Raja of Mahmudabad: Elegant, erudite royal scion who battled to reclaim heritage
Death is unlikely to diminish the renown of the Raja who passed away early on Wednesday after a prolonged illness
LUCKNOW The Raja of Mahmudabad, Mohammad Amir Mohammad Khan, was a man of many accomplishments and weathered many storms, including an over four-decade battle to reclaim his heritage.
From being well versed both in Indian poetry and western philosophies to becoming a tireless litigator against the government’s seizure of his property under the Enemy Properties Act, he essayed a multitude of roles with éclat.
Death is unlikely to diminish the renown of the Raja who passed away early on Wednesday after a prolonged illness. He was 80. He was buried at Karbala Mahmudabad, Sitapur district, Uttar Pradesh.
Known for being an erudite scholar of repute, the Raja was an elegant man with just a hint of a British accent.
Born in Mahmudabad, Raja was educated in Iraq, Lucknow and England. He went to Cambridge in 1965 after completing schooling from La Martiniere College in Lucknow. He did the Mathematical Tripos from the University of Cambridge and the D.I.C. in Mathematical Physics from Imperial College, London, and worked for a doctorate at the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge from 1970 to 1973 in astrophysics.
Also known as Suleiman, he will always live on in the hearts of those who came in touch with him, his friends and acquaintances say.
They remember him as a true global representative of Lucknow culture who came back to settle in the city because his heart was always here. Despite a royal background, he never hesitated to mingle with everyone, they add.
No stranger to the world of politics, he was a former two-term Congress MLA from Mahmudabad and a popular figure in the Avadh region of Uttar Pradesh, cutting across political parties, intellectuals and eminent people.
Most often, he is remembered for fighting a prolonged court battle after the government seized his property under the Enemy Property Act. His property includes Butler palace, a big part of Hazratganj, Halwasiya market, Mahmudabad Qila (fort) -- all these worth several thousand crore rupees.
Besides Lucknow, the Mahmudabad estate’s holdings were spread over Sitapur, Nainital and in Mahmudabad with a heritage that can be traced back to the 16th century and Emperor Akbar’s patronage.
Centuries after Akbar’s reign, when war broke out between India and China in 1962, the government confiscated what it referred to as “enemy properties”. These referred to properties that belonged to a person or a country who or which was an enemy. This included not just Indian citizens of Chinese ethnicity but also those who had migrated to Pakistan during the partition. The same act was applicable during the 1965 India-Pakistan war. One of the people to migrate was a certain Mohammad Amir Ahmed Khan who had left India in 1947 but for Iraq. He eventually took Pakistani citizenship in 1957. This was the former Raja of Mahmudabad, father of Mohammad Khan, said to be a close associate of Mohammed Ali Jinnah.
The Raja’s father died in London in 1973.
And since 1974, Mohammad Amir Mohammad Khan has been petitioning the government for the return of his properties and got a brief respite in 2005 when the Supreme Court gave a landmark judgment, declaring that enemy property is only vested with the custodian and that the Raja is a bona fide citizen of the state and not an enemy as defined by the Act. All of the Raja’s properties were returned to him.
“It made me proud. I felt an injustice had been reversed,” he recalled years later. But the euphoria was short-lived.
Later, the United Progressive Alliance government brought an ordinance to amend the Enemy Property Act. And all the properties were taken back.
“With the amount of money he had, he could have led a lavish life in any part of the world, but he chose Lucknow because it was ingrained in him,” said Syed Shariq Ali of Nanpara estate who studied with the Raja in Class 12 at Lucknow’s La Martiniere College.
“ I always remember his Mercury Ford... I still remember Biryanis, Kormas and other stuff present in the car.”
“I remember he was brilliant in studies and his subject was astro physics , he was very liberal in views , you could have discussed with him qualities of Vedas and Upanishads because he was so well read,” he said.
Noted film-maker Muzaffar Ali said , “Although I was one year junior to him (at La Martiniere College), we were best friends. He was very jovial, an extremely learned person.”
“Suleiman was one of the last signatures of Lucknow’s culture or rather Awadh culture. His personality (shakshiyat) was so big that it is after his death people will realise that what they have lost. Actually, such people belong to globe because they are so open minded , years ahead of their time,” he said.
“He also kept Mahmudabad alive , he maintained the legacy of his family. Despite his father deciding to go to Pakistan, he never went there and remained in India with his mother because his heart always throbbed for Lucknow.”
Retired IAS officer Anis Ansari said, “I had the opportunity of meeting Raja Saheb on several occasions, I know him as a very humble person. He was such a rich man but he never discriminated against anyone.”
The Raja was elected a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, (London) in 1971 and a life member of the Astronomical Society of India.
He did research on the theory of stellar oscillation and stellar structure at the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge and have also taught at the undergraduate level for several Colleges at Cambridge.
He worked as an astrophysicist at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, which is a part of the International Atomic Energy Agency of the United Nations. When his father died, he had to return to India as he was the only son and had to assume the responsibility of many of the charitable and public Waqfs founded by his family.
He was elected vice-president of the Shia Degree College in Lucknow in 1984.
He tried to maintain his family’s traditional commitments to the observances of Muharram in the Qila of Mahmudabad. Even during other months, there are many traditional observances and processions. A large number of people, which include Hindus and Sunnis, participate in these traditional observances and processions.
The Qila is one of the very few places in the world where the traditional forms of ‘Soz’ , ‘Salaams’, Nauhas’ and ‘Marsiyas’ are chanted in ‘ragas’ in accordance with rules established centuries ago.
“I have found it increasingly difficult to continue these traditions but have managed to do so until now,” he had said earlier.
There are three shrines in Mahmudabad which were constructed by his ancestors and which are replicas of the shrines in Najaf and Karbala in Iraq, and were managed by him after the migration of his father to Pakistan.
Meanwhile, Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav, in a post on X, said, “Death of Raja Mahmudabad Sir Mohammad Amir Mohammad Khan Sahab, very sad. May God give peace to the departed soul!”