Reviewed by SOROOR AHMED
History writing is a funny business. The mid-1940s writings of the British, French or Russian historians on the World War II may be much different from those of their counterparts in the 21st century. Today there is likelihood of much better objectivity as the passion will never be higher than that at the time of War or just after it. Similarly, German historians of the Hitler days had very different things to write from those of their counterparts in the post-War years.
In the same way the interpretation of Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan about 1857 may not be the same as that of, for example, Prof Athar Abbas Naqvi of Aligarh Muslim University, who wrote a six-volume history on the events exactly a hundred years later, that is, in 1957 or of Shireen Moosvi and others.
And 150 years later the Scotland-born William Dalrymple may read that great upheaval in quite a different way. Time, nationality, religion and ideology do count in the writing of history. The later day historians have more advantage of hindsight and are less influenced by the events than the contemporary writers. So William Dalrymple may be more objective than many other British historians of that era or of the later colonial period. Sir Sayyid may not be a historian in the strict sense, yet his writings are very much relevant as he was witness to the tumultuous period. His writings may be defensive as he had seen the almost unparalleled bloodbath of Indians in a large part of North India and destruction of everything related to Mughals or Muslims. The shock and awe operation of the British might have affected his writings in the post-1857 period.
Timeliness plays a significant role even from the market point of view. So when William Dalrymple decided to come up with The Last Mughal on the eve of the 150 years of the First War of Indian Independence, also called the Sepoys’ Mutiny by many historians, he knew that he would be able to attract the readers’ attention. Thus by the end of November 2006 it sold 38,000 copies in Britain and 27,000 in India. Whether it is the craze of the descendants of the former ruler – the British – to know more about their own misdeeds or the insensitivity of the Indians towards their own history which is responsible for this discrepancy in the initial sale of the book?
Athar Abbas Naqvi too came out with his work on the centenary of that great event, 1857. But Dalrymple has another advantage. He had come up with the book at the time when the world is already witnessing a so-called clash of civilizations. That is why his book is being looked with the same angle by many historians, especially those from the Left. The truth is that the author of The Last Mughal perhaps never intended to write it in that way but a brief mention on the last pages of the book 485-486 provided some critics with an opportunity to give a different twist to the whole book.
While analysing the post-uprising years, Dalrymple writes that the Indian Muslims got divided on two opposing paths: one, championed by the great Anglophile Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, who “looked to the West, and believed that Indian Muslims could revive their fortunes only by embracing the western learning.”
“The other approach taken by the survivors of the old Madrasa Rahimiyya was to reject the West in toto and to attempt to retain what they regarded as pure Islamic roots.”
It is here that he traces the origin of Jihad right from Shah Waliullah days in the early 19th century to the formation of madrasas in Deoband nine years after the Mutiny and then to the Taleban and Al-Qaeda.
It is while concluding his book that he writes:
“Today West and East again face each other uneasily across a divide that many see as religious war. Jihadis again fight what they regard as a defensive action against their Christian enemies, and again innocent women, children and civilians are slaughtered. As before, western Evangelical politicians are apt to cast their opponents and enemies in the role of ‘incarnate friends’ and conflate armed resistance to invasion and occupation with ‘pure evil’. Again western countries, blind to effect their foreign policies, have, on the wider world, felt aggrieved to be attacked – as they interpret it – by mindless fanatics.
“Against this bleak dualism there is much to value in Zafar’s peaceful and tolerant attitude to life; and there is also much to regret in the way that the British swept away and rooted out the late Mughals’ pluralistic and philosophically composite civilization.”
But to say that the book only deals with the tussle between Islam and the West would be the travesty of the fact. True, he writes that a large number of Ghazis did take part in the jihad against the British during the four months of 1857, the truth is that the first fire was shot by the Sepoys, especially of Meerut, 80 per cent of whom were Hindus, particularly of upper castes from East Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
He also mentions that there was no dearth of the British who were always prepared to give the whole battle a religious connotation – an earlier version of clash of civilisations. The Evangelists among them were quite active even then. The manner in which a large number of mosques, shrines, centres of learning, libraries not to speak of rare art objects, etc. were systematically destroyed and looted and Indians, especially the Muslims, were slaughtered in Delhi and elsewhere speaks of religious hatred of the British towards Muslims and even Hindus. The manner in which the British army danced and celebrated inside the Jama Masjid of Delhi and how Fatehpuri Mosque was sold to Hindu traders is pointer to the fact. The Jama Masjid worked as a barrack for the Sikh soldiers of the British till 1862. The Fatehpuri Mosque was restored in 1875 and Zinat ul Masajid in the early 20th century.
Dalrymple has highlighted as to how the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, himself a man of letters, was torn between the leaderless Sepoys, who lost support of elite in Delhi as they indulged in loot and killing of Christian population just after the Mutiny, and the Ghazis – both men and women – who were extremely committed but lacked tact and wisdom and were too obstinate.
But Zafar, 82 at the time of Mutiny, who actually remained indecisive throughout and initially refused to take up the leadership of the Sepoys, was split between two wives as well. Though he had several wives and concubines, the tussle between Taj Mahal Begum, who was earlier favourite, and Zeenat Mahal, the youngest one who later emerged as beloved, cost him dearly. They both wanted their respective sons to succeed Zafar and Zeenat at the fag end went to the extent of having a clandestine links with the British. Her son Mirza Jawan Bakht was only 15 at the time. However, she and son and his wife accompanied Zafar to exile in Rangoon.
The Cambridge educated historian debunks the general impression that the Mughals or for that matter Muslims were an illiterate and ignorant lot. In contrast he quoted many western and Indians of the time to say that “in the many colleges and madrasas the air of intellectual open-mindedness and excitement was palpable.” There was craze to learn modern science, ancient and medieval philosophy, mathematics along with the Islamic teachings.
The hitherto unknown fact highlighted by the author is that many British living in India embraced Islam. Some of them, for example, Sergeant Gordon, even fought and laid down their life fighting against them in 1857.
Mughals lost because they lacked the unified command and leadership which became soft and corrupt, the army became weak and had no fighting experience and had over a century lost the entire country to British and other regional powers who too ultimately crumbled. Except Mirza Mughal, one of the sons of Zafar – who along with two other Princes, was brutally murdered near Khuni Darwaza and body stripped naked and thrown to the street for three days – no other member of the royal family showed any commitment to the cause.
Dalrymple holds the British responsible for the senseless executions by hanging, killing, mass rapes and torture of thousands of men, women and children. The destruction and desecration of holy places and total annihilation of the centres of learning was their prime target. All this in spite of the fact that not a single Indian Sepoy or Ghazi indulged in such an act against the British women. The Sepoys were guilty of killing women and children just after they rebelled on May 11, 1857.
The author quoted British Prime Minister of the time, Lord Palmerston, who wrote that “Delhi should be deleted from the map and every civil building connected with the Mohammadan tradition should be levelled to the ground without regard to the antiquarian veneration or artistic predilections.”
If the Jama Masjid and the Red Fort – reduced to the army barrack by the British after 80 per cent of its structure was razed to the ground – managed to survive, some credit goes to Sir John Lawrence, the governor of Punjab, who much later became the Viceroy. He “used his influence to drastically scale back the plan demolitions, arguing that Delhi ‘is a position of great importance and should be held by us’.” Even Viceroy Canning was in favour of the demolition.
Though the author did not equate their crime with what the Taleban did with Bamiyan Buddha in Afghanistan, he clearly held them responsible for the worst type of crime against humanity and history.
Where Dalrymple erred is in his analysis of the post-1857 Muslims. It is wrong to say that the Muslims, as such, got divided into either Sir Sayyid’s pro-West or Jihadis’ anti-West idea. The truth is that a large number of Indian Muslims adopted the middle ground and have little or nothing to do with either of the two views. He failed to mention the role of Nadwat-ul-Uloom, the madrasa with a much open approach. What he failed to point out is that in India the Deobandi Ulema never adopted the extremist approach and were always with the Congress during the freedom struggle and even later. In fact, the Pakistan movement prospered in the institution created by Sir Sayyid.
However, he is absolutely right when he says “in the years to come, as Muslim prestige and learning sank, and Hindu confidence, wealth, education and power increased, Hindus and Muslims would grow gradually apart, as British policy of divide and rule found willing collaborators among the chauvinists of both faiths. The rip in the closely woven fabric of Delhi’s composite culture, opened in 1857, slowly widened into a great gash, and at Partition in 1947 finally broke into two.”
The last sentence of the book is a significant quote from Edmund Burke, himself a fierce critic of Western aggression in India: “Those who fail to learn from history are always destined to repeat it.”
The hard fact is that Muslims as such are not at all learning – or reading – history. The young generation is totally oblivious of what happened in the past. The Last Mughal deserves to be read by one and all.¨