IN MEMORIAM: PAYING PENANCE FOR PAKISTAN

Published November 5, 2023
The Butler Palace in Lucknow was declared one of the enemy properties of the Raja of Mahmudabad
The Butler Palace in Lucknow was declared one of the enemy properties of the Raja of Mahmudabad

Universally known to family and friends as Sulaiman, Muhammad Amir Mohammad Khan, Raja Mahmudabad passed away on October 4, 2023. Sulaiman Miyan lived all his life as a citizen of India. Yet, successive Indian governments relentlessly branded him an ‘enemy’ of the state.

His father, Mohammad Amir Ahmad Khan, was a longstanding treasurer and financier of the All India Muslim League and supported institutions that came to play a critical role in the creation of Pakistan. His grandfather, Raja Muhammad Amir Muhammad Khan (1878-1931), was a taluqdar [landed aristocracy] of a large estate, with land in Mahmudabad and its environs, as well as prime urban property in District Sitapur, Lucknow and Nainital.

The grandfather was a founder and benefactor of Lucknow University, and benefactor of many other educational institutions, including Aligarh Muslim University (with its roots in the Mohammadan Anglo-Oriental College founded by Sayyid Ahmad Khan in 1875), and was the university’s first Vice Chancellor. Today, it is commonplace in India for many to refer pejoratively to Aligarh as another Pakistan or a mini Pakistan.

On August 13, 1947, a day before the official birth of Pakistan, the Raja of Mahmudabad boarded a Dakota flight from Quetta to Zahedan in Iran. After a pilgrimage at Mashhad, a place of spiritual significance for Shia Muslims, he proceeded to Iraq with his wife Kaniz Abid, Rani of Mahmudabad — and in her own right, the Rani of Bilhera — and their three-year-old son Sulaiman, Mohammad Amir Mohammad Khan.

Raja Mahmudabad, who passed away in October, lived all this life as an Indian citizen but was branded as an ‘enemy’ and lost his considerable inheritance because of his father’s support for the creation of Pakistan

A close associate of Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Raja Mahmudabad remained an Indian citizen and did not move to Pakistan then. Traumatised and unable to process the violence of Partition, his journey to Karbala in Iraq was an act of penance.

The family returned to Lucknow a few months later. After a brief spell, Raja Mahmudabad returned to Iraq, where he lived from 1947 to 1957, with short visits to India and Pakistan. In 1950, Rani Kaniz Abid joined her husband with their two daughters and much younger son — now seven. Sulaiman was admitted to a school which taught Arabic, Persian and secular subjects. He studied in Iraq for three years.

 Prof Ali Khan Mahmudabad  posted this photo of his father on Instagram on Oct. 9
Prof Ali Khan Mahmudabad posted this photo of his father on Instagram on Oct. 9

Education, both spiritual and temporal, was a great concern of the Mahmudabad family, and his father sent Sulaiman and his mother back to India, where they lived with the wider Mahmudabad family in Lucknow in a large section of Kaiserbagh Palace, built by Wajid Ali Shah (1822-1887), the last Nawab of Awadh. After the British annexed Awadh in 1856, they had partitioned the palace, and allocated sections of it to feudal families.

The family divided their time between Lucknow, and the Qila in Mahmudabad, originally built in the 17th century but destroyed during the 1857 rebellion, and rebuilt in later years.

Sulaiman Miyan at the time knew neither English nor Hindi. After a crash course in English, he was admitted to La Martiniere School, from where he matriculated. Additionally, he was under the tutelage of legendary aalims and ustaads. He excelled in rhetoric and prosody and was schooled in adab adaab-e-mehfil [etiquette of the congregation] of music, qawwali performances, and mushaira [poetry gatherings].

In Lucknow and Mahmudabad, young Sulaiman had access to two fine libraries. Throughout his life, he loved to walk visitors around the collections, which included 400- to 500-year-old manuscripts, and beautifully illuminated ancient Qurans. He spoke with mastery about works of exegesis (tafseer), mathematics (riyazi), astronomy (nujoom), medicine (tib), logic (mantaq), metaphysics (tasawwuf), beliefs (aqaaid), jurisprudence (fiqh) and history (tareekh).

Sulaiman Miyan was also adept at the conduct of Shia majalis [religious congregations] and rituals. Muharram was always observed in Mahmudabad. Among the cognoscenti of the chanting of soz, salaam, nauha, and marsiya (all forms of devotional poems) he had committed thousands to memory. Together with Awadhi, Urdu, Farsi, Arabic, Italian and English poetry, mathematics, physics and astronomy, they became as vital a part of him as his breath. He was immersed and at ease in a world and a cosmos without borders.

 Sulaiman Miyan in 2010 | Photo by Uppercrust
Sulaiman Miyan in 2010 | Photo by Uppercrust

Towards the late 1950s, concerns about the consequences of rising Iraqi nationalism led Sulaiman Miyan’s father to leave Iraq. He visited Pakistan as an Indian but, in December 1957, he went to C.C. Desai, the Indian High Commissioner in Karachi, and surrendered his passport. Sulaiman Miyan’s mother refused to move to Pakistan. She told her husband that she would visit him in Pakistan but would not live there.

In 1959, Sulaiman Miyan was sent to board at Aldenham, an English school that dates back to Elizabethan times. From there, he went to Pembroke College, Cambridge. While completing his Tripos in Mathematics, he heard that, in the aftermath of the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, the Indian state had begun to seize as ‘enemy property’ assets owned by Pakistani citizens. (Similar laws were passed in Pakistan.) The Qila was surrounded by armed police. In the late 1960s, parts of the Qila were unsealed, but other properties remained out of reach of the family.

After Cambridge, Sulaiman Miyan had a spell at Imperial College, London, where he studied theoretical and space physics. He returned to Cambridge where, under the aegis of mathematician and astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle, he was admitted to the Institute of Astronomy and started work for his PhD.

Meanwhile, in Pakistan, his father Raja Mahmudabad was a lonely and disappointed man. As a Shia in a post-Objectives Resolution Pakistan, he had misgivings. Besides, the discourse of ‘indigenous’ claims to the soil had started. He did not know any local languages — another reminder that, as an Urdu-speaking Muhajir, he was an outsider.

Raja Mahmudabad migrated yet again, this time to London, and took charge as Director of the Islamic Centre, located in Regent’s Park, where he lived a sparse and simple life. He raised funds, supervised plans for the building of the Regents Park mosque, and put in place the infrastructure for the World of Islam Festival. He died in London on October 14, 1973.

Since 1974, until the rest of his life, Sulaiman Miyan — now Raja Mahmudabad — battled a claim to his inheritance, declared ‘enemy property’ under the Indian Enemy Property Act, 1968.

The Bombay High Court ruled in his favour in 2001, stating that “By no stretch of the imagination can he be said to be an enemy or enemy subject.” New Delhi appealed. Finally, his struggle was vindicated in 2005, when the Indian Supreme Court upheld his claim to his inheritance, in a landmark judgment, and accused the government of “malafide intentions…to retain possession of huge properties without any authority of law.”

Sulaiman Miyan told friends and the press, “It made me proud. I felt an injustice had been reversed.” Justice, nevertheless, was short-lived. New Delhi overrode the Supreme Court’s verdict, with retroactive changes to the law, under which the Mahmudabad properties were seized. Raja Mahmudabad, a former two-term Member of the Legislative Assembly, from the Congress Party in the 1990s, was branded an ‘enemy’.

With his faith in secular India dented, Sulaiman Miyan told a publication, “The harsh reality is that it is Muslim property, so therefore it could be treated in any way.”

Indeed, in 2017, Narender Modi’s Hindu nationalist government amended the Enemy Property Act to keep the estate out of Raja Mahmudabad’s hands for good. The new amendments define India’s enemies to include both Pakistani citizens and their heirs, even if they are Indian citizens.

Asked if he regretted his decision to stay on in India, Sulaiman Miyan quoted the Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) in translation: “No, not under the vault of another sky., not under the shelter of other wings. I was with my people then, there where my people were doomed to be.”

He was indeed with his people — standing steadfastly beside him was his wife Vijay Khan, the beautiful and accomplished Rani of Mahmudabad, whom he had met at Cambridge. And with them stood their sons: the elder, Sahibzada Prof. Ali Khan, a historian, and Sahibzada Amir Muhammad Khan, a mathematician and banker.

Sulaiman Miyan was laid to rest in Karbala, one of three Shia shrines in his beloved Qila in Mahmudabad.

Correction: The date of Raja Mahmudabad’s departure to Zahedan has been corrected to August 13, 1947 instead of August 14, 1947

The reviewer is a historian, a screenwriter, a translator and rights activist.
X: @NasreenRehman1

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 5th, 2023

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