Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal ruler, succeeded to the throne in 1837. By the time he became king, the decline of the Mughal dynasty had began.
The British had occupied Delhi in 1803 and made the emperor virtually a prisoner. His authority was limited to the Red Fort and his income was also not sufficient to meet his family’s needs. The British Resident there was powerful and administered the city affairs. Despite the fact that the emperor was confined to the fort, people still loved and respected him as their emperor.
Bahadur Shah Zafar, after losing political power, concentrated on patronising art and literature. He was a good poet and calligrapher and knew different languages of India. During his early years, Zauq was his teacher and after Zauq’s death, Mirza Ghalib took his place.
When the rebellion of 1857 broke out, Bahadur Shah Zafar was unaware of it till the rebel soldiers arrived in Delhi and asked him to lead the revolt. Initially he was reluctant and did not want to engage in any conspiracy or rebellion, but rebel soldiers occupied the Red Fort and compelled him to declare war against the English. The rebels also forced him to give them money for the war expenses and on one occasion it is said that he had to give his wives’ jewellery to the soldiers.
Throughout the rebellion, Bahadur Shah Zafar tried his best to maintain peace among the Hindu and Muslim soldiers. He also condemned those who called it a religious war.
When Delhi was conquered by English forces, he took refuge in the tomb of Humayun. Bakht Khan, the rebelled leader, requested Zafar to accompany him and continue the struggle against the English. But Zafar was too old to bear the hardships of war and he refused to leave the city. He surrendered to the victors who treated him very badly. They killed the Mughal princes and ill-treated the members of the royal family.
Zafar was tried on charges of treason. He tried to defend himself by telling the British that he was forced to take part in the rebellion and he did not rebel willingly. But the British didn’t believe him and exiled him to Rangoon where he died in 1862.
The English authorities, after his burial, levelled the ground leaving no trace of his grave.
Bahadur Shah Zafar was a terrific figure in Indian history. He is not only known as a Mughal emperor but also as a great poet and he occupies a respectable place in Urdu literature.