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Fulfilling Bahadur Shah’s last wish

Bahadur Shah Zafar wanted to be buried in Hazrat Qutubuddin Bakhtiar Kaki shrine at Mehrauli. But he lay buried unsung in the distant Myanmar. Why? Find out with R.V. SMITH


The demand to bring back the remains of the last Moghul emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, has been raised from time to time, the latest one being the plea by some cultural and historical organisations. However, reports from Rangoon say that the graves of Zafar, his wife, Zeenat Mahal, and son, Jawan Bakht, are being looked after properly and Zafar is regarded as a highly venerated peer now. Zafar had intended his last resting place to be in the vicinity of the shrine of Hazrat Qutbuddin Bakhtiar Kaki at Mehrauli, in Delhi.

His “sardgah” or empty grave can still be seen in the small cemetery there. After his trial and conviction by the British, the deposed emperor left Delhi in October 1859 along with close members of his family. The poet in Zafar grieved in silence at the verdict of the firangis who had paradoxically charged him with waging war on the State, which meant against himself, for wasn’t he the rightful ruler of Hindustan? How many ghazals Zafar composed mentally on the way to exile can only be imagined, for poetry was his very life breath. But the other members of the royal party grumbled all the way, particularly Zeenat Mahal, and his other wife, Taj Begum. As a matter of fact, Taj Begum returned half way from the journey.

The others were not so lucky. On his arrival in Calcutta, Zafar was reminded of another poet and ruler who was forced to spend his last years in exile like Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Awadh. But at least Calcutta was part of India, while Rangoon was not. So even that consolation was denied to him. His arrival in Burma was a quiet affair, with the British officer accompanying the party ensuring that not manyBurmese came to know of it. And even if they did, what interest did they have in an old and sick deposed Moghul emperor? During his trial Zafar had asked that he be sent away to Mecca to spend the last few years of his life. But the plea was rejected. However, some members of his family did manage to escape from there. Mirza Nasirul Mulk was not one of them. Crippled, he died in penury in the Jama Masjid area after the coronation durbars of 1911. Zafar’s famous ghazal, “Lagta nahin hai ji mera ujde dayar mein” was written in Rangoon shortly before his death. He was the victim of many diseases, especially asthma.

Tragic end

Loathed by his near and dear ones as the “buddha” who coughed all the time, he breathed his last on November 7, 1862 and was buried quietly at night by his son, the British officer attached to the exiles and some others. Even the officer could not help wondering at the tragic end of the king of Delhi. “I am the light of no one’s eye...Who would light a lamp on my grave”, Zafar had written in a poignant ghazal and the prophecy came true.

When one visited his vacant grave one saw the evening moon gaining light and a black cat sitting on the boundary wall. Zeenat Mahal and Jawan Bakht submitted several petitions to the British, seeking permission to return to India. But they were all rejected. The once beautiful begum died as old, toothless hag and then Jawan Bakht. But the heir apparent’s descendants still live in Myanmar. Incidentally, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose vowed at the mazaar of Zafar to liberate the country from the British rule.

Now that we are independent the last Moghul emperor’s remains should be brought back and interred in the vacant grave at Mehrauli so that a lamp could be lit on it every day.

But this is neither acceptable to the Myanmar and Indian governments nor to orthodox Muslims, though Pakistan too may like to stake its claim to the remains of the emperor.

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