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Nawab’s surrender, Begum’s rebellion

Nawab’s surrender, Begum’s rebellion

A Nawab and a Begum by Sudipta Mitra. Rupa. Pages 235. Rs 295

Book Title: A Nawab and a Begum

Author: Sudipta Mitra

Salil Misra

The British rule in India was like the plague. Though uneven in time and space, it nonetheless cast its shadow on all regions and all people. The Indian responses to it ranged from abject surrender, fierce resistance, violent rebellion and, eventually, a prolonged, systematic non-violent struggle. The book under review tells the story of some of these responses to the British rule, from Wajid Ali Shah of Awadh and his Begum Hazrat Mahal. The king succumbed to the British but the queen fought on heroically.

Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the ruler of Awadh during 1847-56, did not belong to the times he lived in. The notion that a crown has to be captured by force and held by force was completely alien to him. He earnestly believed that the crown belonged to him as a natural right. He could not imagine stooping to the level of violence and warfare to retain it. He was an aristocrat and a noble, not a warrior. He loved music and poetry and abhorred war. When the British questioned his legitimate right to the throne of Awadh, he simply gave in. He would rather perish than fight the Darwinian battle in which only the ‘fittest’ could survive.

He surrendered his empire and also restrained the people from taking to the path of rebellion. The queen, however, was different. She fought the British on the battlefield. She also succeeded in liberating Lucknow from British hands for a brief period before losing the battle for control over Awadh.

Awadh was a prosperous region of North India and it was only a matter of time before the predatory gaze of the British fell upon it. The British had occupied most of India with the help of guns and treaties. Wajid Ali Shah became the ruler of Awadh in 1847 after the death of his father, Amjad Ali. A formal treaty signed in 1837 had given the British the right to occupy Awadh if it was found that the region was not being governed properly. And sure enough, the British found many instances of poor governance in judicial, revenue and religious matters. The king was also accused of maintaining the army in spite of the fact that it was the responsibility of the British to protect the territory. Wajid Ali Shah was given two years to improve the administration.

Responding to these allegations, Wajid Ali Shah did try to bring about administrative reforms. But clearly, the administration of Awadh was not the main issue. It was simply an excuse for the British to take over. The annexation of different parts of India had accelerated with the arrival of Dalhousie, the new Governor General. He coveted Awadh and looked upon it as “a cherry which will drop into our mouths someday. It has long been ripening”. It might not require a gun to conquer Awadh; the implementation of the treaty of 1837 was all that was needed. Consequently, Wajid Ali Shah was given the option to surrender and retain some symbolic privileges. If he did not, Awadh would be completely annexed by the British. It was clearly a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea. What was he to do?

The confrontation between Wajid Ali Shah and the British was not simply between two political forces. Essentially, they represented two entirely different civilisational systems. The British represented a modern European civilisation — entrepreneurial, efficient, instrumentalist, committed to expansion, brutal and ruthless. Wajid Ali Shah, on the other hand, was a slow-paced medieval ruler, committed to a good life, inclined towards art, music and poetry, generous and completely unfamiliar with the ways of the modern, commercial, predatory civilisation emerging from the West.

Predictably enough, Wajid Ali Shah vacated his throne and crown for the British and migrated to Calcutta. However, once in Calcutta, he decided to plead his case with the Governor General. Fully convinced that he had been thrown out unjustly, he still believed, quite naively, in the fairness of the British rule. After his case was overturned, he appealed to Queen Victoria in England to restore his right to the throne of Awadh. His mother, Aliya Begum, sailed to England to appeal for justice. The case of her son went to the Board of Directors of the East India Company, the British Parliament and finally to the Queen of England. His claim to the throne was, however, not recognised and he died as a refugee in Calcutta in 1887, far away from his beloved Lucknow.

Hazrat Mahal, one of the queens of Wajid Ali Shah who stayed behind in Lucknow, fought the battle for Awadh very differently. Unlike Wajid Ali Shah, she had no misgivings about the British and decided to fight them on the battlefield.

With the help of taluqdars, local chieftains and the people of Awadh, she launched a rebellion and put up a great fight for the liberation of Awadh. For a brief period between September and November 1857, the rebels, led by Hazrat Mahal, succeeded in freeing Lucknow from the British. In the end, the mighty forces of the British succeeded in suppressing the rebellion in Awadh and in the rest of the country. Not able to reconcile with the defeat, Hazrat Mahal left for Nepal where she died in 1879.

The book has told the story of two entirely different responses to the British rule from Wajid Ali Shah, the Nawab of Awadh, and Hazrat Mahal, his queen. Wajid Ali Shah pursued what would be considered a legal and constitutional battle for his rights over his land. He believed in the fairness and goodness of the British. Hazrat Mahal, on the other hand, resolved to fight the British with the might of the people and decided to wrest it from the British. In the end, both lost.

The narrative of the book proceeds at three levels. It is the story of the Nawab, his Begum and their lives, lived together but mostly separately. It is also the story of the Rebellion of 1857 as it played out in Awadh and Calcutta. Above all, the story is also a micro-reflection of the many strands of Britain-India encounters, of British intrigues and a wide range of Indian responses to it.