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The Queens of India-4…Razia: the 13th century predecessor of Indira Gandhi

The Queens of India-4…Razia: the 13th century predecessor of Indira Gandhi


Prachi Thaker

When Sultan Shams-ud-Din Iltutamish died in 1236, he nominated his daughter Razia as his heir to the Delhi Sultanate. He did not know he was re-writing history.

Razia Sultan was the first sovereign ruler in the whole Muslim world; she was also the first sovereign to rule India for four years (1236-40) from its national political capital, Delhi. More than seven centuries later, Indira Gandhi became the second woman leader to rule India from New Delhi (1966-77).

Razia Sultan was the first sovereign ruler in the pan Muslim world

Born as Radhia Begum bint Shams-ud-Din Iltutamish and crowned with the official name of Jalalat-ud-Din Razia, she made a conscious decision to give up her traditional Muslim woman attire, including the ‘pardah’. Predictably, she invited wrath of the conservative Muslims. Insisting, however, Razia Sultana also adopted the gender-neutral title of “Sultan” and also male attire.

This illustrious daughter of Sultan Iltutmish and Qutub Begam, came from a slave family, married into another, of first Slave Sultan Qutb-ud-Din Aibak., founder of Islamic Slave Mamluke Dynasty in the Indian subcontinent. In view of this background, not many among the Muslim elite liked her being a Sultan, particularly as she challenged the very foundation of the societal class and shook power structures.

Sultan Iltutmish displayed bravery and honesty to earn the position of the provincial Governor and later as Sultan. After a successful rule of 25 years, he died in 1236, leaving behind no male heir or capable ruler. But by nominating Razia as his successor, he rewrote history.

Despite being nominated by her father, Razia was not supported by the court of nobles, who refused to be ruled by a woman. But she fought them off.

Trained in professional warfare and military skills, she had a sound knowledge of how the state’s governance worked.

Razia fought on the forefront and won battles seizing various territories. Her gender was never an excuse. She mastered administration, rubbing shoulders with the best Sultans Delhi had ever been ruled by.

Razia’s rise to power sparked jealousy among many Turkish nobles. One such noble was Malik Ikhtiar-ud-din Altunia, the then governor of Bhatinda, who conspired against her.

Believed to be Razia’s closest childhood friend, Altunia hatched a plan to help Razia’s brother, Muizuddin Shah, take the throne.

She fought tooth and nail against him but suffered a miserable defeat. Altunia imprisoned Razia at Qila Mubarak in Bhatinda.

Many nobles tried to assassinate her character claiming she was in a romantic relationship with one of her slaves—Jamaluddin Yaqut, who was killed in the battle that ensued between Razia and Altunia.

Some historians suggest that Razia, later married Altunia to escape death.

In 1240, Razia and now her husband Altunia, decided to seize and reclaim the list kingdom from her brother. But Bahram’s forces defeated them both. Escaping the battlefield, they fled to Delhi and reached Kaithal the next day, abandoned by their army.  

They were caught by Hindu Jats, who robbed and killed them.

Thus, ended story of the first and last woman Sultan of Delhi, who was just 35.

Also read: The Queens of India-1… Why the Indian Navy remembers Queen Abbakka?

Also read: The Queens of India-2… Ahilya Bai Holkar: The Philosopher Queen

Also read: The Queens of India-3: Rani Durgavati, the epitome of honour


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