A Muslim queen who ruled an Indian kingdom behind the veil | by Anushree Yadav | March 2022


The Secret of the British Empire

Shah Jahan Begum posing for a portrait in Calcutta wearing British regalia symbolizing allegiance to the British Empire, 1877, J Paul Getty Museum

OOWith the current communalist wave rising in India, thinking of a liberal Muslim empress ruling a Hindu kingdom under the patronage of the British Empire seems like a pipe dream – but it’s true.

Shah Jahan Begum, whose name is reminiscent of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, comes from a line of strong Muslim matriarchs from the princely state of Bhopal. After reigning for nearly 33 years, she reformed her state, advanced education, art and architecture, encouraged women to be independent, respected her Hindu population, asked forgiveness from her subjects at the end of her life if she had done everything wrong as a ruler – all behind a veil and with the restricted support of the British Empire.

The modern city of Bhopal traces its origins to Sardar Dost Mohammad Khan, an Afghan soldier who served Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb until his death and then began providing mercenary services to local chiefs in central India. He received Bhopal from a local queen of the Gond tribe in return for his mercenary services, claimed the title of Nabob (ruler) and became the ruler of Bhopal.

After a multitude of male emperors, Qudsia Begum (grandmother of Shah Jahan Begum) ascended the throne as the first Muslim queen of Bhopal in 1819 after the death of her husband. She declared, to her husband’s funeral congregation, that the rule of Bhopal would remain in her family, and her daughter would be the next Empress after her.

As Nawabzada Shaharyar M. Khan recounts in his account of the Begums of Bhopal, “Qudsia’s address to the family is one of the most poignant moments in Bhopal’s history. A girl under 20, raised traditionally in purdah, had dared to take the congregation of elders, rival family suitors and senior state officials by the scruff of the neck”.

Qudsia Begum said that Islam does not oppose a woman leader anywhere and came out of purda (veil) to show the British and her people that women can rule as competently as men and are not bound by religious sentiments that would make them difficult to rule. She started the trend of Muslim female leaders in Bhopal.

The Begums were tactful, they owed allegiance to the all-powerful British Empire and supported the Empire even during the famous mutiny of 1857 (also known as the First War of Independence) at the expense of the rebellion of their own troops. The First War of Independence – which saw the death of the famous rebel warrior queen Rani Lakshmibai at the hands of the British – did not cause much stir in Bhopal due to Begum’s strategic control. Her loyalty pleased the British, who in turn supported the Begum and safeguarded her matriarchal rule.

Shah Jahan Begum, Qudsia Begum’s granddaughter, was born in 1838 and was the only surviving child of reigning Empress Sikander Begum. She was groomed to become the queen herself and was thoroughly educated in all administrative and royal matters.

As was common at that time, Shah Jahan’s marriage was fixed by his mother to Baqi Muhammad Khan. He died in 1867 while she was still a princess. On the death of her husband, the young princess left purdah (veil).

Barbara D. Metcalf, former president of the American Historical Association, recalls in her account of Shah Jahan Begum a story of the visit of French traveler Louis Rousselet Durbar (court) of Bhopal, saw the young princess unveiled after the death of her husband and then offered her condolences; ‘she happily responded to his expression of sympathy with the single word Kismet (fate)’ writes Metcalf. He saw in her an energetic and inquisitive princess who spoke to him with zeal about European affairs.

While his mother and grandmother ruled in a very masculine way, rejecting purda, attending military exercises, learning tactics of war, Shah Jahan Begum lived and ruled much more liberally, disregarding the risk of her femininity being seen as inefficiency.

After her mother’s death in 1868, Shah Jahan Begum became the queen herself. She remarried, two years later, to Sidiq Hussain, a scholar and supporter of Islam. Many people, including the royal family, objected to her being widowed and getting married for the second time, but she silenced them by saying the first time she got married was because of his mother’s will, the second of his own will.

A widow who married was frowned upon in most religious circles of the time, whether Hindu or Muslim. For Hindus, although the British abolished the Hindu practice of Sati (where a widow had to commit suicide after her husband’s death by burning herself on her deceased husband’s funeral pyre), widow remarriage was still a distant thought. It was an unprecedented decision at a time when male rulers had a harem of wives, but a widow – ruler or not – was not supposed to marry for the second time. For Shah Jahan Begum, it was not just a second marriage, but the start of a new progressive way of thinking.

A polyglot and prolific writer, she wrote biographies of her ancestors and their legacies as well as handbooks on female behavior. In her manuals, she explained that women should not depend on others for the survival of their family and for their own survival. She likened the idea to a comparison between horses and elephants, writing that an elephant, although larger than a horse, still controlled the mahout (traditional elephant herders), whereas with a horse the reins are yours.

Metcalf says that in a multilingual dictionary created by Begum, she assimilated the meaning of the word Urdu Randy, which had a pejorative meaning of prostitute, or widow, with much more neutral equivalents she chose – such as zan (Persian), sorting (Sanskrit) and “a woman” (English).

Begum again went behind the purdah after his second marriage, which the British weren’t too happy about. Sir Lapel Griffin, who was a British administrator and political operative between the British Raj and Bhopal at the time, doubted the loyalty of Shah Jahan Begum’s husband, Sidiq Khan, to the British, and accused him of having incited Muslims against the British as well as stirring up anti-British sentiments through his writings and speeches.

He saw the now-veiled Begum as a symbol of oppression under the staunch Muslim ideologies of Sidiq Khan, whom he feared would become a threat to the British Empire, as the Begum was not just a woman, she represented the highest power in Bhopal. . And if the Begum was subsidized by her husband, a supporter of anti-British Islam, in administrative matters, then that was not good news for the British Empire.

He asked the Begum several times to get out of the purda, she replied casually saying that she had met the Prince of Wales, Lord Lyton, Lord Ripon and Lord Dufferin behind the veil and they hadn’t had the slightest objection to it. Griffin also felt that behind the veil, the Begum could see everyone but no one could see her, giving her unusual power over others.

Although the state of Bhopal had its ruler and army, it was still under the patronage of the British, and patronage had its pros and cons. Fearing Sidiq Khan’s growing influence in the Begum, and in the workings of the state, the British, under Griffin’s influence, put Sidiq Khan under house arrest until his death in 1890. Only the night he was allowed to visit the Begum at her palace. Begum vehemently opposed all allegations made against him of influencing the administration and politics of Bhopal, but she did not have much power over the British.

Although it was under British control, it made great strides in making Bhopal an ideal state with gradual reforms in education, art, town planning, infrastructure and administration. She commissioned the construction of the Taj-ul-Masjid in Bhopal, one of the largest mosques in Asia, with a separate prayer area for women, hitherto rare. She also built many schools for girls and encouraged Hindu and Muslim girls and women to be educated. She also contributed greatly to the development of Aligarh Muslim University, and under her rule, railways and post office were introduced to Bhopal.

She died of cancer in 1901 and sent a heartfelt message from her deathbed to the people of Bhopal asking for forgiveness if she had done anything wrong as a ruler. The people of Bhopal mourned their humble Begum and welcomed her daughter as the next leader after her death.

After the Nawab Begum dynasty, Bhopal became part of independent India in 1949. The presence of the Begums and their legacy can still be felt in the picturesque modern city of Bhopal, as it owes much of its architectural wonders, its artificial lakes and its harmonious spirit. existence to them.


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