(My column in Mint Lounge, December 07 2019)
In the summer of 1858, as British troops battled the celebrated rani of Jhansi at the fort of Kalpi, fighting alongside her was a Muslim prince called Ali Bahadur II. Though styled nawab of Banda in his own right, in actual fact, as one account put it, Ali was merely “a titular prince, possessing no political power”, living off a pension paid by the English East India Company. Indeed, when the Great Rebellion had convulsed the country the previous year, he first lent protection to local Englishmen before switching to the rebel cause—one tale suggests that it was a rakhi from Lakshmibai that inspired the nawab’s change of heart. His “honorary bodyguard of native troops” was a force to be reckoned with, and in April, for instance, he had faced a Company army with as many as 7,000 men. The battle didn’t go well for Ali, however, and when he fled, the nawab was forced to abandon 17 valuable siege-guns, not to speak of 400 corpses of men who had raised swords bravely in his name.
The Banda nawabs, of whom Ali was the last powerful prince, were a family with a fascinating provenance. It was in 1729 that the celebrated Peshwa Bajirao I, de facto head of the emerging Maratha confederacy, arrived in Bundelkhand to aid the raja Chhatrasal in his time of military need. Not only did Bajirao please his ally enough to open doors into the region for Maratha ambitions, among the presents he took back to Pune was a dancer called Mastani. While some claim she was Chattrasal’s daughter, she first appears in official records in 1730 as a kalavantin (woman of the arts) who was rewarded with robes and ₹233 for performing at Bajirao’s son’s wedding. But she was also in love with her patron, who not only housed her in his palace, but also had a son with her. So it was that a morganatic line of Muslim cousins was born in the house of the Brahmin peshwa, causing, understandably, a scandal that tormented him till the end.
Through the 1730s, Mastani remained with Bajirao, confronting intrigue as well as periods of forced separation. Blame for Bajirao’s appetite for meat and love of alcohol were laid at her door, for instance, and despite all his power, Bajirao was ostracized by Brahmins in Pune for violating the laws of caste and religion. When his legitimate son was invested with the sacred thread, Bajirao had to absent himself so as not to give offence to the priests and his kin and community. Mastani too was policed and often placed under house arrest. Their union, which defied convention as well as immense pressure, sparked a hundred romantic songs, however, and while Mastani faded away after the Bajirao’s death in 1740, there was some consolation in the acceptance his family gave her son. Named Krishnasing Shamsher Bahadur, the boy could not become a Brahmin like his late father. But he did become a loyal general in Bajirao’s army, serving his Hindu half-siblings with valour and honour.
So we have Krishnasing fighting the nizam of Hyderabad under the Maratha flag in 1752, just as he put down rebellion in the Konkan three years later. He invaded Marwar soon after, and by the end of the decade was mediating a succession dispute in Bundelkhand. He even joined a major campaign that saw the Marathas claim such faraway regions as Multan and Peshawar. “Chiranjeev” Shamsher Bahadur was present at the Third Battle of Panipat in 1761—where the Marathas suffered their most demoralizing defeat at the hands of invading Afghans—but this time his name featured among those who were lost: Seriously wounded, he managed to get away from the carnage but succumbed to his injuries. His son took up service in Bajirao’s court, and it was he who established himself as nawab of Banda, winning enough honour for one of the five palace gates in Pune, hitherto called the Mastani Darwaza after his grandmother, to be renamed after him.
Settled in Bundelkhand, the nawabs remained part of the vast Maratha political universe, and, in 1803, it was loyalty to the peshwa that pitched their flag against the British in the Second Anglo-Maratha War. It was an ill-fated enterprise, however, and while the peshwa’s wings were clipped, the nawabs lost all their powers to rule. In return for pledging loyalty to the corporate house that was steadily becoming India’s overlord, they were granted an annuity of ₹4 lakh, and this the family enjoyed for over half a century. In 1823, the titular nawab, a grandson of Shamsher Bahadur’s, died and was replaced by his brother, Zulfikar, whose own death in 1849 brought Ali to the fore. Only 17 years old at the time, he stayed loyal to the Company, before, of course, throwing his hat in the opposite direction a decade later, alongside Lakshmibai, Tantia Tope and other great heroes of Maratha lore.
At first, Ali had every reason, like his allies, to hope for victory. At Koonch, for instance, they had faced Company fire and lost despite technically being on the stronger side. As even their British opponent admitted: “While so many drawbacks weakened me, the enemy, physically speaking, was unusually strong. They were under three rebel leaders of considerable influence, Rao Sahib…the Nawab of Banda, and the Rani of Jhansi.” Their next reversal in Kalpi, however, rang the death knell of the dynasty founded by Mastani and Bajirao. Though Ali kept fighting for many more months, in November 1858, when he realized that theirs was fast becoming a lost cause, he surrendered. And though he was accused of several crimes, his life was spared—Bajirao’s great-grandson was exiled to Indore with a reduced pension of ₹36,000, and there he lived till his death in 1873, a prisoner in his own house.