The anniversary of the Battle of Delhi goes largely unnoticed. R.V. SMITH sheds light on the events leading up to the battle more than 200 years ago

Today is September 10, the anniversary eve of the Battle of Delhi, fought 209 years ago. There have been many battles of Delhi, starting from 1191-92, including those between Muhammad Ghori and Prithviraj Chauhan, the battle of wits between the Mongols and Alauddin Khilji, Taimur’s rout of the forces of Mahmud Tughlaq at Loni, then the three battles fought at Panipat between Babar and Ibrahim Lodi, Akbar and Hemu (not counting the Karnal skirmish between Muhammad Shah and Nadir Shah, the Persian invader) and the Maratha confederacy and Nadir’s successor, Ahmed Shah Abdali. Though referred to as the battles of Panipat, they were really for the possession of Delhi and as such linked with the fortunes of this imperial city. In all these battles (save the first one between Prithviraj and Ghori) the invaders were victorious, though Alauddin succeeded in chasing away the Mongols camping below the very walls of Delhi by not losing his nerve. During Shah Alam’s reign, 30,000 Sikhs under Baghel Singh camped at Tis Hazari with the intention of invading Delhi but were prevailed upon to withdraw, thanks to the sagacity of Begum Sumroo, who saved the emperor the indignity of capitulating to the besiegers, and thus earned for herself the honorific of “the emperor’s beloved daughter”.

However the only “Battle of Delhi” recorded as such in history is the one between Scindia’s Marathas and the British, with the former pretending to fight on behalf of the Mughal emperor Shah Alam II. But Shah Alam was wavering between support to the two parties as he knew that he was caught between the devil and the deep sea. This battle was fought on September 11, 1803 in what is now East Delhi, with Patparganj being the main arena of action and thus the battle field.

To quote from Percival Spear’s Twilight in Delhi, The British Governor-General, “Lord Wellesley’s object was to secure the prestige of the Moghul name without any admission of its superior authority; Shah Alam’s to maintain the imperial pretensions at the cost of any conceivable practical concessions. Lord Wellesley’s agent was the British Commander-in-Chief, Lord Lake, and his agent in Delhi was the Sayyid Reza Khan. During July and August Shah Alam’s letters wavered between appeals for help (against the Marathas who had made a virtual prisoner of him, keeping him in a golden cage as it were) and complaints of his treatment by the British as the fortunes of war ebbed and flowed. On 27 July, 1803, Wellesley, in a personal letter, assured Shah Alam” that if he accepted the asylum which he had directed Lake to offer, “then every respect and degree of attention would be shown to him and his family and adequate provision will be made on the part of the British Govt for the support (ease and comfort) of your Majesty, your family and household”.

But as Spear also thinks, the Governor-General’s assurances were those of a forked tongue for, besides promising respect, dignity and personal security, he wanted Lake to “urge Shah Alam and the heir apparent Akbar (later Akbar Shah II) to reside at Monghyr in Bengal” (now in Bihar). However, Sir Charles Napier, the conqueror of Sindh who famously said “Peccavi” (Latin for “I have sinned”, punning on Sindh), was of the view that the emperor should be sent to Fatehpur Sikri, Akbar the Great’s deserted capital, which was closer to Delhi and hence perhaps more acceptable to the blind emperor.

Shah Alam asked for British support on August 29 and on September 1, under French dictation, announced that he would take the field against the British “whose invariable custom it is, in whatever country they are allowed to reside under fixed stipulations, speedily to seize upon that country”. Despite this assertion he welcomed Lord Lake five days after the general had won the battle.

As for the battle itself, there was not much to it. It turned out to be more of a skirmish, with the Marathas, more used to guerrilla warfare, failing to carry the day. Their French commanders and the freewheeling local soldiers of Delhi, who had raised the cry of “Deen Deen (Faith) and come out to give battle to the pork-eating infidels” from the galis and mohallas of the city with antique swords, spears and matchlock guns, were the first to retreat, despite individual acts of bravery.

The women of Delhi, the able-bodied men who had stayed at home, the emperor, his son and begums in the Red Fort waited for some miracle to happen but their hopes were belied and the British finally put their seal on Delhi, which was to last till August 1947 when Lake and his troopers, as also Shah Alam and his harem, were dead for more than a hundred years. It is that event that will, as usual, go unnoticed in Delhi this year too, except for some British tourists coming to pay homage to their ancestors who died in that battle and on September 19, when the firangis recaptured Delhi, 54 years later, in the war of 1857.