Indian 'war of independence' a turning point for subcontinent Posted on Wednesday, May 09, 2007 (EST)
NEW DELHI, May 10, 2007 (AFP) - That world with its blend of Hindu and Muslim influences and poetry and art was finally brought crashing down with India's bloody 1857 "War of Independence", whose 150th anniversary the country celebrates on Friday.
"Everything changed after 1857," said British author and historian William Dalrymple whose latest book, "The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty," traces the history of the bloody uprising and its brutal repression by the British.
"The British East India's Company's rule of the subcontinent ended, the Mughal emperor was dumped and (British Prime Minister) Benjamin Disraeli went to Queen Victoria and asked her if she wanted to be empress of India," he said.
"It marked the start of the British Raj," Dalrymple told AFP in an interview.
The revolt, in which Indian soldiers rose up against the East India Company, the commercial venture of merchants that ruled India, was spurred by reports that the British were introducing bullets greased with cow and pig fat -- unacceptable for religious reasons to Hindus and Muslims respectively.
Hundreds of mutinous foot soldiers, or sepoys, of the East India Company rode into the great Mughal capital of Delhi, massacring British men, women and children indiscriminately.
They declared Bahadur Shah Zafar, the frail 82-year-old Mughal emperor, the leader of their insurrection against the world's mightiest empire.
The revolt was "expressed unequivocally" as a war of religion as the rebels -- Muslims and Hindus alike -- believed the British were threatening their faith, said Dalrymple, who has written a string of best-sellers about pre-independence India and who makes his home in New Delhi.
The government is planning year-long celebrations to mark the revolt, long known as the Indian Mutiny. But many Indian historians now say the term belittles what they see as the country's first "war of independence."
The emperor, who preferred penning poetry to waging war, knew the uprising of chaotic and officer-less soldiers was doomed and was a reluctant leader.
Delhi was surrounded by the British within a month. They began a pitiless siege, bombarding the capital with artillery, during the four hottest months of the searing Indian summer.
The revolt ended on September 14, 1857, when the British, backed by Sikh and Pathan fighters, captured the city and crushed the uprising. They massacred great swathes of the population and left the jewel of the Mughal empire in ruins.
"The uprising was a period of enormous bloodshed, the rebels and British behaved in an incredibly bloodthirsty way," Dalrymple said.
The failed revolt had two immediate consequences.
Though the royal family surrendered, all 10 of the emperor's surviving sons were executed and Zafar, a name meaning paradoxically "victory," was humbled from "divine highness" to state prisoner.
Zafar was exiled to Rangoon, now called Yangon, travelling under guard in a bullock cart, and died destitute in captivity five years later, the last of the Mughal emperors.
He wrote just before his death, "Delhi was once a paradise, Where love held sway and reigned; But its charm lies ravished now, And only ruins remain."
The revolt also led to the establishment of the British Raj as the East India Company was dissolved and India placed under direct British rule.
"The East India Company controlled India from 1600 to 1858 while the British Raj really lasted just a blink in history -- 89 years until India's independence in 1947," said Dalrymple.
"But there's no doubt it was the most important British colonial experience" to capture the British imagination, he said.
"And now you have the implosion of empire -- Miss Great Britain is a Desai (Preeti Desai) and so is the Booker Prize winner (Kiran Desai)."
-- By way of the gift of live I had been granted four days Two I spent hoping, the other two waiting. - Bahadur Shah Zafar