Sunday, September 18, 2016

The 'Begum' who was almost famous

Feroza Dulhan Begum.

On 23 September, 1932 a private and confidential letter written by the Countess of Willingdon, the wife of Viceroy Willingdon was delivered to Feroza Dulhan Begum to her hotel room in Shimla. A runner had hand-delivered the letter straight from the majestic Viceregal Lodge. It assured the Begum that the Countess had spoken to the Nawab of Bhopal who promised to do whatever he could. The 26-year-old Begum was the widow of Prince Habibullah of Bhopal and had requested the Viceroy’s wife to intervene on her behalf regarding her share in estates and maintenance.

Shimla provided the perfect setting to get personal grievances addressed and offered a better chance of eliciting a response from the high and mighty in colonial times. The British summer capital was not just a venue for high politics and tough negotiations, as serious historians would have us believed, but also served as the ideal venue for individuals like Feroza Begum to put pressure on powerful opponents.

The Begum had married Prince Habibullah of Bhopal in April 1930 and after his death in June 1930, went on to become the love interest of the horse-race loving influential Maharaja of Idar. In 1949, she moved to London after marrying Stanley Thomson, dashing Navy captain. But before these romantic liaisons, she had to fight a battle to extract the best possible maintenance from the wealthy Nawab of Bhopal. And this fierce battle made her a regular at the best hotels in Shimla, Delhi and Bombay as she shadowed key officials and prominent journalists to plead her case. 

Her fascinating life, fragments of which come alive through the archives in London, is a remarkable journey of a confident and an adventurous lady. According to her passport, her maiden name was P. Wadia, the full name as we found out was Phiroza Wadia, and she was the eldest daughter of D M Wadia, a Parsi millowner. She was born on Sept 20, 1906; was five feet in height and had a mole on her upper lip. Not much is known about her education, but it can be safely assumed that she attended school in Bombay or was taught privately by a personal tutor.

Prince Habibullah was heir to the throne of Bhopal after the death of his father Nasrullah Khan in 1924. However, in the power struggle and court intrigue he lost out to Hamidullah Khan, his uncle who became the last Nawab of Bhopal. A forlorn Habibullah made Pune his new home and, some accounts suggest, vowed to never return to Bhopal. Unfortunately by the end of 1929, Habibullah developed tuberculosis and it became clear that he won’t live for long.

Despite the knowledge of Habibulla’s imminent death, Phiroza Wadia became Feroza Dulhan Begum and they married in April 1930. The details of the marriage were kept under wraps. Though the father, mother and the sister of Feroza attended the marriage, they had no idea of the venue till an hour before the ceremony. Expectedly, the marriage caused considerable consternation in the Parsi community. This was perhaps the second high profile marriage of a Parsi lady to a Muslim man in Western India after Jinnah famously married Ruttie Petit in 1918. But unlike Ruttie’s parents, Phiroza’s family supported her decision.              

The honeymoon to Mahableshwar was cut short due to Habibullah’s illness. The newly-wed returned to Pune, where Habibullah died in June 1930 at his residence in Bund Garden. After few months, Feroza Begum started inserting notices in newspapers warning public not to deal in estates and shares belonging to her late husband. Very soon she found herself making the rounds of courts in Bhopal where she filed a law suit for a share in Habibullah’s intestate estate.

While her claim to the intestate estate was settled, the officials at Bhopal court refused to give her share in her husband’s estate which he had mentioned in his will. “The widows of Jagirdars in the ruling family are not entitled to an inheritance from the jagirs of their deceased husbands, according to the usage of the State,” is the terse reply she received to her enquiries. She also asserted her right to a widow’s maintenance according to the “family customs of the ruling house of Bhopal” which fell on deaf ears. She then decided to take her struggle to another level.

Diwan Singh Maftoon, the legendary editor of Riyasat, an illustrated Urdu weekly which boasted of an office on London’s Fleet Street, started writing letters to key officials on her behalf. “…this poor lady is not allowed to take a single pie from the very state of her late husband which yields a gross revenue of Rs 6,00,00,000.” One such letter by Maftoon was addressed to Charles Watson the political secretary to the Government. It ends by making an appeal to “…save a human life from starvation and miseries.” Records suggest that she managed to get a lump sum of Rs 35,000 and an allowance of Rs 500 per month but remained convinced that this was nowhere close to the usual Darbar allowance to a widow.

In September 1933, the Maharaja of Idar booked a suite at the Taj Mahal Hotel, where Feroza       Begum too was already staying. This sent the city’s gossip mills into an overdrive. But her constant companionship with the Maharaja soon turned into a headache to the protocol obsessed English administration. After the Nawab of Bhopal, it was the office of the Bombay’s Governor who found her too hot to handle.

The Maharaja used to spend a lot of time in Bombay and would have Feroza Begum by her side even on official functions and dinner. But her not so well-defined relationship with the Maharaja unsettled Roger Lumley, Bombay’s Governor. The Maharaja was an avid race enthusiast and would be in Pune and Bombay for the entire racing season. This further added to the misery of the Governor who recorded “I frequently meet the Begum on the racecourse and have sat next to her on meals. It is therefore becoming increasingly difficult for me to go on meeting His Highness without being able to extend an invitation or to offer hospitality to the Begum.”

A perplexed Lumley and his staff were also unable to come to terms that she continued to use Begum while going around with the Maharaja. “It seems quite out of character for the lady to be recognised as Begum attached to a Hindu ruler,” pointed out the befuddled Governor. However, the fact that Feroza Dulhan Begum transformed into Begum Shri Paswanji Sahiba of Idar didn’t seem to have helped matters.

Unknown to her, she had become a subject of discussion between the Governor and Viceroy. The hapless Governor made it clear that he does not desire to “cast stones at the ‘Paswanji’” but that it would be hardly “in keeping with the dignity of the Governor that he should invite her to Governor’s House.” Even Viceroy Linlithgow (who had succeeded Willingdon to whom Feroza’s case was known) opined that it cannot be possible to recognise a lady as a Begum attached to a Hindu ruler. But the Maharaja had different plans. He kept on raising the issue of the “position of Begum Shri Paswanji of Idar,” and given his loyalty to the Raj, the Governor had to devise a way out. Eventually, Governor Lumley came up with a solution. He suggested that he could establish personal rather than official relations with the Begum which would mean that she could be invited to a private lunch once or twice a year, while still keeping her away from official functions. 

Just after Independence she married Stanley Thomson, a senior naval officer who also enquired into the Bombay naval mutiny. The couple shifted to UK where she was a successful businesswoman and died in 2001 aged 95. Feroza Begum was neither a social activist nor a participant in the freedom struggle, factors that combine to delegitimise stories like hers in colonial India. Her life is in so many ways reflective of the unusual trajectories that brought her in close contact to the corridors of power and aristocracy and yet she remained away from it. 
(First published in Mumbai Mirror)

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Bihar, UP and Partition

Almost seventy years after the Partition, much of the scholarship is fixated with apportioning the blame or rather the larger blame for the ghastly incident. Wasn't Jinnah difficult to negotiate, what if Nehru had not torpedoed the Cabinet Mission Plan, what if Congress-League had come together in 1937 - the list is endless and so are the historical works that deal with them.

Yet, despite the growing historical scholarship on Partition, the works of writers like Manto, Fikr Taunsvi, Rajinder Singh Bedi and others continue to enchant and appeal to an ever growing audience through translations and anthologies. These writers lived those moments and distilled the madness and mayhem through stories and satirical pieces. A Partition omnibus is considered incomplete without a Manto or a Bedi.

Similarly, Yasmin Khan and Vazira Yacoobally-Zamindar opened new grounds of scholarship by virtue of their absorbing narratives. They start their stories after the Partition was set in motion, allowing them to capture and focus on the formation of two states and the poignant human stories that accompanied the long partition and the making of India and Pakistan. What's remarkable is that they demonstrate how it is not absolutely necessary to delve on the high politics or the League-Congress wrangling to make sense of the anxieties, uncertainties and sufferings of the denizens that continues in some sense or form even today. Similarly, earlier works by Ritu Menon, Kamla Bhasin and Urvashi Butalia brought a new perspective to the Partition scholarship.

Here, I will discuss two recent books on Partition, having entirely different approaches. Mohammad Sajjad's 'Muslim politics in Bihar' and Venkat Dhulipala's 'Creating a New Medina'. Dhulipala looks at United Provinces where he argues that Pakistan was much discussed and debated, and also received religious legitimacy from a section of Deobandi ulemas. His work shines through the impressive use of Urdu sources - periodicals and pamphlets - that point towards the centrality of archives in historical work. Sajjad's focus is on Bihar, where he comes up with a very different picture of Muslim politics in the late colonial period. To begin with, Bihar as a political entity has hardly been the focus of serious scholarship in the context of Muslim politics. That, as any student of history would agree, solely rests on the shoulders of Punjab, Bengal and United Provinces.

Perhaps one reason for this divergence could be the different sets of people and groups examined by Dhulipala and Sajjad. Bihar seems to be a much stronger and fertile land for the rise of caste-based Muslim politics right from the colonial times. Sajjad has very intelligently crafted out the politics of these groups and the response it had to the machinations of Jinnah's Muslim League. A major achievement of Sajjad has been the analysis of the politicisation of caste-based Muslim organisations. This, in fact, does provide some understanding of the current position and stature of what is now referred to as Muslim Pasmanda groupings.       

On other hand, Dhulipala's analysis centres on the influential Deobandi ulemas. But, I am afraid, in trying to broad base his argument, Dhulipala seems to have misread the stature and influence of Maulana Shabbir Usmani. No doubt he became a leading light in Pakistan, but in the 30s and 40s, he was nowhere close to the influential Maulana Madani, Abdul Bari and others. It was his association with Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi that gave his career a huge push, especially after Thanvi's death. And there is no doubt that Thanvi was indeed in the Muslim League camp, but his death in 1943 robbed the League of a vital partner. The use of archives and the cogency of Dhulipala's arguments, make it a significant addition to the Partition historiography.  

Dhulipala does mention Madani's treatise on Muttahida Quamiyat, yet it seems he has not engaged fully enough with the import of Madani's thinking, who was a teacher of hadith in Medina for around a decade. This is because Maulana Madani does not just speak of the Prophet's Medina treaty with Jews to give sanctity to his Muttahida Quamiyat, he also elaborates on the important Muslim/Islamic landmarks and heritage in India. More glaring, however, is the absence of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. In the late 30s, Thanvi gave a fatwa to the effect that the struggle for Urdu is important to save Islam. Azad himself took on the Congress right-wing and resisted all attempts (with little success though) to marginalise Urdu, but neither he nor Madani equated Urdu with Islam.

Dhulipala could have added more gravity to his argument if he had brought new insights by focussing on the other important groups like the Brelvis under the leadership of Ahmed Riza or the Tableeghi Jamaat, as both were active in United Provinces. Ahmed Riza issued fatwas on a variety of issues and would paste the English postage stamp upside down on the letters he dispatched. Central to their rhetoric and existence was devotional Islam that gave primacy to fairs and Urs on the mazaars, that could not be moved across borders. If Islam was indeed so important (or rather the role of ulemas in the creation of Pakistan) how do we account for the conduct of the Brelvis in the creation of the new Medina. And how is it that it took several years to stitch a constitution for the new Medina!

Sajjad in his book highlights the careers of the prominent Muslim leaders of Bihar and also their electoral politics. He has also uncovered and made remarkable use of political pamphlets and vernacular newspapers that shed light on much lesser known figures like Maghfur Aijazi, Maulana Sajjad, Mazharul Haq, Hassan Imam and Shafi Daudi. Behind the analysis of their politics lies the story of Muslim resistance to the politics of separatism in Bihar. However, the book's narrative is such that Sajjad's eagerness to identify himself closely with the politics of 'opposition to Muslim separatism' clearly comes out. Perhaps it's got to do with the fact that the author hails from Bihar.

The book discusses the other usual flashpoints like the Hindi-Urdu controversy, and Sajjad ably demonstrates why it didn't acquire the same dimension in Bihar as in the neighbouring United Provinces. It would have been a more focussed work had Sajjad chosen to limit himself to the late colonial and early independence period. Though he doesn't delve into the Muslim past thankfully(avoiding the usual discussion points like the 1857 revolt, establishment of the Deoband, etc), it is quite ambitious in its scope. However, it provides a breath of fresh air and is an important contribution.

Friday, January 15, 2016

S H Khan - soft voice, hard talk

In 1998, when Serajul Haq Khan retired as the chairman and managing director of Industrial Development Bank of India (IDBI) he said in an interview that he looks forward to contribute at the macro level. Apparently, this did not go down well with some of the industrialists who asked him whether working in the private sector would be tantamount to not contributing to the economy or the country. But Seraj uncle's philosophy was clear – after being at the helm of IDBI, the premier development financial institute (DFI) which was also the promoter of other remarkable, path breaking institutes like CARE, NSE to name a few, he wanted to stay clear of executive positions in the private sector.

Till his sudden passing away on January 12, he was associated with few companies as an independent, non-executive director. In fact, he was in Pune in connection with his role as chairman of the audit committee of the Bajaj group when he died. He was 78. He was brought to Mumbai, a city where he built his career and had his family, and was buried at the Bada Kabrastan on Wednesday (January 13) afternoon. In his illustrious career he had been on the boards of several companies like UTI, Air India, LIC, Indian Airlines, Exim Bank, IDFC. 

Born and brought up in dusty and remote villages of UP’s Ghazipur district, Seraj uncle was a consistent topper all through his academic life. After attending the local school, he went on to do Masters in Commerce from University of Bihar where he was a gold medalist. A famous line about him was that he was inseparable from books even while on the football field! I am not sure if he had planned a career in banking but after a short stint as a lecturer in a Bihar college he came to Mumbai and joined the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) as a probationary officer in 1961. For young budding economists and bright commerce graduates, the RBI in those days was a magnet. In 1965-66, he became a part of the newly established Industrial Development Bank of India (IDBI), which grew under the shadows of the RBI. I am sure he must have had considerable difficulty explaining to people that one couldn’t open a savings account in the ‘bank’ where he was an officer!

Over the years IDBI, which was formed by an act of Parliament, became the premier DFI in India. After being a subsidiary of RBI, it ultimately became a wholly-owned undertaking of the government of India. Seraj uncle too rose in the hierarchy. He became executive director in 1986, managing director in 1992 and chairman and managing director in 1993. The legendary S S Nadkarni had spotted the talent of Seraj uncle and favoured him to succeed after his retirement. This spoke volumes of the talent and industriousness of Seraj uncle because, as is well-know, IDBI at that time could boast of the best, which included most notably Dr R H Patil – NSE’s main architect.

But there was a minor hiccup to his elevation. While he had the internal support from IDBI, there was a possibility, which quickly died down, of an outsider pipping him to the post. In 1993, after the retirement of Nadkarni as chairman of IDBI, he became the acting chairman. While it was widely believed that he would ultimately succeed Nadkarni, who had groomed him for the takeover, there was a possible coup in the making. Taking advantage of its close proximity to certain key politicians of the day, a business house began to actively lobby on behalf of the chairman of another bank to head IDBI. But ultimately merit ruled over politics, and Seraj uncle was appointed to the much deserved post of chairman in December 1993. By this time a whole generation of people, at least in eastern UP and parts of Bihar, had become aware of IDBI - and why one couldn’t open a savings account there. 

I do not have any early memories of Seraj uncle, as he seems to be always present from the time I can remember. He was a good friend of my late father and I vividly remember several evenings in his flat. On some occasions (perhaps on Eid) he would come to our house and then my father would accompany him back. Those were the days of VCRs, and a distinct advantage of going to his house for the kids was the access to a well-stocked video library in the neighborhood. During the 1992-93 communal riots in Mumbai, he came to our house suggesting that children and the women accompany him. We didn’t go at that moment, but the situation deteriorated, and the very next day we shifted to his house, where we stayed for a good 10-12 days.

Seraj uncle at a reception
In the next few years, under his dynamic leadership, he took IDBI to greater heights in terms of productivity and profitability. In its category, IDBI was among the top 10 in the world. Most importantly he strongly believed in the transformation of DFIs into banks, a thought that had first gained currency during Nadkarni’s reign. The RBI constituted a committee under his chairmanship known as the Khan committee to look into ‘universal banking’. This report stands out as one of the highlights of his career. It was this committee, which had as its members K V Kamath and M S Verma among others, that first proposed the conversion of DFIs into banks. But ironically, it was ICICI that beat IDBI in the game and moved ahead. Of course, one of the reason for the quick transformation of ICICI was that it was not tied down, as IDBI was, to government regulations and had more flexibility.

One outcome of this overarching government control was the comparatively low salaries of the staff at IDBI. “If you pay peanuts you will get monkeys,” he reminded the government. Being an insider, he tried his best to delink the salary scale at IDBI to government norms. This certainly added to his popularity and respect at IDBI. He was also very happy with the fact that it was IDBI that acted as promoter to institutes like SIDBI, NSE, and the rating agency CARE. He was also the chairman at both NSE and CARE and always spoke of how the NSE convincingly left BSE way behind.   
In 1998-99, when I was at Elphinstone College, Dr Sonu Kapadia, the editor of the College magazine and the last of the distinguished names at the college, was looking for contributions from students. I had few articles in my mind, and was fine-tuning them, when I read in The Economic Times how Seraj uncle completed his innings at IDBI without knowing his successor. I suggested Dr Kapadia an article on the importance of HRD and her first reaction was that it should not be related to the optional paper I was studying! I told her it would be a journalistic piece and was very excited to see the magazine carrying the article mentioning how governmental indifference and politics was clouding the naming of successors at key institutes, along with other issues. (During the same period the announcement of a successor to another key post was delayed).

Seraj uncle’s career was seen in remarkably different ways by different people. Some would label him as only among the few from UP/Bihar to occupy a high position in the financial and banking sector. For many he was representative of the fact that Muslims too can reach coveted positions. For votaries of Hindi he was a good example of why convent or English education was not the only way to success. And there indeed was a powerful message in the way his career shaped. It epitomised the importance of hard work and meritocracy. His refined manners and good looks added to his charming personality, which also at times confused people. A foreign pink paper once described him as ‘aristocratic’! 

Despite his busy schedule and travel, he always found time to visit his native village. He never lost touch with his roots and took a keen interest in the affairs of his extended relatives and the community. He fondly remembered his friends from his school days hailing from different villages. In the later years he patronised an NGO working in the field of education and social empowerment in Mumbai. “Hasib sahab (Abdul Hasib Siddiqui, former executive director, RBI) told me about them. They are doing good work,” he told me after I asked him about his picture with kids in the NGO's newsletter. In the last few years I would occasionally call him. “So now you have become an NRI,” he would say. When I met him during my last visit to India I asked him that he should write about his life and career. “I have never thought about it. Also, if I write one it has to be an honest account, but considering that several people I worked with are still alive I don’t think I will be able to do justice. So it’s only better that I do not write.”

While he may have chosen not to write about his experiences, any serious volume on the history of project financing or financial institutions in the post-Nehruvian era will be incomplete without the mention of IDBI and his stewardship. He had a soft, very distinct and distinguishable voice - which is difficult to forget. Sadly, that voice will never be heard now.

He is survived by his wife, two daughters and two sons.