Fool's world: Who gave Saif the right to be a Nawab?

Does our Republic, which abolished privy purses and titles long ago, still need people calling themselves nawabs, rajas, maharajas and royal highnesses?

Mahesh Vijapurkar November 07, 2011 10:43:26 IST
Fool's world: Who gave Saif the right to be a Nawab?

The other day, the ceremonial tying of a pagdi on Saif Ali Khan’s head, anointed him as the new Nawab of Pataudi. It signified the handing over of something to which he had no claim: the right, even if it was only notional, to preside over 52 villages that was once the family fief.

The title did not even belong to his father, the legendary gentleman-cricketer, Mansoor Ali Khan. With the withdrawal of privy purses by Indira Gandhi, his title too vanished.

When the tireless Iron Man of India, Vallabhbhai Patel, had coerced and cajoled the princely-states of pre-independence India to merge with the Indian Union, he allowed them, both as a courtesy, and to mitigate their short-term hardships, to retain their titles and gave them privy purses to pay for their former lifestyles. These privy purses ranged from a measly Rs 5,000 a year to the then lavish Rs 40 lakh per annum to the richest man then, the Nizam of Hyderabad.

Other pretences were also allowed. The Raja of Kashi, for example, had a car number plate ‘Kashi 1’ in 1980.

But this charade in Pataudi, and the conferment of a title on Saif Ali khan, is hypocritical and grandiose in a democratic republic. The very idea of retaining and using feudal titles is inimical to democracy. The fact is, even the national Padma awards are not supposed to be used as titles. But the country does suffer a maharaja here, a maharawal there, a prince somewhere and a raja elsewhere, and of course, nawabs. It is almost as if our former princely families hold on to these vestiges of the past as if it is their only possession.

Fools world Who gave Saif the right to be a Nawab

Sharmila Tagore and Saif Ali Khan at his anointment. PTI

The Pataudi episode is used here only to make a point, not to single out the good man and Bollywood actor Saif Ali Khan. If his cricketer-father was referred to as the Nawab of Pataudi, it was because he was one in his lifetime before he was stripped of it; his claim to fame, though, was in his real-life role as a great cricketer. He was the country's youngest ever captain, having being anointed one when he was only 21 in 1962. His represented a phase in transition from a ruler to a commoner. It just so happened that the title continued to be used in his lifetime though the Nawab's title paled before his deeds on the cricket ground. By no means was it hereditary to be passed on to the son.

It can be argued that passing on a title is a tradition, where the public refer to the subsequent generations of a royal family, deprived of all past privileges, with the same title they used earlier when they held sway. It is also argued that the use of honorifics — nawab, kunwar, raja, maharaja — is out of affection.

But look closer, and ask yourself: is this affection really undying, when even in the past people kowtowed to these royals simply because they were either autocratic or despotic, bar a few exceptions. Unless, of course, it is a case of old habits not dying. Which, to say the least, is unfortunate.

No doubt, every time a person from a former royal family passes away, the son is conferred the title his father once had if he was a ruler in his lifetime, or had just used it because the family handed it down, despite the lack of a legal licence to it. In the case of Jyotiradtiya Scindia, he literally ascended a throne in Gwalior, with all the trappings of a coronation. Every former royal household does go through this across the country. The media revels in it for the colour that 'plebeians' love. There is an element of the vicarious in such an event for the spectator.

In Rajasthan, even today it is a practice to refer to a former ruler of a state simply as His Highness and it is understood who it is — people would be hard-pressed to recall their real given names. His Highness Jodhpur means the Maharana of Jodhpur, Gajsingh. So does a former feudal of a handkerchief-sized Maharashtrian place being called 'Kumarsaheb'; his descendents live in two-room apartment in Pune.  These royals find it difficult to even keep their palaces in good repair; in Rajkot, a part of the property had to be sold to pay wealth tax, which was the republic's version of usury.

The media, of course, can't be faulted for the use of words like 'anoint', 'enthrone', etc, because that is precisely what has been done in the 60 years since this country of feudal lords and British-run territories collectively became a republic. However, should the media perpetuate these titles?

For instance, the left-of-centre The Hindu consistently uses 'The Prince of Arcot' with the name of Mohammed Abdul Ali Azim Jah, a descendent of former rulers, the Nawabs of Carnatic. Their rule ended in 1855, two years before the Indian War of Independence, and yet the official website of the family calls each successor to that line as a Prince. Jah's son is described as 'heir apparent' — all royal legalese.

That apart, we also have legal cases listed as "Colonel His Highness Sawai Tej ... vs The Union Of India & Another on 6 October, 1978" — almost a decade after privy purses were tossed out in India Gandhi's regime. That she and her father helped found its own dynasty and ruled over several principalities is another matter. That the courts encouraged this is a surprise.

The other examples are HH Sir Rama Varma vs CIT (1994), The Commissioner of Income-Tax, Madhya Pradesh, Bhopal, vs HH Maharani Usha Devi (1998), Commissioner of Wealth Tax vs Prince Muffakham Jah Bahadur Chamli Jan (2000), Her Highness Maharani Shantidevi P Gaikwad vs Savjibhai Haribhai Patel & Ors (2001), and, Union of India & Another vs Raja Mohammed Amir Mohammad Khan (2005).

That even the Supreme Court used and allowed the use of these titles makes it worse. It would be mistaken to think that there can be titles without a reason. But it is form without substance. The titles, and those who use them, represent a fool's world. The sooner we get rid of them, the better.

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