A sudden silence swept over the chaos, as she stepped into the court. Cutting through the swarm of prospective successors, the widowed queen entered carrying her infant daughter.
Murmurs rose; yet unperturbed, she moved towards the throne. A single breath and she took off her veil, leaving the crowd gasping in shock.
What followed after this was an excellent oration of the time elucidating that in the tumultuous period of being surrounded by enemies, Bhopal could only survive through unity. As the audience stood in rapt silence, she continued to read out the late Nawab’s will, declaring that the eldest daughter Sinkandar would be the queen upon reaching maturity and that until then, she, Qudsia will rule on her behalf as the Regent.
This iconic moment, at the funeral of Nawab Nazar Mohammad Khan, marked the beginning of the era of Begum rule in Bhopal.
More than 200 years ago, when the concept of feminism was yet to be introduced in India, these Begums, unconventional, radical and opinionated, rose up, defying norms to rule for hundreds of years, introducing progressive reforms and fighting wars outside the battlefield.
The long rule of progress
As opposed to the rule of Queen Regent of Travancore, Pooradam Thirunal Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, who ruled briefly till her son came of age, the rule of the Nawab Begums reigned long and successful.
Hence, Qudsia Begum was not the only woman ruler of Bhopal. She was preceded by Mamola Bai, the Rajput wife of Nawab Yar Mohammad Khan, and many more ‘Begum Nawabs’ of Bhopal to whom power usually came by accident, with only daughters awaiting the succession line.
Interestingly, in the 253-year-span of Nawab sovereignty, the matrilineal reign began in 1819, and lasted more than 150 years, with an exception in 1926, when Sultan Jahan Begum abdicated to put son Nawab Hamidullah Khan on the throne.
After him, Khan’s daughter, Abida Sultan was to succeed the throne, but her decision to move to Pakistan after the Partition of India led her younger sister Sajida to the throne of Begum of Bhopal.
Although there might have been varied incidents leading up to their succession, one thing was common among them all, that they were strong leaders who had to incessantly fight to prevail over all men waiting to grab the throne.
These Begums of Bhopal were called Nawab Begum, a term that is technically not a part of Islamic political vocabulary which includes no word suggestive of a queen or female ruler.
Nonetheless, like their male predecessors, in line with the Islamic tradition, they continued to record various details about the State and themselves in a diary.
Despite their defiance to the dominant patriarchy, the Begums’ commitment to Islam is well recorded in these archives. From funding the Muslim University at Aligarh, donating money to build a mosque in Basra, Iraq, to establishing a school for girls in Delhi, back in the 1920s, the Begums believed in protecting and strengthening their State’s boundaries and empowering it with education too.
At a time when furthering western education for Muslim men was considered highly progressive, these Nawab Begums went a notch higher to focus on women’s education. Such was the vigour towards this cause, that Lord Edwin Montagu, the British Secretary of State for India, in his diary noted a meeting with Begum Sultan Jahan in 1917, stating that she was, “frightfully keen on education, and jabbered about nothing else.”
However, like most difficult successions, they all struggled to fight against power-hungry and manipulative opposition both in and outside the court.
In order to assert power and earn respect among their male subjects, they had to either sacrifice or learn to adapt. For instance, Qudsia Begum and her daughter learnt traditionally ‘masculine’ skills, like hunting and fencing, while Shah Jahan Begum had to embrace Purdah keeping in line with the orthodox idea of Islamic femininity.
This comes in contrast to the 1872 photograph of Nawab Shah Jahan Begum, great-grandmother of Abida Begum, where she stands in a booted attire, confidently facing the camera.
Yet despite her veil and strict seclusion from public life, as mentioned in her daughter’s biography, Shah Jahan Begum, proved to be a competent ruler.
Reign of Begums
It all began in 1819, after the assassination of Nawab Nazar Mohammad Khan, who died without a male heir. In order to save the crown from power-hungry lords, Qudsia Begum acquired the throne, with the help of the British, and became the Regent until her daughter, Sikandar would come of age.
Later, Sikandar Begum’s husband died in 1844, giving her the throne. She was not only an able leader but also played an important part in the First War of Independence in 1857-58, pushing the British to make a special provision for the Begum to rule as sovereign in her own right.
Sikandar Begum, in 1861 was also invested with the Exalted Order of the Star of India that eventually made her the only female knight in the British Empire, after Queen Victoria.
After her death, Sultan Jahan Begum succeeded her in 1868. After a 25-year-reign, which was known for it focus on women’s issues like health and education, came to an end, she became the last Begum of Bhopal, as her great-granddaughter Abida Sultan abdicated the throne in 1948.
An image far from the stereotype
Abida Begum Sultan, heiress apparent of the throne of Bhopal, was a contrasting image of her great-grandmother. A total rebel, she wore her hair short, had her own music band where she played the saxophone and drove in her Daimler. Yet, like her great-grandmother Shah Jahan Begum, she had no dearth of fearlessness. When her husband expressed his decision to contest for their son’s custody, she threatened to kill him with her pocket pistol.
And, she did all this while remaining extremely committed and pious to Islam.
Her autobiography, Memoirs of a Rebel Princess, portrays an image of a Muslim woman, far away from the stereotype of oppression. Her book is an unabashed chronicle of her conjugal life and her failure to become a ‘good, dutiful’ wife.
But, then again, she belonged to a long lineage of unapologetically strong women, like Qudsia Begum and more.
“She rides and walks about in public, and betrays her determination to maintain herself in power by learning the use of the spear and other manly accomplishments. At times she became quite frantic; and as one of the soldiers observed, more terrible to approach than a tigress,” is how British agent Lancelot Wiklinson describes Qudsia Begum who shunned jewellery or loans and yet made sure that every penny earned was going for education or philanthropy.
Although many of us know the tragic tale of Razia Sultana, whose reign in Delhi was cut short in the 1200s with her assassination to wipe off the existence of a Muslim woman ruler, the rule of these Nawab Begums prove contrary.
In the case of the Nawab Begums, it is their persistence that stands out. For a matter of more than 150 years, how these four Muslim women fought against and ruled over a state dominated by warlords used to male privilege over the throne, is absolutely remarkable and inspiring!
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)