Bakht Khan: The Commander Who Almost Defeated the British
The Sepoy mutiny of 1857 was extremely chaotic. Due to the pandemonium caused by disorganised Sepoys looting and murdering at random, they were never able to strategically gain a significant advantage over the British, despite having larger numbers in many areas.
In this chaos, there were two people who were able to enforce a level of control among the Sepoys, strategically directing their attacks on the British. One of these people was a commander named Bakht Khan. He was summoned by Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II to take control of the Sepoys at The Ridge in Delhi, and lead them in their efforts against the British.
Bakht Khan was a ‘tall, portly, heavily built man with a huge handlebar moustache and sideburns’. He had a reputation of being both an effective administrator and military leader. However, he rather lacked in diplomacy, and this would prove to be a pivotal flaw that would eventually affect the result of the mutiny.
As soon as Bakht Khan entered Zafar’s court, his lack of diplomacy became apparent, which immediately ruffled some feathers. Ahsanullah Khan, who was present in the audience, wrote:
“When he came near the King’s Chair in the Diwan-i-Khas, he salaamed as though to an equal, and merely taking his word from his side, he presented it to the King. The King was appalled by this lack of courtesy, but praised the bravery of his troops…”
Despite his seemingly discourteous attitude, Zafar trusted Bakht Khan, and believed that he would be able to make the efforts at the Ridge more efficient.
Zafar’s instincts were correct. Bakht Khan immediately implemented order and strict discipline, punishing those who were caught looting. He established an extremely efficient rotational system at the Ridge, which allowed for continuous attacks that left the British struggling to catch their breath. As Richard Barter describes it,
“[Thanks to the] system organised by Bakht Khan… we were scarcely able to stand… Worn out, and knowing that there would be no hope of relief, some soldiers grew desperate and dashed at the Enemy, getting killed on purpose to be rid of such an existence as soon as possible, their idea being that it must come sooner or later, the sooner it is over the better”
Bakht Khan continued to lead organised, disciplined attacks. On July 9th, he led a concentrated effort against the British that resulted in the most successful attack till date. The British were extremely fragile, and in that moment, they were the closest to defeat than they had ever been thus far.
Sadly, no intelligence of these developments reached Zafar’s court. Even as Bakht Khan was systematically defeating the British, complaints were being made against him, claiming that he wasn’t doing enough, and that he had not achieved any significant victories.
No one knew how much Bakht Khan had really accomplished. No one knew how vulnerable the British were to defeat.
Alas, court politics coupled with a lack of information resulted in Bakht Khan being called back from the Ridge, giving the British a window of respite, which was all they needed to recoup and effectively undo everything that Bakht Khan had achieved.
As Richard Barter puts it,
“And so, when we were scarcely able to stand, the attacks ceased, as if by a dispensation of Providence, and gave our forces the repose they so much needed”
Dalrymple, William. The Last Mughal. Haryana: Penguin Random House India, 2007. Print.