One of the first questions that arise from this book concerns the description of its subject as “the last king in India’’. With what justification can Wajid Ali Shah be described thus? His reign in his ancestral kingdom ended in February 1856 when Lord Dalhousie annexed Awadh. In other words, he ceased to be a king or he was a king without a kingdom. Bahadur Shah Zafar ruled in Delhi as the Mughal Emperor till September 1857. The Nizam continued to rule in Hyderabad till 1947 as did some other powerful rulers in Rajasthan, to wit the maharajas of Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur; not to mention the maharaja of Kashmir. Thus in terms of simple chronology, the claim does not quite stand scrutiny.
There is a different kind of problem with calling Wajid Ali Shah a king. His forefathers, before 1819, were called and saw themselves as the nawabs of Awadh. This meant they were independent rulers who owed a certain formal allegiance to the Mughal emperor. This status was most explicit in the case of the nawabs of Bengal who continued to send revenue to Delhi from Murshidabad well into the 18th century. The nawabs of Awadh may not have sent revenue but their allegiance to the Mughal emperor was evident when the then Nawab of Awadh, Shuja-ud-daula, joined forces with the Mughal emperor to fight the British at Buxar in 1764. Moreover, what the author herself calls “the bauble of a crown’’ was given to Nawab Ghazi-ud-Din Haidar neither by himself or by the people of Awadh, nor by the Mughal Emperor but by a usurper, the English East India Company, in 1819. What legitimate authority the East India Company had to bestow such a title is an issue that does not bother Rosie Llewellyn-Jones. Yet the claims of kingship are based on the (in)validity of such a title.
Llewellyn-Jones’ moving and well-researched account of the life of Wajid Ali Shah makes it apparent that he was an ill-fated ruler. He had been condemned as a person unfit to be king by the British administrators even before he had ascended the throne. The annexation of his kingdom was a chronicle foretold because successive governors-general and British Residents in Lucknow had decided that a British takeover, in contravention of existing treaties, was the only way to end the continuous “misrule’’ in Awadh. The zeal of Lord Dalhousie in this regard only rendered a coup de grace to the nominal independence of Awadh. Wajid Ali Shah refused to accept the proposed treaty by which he agreed to hand over his kingdom to the British. He exiled himself to Calcutta where he lived in Garden Reach. A year after the annexation of Awadh, the whole of north India was engulfed by the great uprising of 1857. Wajid Ali Shah had nothing to do directly with the rebellion. But Awadh was the principal theatre of popular resistance and the people there were incensed with the way the British had taken away Awadh from their beloved king. There was no evidence that Wajid Ali Shah in Garden Reach was connected to the events in north India but the British imprisoned him. Thus within a year of his losing his kingdom, Wajid Ali Shah was a prisoner.
Llewellyn-Jones does not pay sufficient attention to the cultural conflict that informed the relationship of the British with Wajid Ali Shah. Empire-builders imbued with the idea of improvement and driven by the zeal of the civilising mission could hardly come to terms with a ruler like Wajid Ali Shah who believed that his subjects singing his songs was enough guarantee that he was seen as a good ruler. “Does Queen Victoria’s subjects sing her songs?’’ Satyajit Ray makes Wajid Ali Shah ask his chief minister Ali Naqi Khan in Shatranj ke Khiladi, thus capturing the differing notions of kingship.
That Wajid Ali Shah withdrew into a life of culture was not without a political context. He, like some of his predecessors, had watched how the British had gradually taken away the decision-making powers of the Awadh nawabs. Wajid Ali Shah was not allowed to rule. He consciously withdrew into the world of culture and this provided the pretext of “misgovernment’’ for the British and for the annexation. The so-called “incompetence’’ and “indolence’’ of the nawab was the direct outcome of the system in which the rulers of Awadh were entrapped by the British. Llewellyn-Jones ignores this context and its fallout.
This book is rich in details and a trifle short in analysis and insight. There is no denying that on Wajid Ali Shah’s stay at Garden Reach the author has unearthed material not known before. But by that point of his life Wajid Ali Shah had ceased to be a subject of any historical significance except that he was a living victim of the ingratitude, venality and the untrustworthiness of the makers of the British Empire in India.
THE LAST KING IN INDIA: WAJID ALI SHAH, 1822-1887
Author: Rosie Llewellyn-Jones
Publisher: Random House
The reviewer is author of Awadh in Revolt and professor and vice-chancellor at Ashoka University