Princess Abida Sultan Bhopal

Earlier Posts on Adida Sultan 1, 2
The marriage of Abida Sultan did not last, and was broken up rather violently. As a single mother Abida brought up her son, Shehryar Mohammad Khan (nick named Mian and Bubbles in family) and continued in her tomboy ways. noor-us-sahabShe was instrumental in assuaging the feelings of old Bhopal families like the Jalalabad clan, the Misti khels and the Mirazi khels, relations with whom had grown strained due the Bhopal succession case. The credit for getting her second sister Sajida alias Majkul married to Iftikar Ali Khan Pataudi also goes to her. Meanwhile she went on to become the second Muslim woman in the world and the first woman in India to hold a flying license which she received on 25th January 1942. The Noor-Us-Sabah (photograph above), constructed as dowry for Abida Sultan by Sultan Jahan Begum, continued to be her residence.
Abida Sultan was brought up by Sultan Jahan  Begum to carry on the long tradition of Bhopal Begums. She was trained to taste (actually taste – by putting it on tongue) the soil to tell what would be tax rate for the land. An able administrator, Abida Sultan was appointed the Chief Secretary and President of Cabinet by her father Hamidullah Khan. She acted as the head of state during the frequent absence of her father, who had started playing an active role in the Muslim politics of the subcontinent. She was outstanding at squash, becoming All India Women’s Squash Champion in 1949. Hamidullah Khan and Abida Sultan had grown a deep bond, that of two friends more than that of father and daughter. However, true to the long history of Bhopal male rulers, Hamidullah also ended up being a miserable ruler in spite of all the pains taken by Sultan Jahan Begum to educate Hamidullah properly. Hamidullah would spend most of his leisure time surrounded by women of Bhopal gentry. From this changing group of women, suddenly Hamidullah married Aftab Jahan, a school friend of Abida Sultan.

The relation with Abida Sultan started to sour with her father after this marriage, which ended in Abida Sultan migrating to Pakistan. In an interview much later in life, she said that she did not want people to say that a woman ruler could not protect her kingdom and handed it over to India. She even fantasized about going down fighting like Wazir Mohhamad khan during the Seige of Bhopal, but eventually moved away to England and finally to Pakistan. The Indian government, represented by Krishna Menon, tried to bring her back to India. The Indian government sensed her potential and wanted her to stay on India as a Muslim leader. She refused, her faith on Pakistan as the ideal nation state for the progressive Muslim not shaken, even by the death Mr Jinnah during her stay at England. She moved in to Karachi and settled at Malir – about 12 kms from Karachi. Although she could not continue with her sports activities in Pakistan, Abida Sultan represented Pakistan in UN in 1954 and visited China in 1956. She supported Fatima Jinnah in her opposition to Ayub Khan’s marshal law as the head of Combined Opposition Party, which ended prematurely with the death of Fatima. Abida Sultan had serious doubts later in her life about the decision to move away to Pakistan, which continued till her son Shehryar M. Khan refused the offer of Hamidullah Khan to return to Bhopal and claim his heritage in January 1954. After staying away from Hamidullah Khan for twelve years, Abida Sultan was present in Bhopal during the death of her father. She narrates her last meeting with Hamidullah Khan:

As I entered the room where HH (Hamidullah Khan) lay propped up with pillows, I noticed he was unable to focus on me. He enquired “Who is there”? The aide whispered “Bia Huzur has come.” HH’s face lit up and he said “Barkul has come?” and opened his arms. I went into his embrace unhesitatingly and realized then he was blind! …
The old families of Bhopal and the public gave me a moving and highly sentimental response. ‘Don’t go back, stay with us. We recognize you as the Nawab’s chosen succesor’. I recall a simple tonga-walla recognizing me, peering into my car and saying ‘you are Bia Huzoor. I won’t let you go now. You belong to us. You must be our guide and savior’….
I therefore told my sister, Manjkul (Sajida Sultan), to hurry back to Delhi to establish her rights. She duly departed for Delhi to duly establish her claim as successor to the title with  Pandit Nehru who was always her well wisher. Despite an emotional clamor from the Bhopali public, I had no desire to play a titular or administrative role in Bhopal.

She was even chided by President Ayub Khan for returning to Bhopal, who wanted her to remain in Bhopal as true friend of Pakistan. On Abida Sultan’s insitence, Ayub even issued a letter confirming her Pakistani nationality in the event of the Indian Government accepting her as her father’s successor. Her claim was conveyed through the foreign office of the Indian Government. In view of her staunch criticism of Indian policies at the UN General Assembly, her able administration from a public office at Bhopal for twenty two years, a son in the Pakistan Foreign Service, her popularity with Bhopal public and her headstrong and proactive ways she was a unsuitable candidate in a Bhopal which was no longer an autonomous princely state. During subsequent discussions in April 1960 with Prime Minister Nehru and Home Minister Govind Ballabh Pant, she conveyed firmly that she wanted to remain a Pakistan citizen. In March 1961, Sajida Sultan was announced successor of the title of Bhopal Nawab.
Years later, G. Vishwanathan, former Commissioner of Bhopal, told his Oxford contemporary, Ishaat Habibullah, that there was no way that the Indian government would accept “a firebrand like Abiabida2da Sultan” in its midst. In fact Viswanathan had tried to find some lapse, some fault in her tenure as Heir Apparent and Chief Secretary but could not find a single incident that could damage her reputation and intigrity. By October 2001, Abida was bed ridden with pain in knees from arthritis and bladder prblems. She was admitted to the Shaukat Omar Memorial Hospital on 27th April 2002, where she died of cardiac failure on 11 May 2002.  Digvijay Singh, Cheif Minister of Madhya Pradesh telephoned his condolences to her son, Shaharyar M. Khan  within two hours of her death saying that in Bhopal every mosque, every temple would be mourning Princess Abida Sultan’s Death.
Abida Sultan left India after the turmoil of partition, holding a belief that the Muslims of India will not be able to prosper under a Hindu leadership. She however found that democracy took root in India while dictatorial feudal leadership ruled the roost in Pakistan. She noted the incidents of Gujrat smugly, as the indications of her apprehensions coming true. Her apprehensions are reflected in her will:

Finally I follow the example of my revered grandmother, Nawab Sultan Jahan Begum of Bhopal in humbly begging my most beloved son, family, friends, acquaintances, neighbors and people in general to forgive me for any pain or harm that I may have inadvertently caused during the course of my lifetime. This applies with emphasis to my son and grandchildren who have so cheerfully shared the privations of my life and, who with noble courage and fortitude, have suffered the consequences of my settling in Pakistan. They would have, no doubt, enjoyed an enormous inheritance with countless other advantages had they remained in Bhopal. May God bless and amply reward them for their sacrifices.

The Princess who could have become the leading face of Muslims in an independent India, was rarely used for any fruitful endeavour in Pakistan. Even after Abidas death, the Pakistan government continued in usual uncaring ways.

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