No matter how much opposition Bahadur Shah Zafar faced from his own family, or from the government, he held a special place in the hearts of the people of Delhi; and this relationship continued into the 1850s, despite the Emperor’s decreasing political role.
The people of course were not blind to the shortcomings of the court. For one, negative comment on the activities in the palace was frequent in the local newspapers. There was criticism in strong words of the reported financial mismanagement by officials of the court, of the alleged unsuitability, ignorance and incompetence of those appointed to responsible positions, and the injustice perpetrated by them. The poor within the fort were said to be starving because of the corruption of the officials. The Emperor himself was, however, usually exempt from direct criticism, it being said that he was kept in the dark or he would never tolerate oppression of the weak.
In fact, the Urdu newspapers don’t seem to have referred to the Emperor with anything except respect and affection. The Dehli Urdu Akhbar itself spoke of how all people prayed for the long life of Bahadur Shah who was pious, wise, patient, and a patron of talent. Heartfelt wishes for his good health, and thankfulness to God at his recovery from illness, were expressed in both the Dehli Urdu Akhbar and the Qiran us Sadaen.
In large measure this was the result of strong ties that the Mughal Emperors in general, and Bahadur Shah in particular, had forged with the people. Some of this was based on generosity – patronage and alms-giving. Coins were distributed to the crowds of the poor that gathered around his procession. There are instances of shopkeepers who brought goods for sale to the royal gardens having their entire stock bought up on the Emperor’s account. The palace also gave patronage to a variety of artists and performers.
Wrestlers, acrobats and actors frequently came into the palace and performed, and were given handsome rewards. Anyone arriving with a hard luck story – such as a stranger to the city who had been robbed on his way, was given financial assistance. The generosity extended to the occupants of various royal properties, who would often come and ask for remissions in rent and were readily granted them by the Emperor. The city kotwal was given a present of a 125 rupees in 1852, in recognition of the efficient arrangements made by that officer.
Personal gestures of generosity kept alive the ties of fealty between the head of an empire that no longer existed, and the people, at least of the immediate vicinity. When Bahadur Shah went to stay in Mehrauli for a few days, the peasants would come with pots of milk and curd as a nazar, and be given presents of money in return. Relations with rural populations were not always smooth though. The Emperor’s hunters had to respect local sentiments in the injunction forbidding the shooting of nilgai and peacocks; by the 1850s the peasants of certain areas were also objecting to the killing of deer and hares.
The Emperor’s agents had also long been finding it difficult to realise revenues from the royal lands. In 1840 there was armed conflict in the pargana of Kot Qasim, in which the landlords repulsed the soldiers of the Emperor. This was the main reason why Bahadur Shah ultimately agreed to hand over the management of the royal estates to the British administration.
Bahadur Shah was invariably courteous even to British officials, despite the fact that they were showing him less respect as the days passed. Direct personal interactions had decreased significantly mainly because British officials did not consider a meeting with the Emperor important enough to submit to the necessary protocols.
Nevertheless, even through the 1850s, Bahadur Shah would regularly send fruits, vegetables, game, cooked food, etc., to the Agent and the Commandant of the Palace Guard. He was always courteous towards the British officials connected with the palace, on one occasion composing a couplet in honour of the Commandant of the Palace Guard. He was also invariably extremely polite, as is evident in the following example of his concern to make his guests feel comfortable. In 1852 he sent a messenger to the Commandant of the Palace Guard “requesting his presence with that of his friends at the entertainment given in honor of Mirza Jawan Bakht’s marriage, and that he was to send his own servants in order that they might prepare what he considered would be approved by those who came.”
Some of the strongest ties were those of service in the Mughal court; for unlike the impersonal rules of service in force in the Company’s administration, the Emperor had a much more compassionate, if less practical approach. For instance, there was a strong concept of a hereditary right of office, and the main logic behind it was the reluctance to deprive the family of a deceased employee of his income. Quite commonly, the son would be employed in the place of his father, and a deed obtained from him by which he bound himself to support his father’s family. Where giving employment was for some reason not possible, the families were at least given a substantial part of the salary the dead man had received. Ties between the Emperor and his employees continued beyond the period of service. We hear of Bahadur Shah sending money for the funeral expenses of his ex-mukhtar.
The intimate personal connection between the Emperor and his employees was reinforced during marriages and births too. Bahadur Shah would ceremonially gift wedding clothes to the sons and daughters of his Hindu employees. We also hear of an instance where a Hindu clerk requested him to name his newly born son, and the Emperor obliged. On festive occasions the Emperor would also attend music and dance performances hosted by these officials.
Hindu officials were also specially received on their return from a pilgrimage, and given a ceremonial shawl in that honour. There were signs too of a more casual intimacy. Once a clerk borrowed one of the royal elephants to go to the Ram Lila. Of course, if one was the recipient of the Emperor’s good wishes and generosity, this laid one open to occasional demands as well. In one instance, Bahadur Shah asked one official to present his house in Mehrauli, which was built on crown land, as a nazar.
Connection with the palace – being received with honour in court, conversing with the Emperor – was still an important marker of social status in Delhi. The mahajans of Delhi such as Ramji Das Gurwala, were to be seen from time to time in the durbar. Mohammad Baqar, who held a government job and then was also the editor of the Dehli Urdu Akhbar, frequently visited Bahadur Shah and talked to him. Maulvi Mohammad Ishaq, grandson of Shah Abdul Aziz, was received with great respect and reverence in the Emperor’s court. There were others who benefited directly from the connection – such as Joseph Skinner who was a farmer of the revenues of certain royal lands.
Despite the British discouraging the giving of khilats by the Emperor to those not in his employment, people of the city were frequently eager to receive them. This included those who were particularly close, socially and culturally, to the British. In the 1850s, one of the Skinners obtained special permission from the Agent to apply for and receive a khilat. Chiman Lal, the Calcutta trained doctor, who was posted as Sub-Assistant Surgeon in Delhi, and had converted to Christianity, used to treat Bahadur Shah. Government rules did not allow him to accept a khilat but he asked the Emperor to give him a certificate instead.
Memories of connection with the Mughal court long outlived Bahadur Shah.
Excerpted with permission from The Broken Script : Delhi Under The East India Company And The Fall of The Mughal Dynasty, 1803-1857, Swapna Liddle, Speaking Tiger Books.