On May 11, 1857, as Indian sepoys who had revolted against the British in Meerut over the use of cartridges allegedly greased with pig and cow fat entered Delhi and tried to take control of the city, there was murder and mayhem in the initial hours. Many thugs and thieves whom they had released from British jails had joined them and were encouraging them to loot and kill.

The European families who lived in the Kashmiri Darwaza area took shelter wherever they could, some in the magazine as it was close to their homes.

The sepoys attacked the British magazine to capture the arsenal stocked there. The British officers defended it and the soldiers present there, but when they realised they were fighting a losing battle and that the sepoys were scaling the walls, Lieutenant GD Willoughby blew up the arsenal to prevent it from falling into rebel hands.

Though Willoughby and some of his companions managed to escape, around 56 European women and children and a few men were captured by the sepoys and taken to the Red Fort. The 82-year-old Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, sent orders that the sepoys be calmed down and the prisoners taken into his safe custody and arrangements be made to keep them and treat the injured.

The sepoys attacked the British magazine on May 11, 1857, forcing the British officers to blow up the ammunition stock to prevent it from falling into their hands. Credit: Swapna Dash Acharya/via Facebook.com

In his memoirs Dastan-e-Ghadar, Tale of the Mutiny, Zahir Dehlvi, who was an official in Bahadur Shah Zafar’s court and a poet, describes the events that unfolded on May 16 that year:

One early morning, I left my house for the Qila, and entering through the naqqarkhana reached the Diwan-e-Aam. From there I decided to go to the khan-samaani and meet Hakim Ahsanullah Khan [the prime minister] to find out if Huzoor had given any orders. With this in mind, I avoided the lattice door and entered the khan-samaani door. When I had walked a little beyond the Mehtab Darwaza, I saw the purbias bringing the prisoners out of the Bagh.

“Where are you taking them?” I asked.

“We will take them out of the Qila and keep them elsewhere,” one of them said.

“This is part of our agreement,” I protested. “Please don’t take them away.”

But they refused to listen to me. I was worried that they might play foul and so rushed to Ahsanullah Khan sahib, who was lying in the upper storey of the khan-samaani. I told him, “Khan Sahib, are you aware of what is happening?”

“What?” he asked.

“Those ruffians are taking the prisoners away. I am afraid that they will murder them. Please make arrangements for their safety.”

Ahsanullah Khan retorted, “What can I do?”

“Khan Sahib,” I said, “this is a test of our loyalty. If you want to save the emperor, please reason with the rebels and save the prisoners. Or remember that the British will raze Dilli to the ground.”

Ahsanullah Khan replied, “Miyan, you are very young. How would you know that man does not listen to reason when caught up in circumstances such as these? He does not think of the result of his actions. If we remonstrate with them now, they will kill us first, and then murder the prisoners.”

“It is better that a few of us are killed,” I said. “At least the Badshah’s empire will be saved.” Saying this, I left from there and came back to the deorhi.

I sent a message to the emperor through the khwaja-sara stating that the purbias had taken the prisoners whom Huzoor had kept in his special protection. The emperor gave immediate orders to call Hakim Ahsanullah Khan so that he could make arrangements to save the prisoners.

The khwaja-sara came outside the palace and sent a messenger to get Hakim Ahsanullah Khan post-haste. Two more messengers were sent one after the other, but though time was passing, Hakim ji did not move from his place. After some time, Hakim Ahsanullah Khan came to the tasbihkhana and entered the presence of Huzoor.

The emperor gave orders: “Call the officers and reason with them and save the prisoners.”

Hakim Ahsanullah Khan said, “All right. As you wish.” He came out to the Diwan-e-Khaas and sat down against the arch in the middle enclosure. Perhaps he sent a few people to call the rebel officers.

Suddenly we saw that two companies of purbias, bearing loaded guns on their shoulders, were coming from the door of the Lal Purdah. As soon as they came into the Diwan-e-Khaas, they surrounded us and stood in front of us with guns pointed at us. All of us were praying to God and reciting the kalima. There were ten or twelve of us and we thought that they would blow us up at any moment. For a few moments, they kept standing there like that. After that, two sawars lofted a red flag outside the Lal Purdah, which was an indication to the other sawars to put their guns back on their shoulders and leave.

A messenger came after a few minutes and gave us the news: “The prisoners have been murdered.”

— Excerpt from Dastan-e-Ghadar, Tale of the Mutiny, by Zahir Dehlvi, translated by Rana Safvi, Penguin Random House

The British levelled the hauz (water tank) in front of the naqqarkhana, where this tragedy took place, once they gained control of the Qila (Red Fort).

Trial of an emperor

This horrific incident was one of the biggest charges against Abu Zafar Sirajuddin Mohammed Bahadur Shah during his trial for rebellion, treason and murder. The trial started on January 27, 1858 and ended on March 9, 1858 with the verdict that the former king of Delhi had been found guilty of every charge against him.

Every witness was questioned about the incident and the king’s involvement in it. Jath Mall, a British scribe in the Red Fort and their spy, was asked: “In your opinion, could the King, had he been anxious to do so, have saved the Europeans, specially the women and children?”

Jath Mall replied, “I heard in the city that the King did wish to save the Europeans, particularly the women and children, but he was overruled by the violence of the soldiery, and had not the firmness to oppose them.”

(From The Trial of Bahadur Shah Zafar, edited by Pramod K Nayar)

The emperor refuted these charges at the trial, saying he did all he could to prevent the slaughter of the innocents but the soldiery did not heed him, an account supported by Zahir Dehlvi.

Bahadur Shah Zafar faced trial for treason and other charges, was found guilty and exiled to Burma. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The witnesses were all anti-Bahadur Shah Zafar and the records available were only those of British spies who had been sending written reports to their masters from inside the Qila, informing them of the rebel activity.

Hakim Ahsanullah Khan, who was the emperor’s acting prime minister during the four months of the siege of Delhi, was one of the most important witnesses for the British. He was shown a leaf from a court diary for May 16, 1857 that indicted the emperor. It read, “The King told his court in the hall of Special Audience. 49 English were prisoners, and the army demanded they that they should be given over to them for slaughter. The King delivered them up, saying ‘The army may do as they please’, and the prisoners were subsequently put to the sword.”

Hakim Ahsanullah Khan did not contradict the entry, limiting himself to verifying that “yes, it is in the handwriting of the man who kept the Court diary and this leaf is a portion of it”, thereby giving it a tacit stamp of endorsement in direct contrast to the events described by Zahir Dehlvi.

As such, Zahir Dehlvi’s account, which was written when he was nearing death and published around 1914, is extremely important. Even though he was pro-British, he gives an exciting account of the events that unfolded during the First War of Indian Independence in Delhi and the trials and tribulations that beset its people, as they were forced to flee to save their lives and piece together their lives from scratch.

It is also a moving testimony to the wonderful character of the ageing Mughal emperor.

(Rana Safvi is a historian, author and blogger and has, most recently, translated Zahir Dehlvi’s Dastan-e-Ghadar, which comprises an important eyewitness account of the 1857 Revolt)