Dastan-e-Ghadar is a powerful and vivid memoir. It offers a unique eyewitness account of the 1857 Revolt, and remains the most significant historical account of the event. On this day, in 1857, a regiment of Indian sepoys arrived in Delhi from Meerut. Declaring Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar as the figurehead of their mission, they launched a violent uprising against the British East India Company that changed the course of Indian history. Zahir Dehlvi, a young poet and court official at the time, bore witness to this cataclysmic event and the carnage that ensued.
Excerpted with permission from Penguin India from Dastan-e-Ghadar: The Tale of the Mutiny by Zahir Dehlvi, translated by Rana Safvi.
The Mughals valued their subjects, and this raiyyat navazi has no parallel. It cannot be found in any other kingdom in history. The subjects of the Mughal emperors were considered their progeny.
Once, some Hindus, along with officers of the British government, hatched a plot to throw all the butchers slaughtering cows out of the city. The British government gave orders stating that these butchers should take their shops out of the city. They had all the shops within the city closed.
When the butchers realized that they had no choice but to obey and lose their means of livelihood, they banded together, took their wives, children and possessions, and came and camped on the riverbank under the jharokha. From there, they appealed to the king, asking ‘How can we leave our city and go away?’
The cherisher of subjects, the emperor, heard their petition and gave the order that his tent be pitched alongside theirs on the riverbank.
‘Whatever is the state of my subjects is my state,’ he said.
As per the decree of their emperor, the servants immediately took the imperial paraphernalia and installed it on the bank of the river.
As soon as the British Resident heard the news, he came running to the emperor and respectfully asked, ‘Huzoor, what are you doing? All the people of the city will come and stand here with you.’
Badshah Salamat replied, ‘I am wherever my subjects are. My subjects are my children and I can’t be separated from them. Has flesh ever been separated from the fingernail? Today, the butchers have been given orders to leave the city; tomorrow, it will be some other community; the day after, it will be another one, and these orders will continue. Slowly, the entire city will be emptied. If the intention of the British government is to empty the city, then tell me so in plain words. I will take all my people and go and live in Khwaja Sahib. Since you have control over the city (Shahjahanabad), you can do whatever you will.’
Delhi in 1858, with a view of Shahjahanabad and the Jamuna (left). (Source: Flickr)
The Resident was taken aback. ‘Huzoor, don’t even think of such an action. I will redress the complaints of these people immediately and settle them in the city. Huzoor, please have your camp removed from here.’
The Resident gave orders for the butchers to go back to their houses and ply their trade within the city as before. The tent of the emperor was removed.
At another instance, the British government gave orders to the herdsmen to take their family and cattle and leave the city. They were told to go and settle outside the city. There was tumult in the city and once again, the herdsmen brought their families and cattle and came and camped on the riverbank.
Once again, the emperor, the Raiyyat Panah, was so distraught by the cries of the children and the distress of the cattle that he gave orders for his tent to be pitched alongside theirs so that he could share their sorrow. Once again, the Resident came and pleaded with the emperor, and gave orders revoking the previous ones so that the herdsmen could go back to their quarters in the city.
This time, the emperor told the Resident, ‘Look, do not exile my subjects from their houses in my presence. After me, you will be in control and can devastate the city.’