A Begum's fight for her title

A Begum's fight for her title


Many interesting personalities emerge from the colonial history of the sub-continent, and several of them happen to be women. One such was Nazli Raffiya Begum (1874-1968), a royal princess and sister of celebrated litterateur Atiya Fyzee.

She hobnobbed with the crème da le crème of society, threw magnificent parties, and lived in an exquisite house identified as a cultural hotspot in the Bombay of yores. Yet, she had one unfulfilled desire. More than two decades of her life were spent in petitioning the authorities to be allowed the use of the honorific, ‘ex-Begum of Janjira’.

Nazli’s story is symbolic of the difficulties women married into wealthy, well-connected families face when marital disputes break out. From the 1920s to the late 1940s, Nazli Begum fought to correct the 'injustice' meted out to her. In 1887, at the age of 15, she had married the Nawab of Janjira – a small princely state near Mumbai. She later lost her title as the begum because of a quirk of circumstances. Despite arguing eloquently and gaining the support of eminent people, the title proved elusive. Among those who supported her was noted philosopher-poet Mohammad Iqbal. 

The Nawab passed away in 1922, but even during his lifetime questions arose regarding the entitlements due to Nazli Begum. The argument put forward by the State of Janjira was that the Nawab had divorced her and hence the state had no obligation to pay her maintenance. But it was precisely the issue of divorce that lay at the heart of this dispute.
Nazli Begum maintained that she was only told about the divorce after the Nawab had died, when she raised the question of payments for the guards deployed at her home. According to her, the divorce deed was never served on her. Besides this, she argued that the divorce should have happened following the laws of the sect to which she belonged (Shia) and not to that of the Sunni sect followed by the Nawab. After almost 25 years of marriage, the couple had no children and the Nawab then married another woman in 1913 with the consent of Nazli Begum. A son was born to that union on March 6, 1914, and Nazli herself moved to Bombay “with the approval and indeed at the request” of the Nawab.

On May 23, 1914, a meeting was held at Government House in Mahabaleshwar in the presence of Lord Willingdon, the Governor of Bombay. It was agreed that guards ‘suitable to her rank’ would be provided at state expense and she would take up permanent residence in Bombay even though she desired to live in the palace at Janjira. On April 1, 1915, another agreement was drawn up under which Nazli Begum agreed to relinquish her monthly allowance of Rs 3,000 and return the state jewellery but would continue to keep the guards. A decade later, in July 1926 – the Nawab had died by then – she wrote to the British authorities complaining about the stoppage of payment for the guards. The British government informed her that she would have to take the matter to the courts.
Nazli Begum approached the court of Sar Nyayadish at Murud Janjira. It was at that point that she came to know that the Nawab had divorced her. On December 17, 1930, her suit was dismissed and the court upheld the divorce. Nazli Begum appealed against this verdict. As the state of Janjira was a party to the case, a judge from the provincial state service of the Bombay Presidency heard the case. On June 30, 1931, the court gave a judgment favouring the Janjira state.

Matters relating to the princely states were directly overlooked by the Crown. It was expected that by April 1933, the Bombay Presidency States would come under the Viceroy. Accordingly, Mohammad Iqbal wrote a letter dated April 17, 1933, to Eric Mieville, private secretary to Lord Willingdon. It indicates that he was aware of the minutest detail of the case, perhaps because his close friendship with Atiya.

Iqbal raised the point that the deed of divorce was “invalid according to the Shia School of Mohammadan Law which must apply to the present case”. He also dwelt upon the dubious role of the Janjira state: “They (Janjira state) cleverly managed to get possession of the jewellery in the possession of the Begum, and further got her to relinquish her right to the maintenance allowance. It seems a part of their premeditated plan to hurl at her face an illegal document in case she insisted on her claim to the guard of honour. The pitiless injustice of the whole plan is quite clear, and since the question now to be settled is practically one of dignity only and not inheritance – dignity of an innocent lady of a respectable family whose only fault was that she did not become the mother of an heir to the state…”

While Iqbal’s detailed letter would do a lot of good in today’s intolerant times for its catholicity, some experts have pointed to the absence of any support from Nazli’s family members, some of whom were well versed in religious law. Did they think Nazli’s case lacked merit? It must be also noted that the marriage of the eldest sister, Zehra, who died in 1940, to a cousin also ended in a divorce.

Until 1933, when Iqbal wrote his letter, Nazli Begum was fighting to get the Janjira state to pay for the guards. Subsequent records reveal she wanted to be at least allowed the use of the honorific ‘ex-Begum of Janjira’. Both the sisters continued to exert pressure on the Janjira state on this matter. However, Janjira was adamant. It accused Nazli of using indecent language with respect to the deceased Nawab and draining the state’s exchequer. It argued that any consideration of her request would be opposed by the people of Janjira. It stated that she was free to remarry.

Those opposed to the sisters portrayed them as ambitious spendthrifts, needing the state of Janjira to finance their lifestyle. This is a point of contention and only a deep study could yield an answer. One letter written by Atiya’s husband, Samuel Rahman Fyzee, an artist, provides a clue to Nazli’s persistence. In a letter written from England to the Secretary of State, he argued that allowing Nazli the use of the title would be a moral relief to her so that she gets some satisfaction.

Even as late as 1945, Nazli Begum had not given up her fight to be called ‘ex-Begum of Janjira”. She had sought an appointment with the Viceroy to discuss this matter but was not granted an audience. Could the denial of the use of this title be one of the factors for the migration of the sisters to Pakistan? That will perhaps remain one of history’s unanswered questions.

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