The Last Mughal

Published: August 16, 2015
The writer is Editor of The Express Tribune

The writer is Editor of The Express Tribune

A recent invitation to Yangon (Rangoon) for Fellows of Stanford University’s Center for Democracy, Development and Rule of Law (CDDRL) on a seminar allowed the added opportunity celebrate August 14 at the Mazar of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor of India.

It was a sobering experience – here was buried the emperor of what was once the largest empire in South Asia.

There are many lessons to learn here. For example, how the Mughals rose to prominence and then lost it all due to their poor governance and lack of investment in learning and technology, happy instead to spend money on their pleasures.

In the words of British orientalist, Stanely Lane-Poole, “As some imperial corpse preserved for age in its dead seclusion, crowned and armed and still majestic, yet falls to the dust at the breath of heaven, so fell the Empire of the Mughals when the great name that guarded it was no more.”

Historians say that it was the degeneration and demoralisation of the Mughals that eventually led to their fall. One wonders whether as Pakistanis, our rulers also face the same fate given their corruption and maladministration. But Pakistanis are not one to learn from history.

One of the trustees of the shrine, Alhaj Eyelwin, told me that the shrine is mostly visited by Indians as well as Burmese Muslims. Almost no Pakistanis venture here. There was a lack of Pakistanis on August 14 but I was told Indians come here on their independence day (August 15) to pay respects to the last Mughal who was also the titular head of the 1857 war of independence.

In 2012, it was President Zardari who made a donation to the shrine but this was immediately matched by the Indian government for the same amount. Earlier, President Musharraf promised funds but they never materialised.

Coming back to Bahadur Shah Zafar, the British wanted to set an example: the last Mughal king’s grave was deliberately kept secret when he died in 1862 and was only discovered in 1991 by accident. Since then the Myanmar government has helped maintain the site.

What is interesting is that while the last Mughal emperor was sent to exile by the British to Yangon in 1858, the last Burmese King, Thibaw Min, was exiled by the same British administration to India in 1885 after his empire was also annexed. Burma was made a province of the Indian empire as well. The similarities do not end there. Both emperors died in reduced circumstances and were never able to return to their home. Their descendants today live in poverty. As far as religious communities are concerned, the Burmese enjoyed prosperity in the Indian sub-continent. The same cannot be said for the Muslim communities in Burma.

Many communities were forced to leave Yangon in the ’60s by military strongman Ne Win, who introduced the concept of Buddhist nationalism. That concept remains today. Today the Muslims of Myanmar are not a happy lot. I recall as I checked in for my flight to Myanmar, the lady at the Thai counter asked me why I was going and when I replied, asked me to write more about the Rohingyas.

In Myanmar, the issue is more than just of the Rohingyas. In my discussion on the Rohingyas, a number of Myanmar activists insisted that most of those who claim to be Burmese were actually Bengalis. Possibly this is not entirely the case. Others talked about the nature of Buddhist nationalism, which has been the guiding ideology for Myanmar over the years.

While there are a number of mosques dotting the landscape in Yangon, many Muslims complain that they continue to be marginalised. They complain that they are not given government jobs, denied identity cards and actively discouraged from politics.

There are almost no Muslims in the armed forces, which was not the case in the past, say many. Their hope now comes in the form of elections which are to be held later this year in November.

It is in all these things that the similarities with present day Pakistan are hard to ignore. The treatment of religious minorities and marginalized communities for one, and the experiments with controlled democracy for another.

While one hopes for free and fair elections and a peace in Myanmar for the coming months, realistically this will be a challenging time.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 17th,  2015.

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Reader Comments (18)

  • The Book Says
    Aug 17, 2015 - 1:56AM

    Thank god that Mughal empire ended. No more kafirs living with fear. It system only helped the pure bloods, not even the converts (as we know), but the Hindus (kafirs) were treated the worst!

    Coming back, in theory – It is duty of majority to make minorities feel secure with attitude of “live and let live”. However the minorities should also equally take a step forward in “integrating”, “assimilating”, not showing attitude of “domination in the future” (as it is said in the book) and not throwing tantrums on street due to problems faced by their brothers (of same religion) in distant lands!

    So, as a minority, simple rule – play by the rule book of the land, or immigrate to place where their beliefs are respected! And sometimes even playing by the rule book, does not work (as in case of Pakistan). Since, in Pakistan the marginalization of Hindus and Sikhs has kept up at a steady rate (not just since 1947), but more so since 1972 (after the split from Bangladesh), so they are just less than 2%. Sikhs and Hindus are choosing to go to India, since the majority community has failed them miserably. They have a chance for a safer future.Recommend

  • Another Indian
    Aug 17, 2015 - 3:47AM

    Another sad piece relishing non-existent Mughal glory. Indians pay respects to Mughal emperor? Slight modification needed: Indian muslims still hung over from destroyers and barbarian Mughals, pay respects to some good-for-nothing tyrant.Recommend

  • Babloo
    Aug 17, 2015 - 3:51AM

    What is allegedly happening to Rohingas ( ethnic Bengali, mixed muslims in Burma ) , has already happened to Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan.
    The only country in South Asia, where minorities live as equal citizens and their numbers increased since 1947, is India. Remember, numbers never lie.Recommend

  • Tariq Ali
    Aug 17, 2015 - 5:16AM

    A very telling account of the persecution of Muslims in Burma, now renamed as Myanmar. Lessons need to be learned by those who are not thankful for being citizens of a free country. British colonialism with all its brutality and cunning ways is exhibited in the manner they exiled rulers who allowed them space in their own countries, compromised sovereignty and than paid the price. Recommend

  • s.khan
    Aug 17, 2015 - 8:10AM

    The book”Last Mughal Emperor” by William Dalrymple, a Scottish historian, was
    a story of horrors inflicted on 80 year emperor by the British. He was required to
    stand up and salute when a British, even of low rank, passed by. The worst happened
    to his daughter in law, who was the most beautiful women, went completely gray
    and blind in her 40s just from the stress of living under horrible condition. British
    are very cruel people. Their atrocities against Afrikanners in South Africa in 1900
    are well known. They burned their houses, took women as hostages and starved
    them. Incidentally after the failure of 1857 rebellion they also burned down many
    palatial houses of Muslims in Delhi, hanged leading Muslims to deprive the community of
    leadership. Many noble families became pauper overnight. The beginning of downfall
    of Muslims in India can be traced to this period. Not only British were tough on Muslims because they grabbed the power from them and made sure they never rise again, but
    also gave full expression to the bigotry and prejudice against Islam in Europe since
    the conquest of Byzantine empire by Muslims. It is astounding that General Allenby
    who led British forces into Jerusalem in 1918 after the defeat of Ottoman empire
    went to Sepulchre Church( built on the site Jesus Christ was crucified) and thanked
    GOD for completing the crusade- a thought lurked in their mind since defeat in 1187
    by Slahuddin. British and French Empires disappeared and a few decades ago we
    witnessed the dissolution of Soviet empire. Now many observers think that American
    empire is in decline. Empires come and go, nothing lasts for ever.Recommend

  • abhi
    Aug 17, 2015 - 9:34AM

    Mughal decline started with the cruel and orthodox regime of Aurangzeb. He destroyed the harmonay created by earlier Mughal rulers. He persecuted common people, destroyed temples and imposed unjust taxes. Before britishers it was Nadir Shah who plundered Delhi.Recommend

  • Toticalling
    Aug 17, 2015 - 11:24AM

    @abhi:I agree with your analysis. Aurangzeb’s orthodox rule helped finish Mogul rule. Whenever religion is given prominence, things start going downhill. That is true even today. Look around the world. Countries with religious identities are in turmoil and those with secular laws are progressing. I see thousands trying to enter Europe every day from Muslim countries. Akbar became the most successful because he was a realist Mogul king. Recommend

  • Pankaj
    Aug 17, 2015 - 1:32PM

    If there would be no mughal rule, Idustrialisation and scientific renaisance would have happened in India not in Europe. Mughals delayed it by 200 years.Recommend

  • Mithidada
    Aug 17, 2015 - 2:29PM

    If Indians still wonder why Muslims wanted their own homeland in the subcontinent, just look at the comments by Indians on this page. Today, even 68 years down the line, the reason is as valid as ever.Recommend

  • Khan Jr
    Aug 17, 2015 - 5:47PM

    While I agree the Mughals, along with the Chinese and Persian emperors, were self indulgent and ruled their kingdoms as their private inherited property. However, if the Maratha Shiva Ji had overthrown the Mughals he would of course have been no different. it was the prevailing culture all over Asia at that time that was at fault.
    During that period the European Kings and rulers had been greatly weakened by the financiers, and trading guilds, which reduced despotism and the weakening of religious grip of the churches gradually led to liberalisation in education and the spread of knowledge. A proper study of History would indicate that Shiva Ji or any other ruler iod those times – Hindu, Muslim, Sikh – would have been as self indulgent and despotic as the rest.
    Unless of course you are delusional enough to think that the reign of Shiva Ji would have brought forth a host of Isaac Newtons or an Albert Einsteins!Recommend

  • Lolz
    Aug 17, 2015 - 5:59PM

    @Pankaj: I would disagree here. The very nature of dharmic religions is individualistic and introvert with a minimum place for expansion and invention. Mughals brought an Aryan and Muslim tradition which was more expansionist in nature. This expansionist nature was expressed in fertile and warm India in the form of architecture that also suited the majority. Whereas the same expansionist nature of Europeans was expressed in infertile and cold Europe in the form of hospitals and universities. Recommend

  • Aug 18, 2015 - 12:00AM

    @The Book Says: Your opinions are a joke.Recommend

  • Rex Major
    Aug 18, 2015 - 1:57AM

    @Pankaj: If there would be no mughal rule, Idustrialisation and scientific renaisance would have happened in India not in Europe. Mughals delayed it by 200 years.

    You must be having some extreme high tech crystal ball to retro-judge a given situation with such certainty.Recommend

  • Rex Major
    Aug 18, 2015 - 2:05AM

    @Pankaj: If there would be no mughal rule, Idustrialisation and scientific renaisance would have happened in India not in Europe. Mughals delayed it by 200 years.

    Don’t be too sure. The Indian Hindu kings weren’t doing some great things either.
    Remember Prithviraj Chauhan was busy frolicking with his Samyukta and angering her father Jaychand when he lost his kingdom. The kings did what the kings did – plundered the poor to have good life. The religion seldom played a role. Aurangzeb imprisoned his father, killed his brother, sister and son all just to gain power.Recommend

  • abhi
    Aug 18, 2015 - 10:30AM

    Don’t know why my comment was moderated, it was based on true facts.Recommend

  • Gurion
    Aug 18, 2015 - 10:56AM

    @Khan Jr:
    Enlighten us as to when any Maratha or Sikh kings was despotic?
    On the other hand, even the opium addict, Jehangir was known for his cruelty. There’s a vast difference in the values of Muslim kings and Indian ones.Recommend

  • Wowowow
    Aug 18, 2015 - 11:21AM

    At that age intellectual stagnation had become the norm across the whole of Asia. In both Muslim and Buddhist ruled states. The question is, why? Recommend

  • Kushal
    Aug 18, 2015 - 1:30PM

    @Another Indian: In 1857, Hindus and Muslims alike declared him Emperor of Hindustan.Recommend

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