How long will Bahadur Shah Zafar's exile continue?
India’s First war of Independence began on May 10, 1857 at Meerut cantonment. The rebel sepoys of the East India Company marched to Delhi accompanied by thousands of villagers who had joined the rebellion on the way to Delhi. On May 11, this mass of rebels of which more than 75% were Hindus and Sikhs, had an audience with 82 year old King and prevailed upon him to lead the liberation struggle against the British rule as he being a secular ruler, symbolized the unity of the country. The contemporary documents prove that Rani Laxmi Bai, Nana Saheb, Tatia Tope, Azimullah Khan and Begum Zeenat Mahal of Oudh supported this move. Zafar agreed to take up the fight.
Zafar’s simplicity and secular credentials resonated among his people. He was a Sufi who celebrated in his Court, Hindu festivals like Holi, Dussehra and Diwali with the same gusto as Muslim festivals. He had seats for Pandits in his Court like ulemas. He believed that both Hinduism & Islam shared the same essence.
However, due to the treachery of British spies and stooges in Delhi the British army captured Delhi on September 14, 1857. Zafar was forced to surrender on September 21. In the meantime his two sons and a grandson were shot dead publicly outside Delhi Gate. Zafar was tried by a military tribunal (January 27, 1858-March 9, 1858). Zafar for his complicity to murder and treason was to be exiled to Rangoon (Yangon) in Burma (Myanmar) with his close family members, a decision which was executed in October 1858. No contacts or visitors were allowed. For the ousted King, Zafar, who also happened to be a renowned poet, the pen, ink and paper were the three things which were completely forbidden. Zafar died as an unsung hero on November 7, 1862 and was buried at an unmarked place. The idea was that in few years’ time it would be lost amidst over-grown grass and nobody would know where Zafar, a symbol of resistance to the British hegemony was buried. Nothing else could be expected from the colonial rulers.
Unfortunately, after India’s independence we did not bother about this great leader of the anti-colonial struggle whose leadership ignited one of the most glorious liberation struggles in the world history. His exact burial site was found in 1991, almost 130 years after Zafar’s death, by a group of Burmese who had been searching for decades for the grave of a saint-poet whom they revered.
It is on record that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose started his “March to Delhi” campaign in 1942 from this shrine in Rangoon. Rajiv Gandhi during his official visit to Myanmar (December 1987) came to pay tribute to Zafar and wrote the following in in the visitor’s book placed at the shrine: “Although you (Bahadur Shah) do not have land in India, you have it here, your name is alive…I pay homage to the memory of the symbol and rallying point of India’s first war of independence…” In fact, Rajiv Gandhi through this note was echoing the sentiments of Zafar expressed in the following couplet of his:
kitna hae bad-naseeb Zafar dafn ke liye/do gazz zamin bhi na mili ku-e-yar maen.
(How unfortunate is Zafar! For his burial/not even two yards of land had to be had, in the land of his beloved)
This is unfortunate that this great commander of the First Indian War of Independence remains buried in a foreign land. It is high time that steps are taken to bring his remains to India so that we and coming generations have the opportunity to emulate Bahadur Shah Zafar’s deeds for a free and secular India.