Bhopal was at centre-stage in the tumultuous political scenario of the forties, right from the Quit India movement of 1942, until its eventual merger with the Union of India in 1949. The modern, erudite and liberal Nawab Hamiddullah Khan―the last Nawab of Bhopal― was respected equally by both, the nationalists struggling for independence, and the British government. He had a close rapport with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, as well as Lord Louis Mountbatten.

A complex personality, Hamiddulah Khan could be, at the same time, a regressive feudal royalist with modern political views, or a shrewd and ambitious game-changer. He loved his people without a doubt, but was unappreciative of any ideologically different political movement brewing in his state. An example of this was when leaders of a merger movement―the Praja Mandal movement―had posters with anti-British slogans printed, urging the Nawab of Bhopal to join the Quit India movement, he reacted with hostility and had all the top leaders of the movement arrested. This caused in widespread public unrest, and eventually culminated in the merger of the Princely state of Bhopal with the Madhya Bharat state of the Union of India on 30th April 1949.

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Hamidullah was on very good terms with deposed as well as constitutional monarchs of Europe, the Indian Sub-continent, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iran. His genuine affection for Bhopal was amply clear by the fact that from the time he took over as the Nawab in 1926, he began to usher in a series of reforms, which incontrovertibly propelled Bhopal on the road to become a modern state.

Although he even invited Mahatma Gandhi to visit Bhopal in September 1929, and was largely perceived as a son of the soil and a patriot, Hamiddullah was lured by Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s invitation to merge Bhopal with the proposed state of Pakistan. Jinnah reportedly offered him a lucrative, hard-to-turn-down proposal―that he would be made the premier of the newly formed Pakistan, once he accepted the merger and after Jinnah announced his retirement from politics in June 1947.

Torn between his personal ambition, his attachment to his family and to the land of his forefathers, he went into an anguished state of confusion and indecisiveness. He also seemed to have a genuine desire to maintain sovereignty with the other Princely states as he had been elected as the Chancellor of the Chamber of Princes twice, first in 1932 and again in 1944.

His troubled mental state, when he had to finally decide on the merger of Bhopal has been vividly captured by his eldest daughter, Abida Sultan in her autobiography: ‘On being ushered to his room, I found him sitting alone, sweating heavily. He then pulled out his revolver and pointing it straight at me, ordered me to sit down. “I am leaving soon for Pakistan,” he said, “I want you to take over the affairs of the state. I shall probably be appointed Governor-General. Jinnah has asked me to come over.” Abida’s reply was equally candid: “I am unarmed. As for the state, it is for you to decide what you want to do with it. I shall not be a party to its merger in the Indian Union and for people to say that a woman could not prevent the handover of a state that our forebears had won through blood and sacrifice.

Huzun of an Heir Apparent

The princely state of Bhopal was taken over by the government of the Union of India on 1st June 1949. The archaic system of feudalism that had existed in its myriad forms―monarchy, taluqdari, jagirdari, zamindari etc.―and in spite of all its inherent fault lines and shortcomings, had thrived for thousands of years. It may have been an inadequate system of governance, but some of the best and most enduring artistic, cultural and architectural motifs and practices emerged from feudalism, with active and absolute patronage of the rulers.

For the erstwhile ruling elite and their kith and kin, the loss of feudal estates would have been interlaced with a sense of welcoming and anticipation for something new and different, along with an agonizing sense of loss.

It’s not a coincidence that when a behemoth of an empire falls, many segments of the society which have thrived on the system are left asunder and the overwhelming sense of the loss and dejection prevails, which results in clinging to the remnants of the past. It is something close to nostalgia, or as Orhan Pamuk describes it through the Turkish word, ‘huzun’, in ‘Istanbul: Memories of a City’.

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When Louis XVI was going to be guillotined, a last chance was given to him by the erstwhile royalists who included Talleyrand and others. They asked him to publicly announce that he is no longer the King of France but is the King of the French. Louis XVI refused. The sensitivity to understand such complex and devastating emotion is rare. A poignant incident on the day of the merger, 1st June 1949, negates the belief that empathy in bureaucrats is often lacking. The Bhopal state was declared a ‘Part C’ state after the merger, and was to be governed by a chief commissioner appointed by the president of India. N.B. Bonarjee, ICS, was appointed the chief commissioner for Bhopal. Extremely well-disposed towards the Bhopal royal family, particularly the Begum Maimoona Sultan, and Abida Sultan, her heir apparent, Bonarjee was well aware of the agony the royals were undergoing during the process of handing over the reins of power to a democratic government. As head of the government of Bhopal, he was to organize a joint ceremony to celebrate the merger, where the flag of erstwhile royal Bhopal state was to be lowered, and the national flag of India hoisted in its place. Protocol demanded that the last Nawab Hamiddullah Khan be present on the occasion. But since Hamiddullah was not available, Bonarjee decided to invite Abida Sultan for the ceremony. But the feisty princess wrote back, ‘Mr. Bonarjee you are going to lower Bhopal’s flag after 250 years of rule by my family. I
will not come and nor will any other member of the ruling family.’ Although this was almost blatant effrontery to the head of government, Bonarjee’s reply to the princess was steeped in humility and respect; he wrote back saying, ‘Princess, I understand your sentiments. I should have known before inviting you. We shall meet later.’

As Faiz Ahmad Faiz has said:

“azmat-e-rafta ke nishāñ
pesh-e-manzar meñ
kisī sāya-e-dīvār se liptā huā saaya koī
dūsre saa.e kī mauhūm sī ummīd liye”
(Vestiges of past glory
have begun to look hazy against the skyline
and there, in front of the eye,
some shadow embraced a wall’s shadow
cherishing the faint hope for another shadow).

Excerpted with permission from the book BhopalNama: Writing a city by Vertul Singh, Amaryllis.

Image Credit: Amaryllis Books

Vertul Singh is uniformed personnel. His other published work include a novel Ek Goona Bekhudi, short stories Bafliaz Ki Kaneez and Sitaaron Pe Daalti Hoon Main Kamand among others. The views expressed are the author’s own.

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