Social landscape of Hyderabad changed by the entry of Princesses

By Salma Farooqui

Emerging new regimes in post-World War I had sealed the fate of former imperial families including that of the Ottoman Empire. Nevertheless, the Ottomans built up new connections with leading powers around the world. This was evident in the context of the influential Princely State of Hyderabad.

The marriages of the sons’ of Mir Osman Ali Khan (1911-48), the last Nizam of Hyderabad State, with the Turkish princesses bring to the fore the close connections shared between Turkey and India in the early modern period. The Nizam’s elder son, Nawab Mir Himayat Ali Khan alias Azam Jah Bahadur, was married to Princess Durrushehvar, the daughter of Abdul Mejid Khan II, the last Caliph and ex-Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, and his younger son Nawab Mir Shujat Ali Khan who was also known as Moazzam Jah Bahadur was married to her cousin Princess Niloufer.

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These marriages were significant for they were perceived as an alliance of two illustrious dynasties – the Osmania and the Asafia. A joint wedding of both couples took place on 12th November 1931 at Nice in southern France. The wedding ceremony was a fairly simple affair attended only by the members of the ex-sultan’s family, some Turkish nobles and a few personal friends. The marriages were considered politically significant in both the Muslim world and in Europe. In the wedding photographs the brides, at 17 and 15 years of age, carry expressions that seem far from cheerful, perhaps a reflection of the exiled lives they had been leading and the uncertainty of what awaited them in yet another foreign land.

The caliph himself performed the weddings and the marriage register was signed by three witnesses representing Hyderabad State. After the wedding, the couples boarded the ocean liner Pilsna at Port Said, Egypt, on their way to Hyderabad. On the same ship travelled Mahatma Gandhi, who was on his way back after attending the Second Round Table Conference in London. According to one unverified report, he requested a meeting with the princesses. This journey was the beginning of Princesses Durrushehvar’s and Niloufer’s immersion into colonial India and South Asian Muslim culture.

After the couples reached Hyderabad a state banquet was held at the Chowmohalla palace on 4th of January, 1932. This banquet assumes significance because of the speech given by Lft. Col. T. H. Keyes, the British Resident, who was the chief guest of the evening. The crux of his speech lay in him reminding the people of the words of the Nizam two years ago in which he had said that his dominions should play their part in evolving a system which would bring peace and prosperity to India. This implied that the Indian princely states abandon their isolation and become part of the British Commonwealth.

The Nizam was ready to enter into an all India Federation provided the sovereignty of his State was safeguarded. In other words, the British Empire was to see that the title of the Faithful Ally of the British Government was no empty formula. Then came the news of the Nizam arranging the marriages of his sons’ with the Turkish princesses. Both the ideas sprung from the Nizam’s deep-rooted desire to do his best for all that concerned him, his family and the people of his dominions and for the Indian empire as a whole. The step taken by the Nizam to arrange these matrimonial alliances exalted his position as a ruler who acted with foresight and courage for his family and people.

These developments are to be seen against the background of the Turkish National Assembly voting to abolish the Caliphate in 1924. Exiled to a foreign land, the Ottoman caliph found himself in a weak position. Seeing the caliph in such a condition, the Nizam was advised that a matrimonial alliance with the ex-caliph’s family would help him command the allegiance of millions of Muslims and acquire wide-ranging geopolitical implications. Hyderabad at this time was a hub for Muslim intellectuals and a centre for “Muslim internationalism.” 

One strand of Muslim internationalism focused around the idea of reviving the Islamic caliphate and it was supported by Mahatma Gandhi. Shoukat Ali, a leading member of the Khilafat movement, personally brokered the marriage negotiations between the Nizam and the ex-caliph. Correspondence between Hyderabad, Nice, London and Ankara in the British India Office archives suggest that the marriage alliances heightened Turkish and British anxieties relating to the revival of the caliph’s position for there were other Ottoman princesses who were married into various Muslim princely households in India and Egypt. There were many rounds of negotiations and finally in 1931 these marriages materialized.

Having established relations with the Osmania dynasty and Durrushehvar being the only child of the last caliph, the Nizam could formally establish the connection with the Ottoman Empire by virtue of which he was trying to make his position predominant in the Muslim world. Interestingly, other eligible royal princes had also asked for the hand of these exquisite princesses, including King Faud of Egypt, King Faisal of Iraq and the Shah of Persia. This establishes the importance of the Osmania dynasty with which leading Muslim dynasties of the world wanted to get associated with but it was the Asafias who had triumphed.

There is one instance when the last Nizam, Mir Osman Ali Khan, before being ousted by the newly independent Government of India, had inherited the title of Caliph from the recently deposed Ottoman sultan. It was the Turkish connection of the marriages of his two sons that was to ensure that the Nizam became the predominant Muslim leader not only in India but in the Islamic world. The Ottoman monarchs had held the title Caliph, religio-political leader of Sunni Muslims since the sixteenth century. Even though the institution of the Caliphate had been largely symbolic, it had existed since the death of Prophet Muhammad in 631. It continues to be a controversial topic with many different groups laying claim to its revival.

Apart from the political significance, these marriages were instrumental in bringing about a change in Hyderabad’s society by impressing upon the people western ideas of freedom and liberty symbolized in the demeanour of the Turkish princesses.

An examination of Princesses Durreshehvar’s and Niloufer’s lives reveal strong-willed, intelligent and rebellious young women who pushed the limits of traditional South Asian Muslim culture. Western ideas of freedom and liberty were embodied in the demeanour of the Turkish princesses, who broke the barrier of seclusion expected of upper-class women and freely mingled with nobility and common people at gatherings. 

They worked for women’s emancipation and publicly spoke against the burqa and raised funds for hospitals and schools. They oversaw the construction of hospitals that still bear their names; started schools for orphaned girls, and daycare facilities for female workers with children and; founded an organization to protect child labourers.

In addition, they ran a number of women’s organizations, including Hyderabad Women and Children’s Medical Aid Society, Hyderabad State Women’s Conference, Hyderabad Women’s War Work, and Lady Hydari Club. They had a deep concern for women’s empowerment and inclusion in the workforce. It appears that the social and cultural connect that the princesses could establish with Hyderabad State goes beyond mere political connections.

Salma Farooqui is a professor of history at Moulana Azad National Urdu University

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