In a nutshell and over-simplifying an extremely complex legal issue, Habibullah’s case rested on the relatively straight forward claim of primogeniture, recognized by the British in matters relating to succession. Primogeniture had also been adopted in a number of princely states, both Muslim and Hindu, particularly since the Mutiny in 1857.
- The Begum’s right to nominate a successor.
- Muslim law, which considered a surviving son to have a superior claim over a grandson from a pre-deceased elder son.
- Precedent in Muslim states favoring a son over a grandson
- Hamidullah being ‘more capable’ than Habibullah and the Bhopal public’s ‘preference’ for him
- The 1818 treaty between Bhopal and the East India Company
- The 1862 Canning Sanad – given by Viceroy Lord Canning to Sikandar Begum.
Unless we wish to face a storm for no reason, I believe we shall be well advised to recognize Hamidullah Khan.However, after three reviews on requests from the Viceroy, the case was finally decided in favor of Habibullah by the Viceroy’s legal and political advisors, in accordance with the rule of primogeniture. On 10 April 1925, the Viceroy recorded his verdict, the operative paragraph of the note read as follows:
I can find no ground in all the material submitted to me, which I have carefully studied, for Her Highness’s contention that Hamidullah should succeed. I come to the conclusion that the law of primogeniture should be applied and that the heir apparent is the elder son of the deceased Nawab, the eldest grandson of Her Highness.The Viceroy’s comments along with the document prepared by his staff, were then circulated to the seven-member Viceroy’s Council, comprising three Indians (two Hindus, one Muslim) and four Britons. On 13 May 1925, the Council confirmed the Viceroy’s recommendations, the Chairman, B. N. Sharma, recording laconically, “I am sorry for the Begum, but Fiat Justitia.”
Meanwhile, both the Begum and Hamidullah had their informers hovering around the Secretariat in Delhi. The Begum soon found out that the case had gone against her. She charged out of her thicket like a wounded tigress to fiercely lobby every influential person that she could approach. The included fellow princes, the Aga Khan, British civil servants, her own ulema, jagirdars and gentry whom she began to browbeat into supporting Hamidullah. Eventually, the only concession given to her by the Viceroy, who acknowledged her deep loyalty to the British Crown, was that the Bhopal succession would not be decided in Delhi and was sufficiently important to be referred to London.
The die was cast. The Begum’s case had been rejected, her goose cooked.