Showing posts with label Bombay. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Bombay. Show all posts

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

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Yusuf Meherally, for whom Bombay stood still

On 3 July, 1950 bus and tram services in what was then Bombay stopped for few minutes as the clock struck noon. The city was in a state of shock. The city that never stopped, stood still. Several educational institutes, factories and mills remained shut. One of the most potent symbols of the city's financial strength, Bombay Stock Exchange, though officially opened, witnessed no trading. It was a collective mourning and significantly bereft of any fear or force.

A day earlier, Yusuf Meherally, a selfless leader of the masses had passed away. The man who had coined two of the most popular slogans associated with the freedom struggle 'Simon Go Back' and 'Quit India' had roused the same passion in his death as his slogans. Years of struggle had taken its toll and a heart ailment that had struck him while in prison for the 1942 Quit India agitation had rendered him weak, though only physically and not in spirit. Just few days after his death, he was supposed to chair a meeting in Madras. Meherally was only 47 when he died.

Born in a prosperous family in Bombay on 3 September, 1903, his father Jaffer Meherally and his family were pro-British and the young Yusuf was looked upon as a renegade. He studied at Bharda High School and took interest in extra-curriculum activities. A firm believer in the power of youth, he was the main architect of the Bombay Youth League formed in 1928. In February 1928, the Youth League put up an admirably strong opposition in the wake of unprecedented lathi charge while opposing the Simon Commission. Meherally's slogan 'Simon Go Back' was on the lips of every nationalist in the city and country.     

Meherally believed in universal brotherhood cutting across race and nationalities. He belonged to that rare breed of leaders for whom personal gratification meant the well-being of fellow countrymen.  


At 4 pm on July 3, his coffin draped in the Tiranga started the last journey from Congress House to the Dongri Kabrastan. The four-mile journey was a spectacle but without the key ingredients that have now come to be associated and identified as a barometer of love, popularity, respect and reverence. No live coverage, studio discussions, or array of platitudes thrown across by anybody who was somebody.


It only had mourners in dignified silence and utmost respect, united in grief and a collective sense of irreplaceable loss. Beedi workers in faraway Thallessery in Kerala sported black badges and observed a hartal for their beloved leader.     


Active in the Congress, Meherally was among the key individuals who established and strengthened the Congress Socialist Party along with Jayaprakash Narayan, Achyut Patwardhan and Minoo Masani. This satiated his appetite for putting a forceful opposition to the British rule and at the same time working to address the needs and concerns of the working class.


He was a legendary figure for the hawkers, small-time traders, and clerical staff who toiled in commercial firms. He founded the Gumastha Mandal which fought for the rights of the working class. But this was not what his family wanted.     


Meherally did a BA in History and Economics from Elphinstone College. With the legal luminary H M Seervai and several other friends, Meherally did a penetrating study on the issue of university reforms. Speaking to students they covered a vast array of issues and came up with recommendations. Active in drama and debates, Meherally made the most of the extra-curriculum activities that Elphinstone College offered and was famous for. It was perhaps at Elphinstone College that he mastered the art of writing witty slogans and attractive posters – a quality he deployed to the maximum opposing the British rule. He then studied for a law degree at Government Law College.  


According to Madhu Dandavate, his biographer, the days when Meherally received his Bachelor degrees turned out to be of national significance. He received his BA in History and Economics on 8th Aug, 1925 – the same day in 1942 when the Quit India resolution was passed - and Bachelors in Law on 26th January 1929 – the day that is now marked as Republic Day.


Armed with two degrees, Meherally plunged into the freedom movement to the much consternation of his family members. His father had spoken to Mohammed Ali Jinnah to ensure his son’s law career treaded the right path. Meherally had different plans and perhaps the heavens too willed his way. Despite being a qualified lawyer, the High Court, just months after he received his law degree, refused to allow him to practise. This again was a rarity as several leaders were qualified lawyers but none was barred from appearing in courts.


Meherally was a magnet for the city’s and country’s youth. He was a hero for a whole generation of educated, and well-meaning men and women. Much of the people he inspired, nurtured and worked with would graduate to become professors, scholars and social workers. They looked up to him in awe and reverence due to his organisational abilities and clarity of ideas. As Aloo Dastur, former head of the department of Civics and Politics, Bombay University described him '24 carat gold and the likes of him are very difficult to meet these days'.

In 1938 he led the Indian delegation to the World Youth Congress in New York and also attended the World Cultural Conference in Mexico. Inspired by the vast literature on contemporary issues available in the West he decided to to plug the gap in India. Taking the lead, he authored 'Leaders of India' which ran into several editions. It was translated in Gujarati, Urdu and Hindi. It would be illustrative to share some excerpts from the Foreword he wrote: 


The rise of the pamphlet and the booklet as a powerful weapon for the spread of ideas has been truly remarkable. During my visits to these continents (US and Europe) I was greatly impressed by the part that such brochures play in moulding public opinion. In Europe and America there exists a wealth of topical literature that is in striking contrast to its scantiness in India. The Current Topics Series of Padma Publications is an attempt to meet this need. The idea is to publish every few months a booklet on a subject of topical or special interest having regard to present-day controversies and their bearing on the future. The series will not be restricted to political questions only. Every title will be published in a pleasing format, at a price within the reach of all.”

In 1942 when his name was nominated for the election to Bombay Mayoralty, he was lodged in Lahore jail. Vallabhbhai Patel was keen that Meherally stands for the election though a section of the Congress leadership was not in his favour. He was released from prison to take part in the elections and won comfortably becoming the youngest Mayor in the corporation’s history.


Meherally had a fine taste for art and culture reflecting his aristocratic upbringing and genuine love for India's diversity and rich heritage. In October 1949, he organised an exhibition of pictures and paintings tracing India’s freedom struggle beginning from 1857 in Bangalore. It had more than 200 pictures and was a much talked about event. It is said that he planned and designed a catalogue of another exhibition from his hospital bed. At Chetana, situated at Mumbai’s famed Kala Ghoda, Meherally organised an art and cultural event inviting personalities like Ustad Allauddin Khan and others.

Meherally’s motto was ‘Live Dangerously’ which he normally shared with friends and colleagues. On the morning of 17 December 1940 when the Britishers arrested him, the cotton markets, bullion exchange, stock market did ‘not transact any business’. It might be inferred that they must have remained close, but they were not. They were open for business, but chose not to do any!

For Meherally ‘Live Dangerously’ meant working to ensure a safe, secure, prosperous and healthy life for fellow citizens putting his own life at risk.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Father-daughter duo who helped Bapu learn Urdu

Few weeks back, The Times of India had reported that the Gujarat Vidhan Sabha will soon have a portrait of Abbas Tyabji (1853-1936). Tyabji, the surname is quite familiar and is associated with philantrophy and education.

Abbas Tyabji (in pic with Gandhiji) was the nephew of Badruddin Tyabji (1844-1906), the first Indian to be appointed chief justice of Bombay High Court. Like his uncle he too joined the Congress and played a pivotal role in the freedom struggle.

Abbas Tyabji studied in England where he lived for more than a decade and went on to become the chief justice in the former princely estate of Baroda. His life changed when he chaired a fact finding committee of the Congress to look into the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre. His first hand experience of the British atrocities turned him towards Congress and he became an ardent follower of Gandhiji.

He chose to divorced himself from all the comforts when he was in his late 60s - a time when people usually take a backseat. He dumped his 'British lifestyle' and plunged himself whole heartedly into the freedom struggle. One of his daughters, Rehana, too got involved in the affairs of the Congress party and along with her father became quite close to Gandhiji. The several letters between Gandhiji and Tyabji are a testimony to the close relationship they shared.

The father-daughter duo helped Gandhiji improve his Urdu. Rehana, became a disciple of Gandhiji and also learnt Hindi very well. Gandhiji used to write letters in Urdu to Ulemas and poets. He also had an Urdu edition for his newspaper - Harijan.

The Tyabjis were known for their work in the educational field. Badruddin Tyabji along with Mohammed Ali Roghay established the Anjuman-I-Islam in Bombay and the entire Tyabji clan believed in empowering womenfolk through education. Renowned ornithologist Salim Ali and eminent historian Irfan Habib belong to the Tyabji family.

Abdullah Yusuf Ali in his book 'Life and Labour of the People of India' (published in 1907) describes the women members of the Tyabji clan: "One of them on a visit to London won a coveted prize at a fancy dress ball at Covent Garden. Several of them can give a good account of themselves with pen or brush. Music, too, has been cultivated - not only on the hackneyed piano, but on the Bin, an ancient musical instrument of India, the classical Vina of the Apsaras. In conversation, artistic talents, and social gifts, they would hold their own in the most cultivated society of Europe and America."

(Sharifa Begum, daughter of Abbas Tyabji. Pic taken from Abdullah Yusuf Ali's book 'Life and Labour of the People of India')

The decision to have a portrait of Abbas Tyabji in Gujarat Vidhan Sabha is laudable and will help more people know the sacrifice and contribution of the Tyabjis.