Kombai S Anwar
Published in The Hindu – Friday Review, dated 17-02-2017
Madras was in the eye of a power storm, 200 years ago An ailing or aged ruler triggering a political crisis is not something new in Indian history, but what is interesting about the recent drama that unfolded in Chennai has its parallels to a power struggle that Madras was witness to a little more than 200 years ago. The drama then too had an ailing ruler, various aspirants including a ‘sister’ scheming to take over power upon his death, and a Governor keenly assessing the situation.
The only visible token of the dramatic events that unfolded in 1801 when Umdatu’l-Umara, the Nawab of Arcot, died, is a nondescript arch with the name ‘Azeempet’ chiselled on it, that still stands on Chennai’s Triplicane High Road, a few yards away from the Walajah Mosque. It is a reminder of sibling love that turned bitter and ultimately led to the dramatic fall of the House of Arcot, paving the way for the East India Company to establish itself firmly in the saddle and change the course of Indian history. Old timers remember this arch as the gateway, ‘Kaman-Darwaza,’ to the palace of Sultanu’n-nisa Begam, the daughter of Nawab Muhammad Ali Walajah and sister to Nawab Umdatu’l-Umara. Nawab Umdatu’l-Umara, who succeeded Muhammad Ali Walajah upon the latter’s death in 1795, was very fond of his sisters, especially his senior sister (meaning the eldest of his younger sisters) Sultanun’n-nisa, also known as Buddi Begum. Sultanu’n-nisa was equally fond of her brother so much so that, out of concern for his safety, and to ward off evil, she used to send everyday a rupee coin to the Nawab, which he would dutifully tie it on his upper arm.The Nawab very often spent his evenings at the palace of his senior sister, listening to musicians, watching a dance recital or just having dinner. He had a room in her house, where the Nawab met with his officers and others. It was widely believed that Sultanu’n-nisa was the actual power behind the throne. Somewhere down the line, Sultanu’n-nisa had assumed that her son Raisul Umara would succeed her brother to the throne. But she was not the only one eyeing the throne, as the Nawab himself would lament – “I intend my son for the throne; Sayful Mulk (the Nawab’s younger brother) intends that the throne is for him; my senior sister has in mind that her son is meant for the throne after me; and the firangs (foreigners – the East India Company) are waiting for their opportunity. But it shall be as the Supreme Ruler wills.” The Nawab wrote a will on his deathbed, making his son Tajul Umara his successor, a move that enraged his sister, who felt betrayed. It was an opportunity too good to miss for the firangs, who were looking for an excuse to take over the Carnatic entirely.The English used the simmering anger of Sultanu’n-nisa and spread the rumour that a coup against the Nawab was in the offing. With the connivance of Nawab’s Diwan, Col. Barret, they surrounded the ailing Nawab with the Company’s troops. When Nawab Umdatu’l-Umara died in 1801, a bitter Sultanu’n-nisa would not forgive her brother. She refused to let the coffin pass through the Kaman-Darwaza. It had to be left the whole night with guards in a hall opposite the arch. After failing to persuade his aunt to let the coffin through, Tajul Umara, son of the deceased Nawab, decided to break the wall behind Nusrat-mahall and send the coffin to Trichy, to be buried next to the tomb of his grandfather Nawab Walajah. This power struggle enabled Governor Edward Clive to make a man of Company’s choice as the next Nawab, a man who was willing to sign away the Kingdom, which the young Tajul Umara, the rightful successor, refused to do. Umara’s cousin Azim-Ud-Daula was anointed as the next Nawab. Tajul Umara died within a few months. Sultanu’n-nisa and her son left for a Hajj pilgrimage and chose to settle down in the holy city of Karbala in Iraq, where she eventually died. Two hundred years later, the arch still stands, a mute witness to the bitter power struggle that not just led to the tragic fall of the House of Arcot but a drastic change in power equation that would take more than century for India to recover from.