Revealed: Mahatma Gandhi had big impact on Princess Niloufer



About 12 years ago, Evelyn Pope, the widow of Edward Pope, handed me several suitcases of documents her late husband had preserved from his previous marriage with Princess Niloufer. A graduate of Yale, Edward Pope had intended to make a film on the life of Princess Niloufer. Unfortunately, he fell ill shortly thereafter, and could not fulfil his wish.

When Evelyn Pope met me, she said “Niloufer’s story goes from one Yale graduate to another!” and gave me a letter authorising their use for the purpose of a film.

Princess Niloufer’s letter to Nehru on Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination.

(Copyright: Arvind Acharya; do not reproduce without permission.)

Evelyn Pope’s legal heirs have recently assigned me the copyrights of these documents, as well as the rights to display or exhibit them. It is in exercise of these rights that I am revealing a curious and interesting correspondence of Princess Niloufer.

Late last week, the British writer Peter Clark was in Hyderabad. I met him to talk about shared interests in Turkey, West Asia, the Ottoman Empire and the Nizam. Clark was looking for a lost manuscript written by Marmaduke Pickthall. Our conversation went one way and then the other, till we converged on the topic of Princess Niloufer.

Clark told me that Pickthall was present at Princess Niloufer’s wedding. As I said in my speech at the inauguration of the exhibition on Princess Niloufer last week, the marriage of the Khalifa’s daughter Sultana Durru Shehvar was finalised with Azam Jah, the elder son of the 7th Nizam of Hyderabad. During the negotiations for the terms of the marriage, it was decided to bring in Princess Niloufer as a bride for the Nizam’s younger son, Moazzam Jah. The marriages were performed in Nice in southern France and the Khalifa himself performed the role of a Qazi at the wedding.

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s written reply to Princess Niloufer (Copyright: Arvind Acharya; Do not reproduce without permission.)

One of the men who signed the marriage certificate as a witness was Maulana Shoukat Ali. To Shoukat Ali goes the credit for arranging the wedding. He was the intermediary and heaved a sigh of relief when the event concluded.

Following the event, the two brides set sail for India. They originally planned to spend some time in Yemen, said Clark, but the plague there deterred them, and they decided to head straight from India. They were on the liner, the Pilsna.

Unknown to them, there was a large delegation travelling from London on the same liner. They were returning from the second Round Table Conference in London. Their star passenger was Mahatma Gandhi. As readers of DC know, Shoukat Ali had led the Khilafat agitation to restore the Khalifa, Abdul Majid, who was also Durru Shehvar’s father, back on to the throne of Turkey. Gandhi had supported the Khilafat movement and was on very intimate terms with Shoukat Ali.

When Gandhi heard that the Khalifa’s daughter was on board the ship, he asked to meet them. Gandhi and his group were travelling in steerage (third class). The daughters-in-law of the Nizam, on the other hand, were in First Class. An appropriate compromise was arranged, to meet in the Second Class area.

What transpired at this meeting, no one knows. The two Princesses, Durru Shehvar and Niloufer, were very young, 17 and 15 respectively. I don’t know if Princess Durru Shehvar ever recorded this meeting; in the papers of Princess Niloufer of which I have possession and hold the rights, I do not find any mention of this meeting. Clark said Pickthall was present but he chose not to record this event either.

This much is certain. The apostle of non-violence left a deep impression as reflected in a letter, many years later.

It is from Princess Niloufer to Pandit Nehru. On the day the Mahatma was shot dead, Princess Niloufer heard the report on the radio, and read the papers the next day. Deeply troubled, she did not know what to say.

India had just been partitioned and there was trouble everywhere. Was the assassin a lone actor or was there a large conspiracy? What would be the reflection of this event, especially in her Hyderabad, whose name she carried in her title?

As soon as she could, Princess Niloufer wrote Nehru a letter, of which an image is reproduced here. She writes in lucid prose. Her letter is dated February 3, 1948.

It took Pandit Nehru 18 days to write back. Understandably, he was very busy in the aftermath of Gandhiji’s assassination. When he wrote back, it was the February 21, 1948. Note that it is a handwritten letter.

Acknowledging her letter, Pandit Nehru responded: “My dear Princess, Thank you for your letter. It was good of you to write to me.”

Continuing on to the next paragraph, Nehru wrote: “The great silence has descended upon us and yet it seems full of his presence. It is difficult to realise that he has gone. Unconsciously I think of going to him to consult him about some matter. Perhaps great men never die, even though their body fades away. They become a part of the minds and lives of innumerable people”. He closed the letter by saying, “I hope it is well with you”. It is signed, “Sincerely Yours, Jawaharlal Nehru”


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