Dedicated to Aba
For teaching me the Power of Empathy

The Relevance of Bahadur Shah Zafar Today

Some may find the concept of considering Bahadur Shah Zafar as a national sovereign in 1857 rather fanciful – for he commanded no army, ruled over no territory and was completely dependent on the British for his every act. For those of such friends, I have a simple request to make. Let them look at the plight of the King of England himself. By an act of the British Parliament itself, the King of England was in a similar situation in respect of Bharat from 15th August 1947. He commanded no army in Bharat nor ruled over any territory in Bharat. He was completely dependent on the Indians for everything in respect of the Bharatiya possession. Yet, the British Government continued to hold that he remained the King of India. The sovereign of Bharatiya nation. The view to this effect by the Lord Chancellor was circulated by the Prime Minister of United Kingdom on November 10, 1948 to the British Cabinet in November 1948. The Lord Chancellor had been very firm in rejecting the contention that the King of England had waived his functions of sovereignty by the Independence of India Act 1947. Thus, by the British legal opinion even in 1948, the King of England was the national sovereign of India despite commanding no army, ruling over no territory; being dependent on the Indians for everything in respect of India. If this were so, on what grounds can the claim of Bahadur Shah Zafar to be the national sovereign in 1857 be rejected? Under which rule of law can there be one set of standards for the King of England and a different one for the King of Bharat?

There may be some who would like to quibble that the King of England continued to exercise functions of sovereignty in India – even in 1948. He for instance, was accrediting Indian Ambassadors to foreign powers. Bahadur Shah Zafar was not so fortunate. On the other hand, till 1835 the British coinage in Bharat bore the seal of the Moghul Emperor. A nazar had been presented to him in 1841. Crystal clear evidence that Bahadur Shah Zafar had indeed been exercising functions of sovereignty. Sovereignty that had been recognised to be as such by the British themselves. It is only during the period, 1841 to 1857; that the unfortunate Bharatiya King had been prevented from so exercising functions of sovereignty by the British. There is no evidence that he had given up this prerogative on his own. Indeed, he had successfully resisted the British attempts to make him vacate the ancient seat of power – the Red fort in Delhi. Seen from this context, the so called Sepoy mutiny of 1857 assumes the nature of a just and legal attempt by the national sovereign to reassert his control.

For far too long, Bharat and Pakistan have relentlessly focussed on the non issue of Kashmir, sending the pick of their youth to die a futile death in the sterile, sub zero climate of Siachen and Kargil, instead of attempting to provide basic amenities to their malnourished, illiterate millions, for many of whom simple things like toilet facilities, or access to clean drinking water, are an unaffordable luxury.

For far too long, the people of Bharat and Pakistan have locked themselves in a mindset of religious frenzy comparable to that which prevailed in Europe during the days of religious crusades, hundreds of years ago.

The mindset that has driven these desperately poor nations to embark on a dangerous Nuclear Arms race even as millions within these countries lack basic amenities.

For far too long, the people of the Bharatiya subcontinent have tolerated the British loot of their nation for almost two hundred years, almost as a matter of no consequence, preferring instead to direct their anger against each other.

For far too long the last Bharatiya common sovereign – Bahadur Shah Zafar, has lain unsung in his grave at Rangoon, lamenting the needless deaths and deprivation of his people. It is time to take a new look at our history. From our eyes and not that those of the British.

Bahadur Shah Zafar’s act of dismissing his Diwan in 1857 was worthy of great respect. Bahadur Shah was a prisoner. He was fighting with his back to the wall. He resisted all pressures and temptations to sign away Sovereignty. Not only did he not betray his heritage, he actually rose in defiance and annulled the Sanad granted to the British. It is this glorious heritage that we betray when we refuse to accept that the Hindu-Muslim War ended with the death of Aurangzeb in 1707. It is time, we finally accept that the successors of Aurangzeb were as much a part of this nation as anyone else. It is only then that we would be able to comprehend that from Shah Alam to Bahadur Shah Zafar, the Moghul Emperors were all truly Bharatiya. Like all of us, they had their share of human follies. That is understandable. What is important is to look at the heritage they have left behind for us. This heritage is the common property of the present day states of Bharat, Pakistan and Bangladesh. However, before this heritage can be reclaimed there are certain prerequisites. Most important is that Bharat and Pakistan have to stop looking at each other through blood tainted eyes. Ever ready to obliterate each other by the press of the nuclear button. This is of course easier said than done. Nor is it a call for unilateral lowering of guard by Bharat. Nothing can be more disastrous than that. Bharat can not afford to ignore the lesson taught by Shivaji. It is only when he infused the spirit of fighting for their nation in the Hindus that the Muslims sued for peace. The process of real synthesis can start only when both sides can wield the sword. ‘Ever capable to wield the sword but ever ready to foreswear its use’ has to be the watchword in the new millenium. Yes, many would say that this has been tried out many times by Bharat but failed to dim the animosity in the hearts of Pakistanis.

There is some merit in this argument. It is completely unrealistic to expect that the poison that has been injected into the body polity since the days of Khilafat in 1920 will suddenly disappear and the amity of Tilak-Jinnah days will come to prevail. Things will take time to normalise but a start has to be made.
Bharat has to take the lead. A good starting point would be for the Government of India to petition the Supreme Court to legally declare that the British presence in the Bharatiya Sub Continent after the historic annulment of the Sanad by Bahadur Shah Zafar on 11th May 1857 was completely illegal. There is no reason to even wait for the Government to take action. There is the possibility of a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) that can be initiated by any citizen truly desirous of dissipating the war clouds on the horizon.

The myth that British did us a favour by colonizing us has to be laid to rest. Whatever good they did was complelty incidental to their primary purpose – which was to loot this country. The myth needs to be laid to rest for it cripples the self-confidence of many of us – its distruction will pave the path for an emergence of a resurgent nation.

The most important outcome of these developments would be that the Bharatiya mindset that hates Pakistan and continues to remain beholden to the British would change. It is in this mindset change that a brighter future lies. When would the Pakistanis respond ? One does not know. The wait could be long but that is no reason for giving up hope. One day they will. It is in this hope that the relevance of Bahadur Shah Zafar in the Twenty First Century lies.