|The mystery mansion|
Bhawan and the myths of
Last January, I visited Swaraj Bhawan, the original Anand Bhawan, in Allahabad, which Pandit Motilal Nehru gifted to the Indian National Congress in 1930 when he built his new house next door. Both houses are now museums that display the Indian nationalist movement as well as the carefully crafted adaptation of British colonial lifestyle that characterised Nehru family life. Swaraj Bhawan features a rather breathless sound-and-light tour from room to room, though you have to move quickly to keep up with it. If you fall behind, you’re left standing in the dark. The tour starts at the entrance to what I take to be the original bungalow of a complex of connected buildings. On the left, there is a horse-drawn carriage, minus the horses. On the right, there is the following inscription: "Swaraj Bhawan originally belonged to Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the 19th century Muslim leader and educationist. At the house-warming party, Sir William Moor hoped that this large palatial home in Civil Lines of Allahabad would become the cement holding together the British Empire in India. Paradoxically, the house was bought by Motilal Nehru in 1900, and went on to become a cradle to the Indian Freedom Struggle which was to destroy British rule in India." Now epigraphy, the interpretation of inscriptions, is one of the many gaps in my training as a historian. For the past eight months, however, this particular inscription has occupied a good deal of my time and attention. My question is not only whether there is any truth to it as a description of events in time past, but more, what is it trying to say about the nature of India’s colonial experience and the place of a significant "Muslim leader" in relation to Indian nationalism?
The statement in the inscription was not entirely new to me. I had come across a very similar account some years ago in the biography of Jawaharlal Nehru by the journalist M.J. Akbar. Rightly or wrongly, I didn’t take it seriously. For one thing, academic that I am, I was put off by the failure to cite a source. The misspelling of the name of the British official, Sir William Muir, indicated that the author could not have based this on the sort of documentary research that historians rely on. Now here was the same story, inscribed on the site itself, complete with misspelling, presumably put there when Swaraj Bhawan became a museum in the mid-1990s, a few years after M.J. Akbar’s book.
As it happens, I had visited Swaraj Bhawan about 25 years earlier. I was taken there by the late Professor S. Bashiruddin, the former librarian of Aligarh Muslim University, to meet a member of the Nehru family, who had converted much of it into an orphanage. But I don’t remember that anything had been said about a connection with Syed Ahmad Khan. So, frankly, I was sceptical about the truth of the inscription. I knew from my earlier research on Syed Ahmad Khan that he had never lived in Allahabad, and I was sure that I would have come across something if he had such an extensive property there, since he was by no means a wealthy man and pretty much had to live on his salary as a sadr amin (subordinate judge), plus a significant but not munificent political pension of Rs 200 a month for so-called ‘Mutiny service’.
To pursue my inquiry, I knocked on the door of S.P. Mall, the Deputy Director of Anand Bhawan, to see if he could tell me more about the source for the inscription, other than M.J. Akbar. He very kindly showed me an essay by Bishambhar Nath Pande, a well-known historian and public figure, entitled ‘The House where India was Born: Swaraj Bhawan: an Irony of History’, which in turn was derived from Pande’s earlier book, The relevant passage in the Allahabad book states:
After inflicting vengeance on the participators of the rebellion of 1857 the British administrators realised that it had been very wrong on their part to have punished the entire Muslim population for the uprising. They greatly realised their mistake and began to adopt a favourable policy towards that important minority in order to have an undisturbed rule in India. Their eyes rested for this purpose on Sir Syed Ahmad. The Lieutenant-Governor of the NWFP as well as the Governor-General of India often used to take Sir Syed in confidence and constantly approached him for advice on matters concerning the state. In 1867 Sir William Muir, the then Lieutenant-Governor of NWFP wrote to Sir Syed: ‘As you are often needed at Allahabad for important consultations and as you feel inconvenience during your shot [sic] visits to this city it is proposed that you may have your own Kothi constructed at Allahabad. That would enable you to prolong your visits at the Provincial Capital. For this purpose I have got a site selected measuring 20 acres of land at a 10 minutes drive from the Government House.’
There is a footnote here: ‘Sir W. Muir’s Confidential Despatches, Imperial Records.’ Pande goes on to say that Syed Ahmad accepted the offer and by 1871 a house was built on the land, which Syed Ahmad named Mahmud Manzil after his son. Pande goes on:
The formal ceremony of the occupation of the Kothi proved a great success. Sir William Muir, the chief guest on the occasion, replying to the toast said: "I have every hope that ‘Mahmud Manzil’ would prove a great cementing centre for the consolidation of the British Empire in India."
There is then another footnote: ‘The Pioneer, July 18, 1871’. Finally, Pande says that the house was later occupied by Syed Mahmud, when he became Justice of the Allahabad High Court, and was then sold in 1892 to Rai Bahadur Permanand Pathak, who sold it to Pandit Motilal Nehru for Rs 20,000 in 1898. There is then a third footnote: ‘The Municipal Building Records’. Here, then, was a more substantial source, but I still had problems with it. For one thing, Pande had clearly confused NWFP, the North West Frontier Province, with the NWP, the North Western Provinces. For another, William Muir did not become Lieutenant-Governor of the latter until 1868, not 1867. With the exception of the reference to The Pioneer, the other references were distressingly imprecise. It would take more substantial primary documentation to make me believe that the British government had given this huge mansion in Allahabad to Syed Ahmad Khan. Mall suggested that the place to look for such sources was the Nagar Mahapalika, the municipal office building in Allahabad. When I went to the Nagar Mahapalika, I was fortunate enough to be directed to B.B. Banerjee, Additional Commissioner, a PhD in history, who cordially heard my story and offered to help get to the truth of the matter. After I had returned across the Aluminum Curtain to the United States, he sent me an email attachment that he had scanned for my benefit — the relevant pages from B.N. Pande’s Allahabad book. I wrote him back my thanks but said that I would still hope to find something more like a primary source. When I had the opportunity to return to Allahabad, I visited Banerjee and he was able to locate a relevant document, after all, in the Municipal Records: the Register of Government Property (Nazul) in Charge of Nagar Mahapalika of Allahabad. There, at serial no.  in the village of Hashimpur, otherwise known as 1 Church Road, settlement no. L 35 A.B. was apparently the relevant property, or at least a piece of it, 2 bighas and 9 bis. I was informed there are 20 biswa to a bigha, and 32 biswa to an acre, that is, considerably less that the amount of land mentioned in Pande’s book. One other problem was that the entry was dated 24 October 1910 (G.O. No. 3518/XI-28E) and that the occupying tenant was listed as Jawaharlal Nehru, who by then had reached an age of majority. There was no information about the earlier history of the property. Perhaps I would have more luck at the Collectorate, but I decided to put that off for later.
When I returned to Delhi in January, I called on B.R. Nanda, former Director of the Jawaharlal Nehru Library and the author of The Nehrus, which was one of my models for a possible history of the family of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan.4 Nanda told me that his book on the Nehrus had been vetted by no less a person than Jawaharlal Nehru himself. The book states that the house was purchased from Kunwar Permanand, but Nanda said that he had never come across any connection with Syed Ahmad Khan. Just as I was about to dismiss the story as a total fabrication, however, I came across a little commemorative essay in the Nehru Library by Indira Gandhi, who was born in the house, that says, "As far as we know, the house belonged originally to Mr Justice Mahmud who sold it to Raja Permanand of Moradabad, Judge of Shahjahanpur, from whom it was bought by my grandfather, Pandit Motilal Nehru, in 1900." Here, then, was an independent source for the connection with Syed Mahmud, the son of Syed Ahmad Khan. It gave me reason to believe that there was at least some connection and that it might be worth pursuing the matter further.
David Lelyveld, author of ‘Aligarh’s First Generation: Muslim Solidarity in British India’, is Professor of History and Associate Dean, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, William Paterson University, New Jersey