The 7 November is not just election day; it also happens to be the anniversary of the death of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, a man whose empire had been almost entirely annexed by the British East India Company when in 1857 he became the figurehead for India’s ‘first war of independence’. Taken into exile and placed under house arrest in Rangoon after the rebellion was crushed, he died there on 7 November 1862.
The date is usually remembered at the site of his old residence and resting place near to Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon. This year, however, the authorities have rescheduled the event to 25 November, so as “not to clash” with the elections.
His position as an emperor was perhaps not as significant as his ability to unite – a weapon which is today kept under strict watch by a committee of military and intelligence officers that guards his shrine. For in their midst lies a saint whose prominence was born of the fight against tyranny and unification of the oppressed, and for such notoriety he became one of Burma’s most prominent political prisoners of the colonial era.
“The British were very, very scared of his pen,” says U Kyaw Min, who works as an unofficial guide at the tomb. Indeed Zafar was a prolific poet, and on his arrest and detention in Rangoon his captors – fearing the power of his words – banned him from possessing writing implements. So as the Shah neared his 90th birthday he would scrawl on the wooden walls of his house with charcoal. Only two of these poems remain, which now take pride of place above his tomb.
Prior to his exile and rise to figurehead status, his court played host not only to his own poetic streak, but that of one of South Asia’s greatest poets, Ghalib. As historian and biographer William Dalrymple put it in 2007, “Zafar’s court is responsible for some of the greatest poetry written in modern India”. It was this that he was famed for, making him a somewhat unlikely military leader.
His original Rangoon residence is now long gone, replaced by a more modern structure which was refurbished with donated Indian money. In the early 1990s a mysterious body was found. This turned out to be the real body of the Shah, now a saint. For as Kyaw Min puts it, the British initially “bluffed” the body of Zafar, or perhaps, literally and metaphorically, tried to bury corpse and memory.
So today within the shrine there exists an ‘original’ shrine room, with three tombs, one of which is the “bluffed” tomb of Zafar, and one his last wife, Zeenat Mahal Begum, whom he married when she was only 14 – Kyaw Min proudly tells the visitor that “Indian and Arab women develop earlier”, indicating an apparent dietary advantage. And the third belongs to his granddaughter.
Zafar’s shrine is visited by many South Asian dignitaries whose fading images can be seen on a nearby notice board. Abul Kalam made the trip when he was President of India, a man whom Kyaw Min describes as a “small saint”. And then in 2005 former Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharaff visited, making less of an impression on Kyaw Min, who describes him as a “bastard” who “supports terrorists”.
His understated mausoleum is quiet. Its resident Imam and guide see Zafar as a “step to heaven”. Recognising his unifying legacy and poetic prowess, Kyaw Min denies his Sufism, claiming instead that this simply means “saint” in Arabic. They also fail to see the political significance of this poet rebel in all but an historical sense.
The comparison with Burma’s rebel ‘princess’, Aung San Suu Kyi – herself under house arrest a few kilometres down the road from Zafar’s shrine – is lost on Kyaw Min. He simply says: “But Suu Kyi has been beaten by the generals!” as if the fervency of religion has elevated Zafar in his imagination to a victor over the British, when in fact we stand in what was an ignominious resting place. But then the presence of a silent ‘chairman’ in the room may be enough to steer Kyaw Min away from such comparisons: the shrine itself is in fact run by a committee who are apparently all military, and allegedly some of whom are intelligence.
But like Suu Kyi, there was it seems something untainted about Zafar; a unifying power. He was not of the dominant religion in India, Hinduism, but instead a Muslim. Yet his shrine is still, as Kyaw Min indicates, host to Hindus who come to pray, whilst Muslims prefer to venerate him.
In 1857, a small mutiny of Hindu and Muslim soldiers of the British East India Company turned into a mass movement, perhaps the largest 19th Century anti-colonial struggle anywhere. Zafar was unique in his ability to command respect from delicately juxtaposed religious communities, and was thus hoisted onto the shoulders of the aspirations of a sub-continent; communities who were intentionally divided and ruled.
Zafar’s were religious barriers whilst Suu Kyi’s can be seen as ethnic, regional and political, and she has an aura that is as feared by the powers that be as Zafar’s was. For no matter what official voices say about her “relevance” after decades behind bars, there is only one Lady that hushed residents of the old capital talk of. Most, it seems, also contain her same cynicism towards the elections, despite elite voices urging people to play the game. And conversely, hers is, despite bitter repression, a looming presence that draws people to the new opposition, the National Democratic Force, who actively associate themselves with her, and for good reason.
And as the British banned the old poet from possessing pens, so Suu Kyi’s house is cut off, with no phone signal. As reverent ‘Rangoonites’ tell foreign visitors, with a blocked road to hide a crumbling house, it confines a brave, burning soul.