Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal

A few days back I finished reading William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal, which I bought on a recent trip to India. In vivid detail, this book tells the story of Delhi at the time of the revolt of 1857 – the story of Bahadur Shah Zafar and the last days of the Mughal Empire. I agree completely with Khushwant Singh’s view that Dalrymple’s book “shows the way history should be written: not as a catalogue of dry-as-dust kings, battles and treaties but to bring the past to the present, put life back in characters long dead and gone and make the reader feel he is living among them, sharing their joys, sorrows and apprehensions”. I found the book truly engrossing. Not only is it exceedingly well written, Dalrymple’s attention to detail and the meticulousness of his research is impressive. My one minor quibble here: a few military-style maps showing the disposition of the opposing forces and the axes of attack, and a listing of the orders of battle (ORBATs) would have helped to better understand the military situation.

Dalrymple set off a controversy of sorts with his claim that “as the scale and detail of the material” that he found - mostly in the National Archives of India – became apparent, it “became obvious that most of the material had not been accessed since it was gathered” and it became “increasingly hard to answer why no one has properly used this wonderful mass of material before”. He also accused Indian historians of being overly preoccupied with academic theories about “orientalism, colonialism and imagining of the other” and in producing obscure works such as “Gendering the Colonial Paradigm, Constructing the Imagined Other, Othering the Imagined Construction, and so on” (Here is a response from an eminent Indian historian, Prof. Irfan Habib).

What’s in the Book

Below are, in my view, some of the major points in this book.

As far as the Indian participants were concerned, the uprising was overwhelmingly seen as a war of religion. British men and women who had converted to Islam – apparently there were quite a few in Delhi – were not hurt; but Indians who had converted to Christianity were cut down by the sepoys. Urdu sources refer to the British “not as angrez (the English) or as goras (whites) or even firangis, but instead almost always as kafirs (infidels) and nasrani (Christians)”. The proportion of jihadi fighters was significant and towards the end – after many of the rebel sepoys had abandoned Delhi and returned to their home villages – grew to almost half the total force defending the city.

While many in Delhi initially welcomed the sepoys in their endeavor to restore Mughal power, people soon “tired of hosting a large and undisciplined army of boorish and violent peasants. ... Delhi sources describe them as ‘Tilangas’ or ‘Purbias’ - effectively outsiders”. The ordinary people of Delhi in their petitions to the Mughal court “did not describe the event there as Ghadr (mutiny) and still less Jang-e-Azadi (war of freedom) so much as fasad (riots) and danga (disturbance)”.

As a ruler Bahadur Shah Zafar was weak and ineffectual. He became the figurehead leader of the sepoys only under duress, and at no point did he fully embrace their cause. His writ did not extend even as far as the royal household, which was engaged in a costly squabble over who was to be the heir apparent. Zafar had never been much involved in any political, administrative or military activity. He spent his time on poetry - he “was known for setting his court difficult poetic tasks”, or such activities as ‘watching his elephants being bathed’ and ‘enjoying the moonlight’.

In Dalrymple’s view, one of the major factors that led to the revolt was the decline of what he calls the ‘White Mughals’ - Britishers who had adopted much of the style and mannerisms of the Mughal nobility. Men like Sir David Ochterlony, the first British Resident at Delhi, who “every evening was said to take all thirteen of his Indian wives on a promenade around the walls of the Red Fort”. However, says Dalrymple, “by the late 1830s, White Mughals ... and their way of life were beginning to die out”. They were being replaced by more Anglicized and more militantly Christian officers, which in Dalrymple’s view was responsible for a decline in the spirit of tolerance and mutual understanding.

The rebel sepoys in Delhi vastly outnumbered the British forces, which by the end of the siege were actually around four-fifths Indian. However, the British forces were able to prevail due to superior leadership and organization, and a better reading of the military situation.

The fall of Delhi to the British in September 1857 was accompanied by wholesale destruction of the city, and terrible atrocities were committed by the victors. Muslims residents of Delhi were affected especially badly.

Dalrymple’s love for Mughal Delhi and for Bahadur Shah Zafar – the last Mughal – is obvious and is touching. Delhi in 1857, according to him, was “in the middle of a remarkable cultural flowering”, and Zafar, was “personally one of the most talented, tolerant and likable of his dynasty: a skilled calligrapher, a profound writer on Sufism, a discriminating patron of paintings and miniatures, an inspired creator of gardens, ... and most importantly ... a very serious mystical poet”. Throughout Dalrymple’s book one detects a rather moving elegiac quality. There is a very deep sense of loss. According to him, “when Delhi fell in September 1857 it was not just the city and Zafar’s court which were uprooted and destroyed but the self-confidence and authority of the wider Mughal political and cultural worlds throughout India”. And “the scale of the devastation and defeat, and the depths of the humiliation heaped on the vanquished Mughals, profoundly diminished not just the prestige of the old aristocratic order, but also - at least to some extent - the composite Hindu-Muslim, Indo-Islamic civilization of which Zafar’s court had been the flagship”, and which, according to him, overflowed with “sophisticated, tolerant and open-minded attitudes”. For Indian Muslims, says Dalrymple, the loss was so great that they “now believed that their own ancient and much-cherished civilization had been irretrievably discredited” and many agreed with Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s initial assessment that Indian Muslims could never again prosper or ‘receive esteem’.

Some Disagreements With the Book

While I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, I do have a few disagreement with it. The most important one does not directly have to do with the book itself, but rather with some ideas that Dalrymple has expressed in his earlier writings, especially his critique of V.S. Naipaul.

The other disagreement – more of a comment really – is that while mourning the loss of Mughal Delhi, it is also worth noting the great changes that followed, much of it – as I see it – ultimately positive.

Earlier Destructions

Noted author and Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul has written and spoken often about the the destruction of temples, and the ravaging of the Hindu and Buddhist civilization by Muslim rulers. In India: A Wounded Civilization Naipaul writes of a visit to the ruins of the Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagar: “It was in Vijayanagar at this time… that I began to wonder about the intellectual depletion that must have come to India with the invasions and conquests of the last thousand years. What happened in Vijayanagar happened, in varying degrees, in other parts of the country. ... In the history books, in the accounts of wars and conquests and plunder, the intellectual depletion passes unnoticed.” And, says Naipaul, “when it was conquered [in 1565] and its capital systematically smashed, more than buildings and temples would have been destroyed. Many men would have been killed; all the talent, energy and intellectual capacity of the kingdom would have been extinguished for generations.”

Isn’t Naipaul’s description of the destruction of Vijayanagar, and the deep sense of loss, very similar to what Dalrymple writes with regard to Mughal Delhi?

Dalrymple, however, disagrees strongly with Naipaul’s view in this essay. He says, “for Naipaul, the fall of Vijayanagar is a paradigmatic wound on the psyche of India, part of a long series of failures that he believes still bruises the country’s self-confidence.” Dalrymple continues: “[Naipaul] talked about how the destruction of the city meant an end to its traditions: ‘When Vijayanagar was laid low, all the creative talent would also have been destroyed. The current has been broken.’ Yet there is considerable documentary and artistic evidence that the very opposite was true, and that the city’s craftsmen merely transferred to the patronage of the Sultans of Bijapur where the result was a major artistic renaissance.”

In light of Dalrymple’s obvious sadness and sense of loss at destruction of Mughal Delhi in 1857 at the hands of the British, I find it very difficult to understand his complete lack of any similar sentiment at the destruction of the earlier Hindu and Buddhist civilization at the hands of Muslim rulers. In Dalrymple’s view the destruction and the sacking of Vijayanagar was of little consequence because “the city’s craftsmen merely transferred to the patronage of the Sultans of Bijapur”. In similar fashion, after 1857, many of the noblemen and craftsmen and poets of Mughal Delhi found new employment under the British, or perhaps under princely rulers such as the Nizam of Hyderabad. Some mingling of architectural styles also took place, giving rise to the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture – a fusion of Mughal and British styles. But, as Dalrymple says – correctly in my opinion – these were nowhere near enough to compensate for the huge loss of “self-confidence and authority of the wider Mughal political and cultural worlds”. Why does Dalrymple view the destruction of Mughal Delhi so differently from the destruction of Vijayanagar? It is almost as if there is an unwritten rule that any destruction caused by Muslim rulers must not be seen in a negative light. I suppose, using the same logic, Dalrymple would also not feel any sense of loss or regret at the destruction of the great university at Nalanda by Bakhtiar Khilji in around 1200 - the library so vast that it supposedly burned for months.

A very interesting blog post by Vijay on Vijayanagar and on Naipaul’s and Dalrymple’s views can be found here. Also of interest in this debate is this blog post by Prof. Amardeep Singh.

The Great Revival

While contemplating a great loss such as that of Mughal Delhi in 1857, what is also relevant is what came after the loss. While the destruction of the “Mughal political and cultural worlds” in 1857 was no doubt very sad, it is also true that the period that followed was a period of great renewal for India. As Naipaul says in India: A Million Mutinies Now there was a recognition that the feudal system represented by the Mughals was a “system ... that has come to the end of its possibilities, ... that the India that will come into being at the end of the period of British rule will be better educated, more creative and full of possibility than the India of a century before; that it will have a larger idea of human association, and that out of this larger idea, and out of the encompassing humiliation of British rule, there will come to India the ideas of country and pride and historical self analysis, things that seem impossibly remote [in 1857].”

The very same year as the destruction of Mughal Delhi – 1857 – the great universities of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras were founded – India’s first centers of higher learning on such a scale since the destruction of Nalanda. These were representative of the new learning and the new way of thinking that would sweep India over the next few decades. Around the same period, the Asiatic Society in Kolkata had begun the process of (re)discovering the glory of India’s ancient pre-Islamic past – a process that would be carried forward by the founding of the Archeological Survey of India in 1861. The Great Trignometric Survey of India, begun in 1802 and completed around 1845 – one of the world’s greatest technological achievements in the 19th century – would give Indians the first accurate knowledge of the nation’s geography.

Most importantly, perhaps for the first time ever in India’s history, it would be generally accepted – at least in theory if not always in practice – that the new learning should not be restricted to a few castes or groups, and should be open to all. Among the loyal sepoys of the East India Company’s army around the time of the revolt was one Maloji Sakpal, an untouchable Mahar by caste. The army had instituted a policy of compulsory education for Indian soldiers of all castes as well as their children, both male and female. As a result, Maloji’s son Ramji received a formal education. Ramji also joined the army, and he and his wife – she too from a military family and therefore educated – emphasized education for their own children. One of these children, Bhim, better known today as Dr. Babaseheb Ambedkar, would go on to become one of the greatest thinkers and leaders of modern India. Mahatma Jyotirao Phule, the great social reformer in Maharashtra, who, with his wife Savitribai, had started schools for low caste girls in the 1840s, and who took an active interest in the events of 1857, took a very dim view of the feudal system represented by the “Mughal political and cultural worlds”. In his 1873 book Slavery, Mahatma Phule writes: “It was through Providential dispensation that the revolt … was put down by the brave English rulers. Otherwise the so-called emancipated Brahmins who perform religious rites ... would surely have sentenced many Mahars for wearing the dhoti tucked away on one side, or for (the offence of) having uttered Sanskrit verses during religious discourses, to transportation for life.”

Just twelve years after the fall of Mughal Delhi, Mahatma Gandhi would be born, symbolically signalling the birth of a new India.

Dalrymple, in The Last Mughal, does concede in a paragraph towards the end of the book that what followed the fall of Delhi in September 1857 was not all bad: “Not all changes, of course, were necessarily for the worse. The autocratic political structures of Mughal rule received a devastating death blow. Only ninety years separated the British victory at the gates of Delhi in 1857 from the British eviction from South Asia through the Gateway of India in 1947. ... it was not the few surviving descendants of the Mughals, nor any of the old princely and feudal rulers, who were in any way responsible for India’s march to independence. Instead the Indian freedom struggle was led by the new Anglicized and educated Colonial Service class who emerged from English-language schools after 1857, and who by and large used modern Western democratic structures and methods ... to gain their freedom.”

Despite the above paragraph, Dalrymple’s overriding theme in the book is a deep sense of loss for the Mughal order. This is quite understandable given the subject of the book and his love of that subject. And the eloquence of Dalrymple’s writing is such that the reader cannot help but share that sense of loss. But I feel that at the same time it is important to keep in mind what followed. Delhi today – despite its numerous problems – is the proud capital of a vibrant, democratic, forward-looking and increasingly self confident India – far more meaningful, both symbolically and practically, to the people of India and the world than Bahadur Shah Zafar’s Mughal Delhi ever was.