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The last Days of Bahadur Shah Zafar: Betrayal and Penal Servitude

Updated on December 12, 2017

The Beginning of the Mughal Raj

In 1525 the Mongol Babur invaded India. He traced his lineage to Genghis Khan and Timur Lang and thus had an illustrious ancestry. Babur came to the rich plains of Hindustan, searching for a kingdom to rule as he had been ousted from his native Turkmenistan. He entered Kabul and from there entered the rich plains of the Punjab. He started a campaign of waste and destruction. The locals not used to swift horsemen with bows and arrows succumbed easily.

In the same year, Babur is supposed to have taken the blessings of the Sikh Guru cum Pir Baba Nanak and proceeded towards Delhi. At that time the ruler of the Delhi Sultanate was Ibrahim Lodhi. He headed a divided house and now facts show that many in his court were opposed to Ibrahim Lodhi and thus he had one hand tied behind his back when he faced Babur.

Babur advanced to Panipat a small village close to Delhi (about a 100 km) and there was fought the first battle of Panipat. The Battle in 1526 is a trendsetter in the military history of India as Babur with a much smaller force was victorious. One reason was his judicious use of cannons which were an unheard of in India. The smoke and fire from the guns frightened the elephants of Ibrahim Lodhi and they retreated from the battlefield and attacked the troops of Lodhi. Babur won and Lodhi was killed in battle. Babur became emperor of Hindustan and started what is known as the Mughal dynasty. This is one of the great dynasties of history and lasted in full force till the mid-18th century, with the most powerful period being under Aurangzeb who died in 1707.

The last days of the Mughal Dynasty and Bahadur Shah

After the death of Aurangzeb, the dynasty went into decline and slowly but surely it shrank in area and size till the mid-19th century. A stage came when the Mughal emperor controlled just the Delhi fort and his palace and a small area around it. The dynasty was allowed to linger on, for the fond remembrance of a bygone age by the people and rulers. Thus though the Marathas and the Sikhs sacked Delhi, yet the Mughul dynasty was allowed to live on. The Mughal emperors (for they still carried that title) were however only symbolic rulers and the new dispensation the British also allowed them to carry on.

This period marked the Mughal emperors ruling their small domain and passing time in marrying virgins and begetting children. Bahadur Shah ascended the throne in 1837 after the death of his father Akbar II. By all accounts, he was a dreamer and a poet. But despite controlling only the red fort and area around it, he remained a symbolic head to many Indians. Bahadur Shah was the emperor when the 1857 mutiny broke out.

The mutiny spread rapidly and soon Meerut, Cawnpore, Agra were captured by the sepoys who were incensed that they had to use cartridge’s greased with lard from cows and pigs. They had a drawback as they had no organized plan or leader. In that tumultuous period, many sepoys opted that Bahadur Shah is made the leader.

Bahadur Shah at no time sought to be the leader of the mutineers, but he was thrust into the limelight when the sepoys captured Delhi. The British residents in Delhi were executed despite protestations of the emperor. He was, however, powerless to stem the tide and an effort by his son to discipline the sepoys failed.

Painting of the capture of BahadurShah
Painting of the capture of BahadurShah

Leader of a Failed Mutiny and Capture

Thus Bahadur Shah became the titular head of the revolt against the English. Left to himself he would have liked to just spend is days indulging in sex, wine and writing poems, but fate had decreed otherwise and Bahadur Shah was not master of his destiny. His sons were ineffectual in controlling the sepoys who now occupied the Red Fort.

The British aided by their Indian allies stormed the red fort. The sepoys were a disorganized lot without a proper commander and were thus no match for the troops of the East India Company and their Indian allies. The fort was captured and Bahadur Shah and his 2 sons escaped to the Humuyan tomb. They hid there waiting for the English.

Bahadur Shah was betrayed by a close consort and Major William Hodson soon learned of the where about of the emperor. He proceeded to the Human tomb and surrounded it. A bitter last-ditch battle was on the cards, but Hodson wanted to avoid an unnecessary battle and offered to spare the emperor and his sons in case they surrendered.

Bahadur Shah accepted the offer as he believed in the goodness of man and along with his sons Jawan Bakht, and Mirza Shah Abbas surrendered to Major Hodson, on the express understanding that the lives of he and his sons would be spared

Painting of major Dodson in action
Painting of major Dodson in action

The Executions and Exile

Major Dodson had no intention to honor the promise made by him and after the capture. The very next day he executed the 2 sons of Bahadur Shah. It was a ghastly crime but Dodson got away with it. Bahadur Shah was tried for war against the English and also for execution of the British residents in Delhi. His life was spared but he was exiled to Rangoon in Burma. He was allowed to just take his favorite wife along with him. At that time Bahadur Shah was 82 years old.

One wonders as to what danger the British felt from an 82-year-old emperor. Yet he was exiled to Rangoon where he died in 1862. That was the end of the Mughal dynasty. Bahadur Shah remains a tragic figure in Indian history. A man who was fond of the finer things of life and a poet of repute. He met a sad end at the hands of the English, but his poems live on and are recited in many a gathering. the famous poet Ghalib was also a product of the rule of Bahadur Shah.


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    • emge profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Abu Dhabi

      thank you Manatita44 for your encouragement and support

    • manatita44 profile image


      3 years ago from london

      Well written. Good to see you continue with this significant historical series. Much Love.


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