Sunday, March 3, 2013

Nazli Raffiya Begum's fight for her title

Many interesting personalities emerge from the subcontinent’s colonial history and several of them happen to be women. One such was Nazli Raffiya Begum (1874-1968), princess and sister of celebrated litterateur Atiya Fyzee. Here was a woman who 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 yore. 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”.

This event has not been covered much perhaps due to the fact that the Fyzee sisters migrated to Pakistan and Atiya has garnered more attention due to her literary skills and outspokenness. Nazli’s story is symbolic of the difficult path women face against wealthy and well-connected in-laws in matters of marital dispute.

From the 1920s to late 40s Nazli Begum fought to correct the 'injustice' meted out to her. She was married to the Nawab of Janjira, a small princely state near Mumbai while she was only 15 years old in 1887. Nazli marshalled arguments, letters and support from people as varied as Mohammad Iqbal to Cornelia Sorabjee to Sir Sultan Ahmed but to no avail.

One of the points on which Nazli Begum advocated that she be allowed to use the honorific was her claim that the deed of divorce (by her husband Nawab of Janjira) should have been done as per the Shia laws (which she followed) and not Sunni laws which was adhered to by the Nawab of Janjira. Supporting her was Mohammad Iqbal who wrote a letter to the British authorities explaining the injustice done to her.

The Nawab had passed away in 1922 and even during his lifetime questions arose regarding the entitlements and allowances to Nazli Begum as she was staying in Bombay. The argument put forward by the State of Janjira was that the Nawab had divorced her and hence the state had no obligation or responsibility towards her maintenance.

However, it was precisely the issue of divorce that lay at the heart of the dispute. Nazli Begum maintained that she was only told about the divorce after the Nawab had died and when she raised the question of the guards deployed at her place being not paid their due salaries. According to her, the divorce deed was never served to her.

Besides, her argument was that the divorce should have happened following the rules and laws of the sect she belonged to (Shia) and not Sunni sect followed by the Nawab. After almost 25 years of marriage they had no children. The Nawab of Janjira married another lady in 1913 with the consent of Nazli Begum and a son was born on March 6, 1914. She then moved to Bombay 'with the approval and indeed at the request' of Nawab of Janjira.

However, it seems after she left Janjira problems arose regarding the state jewellery and her allowance. On May 23, 1914 a meeting was held at Government House, Mahabaleshwar in the presence of Lady and Lord Willingdon, the Governor of Bombay. It was agreed that guards 'suitable to her rank' will be provided at the state expense and Nazli Begum will take permanent residence in Bombay even though she desired to live in the palace at Janjira.

On April 1, 1915 another agreement was drawn whereby Nazli Begum would relinquish the monthly allowance of Rs 3,000 and return the state jewellery. She would continue to keep the guards at state expense. In July 1926, she wrote to the British authorities complaining about the stoppage of payment for the guards deployed at her residence. The British government informed her that she will have to first take the matter to the courts.

Nazli Begum approached the court of Sar Nyayadish at Murud Janjira which was when she came to know that the Nawab had divorced her and hence there was no question of providing her with any maintenance. On Dec 17, 1930 her suit was dismissed and the court upheld the divorce and agreed that the validity of divorce must be determined by the law followed by the husband.

Nazli Begum appealed against the decision at the Sadar court in Janjira which was normally presided by the Regent assisted by the Dewan. As the state of Janjira was a party to the case, a judge from the provincial state service of Bombay Presidency heard the case. On June 30, 1931, the Sadar court gave a judgment favourable to the Janjira state.

Matters relating to the princely states were directly looked 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 17 April, 1933 to Eric Mieville, private secretary to Lord Willingdon who was the Viceroy. Iqbal’s letter which also summarised the case shows that he was aware of the minutest detail. This was perhaps due to the fact that he was a close friend of Nazli Begum’s sister Atiya.

Iqbal wrote: “A Muslim woman belonging to a particular sect of Islam does not, by the mere fact of marriage, become subject to the law of her husband’s sect if he happens to belong to another sect.” 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’.

Iqbal did not restrict himself to the religious points. He also dwelt upon the role of the Janjira state to make a strong case for Nazli Begum. “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, leaving her only the guard of honour. 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 one of 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…” The poet-philosopher also offered to personally meet the Viceroy in case he needed more details.

While Iqbal’s detailed letter would do a lot of good in current intolerant times for its catholicity, some experts have pointed to the absence of any support from members of the Tyabji and Fyzee clan, some of whom were learned and well versed in religious laws. Did they think Nazli’s case lacked merit? For example, it is not clear under which law or school of thought was the Nikah solemnised. It must be also noted that the eldest sister Zehra, who died in 1940, was married to a cousin which ended in a divorce. Did this affect their relationship with the extended family members?

Iqbal’s letter shows that till that time Nazli Begum was fighting to get the Janjira state pay for the guards at her residence. Subsequent records reveal that she wanted to be at least allowed to use ‘ex-Begum of Janjira’ to her name.

Both the sisters continued to write to exert pressure on the Janjira state. One such letter made the authorities write to the Kolhapur British Resident who also had Janjira under his jurisdiction. Janjira was adamant on not allowing Nazli to have any connection with the deceased Nawab or the state. According to them she had used indecent language for the Nawab and had heavily drained the state’s resources. They also wrote that she was free to remarry and any consideration of her request would result in severe opposition from the people of Janjira.

Critics say that the sisters were ambitious and spendthrift needing the state of Janjira to finance their high lifestyle. This is a point of contention and only a deep and perceptive study would help establish the reasons. One letter written by the artist and Atiya’s husband Samuel Rahman Fyzee gives some clue behind Nazli’s persistence. While in England he wrote to the Secretary of State making a case for Nazli to be allowed to use the title as a moral relief to her so that she gets some satisfaction.

In between her foreign journeys and fight with the Janjira state Nazli Begum had also interested herself for the collection of money under the Tilak Swaraj Fund. Though it is not clear, some reports suggest that she had given up foreign cloth opting for the Indian khaddar on Gandhi’s request.

Aiwan-i-Riffat which the sisters had so lovingly built was a landmark. Khwaja Ahmed Abbas has recorded that he attended a party at Aiwan-i-Riffat where George Bernard Shaw had also come. In the mid 40s they sold it and shifted to a rented accommodation in Malabar Hill.


After Partition they went to Karachi where they were allotted land and named their house Aiwan-i-Riffat. Unfortunately, they had to vacate the bungalow after some years due to problems regarding the ownership of the land.

It is said that Jinnah personally invited Atiya and her husband to Pakistan and hence they went to Karchi. However, Naved Masood the current corporate affairs secretary, in an earlier conversation with this writer mentioned his meeting with senior Supreme Court advocate late Danial Latifi. Latifi told Naved saab, that the Fyzee sisters were advised against going to Pakistan by the extended Tyabji family including Badruddin Tyabji, ICS who remained in India.

Latifi who died in June 2000 did not indicate that the migration had anything to do with  Jinnah. The Latifis are related to Tyabjis and also knew Jinnah fairly well and hence Danial Latifi’s observation has some weightage.

Even as late as 1945, Nazli Begum sought an appointment with the Viceroy, to discuss her matter. She was not granted an audience. Could the denial of the use of ‘ex-Begum of Janjira’ to Nazli a factor behind their migration to Pakistan?


WFS - An edited version was published in The Statesman and Free Press Journal