The Begums of Bhopal
By Dr A Q Khan
In one of my previous columns on basic education I had described my memorable school days in Bhopal and the stress laid on cultural and religious values. I had also mentioned how five enlightened ladies ruled Bhopal with love, affection, discipline and efficiency.
First of all, I would like to correct a mistake in that column. The total area of Bhopal state was 7,000 sq. miles, not sq.km. The Bara Talab was so big that one could not see the other bank from where one was standing. There were about 400 mosques, the largest being Taj-ul-Majasid, which could accommodate more than 100,000 namazis. One of the world's largest Ijtima is held there every year. Bhopal has a history of many waliullahs, which will be discussed in a later column.
I had mentioned that Bhopal was once attacked by the neighboring Marahtas and Rajputs, but they were repulsed. In October 1812, the joint forces of Gwalior, Indore and Nagpur, numbering about 82,000, attacked Bhopal under the famous Scindia General, Jagua Bapu. Bhopal could muster only about 11,000 troops. After a few weeks some 5,000 Rajputs and Sikhs of the Bhopal army deserted, leaving only 6,000 troops to fight the 82,000. Every soldier, and even Nawab Ghous Muhammad Khan's wife, Zeenat, and daughter, Qudsia (later Nawab Qudsia Begum, the first Begum of Bhopal), fought with exemplary courage. Zeenat Begum, Qudsia Begum and loyal and brave Hindu men and women, following in the footsteps of Muslim women in the days of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), also fought alongside the soldiers.
There was no time to observe purdah. As the days passed and the situation became precarious and hopeless, Vazir Muhammad Khan, the commander-in-chief, went to Hazrat Mastan Shah, a dervish who was always in a trance and praying. He requested him to pray for all Bhopalis. Mustan Shah rose and starting dancing and shouting "victory, victory," all the while stamping the ground at one place and pointing towards it. Vazir Muhammad Khan then ordered some soldiers to dig there. They found a cellar full of arms, ammunition and foodstuff. The soldiers were electrified. After careful planning and preparation Vazir Muhammad Khan opened the gates of the fort and he and his troops charged the enemy, while Zeenat Begum, an expert gunner, and other ladies fired on the enemy from the fortress wall. Thousands of enemy soldiers were killed and the rest fled – Bhopal was saved. As Nawab Ghous Muhammad Khan had meanwhile expired, Zeenat Begum became regent until she declared her daughter, Qudsia Begum, as ruler in 1819. She ruled for 25 years.
In 1844 Sikander Begum, daughter of Qudsia Begum, became the ruler. She witnessed the 1857 War of Independence and saved Bhopal from marauding mutineers. She gave humanitarian shelter to some European ladies and children and the British were particularly grateful to her for this. Sikander Begum's biggest achievement came when she traveled to Delhi at the invitation of the Viceroy, Lord Canning. Jama Masjid in Delhi, built by Shah Jehan, had been turned into stables by the British after the 1857 uprising, as it was considered to be a safe haven for Muslims. Sikander Begum was able to convince Lord Canning that by allowing the building to revert to being used as a mosque, he would win the loyalty of the large Muslim population. Calling the water carriers, she herself started sweeping and washing the floor of the mosque, soon to be joined by many others. She remained there until the mosque was thoroughly cleaned, incense burned, the first azan called and prayers offered for the first time after many years. No other Muslim ruler, Nawab or Nizam, had been able to achieve this. By this achievement she won the gratitude of all the Muslims of India and was highly admired and respected. She performed Haj with her whole family and staff. She also introduced many reforms. She ruled until 1868.
Contrary to the wisdom, foresight and diplomacy shown by the Begums of Bhopal, the story in some other Muslim countries, and even in our own country, was quite different. For instance in Punjab, a Muslim by the name of Abdur Rahman encouraged Lahorites to plot against the ruler, Geet Singh. Other Muslims like Mohkam Din, Mufti Mukarram, Mian Tahir, Mian Baqar helped Ranjit Singh occupy Lahore. Mohkam Din had opened the Lohari Gate for Ranjit Singh's army. Despite the fact that many Muslims were holding important positions, such as Foreign Minister Faqir Azizuddin, Ranjit Singh turned Badshahi Mosque into a stable and all other mosques met the same fate. Those Muslim collaborators did nothing to try to stop Ranjit Singh from desecrating the mosques.
Shah Jehan, daughter of Sikander Begum, became Nawab in 1868. She was a very capable ruler and facilitated the cultural development of Bhopal. The famous mosque at Woking in England was built at her initiative. She herself also paid for the construction of the railway track to join Bhopal to the national railway network, thereby making Bhopal an important junction. The first train reached Bhopal on Nov 18, 1884.
After Shah Jehan, her daughter, Sultan Jehan, became Nawab and ruled from 1901 to 1926. She did a lot for women's emancipation. She toured the state without purdah, built separate schools for boys and girls and brought learned teachers in from other states. In 1903 she performed Haj with her family and staff. A ship was specially chartered and a proclamation made in the state that anyone could accompany her, free of charge. Not a single application was received. The Bhopali Muslims rejected the offer of free passage and facilities, stating that it was required that Haj should be earned and not performed on charity. What a contrast to our present situation, where even our rich rulers do not hesitate to perform Haj or Umra at government expense. Begum Sultan Jehan generously helped Sir Syed Ahmad Khan in establishing the Aligarh Muslim University and became its first chancellor.
Sultan Jehan's youngest son, Hamidullah Khan, became the Nawab of Bhopal in 1926. He was a very polished person, a graduate of Aligarh University, chancellor of Aligarh University and chairman of the Chamber of Princes. He was a very close friend of the Quaid-i-Azam and was instrumental in getting Mr Ghandi to agree to partition. He ruled until 1949, when Bhopal was annexed by India. Hamidullah Khan inducted many distinguished personalities into the civil service as advisors. Notable amongst these were Sir Zafrullah Khan, Sir Joseph Bhore, Sir Ross Masood, Ghulam Muhammad, Allama Suleiman Nadvi (Qazi), Chaudhri Khaliquzzaman, Abdur Rahman Siddiqui, K.F. Haider, Shoaib Qureshi, Justice Salamuddin Khan and Allama Iqbal. Allama Iqbal regularly visited Bhopal as a guest of the Nawab. The religious scholars, Maulvi Barkatullah and Nawab Siddiq Hasan Khan, became internationally renowned. Recognising Bhopal's importance, it was made the capital of the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.
The Begums of Bhopal established excellent separate schools for boys and girls for free education, a Tibbiya College, separate hospitals for males and females (ladies could go to male hospitals for general consultancy, if they so desired) and Yunani hospitals. They had roads built, water taps installed in the whole city and guest houses built with free boarding and lodging facilities for travelers passing through. Even before Partition, Bhopal had mercury street lights. Shah Jehan Begum had bought a house in Madina, just opposite the entry gate of Roza-e-Mubarak. It was known as Bhopal House and was used, free of cost, by Hajis from Bhopal. After Partition, the Nawab gifted it to Pakistan and it then became known as Pakistan House. I visited it in 1976. It was a nice, reasonably spacious house.
Shaharyar M Khan, former Foreign Secretary and grandson of Nawab Hamidullah Khan, has written two excellent books on Bhopal and its ruling family: The Begums of Bhopal, Tauris London and Abida Sultan, The Rebel Princess, Oxford University Press, Pakistan. (Courtesy The News)