The last emperor
Zil-e-Subhani Abu Abu Zafar Sirajuddin Mohammed Bahadur Shah Zafar, poet, philosopher, mystic, who was also the nineteenth Mughal emperor of India and the first for 150 years to deserve the title. Born Delhi, 24 October 1775. Died Yangon, 7 November 1862.
The last and perhaps most ill-starred of the Mughals, Zafar was the son of Muhammad Shah II, the hereditary Mughal king. By the time of his birth, the once-vast Mughal empire had shrunk to the confines of the city of Delhi and after 1803, the British were the de facto rulers of everything outside the Red Fort. Muhammad Shah disliked Zafar intensely, perhaps because his marriage to Zafar's mother, a Hindu queen by the name of Lal bai, had been compelled by political necessity.
Zafar's lack of a proper relationship with his father had a lasting effect on him. Being excluded from affairs of court, he took to composing poetry. His teachers included great masters of the Urdu ghazal, including Zauq and Ghalib. On his father's death in September 1838, Zafar ascended the throne as the only surviving legitimate heir. He was then nearly sixty-one.
Zafar's poetry shows him to be a compassionate and sensitive person. Had he been born in an earlier time, he could have been a king of peace, a patron of arts, culture, and the gentler things in life. But fate had other things in mind for him. Discontent with British rule had been growing and in 1857, India rose in a national uprising. As the heir to the last Indian dynasty to rule the country, he was nominated the Commander-in-chief of the armies, and named Emperor of India. Despite being in his eighties, he rallied to the cause of Indian independence. His mother's Hindu background had bred a natural secularism in him, despite his being a devout Muslim, and he inspired Hindus and Muslims to "the standard of Muhammad... and the standard of Mahavir".
For some months, the revolt seemed to succeed and Zafar was Emperor of India in name and fact. But the superior weaponry of the British army, the brutality of the conflict, and the treachery of many powerful Indians (including Zafar's own vazir, Hakim Ahsanullah Khan) allowed them to prevail. In September 1858, Delhi fell, and Zafar withdrew with his sons and grandson to Humayun's Tomb (now in New Delhi). The perfidous Ahsanullah Khan advised him against leaving with the remnants of his troops, who were preparing to make a last stand. In the meantime, his location was betrayed to Captain Hodson, the leader of the British forces in Delhi, and he was captured.
When counselled to plead for mercy, Zafar responded with a defiant verse:
If the glory of our self-respect remains undimmed, our power will shake London
And those who die today for our country, will shine as new stars in our sky.
He was arrested on 20 September 1858. His sons were put to death, and their severed heads were served to him at the breakfast table as trophies. A few weeks later, in October 1958, he was exiled to Yangon, where he remained, forbidden to return to his country or meet his people, until his death.
Bahadur Shah Zafar died on 7 November 1862. With his death the time of the Great Mughals came to an end.
Some of his poems written in exile survive, and paint a picture of a sad, lonely man devoid of hope, dying in isolation and longing for his country.
lagataa nahii.n hai jii meraa uja.De dayaar me.n
kis kii banii hai aalam-e-naa-paayedaar me.n
My heart does not rest in this forsaken city
How can I embrace fortune in a world of utter loss?
gayi ek be ek jo havaa pala.T nahi.n dil ko mere qaraar hai.
karuun gham sitam ke mai.n kya bayaan meraa gham se siina fugaar hai.
As each wind turns against me, my heart stirs in desolation
What words can express this sorrow, a sorrow that my breast cannot contain?