The fall of Delhi in 1857

By Kashif-ul-Huda,

It was all over by Sept 20th 1857. Indian forces had retreated from their positions. Mughal Royalty abandoned the Red Fort and people started leaving Delhi in large numbers to escape from looting by the British forces. Same day, last Emperor of India Bahadur Shah Zafar was arrested by the British forces, his three sons murdered in cold blood and their severed heads presented to the King. Delhi had fallen and with it any hope of keeping the foreign occupation out of India. Though some Indian forces continued fighting the occupying powers as late as 1859 it was not until 1947 that Indians will again take charge of their country.

We have all read and heard about the great war of 1857, but unfortunately, most of it is British account or by Indians who wanted to please their British masters. Hardly any research has been done to present the Indian perspective of this war of 1857. Dr. Shamsul Islam, a professor of Political Science in Delhi University has spent more than a decade collecting materials that give detail information of day to day happenings in the Indian camp.

He has published a number of books in Hindi and English presenting original materials and shocking the readers with what he uncovers. A different image of 1857 and particularly the siege of Delhi appear as we read the letters written by spies and traitors present in Delhi but working for the British. These spies were put in service as soon as the native soldiers of British forces declared mutiny. These spies provided valuable information from within the city to the British forces on Delhi Ridge. These letters were translated by the British forces and preserved in different archives and collections which Prof. Shamsul Islam through his painstaking research has collected over the years. He has cross-checked the facts and events mentioned in these letters and now we have an alternate record of a very important part of the Indian history. When these letters are read along with letters and reports by the British forces they provide a valuable insight into how the great war of 1857 was lost by the Indian forces.

British Memorial of 1857 war at Delhi Ridge

In 1972, Government of India offers an amendment

British Forces

First reading the British accounts, we find that British forces were demoralized with lot of confusion and indiscipline among the ranks. Consider this, writing in early September 1857 one Officer writes “We had been the Besieged and not the Besiegers.” On Sept. 6th we find William Hodson, the intelligence chief ready to give up. He writes, “If the campaign lasts very long I shall be forced to go home next year.” Nevertheless British forces stormed Delhi by breaching Kashmiri Gate, a plaque commemorating the names of those who attacked it still stands at Kashmiri Gate but we don’t know the names of those who defended the gate from attacks by the British forces. Though British were able to enter the city thanks to the breach but still they met strong resistance. British historian of this period, John William Kaye wrote, “it was plain that we had received a severe check,” he adds that the British troops, “were much exhausted by fatigue, and much depressed by the mortality that surround them.”

On Sept. 16th, Major General Archdale Wilson describes his and his forces condition:
“Our Force is too weak for this street fighting, when we have to gain our way inch by inch, and of the Force we have, unfortunately, there is a large portion besides the Jummoo troops in whom I can place no confidence…. I find myself getting weaker and weaker everyday, mind and body quite worn out… We have a long and hard struggle before us.”

On Sept 19th, a day before the Fall of Delhi, Hodson makes this observation: “We are making slow progress in the city. The fact is, the troops are utterly demoralized… For the first time in my life, I have had to see English soldiers refuse repeatedly to follow their officers.” How this demoralized and indiscipline army able to win Delhi is what Prof. Islam uncovers in letters from spies working for the British.

British Memorial lists important battles of the Siege of Delhi

British Agents

These spies not only provided information about Indian troops preparations and movements to the British but also advised them how and when to attack. They also acted as agent provocateurs for the British masters. These British agents were everywhere in the city and some in the circles closest to Bahadur Shah Zafar.

Dr. Islam identifies three important British agents in Delhi- Rajab Ali, who was awarded Rs. 10,000 for his services during the siege; Jeewan Lal, whose family was always attached to the Mughals, in fact one of his forefather was prime minster of Aurangzeb, was made honorary Magistrate and a Municipal Commissioner for providing critical information to the British during the siege; Mirza Ilahi Bakhsh was very close to King Zafar, one of his daughters married Zafar’s son Mirza Fakhru. In reading through the letters we find Mirza Ilahi Bakhsh planning the fall of Delhi by other nobles of the city including queen Zeenat Mahal. He on one occasion saved the life of Jeewan Lal when rebels arrested him for spying for the British. He also successfully convinced Bahadur Shah Zafar not to leave the city with Indian forces and brought about the surrender of the King and the princes.

There were many other spies working overtime for the British forces and Hodson writes that they were employed to sow the seeds of dissension within Indian Forces, between Delhi residents and defenders of the city and also between Hindus and Muslims.

British marker at Kashmiri Gate

Indian Forces

Ironically, letters of British spies provide lot of information about activities in the Indian camps. We find Bahadur Shah Zafar actively involved in the civil and military arrangements in Delhi. We find Indian forces very well organized with proper command and control. Corrupt people being punished and grievances of the people redressed. We find Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and even Indians from South and some Whites fighting for the Indian cause. We find a proper Military Council that managed the affairs of the war and planned strategies. Military Council was also responsible for maintaining funds; 12 member Council had representation of a civilian Delhi resident as well. This council was democratic with representation of Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs; Mirza Mughal who though had a seat in this council was not able to have influence in the debates since other members distrusted him for charges of funds embezzlement against him.

Bakht Khan Rohilla, Commander-in-Chief of the Indian forces (1857-1859)

Indian forces were divided in sections with doctors attached to each section and fighting organized so that each section gets proper rest without hindering the war effort. They made new advances in making ammunitions and also came up with a rocket gun which was personally inspected by the King on Sept. 6th and employed into the service the next day. Families of those who died in battles were given Rs. 3 monthly pension.

King Zafar seems to be in full command when he orders a ban on cow slaughter. He also removes some of the princes from collecting funds when they were found to be involved in embezzlement. Collection of funds was levied on all irrespective of caste and religion. Funds thus collected were distributed according to the discretion of a committee constituted for this purpose.


British built a memorial on the Ridge that they occupied during the siege. This memorial still stand there today near University of Delhi campus honoring those who faught for the British cause, listing names of important British officers and counting wounded and dead both natives and British and a listing of battles during the siege that lasted from May 20th to Sept. 20th 1857. India is yet to built a memorial for the patriotic sons and daughters who made the ultimate sacrifice for their nation. In 1972, Indian government put up a board there that says that what British inscriptions called ‘enemy’ are actually brave Indian soldiers who fought for national liberation.

Indian soldiers are still called “mutineers” in official Red Fort museuem

And British version of events of 1857 war is still supreme in India. (Poster in Red Fort museum)

It is strange that more than 150 years since the Fall of Delhi and even after 60 years of India’s independence we are yet to identify Indian heroes and recognize their sacrifice. While we know that Major William Hodson’s grave is maintained in La Martiniere College in Lucknow, we don’t know what happened to Bakht Khan Rohilla, commander-in-chief of Indian forces who kept alive the resistance against British occupation forces till 1859.

Relevant books by Dr. Shamsul Islam:


Rebel Sikhs of 1857, Vaani, Delhi, 2008.
Jeewan Lal: Traitor of Mutiny, Vaani, Delhi, 2008.
Letters of Spies: And Delhi was Lost, Vaani, Delhi, 2008.


1857 ke Baghi Sikh, Vaani, Delhi, 2008
Ghadar ka Dalal: Munshi Jeewan Lal, Vaani, Delhi, 2008.
Jasosoon ke Khatoot: Aur Dilli Haar Gayee, Vaani, Delhi, 2008.
1857 Kee Heratangez Dastanen, Vaani, Delhi, 2008.

[All photos by]