The only Empress of India was a Muslim   

Not many Indians realise or remember that the only Empress of India lived and died 800 years ago

NH Photo
NH Photo

Dr Chaman Lal

There have been films, TV serials made, plays staged and biographies written on the first empress of India in many languages. Punjabi playwright Balwant Gargi, who was from Bathinda, and in his childhood lived near the fort, where Razia Sultan was kept imprisoned, wrote a full length play in Punjabi-Sultan Razia in 1973, which was staged in Urdu in Delhi by Ibrahim Alkazi.

In 1983, Kamal Amarohi made a feature film Razia Sultan, featuring Dharmendra and Hema Malini, both joining BJP for a political career. While Dharmendra lost a re-election bid, Hema Malini continues to be a Member of the Lok Sabha.

Jamila Brijbhushan’s biography of Razia was published in 1990 and Shahana Dasgupta’s Razia: The People’s Queen came out in 2001. Meva Ram wrote a long, 670 page novel Sultan Razia in Hindi in 2011. In 2015, a television channel aired 170 episodes on Empress Razia Sultan.

And yet, she has not been given her due in Indian history. Now when there is so much sympathy for Muslim women, who are supposedly all victims of Triple Talaq, the great role played by a slave emperor’s brave daughter Razia Sultan, whom her father preferred over his sons in the thirteenth century, appears more relevant than ever.

India was ruled by slave dynasty from Turkey during 1206 and 1290 AD. Qutab-ud-din Aibak was the first emperor from slave dynasty and he set up the Delhi Sultanate. His son-in-law Iltutmish succeeded him. Razia was the daughter of Iltutmish and granddaughter of Qutab-ud-din, who had begun building the Qutab Minar in Delhi and who lies buried in Lahore.

Razia Sultan ruled over India for just about four years between 1236 and 1240, but she left an indelible imprint during this short period on Indian history.

Born in 1205 at Badaun, her grandfather Sultan Qutab-Din-Aibak died when she was just five years old.

After the fall of the Gupt dynasty, India was divided into many small states and these states were fighting with each other. Thanesar was the strongest of these states under Emperor Harshvardhan during 590-647 Ad. Later India was subjected to Arab attacks and Mohammad Bin Qasim succeeded in conquering Sindh in 711 AD and Islam took roots in India and spread to many more areas. After three hundred years Ghazni’s Turk ruler Mahmood Ghaznavi attacked India 17 times in a period of 27 years, but he returned every time after plundering India and had no interest in setting up his rule directly. Yet it led to influence of Turks, Mongols and Pathans in the area.

In the 12th century another Turk ruler from Afghanistan Muhammad Ghori attacked India many times conquered many states. Decisive wars were fought between Muhammad Ghori and Rajput ruler Prithviraj Chauhan in 1192 in Tabarhind (Now Bathinda), which led to the long Muslim rule in India.

Qutab ud din Aibak was the army chief of Ghori and he won Delhi and established Ghulam dynasty in India in 1206 AD after the death of Muhammad Ghori. Aibak married his daughter Qutab Begum to his favourite slave Shamshudin Iltutmish and after Aibak’s death, Iltutmish provided stability to Ghulam dynasty in India.

Razia was daughter of Iltutmish and she was given training in arms and administration at an early age. Elder son of Iltutmish Nasiruddin died, whom Iltutmish wanted to hand over his kingdom. Two other sons of Iltutmish from another wife Turkan, were incompetent, so Iltutmish designated Razia as his successor. During his absence from the capital, Razia was given charge of the kingdom, which she ran with competence.

In 1236, just before his death following a palace intrigue by his wife Shah Turkan, Iltutmish revised his decision and nominated his son Rukandin to be his successor, who succeeded him in 1236 after his death. But Rukandidn could rule for only six months, before he was assassinated along with his mother. After Rukandin’s death Razia Sultan was designated as empress or Sultan by the chiefs and she ruled with distinction for nearly four years.

Though historian Satish Chandra called her ‘a romantic figure in medieval Indian history’, another historian Prateeti Bhatacharya from Calcutta University describes her as ‘People’s queen’, who built roads to link villages and cities, and was also the first to abolish Jazia tax charged from Hindus. She was coroneted in November 1236 and given the title of Jalalat-al-din Razyia Sultan.

She would wear male army attire and did away with the veil or Burkha to have direct contact with her people. Razia established schools, academies, centres for research and public libraries that included works of ancient philosophers along with the Qur’an. Hindu works in literature, philosophy, the sciences, and astronomy were reportedly studied in schools and colleges.

Jamal Yakut, an African, was her favourite officer, fully loyal to her. By some accounts she even wanted to marry him. But she was also a childhood friend of the Governor of Tabarhind-Altunia as well. A few of the Governors of states under the Delhi Sultanate were unhappy with the coronation of Razia, so they conspired to remove her. They gathered their armies to attack on Razia, who was not unnerved and successfully created division among the rebels and even got several of them killed.

She proved her mettle as Sultan, but was too independent to the liking of a group of 40 chiefs of her durbar, who wanted the Empress to be pliable and kept under their thumbs. They were also offended at the appointment of Yakut, a black, called Habshi derogatively, as a senior official.

The group of forty chiefs encouraged Razia’s confidant and Tabarhind Governor Malik Altunia to rebel against her and she was imprisoned at Tabarhind by Altunia following a conspiracy. Yakut was killed. Tabar-e-Hind or Gateway to India was the name of present day Bathinda, the fort there is called now Qila Mubark, where Razia was kept imprisoned.

Later Razia married Altunia in order to regain her kingdom from her brother Bahram Shah who had been installed as Sultan. With no major office given to Altunia, he felt betrayed by the chiefs. Altunia and Razia set out for Delhi from Tabarhind, but they were betrayed and killed near Kaithal in Haryana on October 14, 1240, thus ending the tragic story of the first and the last woman Sultan of India.

There is dispute about her tomb, three places are referred—at Kaithal, where she was killed with Altunia, Bulbul Khana in Delhi and Tonk in Rajasthan. The Delhi tomb is maintained by the archaeological department. It is said that her step brother Bahram Shah who succeeded her, brought her remains to Delhi and buried her properly, the second tomb at Delhi is not identified, but could be of Altunia.

Razia Sultan lived with great grace and dignity and died fighting bravely, showing exemplary courage, intelligence and independence under extreme feudal and patriarchal conditions of Indian society in the 13th century.

That she became a symbol of feminist power in South Asia in the 13th century is remarkable indeed. Not many women in Islamic countries have achieved what Razia Sultan did eight hundred years ago. She is the real inspiration for not only Muslim women, but all women of India!

The author is a retired Professor from JNU and comes from Bathinda. It was by sheer chance that he stumbled upon Qutab-Din Aibak’s tomb in Lahore in 2007

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