He was the eldest son of Mughal Emperor Akbar Shah II but not his favourite nor was he the designated heir. However, he came to the throne on 28th Sept 1837 after his father’s death as the heir apparent Mirza Jahangir had fallen foul of the British Resident, Sir Archibald Seton and had been imprisoned, later released but stripped of the honour of succeeding as the Mughal Emperor.
Bahadur Shah Zafar, a Sufi mystic by nature and inclination, was dogged by misfortune all his life. His Sufi master was Kale Khan and he himself was a Murshid to many. He was revered as a poet saint by his people. He okept himself engrossed in his poetry and Sufism as the British East India Company had severely curtailed his powers and his writ was confined to the Red Fort, and even that was not certain. As he himself wrote:
Ya mujhe afsar-e-shahana banaya hota,
Ya mera taj gadayana banaya hota
(Either you should have made me a Royal officer
Or you should not have made my Crown a like a beggar’)
It was under his reign that Delhi flourished and decayed as a centre of art and learning. The leading lights of Urdu literature and poetry adorned his court. Ibrahim Zauq was his mentor, Ghalib, Momin, Shefta, Azurda were his contemporaries. Poetry flourished as never before or never after in his court.
But all that changed on 12th May, 1857 when Bahadur Shah Zafar as Emperor of india gave his support to the Rebellion by the Sepoys of the East India Company Armies.
The sepoys had entered Delhi from Meerut and siezed it a few days earlier. They reached the Red Fort and asked Bahadur Shah to lead them. At first reluctant he later agreed and on 12 May, Bahadur Shah held his first formal audience for several years and gave his public support to the rebellion which later was joined by many Indians from other parts of India and became th e First War of Indian Independence.
Keh do in hasrato’n se kahin aur jaa basein,
Itni jagah kahaan hai dil-e-daaGdaar mein
Tell these desires to find another abode
Where is the place for them in this wounded heart
The leaders and soldiers of this war were disunited, disorganized and chaotic. The better organised and led East India company troops were able to prevail over them.
On 20th September 1857, they had captured the Red Fort Shahjahanabad and in the words of major Hodson’s brother writing for the Illustrated London News :
“On our taking possession of the city gate reports came in that thousands of the enemy were evacuating the city by other gates, and that the King, also, had left his palace. We fought our way inch by inch to the palace walls, and then found truly enough that its vast arena was void.”
Major William Hodson was entrusted with the difficult task of ‘capturing’ the Mughal Emperor.
Bahadur Shah had left with his family and retinue for Mehrauli, hoping to find refuge there. On the way he stopped at the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya and handed over the sacred relics of the Prophet pbuh which had been with the Mughal Emperors for ages. He broke down there as he had not eaten in a few days. From there he went to Humayun’s Tomb which was nearby.
qafas meN hai kyaa faaidah shor-Ghul se
asiiro karo kuchh rihaaii kii baateN
What is the use of making a noise in the jail
O prisoners let us talk of release
But for him release was only to be found in death as life had other plans for him.
This tomb like all other Mughal Monuments was fortified and easily defended but the unfortunate Emperor once again became a pawn in the game being played by his wife Zinat Mahal who had been in secret negotiations with the British all along during the rebellion. She had hoped to put her son on the throne and if not at least get a pardon for themselves along with a pension. Again I quote the report in the Illustrated London News March 1858 by Captain Hodson’s brother.
“During this time messengers were coming in constantly, and among the rest one from Zeenat Mahal (the favourite Begum), with her offer to use her influence with the King to surrender on certain conditions. These conditions were at first ludicrous enough – viz., that the King and the whole of the males of his family should be restored to this palace and honours; that not only should his pension be continued, but the arrears since May be paid up, with several other equally modest demands. I need not say that these were treated with contemptuous denial. Negotiations, however, were vigorously carried on, and care was taken to spread reports of advance in force to the Kootub. Every report as it came in was taken to General Wilson, who at last gave orders to Captain Hodson to promise the King’s life and freedom from personal indignity, and make what other terms he could. Captain Hodson then started with only fifty of his own men for Humayoun’s Tomb, three miles from the Kootub, where the King had come during the day. The risk was such as no one can judge of who has not seen the road, amid the old ruins scattered about of what was once the real city of Delhi.
“He concealed himself and men in some old buildings close by the gateway of the Tomb, and sent in his two emissaries to Zeenat Mahal with the ultimatum – the King’s life and that of her son and father (the latter has since died). After two hours passed by Captain Hodson in most trying suspense, such as (he says) he never spent before, while waiting the decision, his emissaries (one an old favourite of poor Sir Henry Lawrence) came out with the last offer – that the King would deliver himself to Captain Hodson only, and on condition that he repeated with his own lips the promise of the Government for his safety.
“Captain Hodson then went out into the middle of the road in front of the gateway, and said that the was ready to receive his captives and renew his promise.
“You may picture yourself the scene before that magnificent gateway, with the milk-white domes of the tomb towering up from within, one white man among a host of natives, yet determined to secure his prisoner or perish in the attempt.
“Soon a procession began to come slowly out, first Zeenat Mahal, on one of the close native conveyances used for women. Her name was announced as she passed by the Moulvie. Then came the King in a palkee, on which Capt. Hodson rode forwarded and demanded his arms. Before giving them up, the King in asked whether he was ‘Hodson Bahadoor,’ and if he would repeat the promse made by the herald? Captain Hodson answered that he would, and repeated that the Government had been graciously pleased to promise him his life, and that of Zeenat Mahal’s son, on condition of his yielding himself prisoner quietly, adding very emphatically, that if any attempt was made at a rescue he would shoot the King on the spot like a dog. “The old man then gave up his arms, which Capt. Hodson handed to his orderly, still keeping his own sword drawn in his hand. The same ceremony was then gone through with the boy (Jumma Bukh), and the march towards the city began, the longest five miles, as Captain Hodson said, that he ever rode, for, of course, the palkees only went at foot pace, with his handful of men around them, followed by thousands, any one of whom could have shot him down in a moment.”The next day Hodson shot his sons Mirza Mughal and Mirza Khizr Sultan, and grandson Mirza Abu Bakr under his own authority at the Khooni Darwaza (the bloody gate) near Delhi Gate.
Bahadur Shah was tried on four counts, two of aiding rebels, one of treason, and being party to the murder of 49 people, and after a forty day trial found guilty on all charges. Respecting Hodson‘s guarantee on his surrender, Bahadur Shah was not sentenced but exiled to Rangoon, Burma in 1858. Bahadur Shah Zafar and his sons with Captain William Hodson
He was accompanied into exile by his wife Zeenat Mahal and some of the remaining members of the family
This was the grave he had chosen for himself in Zafar Mahal with the rest of his family. It is today called Sardgaah and the empty patch of grass bears witness to his verse
Kitna hai badnaseeb Zafar, dafan ke liye
do gaz zameen bhi na milii, ku e yaar mein
“Main Wo qaidi hoon ke zindaan ke nigahbanon ko
Jiski zanjeer ki jhankaar ne sone na diya
I am that prisoner whose jailors
Can’t sleep because of the noise from my shackles
The last days of Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar in Burma | TwoCircles.net