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Arif Mohammed Khan is a former Union Cabinet minister.

Razia Sultan was far better than her brothers

Razia Sultan, the fourth emperor of the Slave Dynasty, who reigned from 1236 to 1240, has the unique distinction of being the only woman to occupy the throne of Delhi. As a ruler, she refused to be addressed as sultana, because it meant “wife or consort of a sultan”, and insisted on being addressed as sultan. Razia was born to Iltumish (1210-1236) — a doting father, who ordered grand celebrations to welcome the birth of his first daughter after many sons. He took personal interest in her education and training and by the time she turned 13, Razia was acknowledged as an accomplished archer and horse rider who would frequently accompany her father in his military expeditions.
Iltumish would often say, “This daughter of mine is better than many sons.” Once when he was busy with the siege of the Gwalior fort, he had entrusted the government in Delhi to Razia, and on his return was so impressed with her performance that he decided to appoint her as his successor. While the decree naming Razia as heir apparent was being prepared, many nobles expressed their reservations.
Iltumish ruled out all objections, saying, “My sons are engrossed in the pleasure of youth and none of them possesses the capability to administer the affairs of the country. After my death, people will realise that none among my children is more worthy to succeed me than my daughter Razia.”
After the death of Iltumish, the nobles and grandees of the kingdom ignored his will and installed his son Ruknuddin Firuz Shah on the throne of Delhi. However, after assuming the reins of power the young king abandoned himself to the pursuit of sensual pleasures and profligate inclinations. The citizenry was outraged when they saw him riding an elephant through the bazaars scattering gold coins that bystanders clamoured to pick up. Minhajus Siraj, in his book, Tabqate Nasiri, writes, “The king was entirely enslaved by dissipation and debauchery.” This situation opened the way for intervention by Turkan Shah, the mother of the king. She was an extremely jealous and domineering person, who started working on a scheme to eliminate all potential rivals to the throne.
The first victim was a young prince, Kutbuddin, who was brutally murdered. This was followed by a failed attempt on the life of Razia. Then Razia decided to strike back. On a Friday, clad in a red dress, customary for the aggrieved, she appeared at the mosque and in the name of her father appealed to the assembled congregation to help her against the evil designs of her stepmother.
Ibn Batuta writes that her speech stirred such emotions that people seized the royal palace, deposed the king and installed Razia as the new emperor as her father had desired. But the method and manner in which she assumed power greatly unnerved the Turkish nobility. They regarded themselves as kingmakers, but in the case of Razia, the common people had crowned her. Sensing the public mood, some of them pledged loyalty, but the others ranged themselves against her and laid siege to Delhi.
After crushing the rebellion in Delhi, Razia began to address issues of governance that had taken a backseat during the six-month rule by her brother. However, like her father, most of her time was spent fighting the rebels. She personally led the army to Punjab and Multan to suppress the rebels, but lost to Altunia at Bathinda. While in his prison, she married him and a few days later the two made a failed attempt to recapture Delhi and lost their lives.
The brief rule of Razia has earned rich encomiums from historians like Minhaj, Barani and Ferishta. After describing her great qualities they agree that “the men of discernment could find no defect in her except that she was created in the form of a woman”. It is true that Razia was a victim of the prejudices of the age but she proved convincingly that as a ruler she was far more capable than the men who succeeded her.

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