The Broken Script : Delhi Under The East India Company and the Fall of The Mughal Dynasty, 1803-1857Swapna Liddle
456 pages|₹ 899
Swapna Liddle (Photo: Raul Irani)
THE REVOLT OF 1857 is a painful and pivotal chapter in Indian history. All its aspects are still debated, including the role of Delhi. Although Delhi was not the starting point of the revolt, it played a decisive part. This is what author and historian Swapna Liddle explores in her new book The Broken Script : Delhi Under The East India Company And The Fall of The Mughal Dynasty, 1803-1857 (Speaking Tiger; 456 pages; `899). It spans the 54 years in Delhi before the Revolt, the uprising and aftermath, the economy, the rise of the Urdu language and the growing intellectual class. Through her book Liddle argues that exploring these tumultuous decades is crucial to understanding the Company’s gradual and complete grip on Delhi.
Over a Zoom call, Liddle tells Open it had always been her intention to write a book on this relatively less-discussed period. The Broken Script originated from her PhD thesis at Jamia Millia Islamia: “The PhD was a way of doing the book with the required rigour and discipline but I didn’t want it to be an academic publication, but one for the general readership,” she explains. The result is a comprehensive overview of this period, written in an accessible style, showing intensive research drawn from a large variety of sources. Percival Spear’s The Twilight of the Mughals, and Narayani Gupta’s Delhi Between Two Empires, 1803-1931 are two other notable works on the era and like these, The Broken Script demonstrates how Delhi was indeed caught between two empires; the declining Mughal Empire, and the rising British East India Company, the precursor to the British Raj.
The author’s long years of study have led to an evocative portrait of Delhi in these decades. Liddle knows her city. Her earlier books include, Chandni Chowk: The Mughal City of Old Delhi (2017) and Connaught Place and the Making of New Delhi (2018). Her expertise in this area is also evident in her role as Convener of the Delhi chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). “My academic interest has always been in Delhi. The other books have largely come from my heritage hat. It is Delhi, as a space and its interface between history and heritage that interests me.”
The Broken Script starts in 1803, when the Company defeated the Marathas, then Delhi’s de facto rulers. As Delhi’s new conquerors the Company took over the Marathas’ role in propping up then Emperor Shah Alam II. After his death, his son Akbar II became Delhi’s titular emperor with the Company’s support. As time passed, the Company tightened its hold on Delhi. There was no initial overt resistance to the new foreign rule as the Emperor had no armies. Liddle writes, “the old and blind Emperor lived in the Red Fort, the palace complex within the city, as a mere puppet and pensioner, though one with considerable symbolic authority.” Delhi’s elite were quick to align with the new heart of power and the public adapted to their new rulers surprisingly quickly. Liddle clarifies, “For most people, life goes on. For every new regime, their main concern is how to adjust to it.” She adds, “Today we look back and say this was a foreign regime but it was not immediately clear back then. Diversity was something that people adjusted to quite well. We should not project backwards.”
The Company prioritised preserving order and a veil of normalcy in Delhi, projecting the illusion they were ruling on the Emperor’s behalf. This was marked in the early stages, as the Company realised the symbolic significance of the Mughal Empire and the old historic capital of Delhi. The primary officials managing this order in Delhi were called ‘Residents’. They slowly undermined the Emperors’ position by reducing the royal family’s privileges, shrinking the Emperor’s mark on seals and coins, and interfering in the royal household, its established customs, and more worryingly, in the royal succession .
The royal family couldn’t directly challenge the new rules. One notable exception was Jahangir II, Akbar II’s son and preferred heir, whom the Resident found difficult to control and then sent off to Allahabad. Unsurprisingly, the Mughals tried to circumvent the Resident through more discreet methods, such as sending their own representatives to make their case in England. Liddle explains, they tried manoeuvring within the available parameters. Akbar II’s wife Mumtaz Mahal, for instance, even offered to adopt the second resident Archibald Seton. Liddle elaborates, “The royal family used political culture and signs of sovereignty to resist the Company’s encroachments to safeguard their existing position.”
My academic interest has always been in Delhi. The other books have largely come from my heritage hat. It is Delhi, as a space and its interface between history and heritage that interests me, says Swapna Liddle, author
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Although the Residents systematically decreased whatever real power the Mughals had, they aren’t framed as tyrannical British stereotypes in the book. Two of the first Residents, ‘subtle’ Archibald Seton and Charles Metcalfe, in contrast to some of their successors, are drawn as pragmatic, competent, yet reasonable individuals, willing to give time to address both the royal family’s and the public’s grievances. Nevertheless, all the Residents were playing the long game; their ultimate goal was to make the Mughal’s position so irrelevant that there would be “a complete indifference on the part of the princes and people of India towards the Mughal throne.”
This aim, the Company’s conquest of Delhi, how they immediately and implacably worked to undercut the Emperor’s position, may indicate the Company had great self-confidence. But it wasn’t as obvious. Liddle says, “When you conquer a place, you of course always hope to hold on to it. I would say they were very insecure for a long time. They exiled the troublesome Jahangir II because they have a real fear that Russia, if aligned with Napoleon, will move onto India and British possessions in India and might capture Delhi, using the Mughals as puppets.” This fear would last a few decades, until their ill-judged complacency would set in.
It is not only the Residents who come across as three-dimensional figures. Other figures, from the renowned poet Ghalib, to the resourceful Begum Samru, to lesser-known figures such as the diplomat Mohan Lal and the Anglo-Indian soldier James Skinner, are all drawn authentically. Most of all the last Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, instead of the weak, ineffectual ruler he is popularly remembered as, is here a dignified royal struggling with the indignities the British subject him to as they increasingly deem him irrelevant. Liddle writes, “The Emperor had at best been a reluctant leader of the Revolt,” but “soon proved that he was more than a merely symbolic leader.” He succeeded in restoring some semblance of order in Delhi, insisted on a degree of mercy and restraint from the rebelling soldiers; and yet was ultimately scapegoated by the British.
What makes The Broken Script especially appealing is that apart from the accounts of the people and events, a section comprises that period’s growing cultural and intellectual life. This serves to give a more in-depth picture of life in Delhi. Liddle comments on this: “Life is not lived in compartments. A lot of the cultural and literary developments of this time are inseparable from the politics and tie in with what happens later. Delhi culture is finished as it was in 1857, and the Delhi College and other institutions are wiped out.” The loss of this large aspect of Delhi’s life is referred to in the book’s title: as Qadir Baksh ‘Sabir’ laments in the opening page, “Bas ke bedad se tute hain makan e dehli ho raqam khat e shikastah se bayan e dehli (So unjustly have the buildings been razed in Delhi, it is fitting to inscribe in the broken script, the account of Delhi).”
The last section of the book covers the Revolt in May 1857 and its aftermath. The Revolt was a shock to the Company, as it was unprepared, and remained in a relative state of paralysis until September, when the reinforcements came. Liddle explains why they were caught off guard. “Slowly, as more states came under their control, they ceased to think the Mughal emperor mattered, or that Delhi is significant.”
Liddle’s vivid account of the people and events bring a long-lost Delhi to life, and reminds readers of a great city in transition.