Monday, 4 October 2010


The Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, or the ghadr as it is otherwise known, is mostly about the heroics or savagery, as you will, of the people who fought against each other to oust or buttress the British rule in India. But there were millions of quotidian facts that filled in the Uprising days between May and November of 1857. Among such facts are those that detail the lives of people in Delhi who went through the upheaval. The thoughts and experiences from all walks of life were documented in Persian and Sikastah (cursive) Urdu; they are known as the Mutiny Papers --- that the British collected after they regained control of Delhi --- and are kept at the National Archives in New Delhi. Now for the first time, these papers have been translated and published in English, thanks to scholar Mahmood Farooqui who has come up with the book Besieged --- Voices from Delhi 1857.

As Farooqui takes us through the city, a reader almost sees the events as if it's a virtual tour. One goes through the pains of the common folks: shopkeepers fearing loot by the mutineers, the agony of the citizens to see their city careen into chaos, tales if infidelity, accounts of prostitutes, and the killings of the Englishmen, their families and those who tried to protect the English lot. All of that get enmeshed with the efforts that the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar and the administration under the Commander-in-Chief --- Mirza Mughal, the fifth son of the Emperor --- faced to keep the mutineers under control.

Beyond the Introduction, the book is divided into The Proceedings, The Imperatives, The Dramatis Personae and the The Ideologue. Each of these parts have their distinct tone that Farooqui's translation brings out quite well. The Proceedings sounds official with the orders of the King (the Emperor was referred to as the King in British writings), and the orders of other functionaries. There are also the depositions of people arrested, as are the appeals and letters from the Mughal officers and other functionaries to the higher-ups. Farooqui has painstakingly arranged them according to timeline to give us the varied perspectives about what was happening in Delhi of 1857.

In the Proceedings, there is an interesting order, dated August 9 of 1857, in which Bahadur Shah Zafar, asks the mutineers to release the guard of the King's Hakim, in defiance of which the King would become the sweeper at the shrine of Khwaja Saheb, or will eat something and die. It sounds almost like an aged, sentimental patriarch chiding his family for neglecting him. Similarly, the rivalry between Mirza Mughal and Bakht Khan, the King-appointed governor general of the city comes out from a letter written by Mirza Mughal to the King. A Constitution of the Court of Mutineers and its Rules and Regulations read equally interesting.

Some of the orders and letters are short: like the appeal for arranging of water at the Jama Masjid, or prevention of forced searches by the soldiers, urging soldiers not to believe in some rumour, and the like. But they all give a clear insight as to how the bureaucratic arrangements under the Mughals functioned at the crossroads of history of this land. This is where this book stands out among the works on Mutiny that generally focuses on the implications of the uprising. Farooqui shows us through his selection of documents that despite the anarchy that prevailed in Delhi, there was sincere attempt of ensure governance in the city.

This saga of organising the day-to-day running of the city comes alive more in the Imperatives part. It almost reads like the chronicle of some municipal body, with the documents showing how the supply of materials and labour was dealt with, be it how workers are to be rounded up every morning to be despatched to the kotwali, or intimation of setting up of grocers' shops at the regiment, or those on procuring money from the rich and the bankers.

A revelation of sort could be The Dramatis Personae in which we find the numerous complaints that poured in from Delhi residents --- elite and subaltern --- to the higher echelons of the administration about the ubiquitous mutineers and soldiers who arrived in Delhi from different parts of the country, and were plundering and engaging into unlawful activities. Also, there are the documents that show how the police administration functioned, the activities of the spies, the volunteers and jihadis, unhappy wives and the rest.

Farooqui provides notes at the beginning of each chapter, but he doesn't take any stand. It is not an easy task to deal with such a body of documents and yet not be opinionated. But Farooqui has kept his role restricted to that of a translator-compiler, and has allowed the documents speak for themselves. It makes, the book even more credible.

For journalists, the excerpts from the Dehli Urdu Akhbar is bound to be interesting. The Akhbar was not part of the Mutiny Papers. But Farooqui has been quite right in including them in the book to show how the nascent print journalism in India dealt with the turbulence. The Akhbar's editor Maulvi Mohammed Baqar took upon himself to role of an ideologue as he voiced his support for the rebels, and used the combination of jihad, secular values and his views on British exploitation of India to exhort the citizens to support the rebellion, at the same time urging the soldiers to maintain discipline and not to harass the public. They all make for interesting read.

At times, I felt that the different parts in the book overlap each other and a reader may wonder why a certain document has been included in one part instead of the other. Moreover, unless one is cued to history, the series of documents may look repetitive. But for those who love history, this book is a fascinating read. Farooqui must be wholeheartedly commended for his effort.

Besieged --- Voices from Delhi 1857
Mahmood Farooqui
Publisher: Penguin-Viking
Pages: 458

Price: Indian Rs 699