By: Amr Quadir
Edited by: Khwaja Anas Nasarullah
On a winter day in 1915, 44 years old Nawab Salimullah the prince of Dhaka lay dead in his house in Chaurangi, Calcutta. Those who were with Nawab Salimullah in his house in Calcutta, and had seen his dead face, swore that he had been poisoned. Nawab Salimullah’s body was brought to Dhaka in state honour by river, and buried in his ancestral graveyard in Begum Bazar, Dhaka.
The stories are taken from the narration of highly important facts connected with his funeral from his granddaughters Attiya Akhtaruddin and Shahida Quadir which they had heard from their grandmother, Nawab Begum Raushan Akhter, Nawab Salimullah’s youngest wife. According to Nawab Begum Raushan Akhtar, Nawab Salimullah’s body arrived in Dhaka in a sealed coffin, accompanied by British troops. No one, not even the Nawab’s family was allowed by the British Government to open the coffin and sat their last farewell to the Nawab; the British troops made sure of that. The troops had surrounded the Ahsan Manzil Palace – The Nawab’s Residence, and also encircled his grave and remained there as long as six months till his death, never leaving for once the Palace or the Nawab’s grave.
Al-Haj Md. Sirajuddin writes in his book, “Nawab Salimullah” in 1992: ‘My father, late Haji Muhammad Siddique Sardar, and some other old timers of Dhaka related an incident which I believe is important in a biography of Nawab Salimullah. At the time Nawab Salimullah’s death, it transpired in Dhaka, that he was poisoned by his enemies during his stay in Calcutta. When the dead body of Nawab Sahib was brought to Dhaka, Thousands of eager people flooded Sadarghat and Ahsan Manzil Palace to catch a glimpse of his last remains. But his dead body was not shown to the public. As this important incident is not mentioned in other biographies I have gone through, I have mentioned in here in the preface, and not in the text.’
We must not forget that, eight years before his poisoning, Hindu terrorists had tried to shoot Nawab Salimullah in Comilla, and had also derailed his train, while he was coming from Comilla to Dhaka.Who could have been behind Nawab Salimullah’s poisoning – the Hindus, the British, or both, and why? Why would the British and/or the Hindus have turned against him?
Nawab Salimullah’s Family originated in the Kashmir Valley. One of the earliest recorded ancestors, Khwaja Abdul Hakim was Governor of Kashmir under the Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah. He left Kashmir around the time of Nadir Shah’s invasion of India (1739), and later migrated to Sylhet. His descendants moved to Dhaka, where the Dhaka Nawab Family was later founded. All Nawabs of the family, especially Nawab Abdul Ghani Mia (1813-1896) and his son, Nawab Ahsanullah (1846 – 1901), were deeply interested in the welfare of the Muslims of India, with emphasis on the downtrodden Muslims of Bengal, who were suffering from British discrimination, and Hindu Domination.
Nawab Sir Salimullah, the next Nawab of Dhaka, was born on 7th June 1871, the son of Nawab Ahsanullah and Nawab Begum Wahidunnisa daughter of the Zamindar of Kartikpur. He was educated at home in Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Bengali and English. Nawab Salimullah got married to his cousin, Ismatunnisa Begum in 1893, and joined the Government Service as Deputy Magistrate the same year. He was away for a year in Mymensingh, then served for one more term in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, and resigned from service in 1895. He then went into jute business at Mymensingh. Many say that Nawab Salimullah stayed away from Dhaka, because apparently his religion-based views did not find favour with his father Nawab Ahsanullah, who died in 1901. On Nawab Ahsanullah’s death, being his elder son, Nawab Salimullah inherited the title of Nawab, with the unanimous consent of all concerned. Nawab Salimullah inherited a depleting treasury due to the considerable sums spent by Nawab Ahsanullah on public service, and the necessity of maintaining an ever-increasing number of dependants.
East Bengal and the Partition of Bengal
The condition of the Muslims of Bengal at the time of Nawab Salimullah was abysmal. The problem was long standing, and deeply rooted in the historic and economic factors stretching back to the decline of the power of the Mughals in Bengal. The Permanent Settlement by the British elevated the Hindu collectors, Banias and Mahajans; all the expenses of the Muslim landlords and peasants. On the eve of the formation of the Muslim League, 95-98 percent of cultivators of Bengal were Muslim, while 99 percent of the money-lenders and 90 percent of the landowners and big zamindars were now Hindus.
Inspired by his forerunners’ great charitable and public contributions, Nawab Salimullah tried his best to politically help the Muslims of India, and especially those of Bengal. The Muslims of Bengal lagged socio-economically and educationally behind the Hindus, and they had also been reduced to a level of illiteracy, from which they found it almost impossible to recover. By the end of the 19th century, Bengali Muslims were all but ousted from service, trade and commerce by the Hindus. Hindu jealously guarded their vested interests, and the Muslims Bengalis found it near impossible to compete with them.
Lord Curzon partitioned the large province of Bengal, persuaded by Nawab Salimullah, and the separate province of Eastern Bengal and Assam came into existence on October 16, 1905. This move was a great benefit educationally and socio-economically, for the downtrodden Muslims of Bengal. The separate Muslim-majority province lasted for almost 6 years, during which the established economic and educational system of the new province started undergoing a rapid change, and the new number of Muslim students attending schools and colleges shot up by 35.1 percent between 1905 and 1911. Muslim entrepreneurs came forward to launch new commercial businesses. One good attempt was the founding of steamer companies operating between Chittagong and Rangoon in 1906.
The Hindus of Bengal launched an anti-partition movement, fearing the educational advance amongst Muslims would threaten their Jobs, economic interests, status and political authority. The Hindus anti-partition movement soon turned into militant and terrorist. The terrorist movement committed several assassinations and plundering, and attempts were made on the life of Nawab Salimullah, as well as several British officials.
Most of the Hindu intellectuals, entrepreneurs and zamindars had now selfishly turned against the Bengali Muslims and their leader Nawab Salimullah. They had openly declared him their enemy, which ofcourse he was not. Nawab Salimullah was not anti-Hindu; he was only justifiably fighting for the well-deserved legal rights of Bengali Muslims.
To counter the militant anti-partition agitations, and aggressive Hindu chauvinism, and so that the Muslims of India would have their own separate political party, as the Indian National Congress was increasingly ignoring Muslim demands and rights, Nawab Salimullah founded the All India Muslim League. The new political party for the Muslims was formed at the Nawab’s garden-house Shahbagh, in Dhaka, on 30th December 1906.
But the British quickly surrendered to the Hindu terrorist anti-partition movement, and the partition of Bengal was annulled, without any consultation with Nawab Salimullah, and the Muslims of Bengal. This came as a great shock, and Nawab Salimullah immediately wrote a letter to the British Government, stating that he would never again trust a promise by the British Government, or the word of an Englishman.
Nawab Salimullah and the Bengali Muslims were immensely hurt and saddened by this occurrence, and came to realize that the British were not genuinely concerned for the well being of the Muslims, and had used them as pawns. To divide the province of Bengal, and thus lessen the influence of the aggressive, militant and politically powerful Hindus, clamouring for self-rule. Therefore, the capital of India was also shifted to New Delhi from Calcutta, after annulment of the Partition of Bengal, to lessen the influence of the Bengali Hindus, and to be away from militant and politically-charged atmosphere in Bengal.
Nawab Salimullah fought back, and before leaving the Delhi Darbar, where he’d been personally invited by Emperor George V, Nawab Salimullah demanded the establishment of a university at Dhaka, and received a British promise on it. Dhaka University came into existence after the Nawab’s death, but was immensely instrumental in educating the deprived Muslims of East Bengal. On reaching Dhaka, Nawab Salimullah threw away the badge of G.C.I.E, which he had been awarded at the Delhi Darbar. He said, “it is a bait, a bribe, a halter of disgrace around my neck”.
Disenchanted and disgusted by the deceptive behaviour of the British, Nawab Salimullah openly voiced his criticisms of the British Government and its policies in his speeches and made the British his enemy.
We might never know who poisoned Nawab Sir Salimullah Bahadur at the young age of 44, but we must realize how he fought to awaken the politically asleep Muslims of India. Had there been no Nawab Salimullah, there would have been no partition of Bengal, no formation of All India Muslim League, and no establishment of The Dhaka University: all extremely important measures, for the protection of Muslim rights and interests which greatly inspired and helped the later Muslim leaders in achieving freedom, giving birth to an independent Pakistan and Bangladesh.