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When the dead speak

Nadir Shah’s massacre of Delhi’s residents in 1739 may be history, but it’s a reminder of the dangers inherent if a government is weak and disunited, writes AND Haksar

india Updated: Jul 23, 2012 23:57 IST

Delhi is a city of many memories. Some of its anniversaries are still observed, some just remembered, and others fully forgotten. A grim one belonging to the last category falls on March 22. On that date, over two centuries ago, the national capital witnessed a human carnage of unparalleled intensity and scale.

This was the notorious qatle-aam of Delhi, a general massacre ordered by the invading king Nadir Shah of Persia. His soldiers slaughtered a staggering 20,000 men, women and children in the city on March 22, 1739, within a spell of six hours. It is almost unbelievable that such a large number could be killed in such a short time. It would have been a difficult feat even with modern weapons. But there are independent eye-witness accounts of this horrific happening.

There are contemporary chronicles like Tarikh-e-Hindi of Rustam Ali, Bayan-e-Waqai of Abdul Karim and Tazkira of Anand Ram Mukhlis. The Mughal empire had been weakened by wars of succession and secession in the three decades since the death of Aurangzeb. The regime was corrupt and disunited, but the country was still extremely rich and Delhi’s prosperity and prestige unblemished. Nadir Shah came in to grab a piece of the pie, like so many before and after him in India’s history.

The invaders defeated the imperial army near Karnal on February 25. Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah then twice visited the Persian king at his camp for negotiations after which both rulers headed for Delhi. The keys of the capital were surrendered to Nadir Shah who entered the city on March 20, occupying Shah Jehan’s imperial suite in the Red Fort. Coins were struck and the royal khutba read in his name in the Jama Masjid and other Delhi mosques. On the following day, he held a great durbar in the capital.

These events seemed to signify a change of government, leading to public confusion and agitation. One result was that prices shot up. The new city administrator set a price ceiling and sent a military contingent of Persian troops to the Pahar Ganj grain market to enforce the decree. The merchants refused, leading to violence which soon spread to other areas, also assuming a xenophobic anti-Persian orientation. Persians moving about the city were waylaid and killed. The underworld joined in the mayhem. Rumours spread that Nadir Shah himself had been assassinated by a woman guard in the Red Fort. The warlike Turani population of the Mughalpura area fell upon the Persian soldiery. A large number of them seem to have perished in the rioting which went on through the night of March 21.

At first incredulous, Nadir Shah was later furious when told of these casualties. Also needing to reassert power, he retaliated by ordering the qatle-aam. The next morning, March 22, he rode out in full armour from the Red Fort and took a seat at the Sunehri Masjid of Roshan-ud-dowla near the Kotwali Chabutra in the middle of Chandni Chowk. Around 9 am, he unsheathed his sword as a signal to commence the public slaughter.

Soon the pathways of areas like Chandni Chowk and Dariba Kalan, Fatehpuri and Faiz Bazar, Lahori, Ajmeri and Kabuli gates, Hauz Kazi and Johri Bazar — densely populated by Hindus and Muslims alike — were littered with bodies. Shops were looted and nobles’ mansions set ablaze. Women were ravished and abducted, many committing suicide. Even Muslim citizens were reported as resorting to jauhar, killing their own women and children.

“Here and there some opposition was offered,” says Tazkira, “but in most places people were butchered unresistingly. The Persians laid violent hands on everything and everybody. For a long time, streets remained strewn with corpses, as the walks of a garden with dead leaves and flowers. The town was reduced to ashes.”

After numerous pleas for mercy by Mughal ministers, Nadir Shah ordered the bloodshed halted around 2 pm. But the plunder continued for some days. A then enormous fine of R2 crore was extracted from the people of Delhi. The contents of the imperial treasury, including the Peacock Throne, jewels and gold were seized. “The accumulated wealth of centuries changed masters in a moment,” says a contemporary writer. The Persian ruler returned with the loot to his country where he was murdered some years later. The Mughal emperors lingered on for another century but increasingly as puppets of other powers.

Anniversaries occasion reflection besides recollection. First, disunity, corruption and weak government has always made this land a prey to foreign depredation. Second, the 1739 massacre was neither the last nor the first Delhi has suffered. Three centuries earlier it had been sacked by Timur. Later, there was the 1857 uprising and its armed suppression, the 1947 partition riots and the 1984 Sikh pogrom. The last two had very different causes but still displayed the disastrous consequences of government paralysis at critical moments. Such breakdowns have recurred in the country from time to time, though at smaller scales and levels, even in the more recent past. Third, law and order obviously depends on respect and fear for the power meant to maintain it, and to ensure them with due care is the prime business of a government.

AND Haksar is a former diplomat and occasional writer on history, literature and foreign affairs

The views expressed by the author are personal