On May 11, 1857, Bahadur Shah Zafar, the nominal emperor of Hindustan, was approached by the Indian sepoys of the Bengal army who came to see him from Meerut after rebelling against the British dictat that required them to use Enfield rifles whose cartridges were greased with the fat of pig and cow.
They appealed to him saying that every proclamation that they had heard so far was in his name: “Khilqat Khuda ki, Mulk Badshah ka, Hukm Company ka (The Lord’s creation, the emperor’s country, the company’s command).”
“But now, the British have been empowered to rule us on your orders. So we have come to you as petitioners, hopeful of justice.” (Dastan e Ghadar by Zahir Dehlvi, translated by Rana Safvi).
The emperor, though initially reluctant, agreed to lead them in their war against the foreign rulers and on May 12, 1857, he was crowned the Emperor of Hindustan. On May 18, 1857, Munshi Jeevan Lal, a spy of the British, wrote that the Rani of Ujjain, Laxmibai, had asked for permission to come to court; she was told that it was entirely upto to her and not required.
Implicit in this report is her support for the Indian sepoys fighting under the Mughal emperor.
He was indeed accepted by all as the emperor of Hindustan and when the uprising spread, even Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi and Nana Saheb “sought legtimacy from the Mughal sovereign Bahadur Shah II rather than appealing to the notion of Hindu Padpadshahi or seeking legtimacy from the Maratha chiefs of Satara or Peshwa,” writes Prof SZH Jafri, in a special volume on Delhi in 1857.
In another article, ”The issue of religion in 1857: Three documents”, Prof Jafri writes:
“One comes across numerous printed proclamations, appeals and pamphlets issued by the rebel leaders in the various centres of the Uprising, always making a plea for a united struggle to expel the foreign rulers from the Indian subcontinent. Apart from making a very strong case for Hindu-Muslim unity they often also sought to revive the notion of Mughal sovereignty and invoked the concept of ‘People (khalq) of God, country (mulk) of king (that is, the Mughal emperor), authority (hukm) of the local leaders or chiefs’ to imply loyalty to a common cause.”
On August 25, 1857, Bahadur Shah Zafar issued a proclamation. S Mahdi Hasan, in his seminal book Bahadur Shah Zafar and the War of 1857 in Delhi, writes that the original proclamation was lost, but in 1858, after Zafar’s sentence but before he was actually sent to Rangoon, Burma, his descendant Prince Firoz Shah, who was still at war with the British, issued its replica and thus it became famous as the Azamgarh Proclamation.
It was translated by JD Forsythe, the secretary to the chief commissioner of Oude as the "Proclamation issued by the Rebels". It declares that "as both Hindoos and Mohammadens have been ruined by the oppression of the infidel and treacherous English, therefore it is the bounden duty of all the wealthy people of India to stake their lives for the well-being of the people of India".
It talks of Muslims rallying under the flag of Muhammad and the Hindus under the flag of Mahavira (used for Hanuman).
It goes on to say that the sacred books of Hindus and Muslims have prophesied the end of British rule after this year (1857) and thus, people should remove fear of its continuance from their minds and join in “our cause”.
(There was a prophesy that 100 years after the Battle of Plassey (1757), the British rule would come to an end.)
The proclamation addresses zamindars, merchants, men of service, artisans and scholars of both creeds, "Hindoos and Musalmans (Maulvis and Pandits)". This last part is very interesting as it says: “You are aware that the British are opposedto your religion and as the present is a religious war you should join s and gain the good will of the creator, otherwise you will be considered sinners. If you will join us you will receive mafees and land from the emperor.” (From Bahadur Shah Zafar and the War of 1857 in Delhi).
So, this was a religious war where Hindus and Muslims, of "high" and "low" castes, all fought against the foreign power of the British East India company, under the banner of the Emperor of Hindustan, Bahadur Shah II (more popularly known as Bahadur Shah Zafar), and fought a common enemy: the firangi or foreigner.
However, it is important to note that Bahadur Shah Zafar was not fighting Christians or Englishmen but the British East India company. “He (Zafar) opposed the company’s paramountcy and the Englishmen as a class enjoying the highest and most lucrative offices in the state,” writes S Mahdi Hasan.
In fact, the European Francis Godlieu Quins, who wrote Urdu-Persian poetry under the penname Frasoo, chronicles that “Zafar called all the three classes of poeople (Musalman, Hindus and Mujahideen) to a personal interview, and having taken an oath explained his object. He asked that the Hindus should swear by Ram and the Ganges and that the musalman should swear, each placing a copy of the Quran on his head.” (Bahadur Shah Zafar and the War of 1857 in Delhi.)
While Ghulam Ghaus manned the cannons in the Fort of Jhansi under Rani Laxmibai, Raja Jai Singh of Azamgarh fought under the banner of Begum Hazrat Mahal (he was a key member of her military counsel and also the main spokesperson for the troops in their dealings with the court of the young Birjis Qadr, after the regent declared him the Nawab in 1857). Jai Singh, too, was martyred in the cause of Independence.
Ghaus, the gunner, died defending Jhansi; Rani Laxmibai had famously declared, “Main apni Jhansi nahin dungi (I will never give up my Jhansi)” to the British.
Azizan Bai, the famous courtesan of Kanpur, joined the battle against the British in 1857, under the banner of Nana Saheb.
There are innumerable examples of Hindu-Muslim unity and, in fact, that was seen as one of the main reasons for the “revolt” by the British.
If there was Ahmadullah Shah, the Maulvi of Faizabad, fighting the British in Awadh, there was also Rao Tula Ram of Haryana, who was helping Bahadur Shah Zafar.
Liaquat Ali was holding the fort in Allahabad's Khusrau Bagh, while 80-year-old Kanwar Singh raised the banner of revolt in Bihar. A forgotten aspect of the 1857 uprising is the role of the tribals who had also participated. A popular Bhojpuri song from 1857 goes thus:
(Translated by Badri Narayan in Facets of the Great Revolt, edited by Shireen Moosvi).
“Among the many lessons the Indian mutiny conveys to the historian, none is of greater importance than the warning that it is possible to have a Revolution in which Brahmins and Sudras, Hindus and Mahomedans, could be united against us...,” British historian George William Forrest mentioned in the introduction of the State Papers soon after the end of the First War of Independence.
According to historian Irfan Habib, it was the largest anticolonial uprising anywhere in the world. Out of 1,35,000 Bengal army native soldiers, only 7,000 remained loyal to their British masters.
It was the sheer scale that rattled the might of the British Empire and they struck back with unparalleled cruelty — killing, executing and looting all those whom the slightest shred of evidence linked to the revolt. The brunt was borne by Muslims as they shared the faith of the man declared as Emperor of Hindustan. It was seen as a “Mohammedan conspiracy making capital out of Hindu grievances”.
Most of the princes and princesses were either killed or died trying to escape, or spent their lives in ignominy and poverty. Many innocents from every site associated with the centres of the uprising were killed, and Hindustan, as we knew it till 1857, changed forever.
The emperor was tried for sedition (against his own empire!) and exiled to Rangoon in 1858; he died there, away from his homeland, in 1864.
Thus, the Mughal empire was replaced by the British Empire under Empress Victoria.