The last Mughal and first Indian Freedom Struggle 1857


24th October 2017 will mark the 242nd birth anniversary of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal, described by none other than Veer Savarkar as the leader of 1857, India’s first Independence war. Just two weeks later, on 7th November, 2017, Zafar’s 155th death anniversary will arrive; on his recent visit to Myanmar, PM Modi paid homage to Zafar’s grave in Rangoon.
In 1862, as an exiled, British prisoner-of-war, Zafar died at Rangoon. His last lament was the he won’t get a decent burial in his native land: Kitna Badnaseeb Hai Zafar Dafna Ke Liye, Do Gaj Zameen Bhi Na Mili Kuye Yaar Men.
In 1943, just before starting the INA march to Delhi, Subhash Chandra Bose went to Rangoon to salute Zafar’s grave. Bose vowed to free India or perish in the attempt.
It has been a long standing demand of Indian nationalists to bring Zafar’s remains back to India–and construct a full scale monument to 1857. Especially after partition, it was felt that India needed a symbol of Hindu-Muslim unity.


1857 saw a Hindu peasant army establish a Muslim king on Delhi’s throne; a Muslim cavalry placing Nana Sahab, a Brahmin, as a federal power in Kanpur; and a predominantly OBC-Dalit force, led by Ahmad Ullah Shah, a Sunni, enthroning Begum Hazrat Mahal (wife of Wajid Ali Shah, the deposed Shia Nawab of Awadh) and Birjees Qadar, her son, in Lucknow.
Revolutionary proclamations issued in Delhi, Kanpur and Lucknow reflected the multi-religious, multi-caste, proggressive-plural nature of 1857. 93 years before India became a constitutional Republic with equal rights for all, the Lucknow proclamation spoke of equality between upper and lower castes.
Political streams of India, also of Pakistan and Bangladesh, accept 1857 as their great anti-colonial liberation outreach. But, in all the three countries, 1857’s legacy remains neglected.


Presently, with divisive currents on the rise, India needs a 1857 bond of unity like never before. However, beyond political grandstanding, how can we bring back the remains of Bahadur Shah Zafar, or construct lasting memorials in different parts of India, when graves of several British officers, who committed numereous atrocities against Indians, stand ‘proud’ in places like Lucknow, Kanpur and Delhi, laudatory phrases et al?
In this regard, Lucknow is special. Four major British officers are buried in this city. Graves of ‘Sir’ Henry Lawrence, the first commissioner of Awadh in 1856 after British annexation of the State, and the infamous Brigadier-General Neill, are located inside the Lucknow Residency compound. Another, ‘Sir’ Henry Havelock’s grave, is in Alambagh. Brevet-Major WSR Hodson, the man who, on 22nd September 1857, killed the unarmed sons of Bahadur Shah Zafar after they had surrendered near Delhi’s Khooni Darwaza, is buried inside the La Martiniere College compound.


In “Twelve years of a soldier’s life in India; being extracts from the letters of the late Major W.S.R. Hodson; including a personal narrative of the siege of Delhi and capture of the king and princes/edited by his brother, the Rev. George H. Hodson”, Lieutenant Macdowell, second-in-command of Hodson’s Horse, the regiment formed by Hodson in 1857, gives an account of how Hodson killed Zafar’s sons in cold blood.
The book quotes Hodson himself leading Hodson’s Horse in ‘burning villages’, ‘polishing off natives’, ‘killing Pandeys (a suffix used for all 1857 nationalists by the British after Mangal Pandey became the first man to ‘rebel’ against their empire)’–in short, revelling in mass murders of Indians. Hodson was considered a man of ‘low repute’ even by the British. Books such as ‘Red Year: The Indian Rebellion of 1857 (Michael Edwardes, 1975)’, ‘A Leader of Light Horse (LJ Trotter, 1901)’, ‘History of the Indian Mutiny (TR Holmes, 1898)’, mention several charges brought against Hodson by reputed figures like the Lawrence brothers concerning embezzlement of funds.
In February, 1858, Thomas Perrenot Thompson, MP for Bradford, stood up in the British House of Commons, to denounce Hodson for the killing of Zafar’s sons. Perrenot said Hodson was ‘inflicted by insanity’.


Books such as ‘Lives of Indian Officers (John William Kaye, 1899)’, ‘Dictionary of Indian Biography (Charles Edward Buckland, 1906)’, and Lawrence’s own despatches published in ‘Freedom Struggle of Uttar Pradesh (edited by SA Rizvi and ML Bhargava, 1957)’, describe him as a religious fanatic who besides killing a lot of civilians in Lucknow between 12th and 31st May, 1857, laid the foundation of communalism in India.


Havelock combined religious fundamentalism with racism. ‘A Biographical Sketch of Henry Havelock KCB (William Brock, 1858)’, ‘Way to Glory (John Pollock, 1963)’, ‘Memoirs of Sir Henry Havelock (John Clark Marshman, 1860)’, depict Havelock as delighting in killing civilians all the way from Allahabad to Kanpur, and then in Unnao (where Havelock razed several Pasi villages to the ground along with women and children).


As mentioned in ‘The Indian Mutiny of 1857 (GB Malleson, 1899)’, ‘The Great Rebellion (Christopher Hibbert, 1978)’, Brigadier-General Neill considered his ‘religious duty’ to kill ‘any person with a black skin colour’ in Allahabad and Fatehpur–so much so that a junior officer felt it necessary to reprimand Neill about how there will be no one left to supply grain to British troops if his killing spree continues. In Kanpur, Neill issued an official order that made it mandatory for every Indian, particularly Brahmins, to lick the blood of dead British soldiers before getting whipped and hanged.


Lawrence, Havelock, Neill, died/were killed by Indian fighters, respectively, on 4th July, 24th November, and 24th September, 1857 in Lucknow. Hodson was marked out and killed on 11th March, 1858, in the battle of Begum Kothi, close to Hazratganj.
Lucknow and Awadh’s fighting spirit traumatised the British so much that from 1858 to 1947, Lucknow Residency was the only place in the British Empire, where the Union Jack flew even at night.
Indians too, never forgot their humiliation–during 1942 Quit India movement, protest meetings were held at Residency, and at the graves of Havelock and Hodson in Alambagh and La Martiniere. In 1947, crowds surrounded the Residency to pull down the Union Jack and demolish the statue of Neill.
British statues were removed in Lucknow in the 1950s–much before the final pulling down of the Statue of King George Vth from India Gate, Delhi. Yet, no effort was made to at least mention the atrocities of British officers in separate plaques.


In a chilling rebuke to national sentiments, La Martiniere still has a College house named after Hodson. Young Indian boys think Hodson, reviled in UK itself, was a great man.


The 4th Cavalry of the Indian army, that considers itself to be a legatee of the notorious Hodson’s Horse, offers a lance salute at Hodson’s grave every year. When other Indian army regiments have shed their colonial legacies, why is the 4th Cavalry being allowed to carry on with outmoded traditions?


Days of Empires, whether ‘Great Britain’, USA, or Soviet Union, are over. The 21st century belongs to developing national economies, all ex-colonies of Imperial powers, like India, China and Brazil. All such countries are shedding their colonial baggages and promoting national unity. India has the great 1857 moment to take its nation building efforts to the next stage–why should it lag behind China and Brazil?