Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Multiculturalism and the Court of Zafar

Reading William Dalrymple's The Last Mughal, I was struck by how much more complex the events of 1857 were than is taught in school. The common impression that it was a Mughal/Muslim rebellion against the aggressively expansionary British with little or no Hindu involvement is firmly routed by Dalrymple's more nuanced picture.

He describes 1857 as "a very odd sort of religious war, where a Muslim emperor [Zafar] was pushed into rebellion against his Christian oppressors [the British] by a mutinous army of overwhelmingly Hindu sepoys, who came to him of their own free will (and initially against his) to ask for the barakat of a Muslim blessing and the leadership of the Mughal they regarded as their legitimate ruler."

The book highlights the disconnectedness of our modern, religiously and ideologically-monolithic reinterpretation of 1857. The fact that the army raised to suppress the uprising in Delhi, comprised mostly of Pathan and Punjabi Muslims further drives home how little the pan-Islamic creed, so popular today, applied to the subcontinent of 1857.

In fact, Zafar and his court were exemplars of tolerance and multiculturalism. He celebrated Holi, Dussera and Diwali along with the Muslim festivals. His court diaries mention how Zafar refused to see a Hindu who wanted to convert to Islam as he thought it improper. And when his physician, Dr Chaman Lal, converted to Christianity and the city's ulema clamored for Lal's dismissal from the Emperor's service, "Zafar had replied that the doctor's faith was his own private matter and 'there was no cause for shame in what he had done.'"

When on 19 May, eight days after the rebellion started in Delhi, Orthodox Delhi mullahs tried to turn the rebellion into an exclusively Muslim holy war by putting up a declaration of jihad on the Jama Masjid, "Zafar immediately ordered it to be taken down 'because such a  display of fanaticism would only tend to exasperate the Hindus.'"

It was the arrival of hardcore Wahabi jihadis from outside Delhi that threatened the communal harmony so crucial to Delhi and the rebellion itself. On Eidul Azha, the jihadis quite impertinently decided to sacrifice not sheep or goats but cows, to deliberately offend the Hindu population. They planned to do so in the open grounds in front of the Jama Masjid. The threat, however, of imminent civil war because of such an incendiary action was staved off by Zafar who immediately and decisively banned cow slaughter.

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