Lord & Lady Minto Inspecting Bhopal State in a Viceregal Buggy.
In the days of the Raj, one of the foremost challenges of the Crown was to take decisions in regards with its colonies, be they in Africa or India, that would either subjugate the colony by force and keep them uneducated and warring amongst themselves in order to govern them and plunder their resources or allow the colony to blossom in its own culture and celebrate their traditions. The second choice would augur well for the peoples as they would then have access to education and reform, even a transformation of their thinking that would ultimately lead to independence from the colony, paving possibly, a path to a progressive democracy.
Of the many Viceroys that came to India, each with his own plan and his diverse thinking and administrative prowess, Lord Minto believed in reform. Back home he had 14,000 acres of lands with a castle and a wife who was Queen Mary’s private secretary. He was the perfect choice of an educated and experienced gentry, who could run the British way across the world. He had served as the Governor General of Canada and recruited 400 Canadians to strengthen Sir Garnet Worsley’s force heading for Khartoum to rescue General Charles Gordon. He was the imperial choice for Viceroy of India, after Lord Curzon’s resignation.
It is universally believed that his reforms changed India and Indian thinking. He expanded the legislative councils in India and gave them the explicit right to debate on issues relating to the people. This meant that the British Government would now have firsthand knowledge of ground level reality in India and could take well informed decisions in time. It also meant that the people of India now had a representation in how they would be ruled. It would be their first step to independence. Minto’s decision to include the Indian into the British way also meant that emphasis on education was given greater weightage leading to a more robust middle class on the backbone of which Indian society would recover from social turmoil. When societies get fragmented and divided, they are either pulled deeper into the mire by their middle class or they recover from damage because of their middle class. Macaulay had a powerful following when he said that educating Indians would lead to them thinking they could be independent from the Crown of England. Christopher Lee, writes in his book, Viceroys, “Certainly in 19th-century India there were those British who could not imagine themselves being subjugated to jurisprudence exercised by, say, Indian magistrates. Thus Lord Rippon was effectively bowing to the insecurities of the British in their own Raj.” Lord Minto did not practice nor preach these thoughts.
Morley, the watchdog, was moved in place to keep an eye on Minto, it mattered little. “Morley saw India from the banks of the Thames; he believed India did not quite grasp the possibilities for the future. Minto saw India from where he stood every morning and believed, correctly, that London did not understand.” Christopher Lee – Viceroys.
And so, it was, my grandmother would often tell us, when Minto arrived in Bhopal on the 12th of November 1909, he spent many hours with Her Highness Sultanjehan Begum the Ruler of Bhopal learning how ‘sharia-rule’ in a minority Muslim region could best be applied on a majority Hindu state.
Lord & Lady Minto with HH Sultanjehan Begum and the young Princes of Bhopal
My great grandmother explained to him how the Begum’s had taken control in a male dominated fundamental Islamic society. She narrated the story of the first Begum of Bhopal and her daughter, as they declared the start of the rule of the Begums, on their first day at court by removing their veil and proclaiming that in Bhopal, because of the diverse mix of cultures, no one religion or tradition will dictate what their subjects must do. Every subject would have a voice. Each subject must decide the right and wrong on their own, based on their own traditions.
Lord and Lady Minto were extremely impressed by the Begum’s outlook to governance and would discuss the many issues that plagued Indian society. This, later on, would have a substantial impression on Minto, and I daresay on the very history of India, for it was Minto as Viceroy who empathized with the plight of the Muslims and allowed them a free hand in the formation of the All India Muslim League. A brilliant move by the British if the intention was to fragment India forever, for that decision, along with his reforms, would lead to the independence and partition of India and consequent massacre of 1.5 million beautiful people in 1947. But he was not to know. He died in his beloved Minto Castle in 1947, believing what he had done was right, he had empowered the minority and bought a nation into the folds of education.
From what I have been told, our family too believed that Lord Minto meant well. He had no intention of fragmenting India by his decision to allow the Muslims a special status in India. He had always fought for the underdogs, that was the British way and he had believed that the minority would need protection. My family agreed with that.
Personally, I think, bringing the Muslim League into India was a huge mistake. Lord Minto should have worked at implementing policies that would unite India across both religion and caste. Had he done so, India would not have been partitioned and neither would we be a fragmented lot, divided by religion and caste. This, of course, is easier said than done as the Muslims were, and I daresay, are, still seeped in blind tradition of exclusivness in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This has always led to conflict. Asking the Indian Muslim to change tack and join the Indian ethos would have been a next to impossible task. Nonetheless, I believe he should have attempted the impossible for didn’t the Crown of England do just that, attempt the impossible and conquer the world?
Laying the foundation of Minto Hall.