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A city forever in transition

A city forever in transition

At the beginning of the 19th century, the East India Company penetrated deeply into the socio-political milieu of the country and strengthened its position in India every year. It was around the same time that the mighty Mughal Empire with its seat of power in the city of Shahjahanabad (now Delhi) was literally on its way. Chronicling the country’s political upheavals from 1803-1857, Swapna Liddle mainly traces the events that led to the fall of one empire and the crowning of another.

Defeating the Marathas at the Battle of Patparganj in September 1803, the British became the de facto rulers of the city, and the Mughal emperor Shah Alam II returned to the palace in Delhi after a long exile in Bihar. Shah Alam II died in 1806 and was succeeded by his eldest son Akbar, who ascended the throne as Akbar II. During that period, the British sowed the seeds of complete indifference on the part of the princes and people of India towards the Mughal throne. The emperor in the palace was only a symbol of power, but the British were actually the ones who fired into the city.

The centuries-old royal traditions of the Mughal Empire about receiving ‘Nazar’ and giving ‘Khilat’, which in a way established the emperor’s script, slowly eroded. At the center of this struggle were two important issues that defined Mughal-British relations: the increase of the emperor’s stipends and his right to name his successor. The British needed the emperor only as a prop to legitimize their position in India.

Destiny Delhi

Swapna Liddle takes a microscopic look at a period in Delhi’s history that defined the fate of the city and had enormous consequences for the people who lived there. The wealth of the people in the city decreased with the decline of the wealth of the empire. The trading class, mostly composed of Hindus and Jains, fared better. Their growing economic status found an outlet in the construction activity taking place in the city. These include houses, but more significant temples, several of which were built in the 18th century. The book vividly describes court intrigues and the struggle over the succession to the seat of the emperor. The main role in decision-making processes in the palace was always played by the British resident assigned there. He acted as a conduit between the British government with its center of power in Calcutta and the Emperor in Delhi.

In terms of relations with the palace, there was a continuous shift in the balance of power in favor of the Company and an erosion of imperial dignity as well as independence. Charles Metcalfe, who was the Resident at the time, was devoted to erasing what he regarded as an empty pretense of sovereignty, obstinately clung to by the misled Mughals and needlessly encouraged by the British Government.

It was also a time when great poets lived in the city and Liddle speaks of Ghalib as an important person in the court of Bahadur Shah Zafar. Ghalib received a hereditary pension from the British and also enjoyed the right to be included in the British dubars and was given a khilat. Ghalib was shrewd enough to see that the Mughal court was on the way out and is said to have cynically distanced himself from the fort even as he earned his living from it.

The coronation of the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar took place in the middle of the night, while the body of his father Akbar II still lay unburied. He was a decent, cultured man, a poet, who wrote Urdu and Persian poetry under Takhallus ‘Zafar’. Although his command extended only within the walls of the fort, Bahadur Shah presided over his little kingdom with all the dignity he could muster from his great inheritance.

No matter how much opposition Zafar faced from his family or the government, he held a special place in the hearts of the people of Delhi, and this relationship continued until the events of 1857 that put the final nail in the coffin of the Mughal Empire in India.

With a down-to-earth view of the workings of early British rule in India, The Broken Script describes in rich detail the complex struggle between the last two Mughal emperors and the East India Company, the former wielding considerable symbolic authority and the latter rapidly growing military and political power in India. With eclectic scholarship and impressive storytelling, the author tells the story of a great city in perpetual transition.

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