Friday, June 17, 2022

On Dalrymple’s False History of 1857

For William Dalrymple historical supremacy is a question of religion: he ignores the role that the Hindus played in India’s history, and he overhypes the deeds of the Islamic rulers and warlords. In the nineteenth century India that he visualizes in his book The Last Mughal, the Hindus are depicted as fringe elements from whom no cultural and political achievements can be expected. Every cultural and political achievement that he describes in his book is Islamic. 

The Last Mughal reads like a paean to the Mughal dynasty and a hagiography of the so-called last Mughal, Bahadur Shah Zafar. Those who know something about India’s history might feel appalled by Dalrymple’s inflated description of Zafar. Here’s an excerpt from the book’s Introduction: 

“[Zafar] succeeded in creating around him in Delhi a court of great brilliance. Personally, he was one of the most talented, tolerant and likable of his dynasty: a skilled calligrapher, a profound writer on Sufism, a discriminating patron of painters of miniatures, and an inspired creator of gardens and an amateur architect. Most importantly he was a very serious mystical poet, who wrote not only in Urdu and Persian but Braj Bhasha and Punjabi, and partially through his patronage there took place arguably the greatest literary renaissance in modern Indian history.”

Look at the highfalutin phrases that Dalrymple has used to embellish Zafar: “great brilliance,” “most talented, tolerant and likable,” “a skilled calligrapher,” “a profound writer,” "a discriminating patron," “an inspired creator,” “a very serious mystical poet.” Instead of lavishing such praises on Zafar, shouldn’t Dalrymple simply describe the actual facts of history and let his readers decide what kind of man Zafar was? When Dalrymple calls the 1850s, “the greatest literary renaissance in modern Indian history,” he makes it abundantly clear that knows nothing about India. 

The truth is that throughout his adult life, Zafar was an opium addict. He never undertook any military campaign, he was never interested in administrative matters, and he never did any public work. He was a man without any achievement. In 1837, the British, who were then in control of Delhi, bestowed on Zafar the title of Mughal Emperor. But Zafar did not have any power. His writ did not run outside the walls of the Red Fort, where he lived as a virtual prisoner and slave of the British, who used to regularly humiliate him by denying him money for his petty expenses. 

A major part of Dalrymple’s book is devoted to the Mutiny of 1857. He tries to create the impression that Zafar, who was a senile 81-year-old opium addict in 1857, whose days were being spent in coining silly verses in the company of other opium addicts, and in trying to mediate in the pathetic disputes between his multiple wives and concubines, was somehow the central figure in the Mutiny. Zafar had never been a military leader. He never fought a war. He had no administrative talents. He did not have a commanding personality. He was never a leader of the Mutineers of 1857. 

Dalrymple fails to clearly establish in his book that a great majority of the sepoys who spearheaded the mutiny were Hindus. They were led by Hindu leaders like Rani Laxmibai, Nana Saheb, Kunwar Singh, Tantia Tope, Amar Singh. These leaders get dismissed in the pages of Dalrymple's book in just one or two lines, and some of them fail to get a mention. Dalrymple’s bias against Hindus becomes obvious when he calls the sepoys, “a large undisciplined army of boorish and violent peasants from Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh.” He diminishes the contribution of sepoy Mangal Pandey with the claim that he was irrelevant to the Mutiny. 

In chapter 12, “The Last of the Great Mughals,” Dalrymple calls Agra, a city that has existed since the Mahabharata age, a Mughal city. He seems to suggest that he was pained to see in Agra the statues of leaders who are not Mughals: Shivaji, the Rani of Jhansi, and Subhas Chandra Bose. Here’s an excerpt from his lament in chapter 12: 

“Today, if you visit the old Mughal city of Agra, perhaps to see the Taj Mahal, the supreme architectural achievement of Mughal rule, note how the roundabouts are full of statues of the Rani of Jhansi, Shivaji and even Subhas Chandra Bose; but not one image of any Mughal emperor has been erected anywhere in the city since independence. Although a Bahadur Shah Zafar road still survives in Delhi, as indeed do roads named after all other Great Mughals…” Only the Mughals get the title of “Great” in Dalrymple’s books. 

He goes on to make a snide comment on the Ayodhya Ram Mandir issue: “for many Indians today, rightly or wrongly, the Mughals are still perceived as it suited the British to portray them in the imperial propaganda that they taught in Indian schools after 1857: as sensual, decadent, temple-destroying invaders—something that was forcefully and depressingly demonstrated by the whole episode of the demolition of the Baburi Masjid at Ayodhya in 1992.” But it is not British propaganda that the invaders destroyed thousands of temples; it is an established fact.

The Last Mughal is a bad book. It is full of falsehoods about India’s history and culture. Dalrymple should not be regarded as a historian.

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