When the Bishop of Calcutta came to Delhi in 1824, he had a meeting with Akbar II, the penultimate Mughal emperor. It was a tragic affair. The royal audience hall was “full of lumber of all descriptions, broken palanquins and empty boxes”. The throne, meanwhile, was covered in pigeon’s dung. The king of kings, descended from another Akbar of legendary fame, himself lived in “pitiable” conditions, at the mercy of the East India Company. “I heartily hope,” the Bishop wrote, “that [the British] Government will reverence the ruins of fallen greatness, and that, at least, no fresh degradation” would be inflicted on this “poor old man”.
The Broken Script: Delhi Under the East India Company and the Fall of the Mughal Dynasty
Pages: 432 + 24-page photo insert
Price: Rs. 899
Delhi in the age of this old man and his heir—specifically from 1803 until the Great Rebellion of 1857—is the focus of Swapna Liddle’s The Broken Script: Delhi Under the East India Company and the Fall of the Mughal Dynasty. Though the book, especially its second half, contains a good deal about literary culture, education, general life, and institutions under Company rule, its soul and principal substance lies in the tale of the imperial dynasty and their negotiation of decline. In theory, the Mughals remained sovereigns of India. In practice, however, these years witnessed the British chipping away at their claims, subjecting the emperor precisely to the “degradation” the Bishop feared.
It is surprising how many people think that the Mughals vanished somewhere in the 18th century; The Broken Script sketches skilfully the dynasty’s battle for survival in the period that followed, when, as Akbar II’s successor would lament, “nothing was left but the bare name instead of wealth, power and country”. Liddle’s research in resurrecting this time is solid: she utilises palace records, Company documents, files concerning the “mutiny” in 1857, (its chaos marking the end of the book), newspapers, and a host of private accounts. Every second page offers a detail, episode, or anecdote of the variety that makes researchers scribble notes. The writing itself flows with ease, making the text accessible (and enjoyable) to the lay reader.
Politics and control
At one level, Liddle’s book is a study of politics and control. When the British took Delhi from the Marathas in 1803, the Mughal emperor was already weak. Yet, he was still the fount of political legitimacy in the Indian subcontinent. As I discovered in my own research, as far south as Travancore, in present-day Kerala, rulers sought the emperor’s endorsement for their titles and position. Lord Wellesley, the imperialist Governor-General, was fully conscious that custody of the emperor was a political asset. And if the British didn’t take charge of him, a hostile power might exploit the Mughals’ symbolic appeal to unite anti-Company factions. The padshah had no teeth, that is, but even his shadow could be transformed into something potent.
At first, as Liddle shows, the British were courteous: honours were paid, and the Company took a ceremonially subservient pose with the imperial family. But no sooner was control established than the hacking away began. Before long, Company men wanted to assert superiority—one Governor-General in 1815 refused to visit Delhi, for the idea of having to stand in the emperor’s presence was grating. Akbar II possessed de jure sovereignty, but the British were, de facto, his masters. Slowly, the Company took control of the Red Fort, citing security. They meddled in the allocation of stipends to junior princes, exiled those of the royal house who were seen as dangerous, and introduced themselves even into the emperor’s domestic life. These were all political acts, oriented towards ejecting the Mughals from public consciousness. The Red Fort was a living reminder of their erstwhile greatness; so, Company officers began to urge the imperial family to move out and vacate their ancestors’ seat. Similarly, many were the painful negotiations over the dynasty’s pension. Though much was put down on paper, t The padshah was often reduced to pleading, at one time even seeking legal representation in London. The Company conceded certain claims, but only after extracting an advantage or benefit for themselves—it did not matter that he was in the right; they had the power to defy every treaty. Additionally, the British cut off the emperor’s ceremonial links with other Indian courts—the Company, not he, were hereon positioned as India’s supreme authority.
- Delhi from 1803 until the Great Rebellion of 1857 is the focus of Swapna Liddle’s The Broken Script.
- Liddle’s research in resurrecting this time is solid.
- She utilises palace records, Company documents, files concerning the “mutiny” in 1857, (its chaos marking the end of the book), newspapers, and a host of private accounts.
Delhi itself, meanwhile, saw interesting transformations. The fall of its Muslim ruling elite, more and more on the margins under Company rule, saw also the corresponding rise of Hindu and Jain mercantile classes; this at times sparked religious animosities. The city was home to heaps of newspapers that reported enthusiastically on palace dynamics, bazaar gossip, speculated on British policy, and more. A degree of anglicisation was also in the air.: elites might serve oyster pate to Western guests, while shops obtained signboards in English. But equally, there were furious debates on whether English or “Oriental” learning should be patronised, and to what extent. To the more conservative, the city’s culture too seemed to be under siege.
Liddle’s study is illuminating, and reflective of how complex even a relatively narrow historical canvas and geographical space can prove. She reminds us that colonialism and empire were not merely about territory and battles, but also more intricate matters of ritual, protocol, and meanings. The book has a rich cast of figures—Anglo-Indian families related to the Mughals by marriage; corrupt British officers who might be manipulated by “natives”; professors and poets—some of whom deserve their own detailed studies. It is a gratifying read, about a dynasty and a city navigating the end of an old world, and the creeping advent of a new, unfriendly one.
Manu S. Pillai is a historian and writer.