East India Company launched a holy crusade on Hindus and Muslims in India, giving the Mutiny a dark religious twist. Muslims and Hindus united with Zafar to drive out the missionaries determined to convert “the natives” of India to Christianity, with the ‘God-sent’ Jennings seeing himself as “Missionary to the Heathen.” The hate-propaganda of the foreigners was both racist and steeped in religious bigotry, with a colonial contempt for the conquered converts. For Jennings Delhi was the capital of Satan: “Within its walls the pride of life, the lust of the eye and all the lusts of the flesh have reigned and revelled to the full, and all the glories of the kingdoms of this portion of the earth have passed from one wicked possessor to another. It is as though it were permitted the Evil One there at least to verify his boast that he giveth it to whom he will; but of truth, of meekness and of righteousness, the power has not been seen …”

Jennings vowed to uproot the religions of India: “The roots of ancient religions have here, as in all old places, struck deep and men must be able to fathom deep in order to uproot them.” The Christian crusader saw the British empire as “the mysterious sway of God’s Providence” to convert heathen India. Jennings believed that in return for the Koh-i-noor diamond that had belonged to the Mughal dynasty, the British should “give in return that “pearl of great price” (Christianity). “As the course of our Empire is so marvellously taking its course from the East of India towards its West, so should the British be preparing to conquer the subcontinent for Anglicanism and the one true God.”

Clash of Civilizations

The great divide between Indians and the increasingly insular British grew under the Victorian Puritanism of the East India Company in the 1840s and 1850s. Herbert Edwardes, Commissioner of Peshawer, believed that Britain’s empire was a god-given right: “The Giver of Empires is indeed God” and Britain was given the Empire because “England had made the greatest effort to preserve the Christian religion in its purest apostolic form.” The Bible was read two or three times a week “in Hindoostanee to large numbers of natives who were assembled in the compound to hear him.” The English Delhi Gazette described the Christian evangelists as preaching in the religious wilderness of India: “They have been daily preaching to the masses, but I should say without a shadow of success, having to compete with the four great anti-Christian powers – trade, crime, pleasure and idolatry – in all their most frantic forms.”

Unsurprisingly, Maulvi Muhammed Baqar, editor of the Dilhi Urdu Akbhar, called Jennings a “fanatic.” Nor were the Hindus spared the Christian assault: Jennings tried to convert millions of Hindu pilgrims at the Hindu festival, the Kumbh Mela, on the banks of the Ganges, openly denouncing their “Satanic paganism.” He provoked the militant naga sadhus as well as Muslim mujahedeen. The East India Company became the vehicle for converting India to Christianity: “The time appears to have come,” wrote Edmunds, a Company colleague of Jennings in Calcutta, “when earnest consideration should be given to the subject, whether or not all men should embrace the same system of religion. Railways, steam vessels and the electric telegraph are rapidly uniting all the nations of the earth … The land is being leavened and Hinduism is being everywhere undermined. Great will some day, in god’s appointed time, be the fall of it.” Charles Grant, the first director of the Company, shamelessly bashed Hindus: “It is hardly possible to conceive any people more completely enchained than they [the Hindus] are by their superstitions.” He believed they were “universally and wholly corrupt … depraved as they are blind, and wretched as they are depraved.” The karma of the British empire, the crusaders believed, was not just conquest but conversion: “Is it not necessary to conclude that our Asiatic territories were given to us, not merely that we might draw an annual profit from them, but that we might diffuse among their inhabitants, long sunk in darkness, vice and misery, the light and benign influences of Truth?”

Legacy of Imperialism

In historic retrospective, today’s ‘clash of civilizations’ plays the Christian world and its proxies against the Islamic world. But the neo-colonial motivations show the hidden agenda already explicit at the time of the Mutiny, not targeting a single sect or Indian faith, but exposing the cultural genocide latent in imperialism. The fate of Muslims, heatedly debated in the issue of Muslim reservations issue today, is only a legacy of the colonial masterminds. In 1871, Sir William Hunter described British policy toward Muslims: “The proportion of the race, which a century ago had the monopoly of Government, has now fallen to less than one-twenty-third of the whole administrative body. This, too, in the gazetted appointments, where the distribution of patronage is closely watched. In the less conspicuous office establishments in the Presidency Town, the exclusion of Mussalmans is even more complete. In one extensive Department the other day it was discovered that there was not a single employee who could read the Mussalman dialect; and in fact, there is now scarcely a government office of Calcutta in which a Muhammeden can hope for any post above the rank of porter, messenger, filler of ink-pots or mender of pens …”

The British policy of exclusion of Muslims from the political process of the nation has been perpetuated by the legacy of self-hatred and division they left behind to scar the subcontinent for centuries.¨