An extremely poor woman who claims she is heir to the Mughal dynasty has demanded ownership of Delhi’s Red Fort, the palace once was home to the Mughal emperors. Sultana Begum lives in a small two-room in a slum on the outskirts of Kolkata.
She was married to Mirza Mohammad Bedar Bakht, purported to be the great-grandson of India’s last Mughal ruler. His death in 1980 left her struggling to survive, and she has spent the past 10 years petitioning authorities to recognize her royal status and compensate her accordingly.
Sultana Begum lives with one of her grandchildren in a small shack, sharing a kitchen with neighbors and washing at a communal tap down the street. For many years, she was running a small tea shop but that was demolished to allow the widening of a road, and she now survives on a pension of 6,000 rupees per month.
Begum says that “Can you imagine that the descendant of the emperors who built the Taj Mahal now lives in desperate poverty?”. She has lodged a court case seeking recognition that she is the rightful owner of Delhi’s Red Fort.
“I hope the government will definitely give me justice,” she said. “When something belongs to someone, it should be returned.” She has been supported by some sympathetic campaigners, who are trying to find documents to establish her lineage with Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor.
Zafar was coronated in 1837, by that time the Mughal empire had shrunk Delhi, as they were cornered by the British Empire and East India Company. An enormous rebellion 20 years later – now hailed as India’s first war of independence – saw mutinous soldiers declare the now frail 82-year-old as the leader of their insurrection.
British forces ruthlessly crushed the revolt, executing all 10 of Zafar’s surviving sons despite the royal family’s surrender, while exiled Zafar to Myanmar, traveling under guard in a bullock cart, and died penniless in captivity five years later.
Begum’s court case hinges on the argument that India’s government is the illegal occupant of the property, which she says should have been passed down to her. The Delhi High Court rejected her petition last week as a “gross waste of time”, but did not rule on whether her claim to imperial ancestry was legitimate.
Instead, the court said her legal team had failed to justify why a similar case had not been brought by Zafar’s descendants in the 150 years since his exile. “She has decided to file a plea before a higher bench of the court challenging the order,” he said.