Thursday, 2 March 2017

Trailblazer Sultan Shahjahan Begum of Bhopal, a great woman ruler

Women empowerment, gender inequalities between men and women and discrimination against women  have been hotly debated in  many media and in newspapers all over the world, including India in the past  a couple of decades. The position of  Indian woman has shown upward mobility in the last decade, in spite of challenges being faced by them currently.Women  freely compete with men in very sphere of life world over and  also in India. Indian women now enjoy better educational and job opportunities  and competently compete with men, in spite of certain hurdles in their path. There is no dearth of competent Indian women in the realm of politics where they have to tackle lots of sharks. Gutsy Indian women even looked skyward and scaled Mt. Everest and set several world records. Now, they fly commercial planes on many  domestic routes. So,  they have, to some extent, have attained  economic independence, but unfortunately, this progress has also given rise to other social issues like compatibility between the couples, child-bearing, etc. 
:Sultan Shah Jahan, Begum of Bhopal, 1872.Wikimedia Commons
In the 19th century, the Indian scenario was a different one and  women did not have enough freedom with men on equal terms. In the case of royal families, the rulers were mostly men. However, we come across  a few efficient  Indian women rulers of  Indian kingdoms that did not have a male legal heir. These women were well trained by their father good enough  to take the reins after their death. In the case of a Muslim ruler with no legal heir, the task of a woman who would sit on the throne as her father' successor, was a tough one. Besides wisdom and valor, she must be competent to run the kingdom to save the legacy of their clan and in the matter of governance of a state, they were no where inferior to men.  In the case of  19th century women rulers of Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh,  not only did they rule the kingdom competently, but also carved a niche for themselves in the history of the Indian subcontinent. One of the rulers  Sultan  Shahjahan Begum, who grew under the loving care of her mother was a true trailblazer and won the heart of her subjects by introducing various public schemes beneficial to them. Her name is interwoven with the city of Bhopal, now the sate capital. Sultan Shahjahan Begum GCSI CI (29 July 1838-16 June 1901) was the Begum of Bhopal (the ruler of the princely state of Bhopal in Central India) for two periods: 1844 -
Mother of Shah Jajan Begam.Nawab Sikandar Jehan Begum,
60 (her mother acting as regent), and secondly during 1868–1901. 

Born in Islamnagar near the city of Bhopal, Shahjahan, daughter of  Sikandar Begum of Bhopal (her husband is Jahangir Mohammed Khan) was made a ruler of Bhopal in 1844 at a tender age six. Because of her minor status and  legally could not be a ruler, her mother  was the Regent during her minority. However, in 1860, Sikandar Begum was given  full nonrecognition by the British Crown  as a ruler of Bhopal in her own right, and Shahjahan Begum   succeeded her mother as Begum of Bhopal only upon the death of her mother  in 1868.  

 Sikandar Begum of Bhopal, realizing  the unavoidable handicap of  having  no male heir to the throne to run the kingdom, brought up her daughter with as much love and affection  as she could give her and at the same time saw to it that   Shahjahan  was  fully exposed to the various aspects of civil and military administration. Being an intelligent woman and had the ability to adopt her skill in any field, she proved herself  to be innovative and independent woman ruler of Bhopal.
map of Madhya Pradesh. Maps of India

Fascinating achievements of  Shahjahan Begum :
01. To run the administration effectively, she introduced simple ways to improve the tax revenue system.

02. With better revenues, she raised the salaries of her soldiers and other administrators so that hey could function efficiently without financial worries.

03. Her motto was 'strong military means strong nation'. So, to face any eventuality like military attacks from neighboring countries, etc., she modernized the military and more arms and  ammunition were made available to the military. 

04. In order to keep the people happy and not to face any hardship in their living condition, she concentrated on the civil and agricultural works, that resulted in the building of  a dam and many artificial  lakes to store excess rain fall and to  use them in case water scarcity. 

05. Besides military forces, she also introduced police forces to patrol the towns and villages near by so that people in her kingdom  could move around with out fear and anxiety.   As a woman, she put the city of Bhopal and the surrounding places under a security blanket to cut down, thefts, murder, criminal activities, etc. Especially women were much safer as a result of  this move. She took steps to improve the efficiency  of the police force.

06. In those days epidemic like Plague was a challenge to the administration and The British Crown had a tough time to handle such emergencies.  Begum Shahjahan's  period saw a couple of plague epidemics and population came down drastically. This necessitated her to introduce, for the first time, Census surveys to keep a check on the population and its growth. In a way,  she could tailor her civic projects, etc., based on population growth. 

07. Begum never failed to check on her state's revenues and expenditure. Once she noticed unprecedented gap between  revenue ans expenditure. To narrow down the gap and balance the budget, she took  altogether a different step to make up the revenue loss. She encouraged  farming of opium. That time The British was generating enormous income by exporting opium to overseas countries, in particular, to China. She was regarded as an effective and popular ruler.

08. Begum
Shahjahan   proved that she was not only a good queen, but also an intellectual. She became a prolific writer in Urdu and wrote sever books that have some literary value.

Taj-ul-Masajid, Bhopal built by Sultan Shah Jahan. Alamy
Taj ul Masjid, Bhopal.
Taj-ul-masjid, Bhopal.
09. Nawab Shah Jahan Begum (Wife of Baqi Mohammad Khan)  built the largest mosque in India, the Taj-ul-Masajid, at Bhopal. Unfortunately, her mammoth structure, following Hanafi Deobandi tradition of  Islam did not see completion during her life time. The work stopped during the 1857 Sepoy rebellion and later due to lack of  adequate funds.  But, the work began  in 1971 after a long gap and completed in 1985 by local Muslim leaders. The capacity  of the mosque is mind-boggling 175,000 and the total interior area is roughly 400,000 m2 (4,300,000 sq ft). Architecture is Mogul style.

10. Her keen desire to perform the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca did not happen owing to her poor health.

11. Shahjahan Begum was a philanthropist and  made a huge donation for the construction of a mosque at Woking, Surrey in the UK. Also linked with her name is the oldest Muslim institution -  the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh for which she gave big donation. That college later became  the Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh. 

12. When the railway system was introduced, for the benefit of the state, she  subsidized the cost of  railway construction work between  Hoshangabad and Bhopal.

As for her personal life, it was not a happy one. Her second marriage was childless and she lost her two husbands and two
granddaughters. She was not on a talking term with her daughter for a pretty long time. She died of mouth cancer on 6 June 1901 after having ruled the state in a splendid manner for which she received a lot of accolades. In 1876  postal stamp was issued during the Begum's reign. In1908,  one Anna stamp of Bhopal State was issued. She received innumerable titles like Her Highness Nawab (title Sultan Shah Jahan Begum Sahiba, Nawab Begum of Dar-ul-Iqbal-i-Bhopal (1872–1877) and British titles like 1877- Empress of India Medal,  1878 - Companion of the Order of the Crown of India (CI), etc.
 Her name will be ever associated with the city of Bhopal, the city that she cared for during her rule.