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Compassion in the Midst of Mutiny

An excerpt from Dastan-e-Ghadar: The Tale of the Mutiny, the memoir of Zahir Dehlvi, an official in the Mughal court of Bahadur Shah Zafar, chronicling how a young European woman was protected during the 1857 revolt.

A scene from the Indian Mutiny. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Khalq Khuda ki, Mulk Badshah ka, Hukm Badshah ka, no one should oppress another. Anyone found looting, plundering or appropriating another’s goods will be punished by the emperor.”

The messenger went to the houses of the halwais and grocers and had their shops opened. Purbias were put on guard here and a few other shops were also opened. The halwais once again put their huge woks on fire and started frying puris. The grocery shops were opened and those who were fasting began buying the food items required to open their roza.

At this time, Ahsanullah Khan gave orders to yours truly and Sufi Mazharullah Beg, the royal risaldar: “Go and inspect the state of affairs in the city. Has the looting and plundering stopped?”

As per orders, the two of us mounted our horses and went into the bazaar. We went towards the Fatehpuri Masjid. We found peace and calm prevailing in the city. There was no looting and plundering anywhere and some shops were open. There were guards set at the open shops and there was buying and selling going on. The soldiers were paying the required price and getting the selected merchandise weighed.

We were going back when we saw a crowd gathering in front of the kotwali. There were many purbias there under a tree. Many local goons were gathered there as well. The goons told the rebels in one voice that the kotwal of the city was sympathetic to the British. As soon as the rebels heard this, they pointed their guns at the veranda of the kotwali and fired. The door of the kotwali fell, whereupon a few people ran out and jumped over the wall at the back and ran away.

At this time, we saw another crowd emerge from the side of the Koriya Pul. As we stood there, we saw two young and beautiful European women being pulled along by the crowd as prisoners.

As soon as I saw this, my companion turned towards the men who had promised to maintain law and order. These men were standing in front of the kotwali under the neem tree. Moving his horse forward, he said, “You had just promised to eschew high-handedness and now you are indulging in it once again. What kind of false promises are these?”

Zahir Dehlvi, translated by Rana Safvi
Dastan-e-Ghadar: The Tale of the Mutiny
Penguin Random House India, 2017

The rebels who had been addressed took the two women from the purbias and handed them over to us. I asked them, “You are handing them over to us here, but what if the rebels snatch them away from us further down the road and kill them?”

Two sawars were sent with us as escorts. When we reached the gate of the qila we saw that a large group of purbias, accompanied by Hindus and Muslims (approximately 5,000 people altogether) were coming towards us.

“What is this huge mob?” I asked, startled at the sight.

“They are the helpers and assistants who were with us in Meerut,” the sawars said.

We reached the deorhi safely, but neither Mehboob Ali Khan nor Ahsanullah Khan was present there. I sent the two women into the palace with the khwaja-sara. After leading them in, the khwaja-sara returned and said, “Huzoor Anwar was very pleased with this act. Keep an eye on the general welfare of the people as long as possible. No one should be killed.”

Later, we learned that the group of goons who had imprisoned the women had also included convicts who had been released from the jail.

I was observing the fast at this time, and so was very thirsty. I sat under the shade of the tasbihkhana.

Not much time had passed when another uproar began. As a young European man came striding up the steps of the tasbihkhana, he was held up by the purbias. The European held a small brass water container and the hilt of a sword – but the sword itself had been broken in two and was red with blood all the way up to the hilt. He held the hand of a very beautiful, delicate Miss. This young maiden was around 16 or 17 years old and was tall with an oval face and a slim waist. There were spots of blood on her and she was pale. She looked extremely frightened.

As soon as I saw this, I rushed towards them. A thought crossed my mind: This man held a bloodstained, naked sword in his hand and no doubt had murder on his mind. God forbid, what if he attacked me?

If he let go of the girl’s hand, he would have been finished. I decided to disarm him first and take the sword from him, then make him let go of her hand. As soon as I reached him, I caught his wrist in a powerful grip with my right hand and put my left hand on his sword. I said, “You disrespectful man, don’t you know that this is the emperor’s deorhi and you cannot enter here with your weapon?”

Hearing this, the rest of the men crowded around him. When the young girl saw a sympathiser and protector in me, she came to my side and caught my waist. When her body touched mine I realised that she was shivering and trembling in fear, and her heart was pounding. I snatched the sword from the man’s hand and asked, “What do you want? Please tell me.”

“Brother,” he said, “I swear on God, we have not looted anything. Even though the world has looted property worth lakhs, we did not touch a single thing. I have only taken this one thing, and if I get this, I don’t need anything else.”

Giving the sword back to the European I said, “You cannot take her just now. If I tell this woman to go with you now, you will lose your life, and this poor, helpless girl will also lose hers. Your attempts and sacrifice will be wasted when these soldiers murder both of you. The best course is for you to stay patient for a few days. Once this tumult has died down and the mutiny has been suppressed, your charge that we have kept in trust for you will be returned to you. Until then, she will be with the emperor.”

The khwaja-sara and others who were present in the deorhi joined in with me. We somehow pacified the European and sent him away.

The young girl heaved a sigh of relief and moved away from me. I asked her about the events that had transpired and how she had come to be with the young man.

The young miss put her hand to her mouth and made a sign asking for water. I got some from the water room and gave it to her.

When she had regained her composure she said, “This man murdered my sahib and grabbed my hand and walked away with me. On the way, the sawars tried to snatch me away from him, but he wouldn’t let go. He was ready to kill and be killed, and fought his way here. The world has taken all my possessions. Now will you give me back to that man?”

I spoke sympathetically, “Absolutely not! That cannot happen. You have come into the protection of the emperor and whatever the emperor orders will be done. You will enjoy all the comforts while you are under his protection. No one will touch you. Once the mutiny is over, you will have the right to decide where you want to live. You will be in charge of your own destiny. It was your destiny to reach this place safely, and now no one can kill you.”

The young miss took a long breath. “Let us see.”

I told the khwaja-sara to take her inside the palace. The latter lifted the curtain of the deorhi and called out to the servant, “Bi baridar, memsahiba is coming. Take her into the presence of Huzoor.’

The curtain of the deorhi was lifted and the young lady disappeared within.