Kolkata woman claims to be ‘Mughal heiress’ and claims ownership of Delhi’s Red Fort

A destitute Indian woman who claims to be heiress to the dynasty that built the Taj Mahal has claimed ownership of an imposing palace that once housed Mughal emperors.

Sultana Begum lives in a cramped two-room hut tucked away in a slum on the outskirts of Kolkata, surviving on a meager pension.

Among his modest possessions are the records of his marriage to Mirza Mohammad Bedar Bakht, believed to be the great-grandson of the last Mughal ruler of India.

His death in 1980 left her struggling to survive, and she has spent the past decade demanding authorities recognize her royal status and compensate her accordingly.

“Can you imagine that the descendant of the emperors who built the Taj Mahal now lives in desperate poverty?” the 68-year-old asked AFP.

Begum has sued to have it recognized as the rightful owner of the imposing 17th-century Red Fort, a sprawling, pock-marked castle in New Delhi that was once the seat of Mughal power.

“I hope the government will definitely give me justice,” she said. “When something belongs to someone, it must be returned.”

Her case, backed by sympathetic campaigners, rests on her claim that her late husband’s line goes back to Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last reigning emperor.

By the time of Zafar’s coronation in 1837, the Mughal Empire had shrunk to the limits of the capital, following the conquest of India by the trading enterprise of British merchants known as the East India Company.

A massive rebellion two decades later – now hailed as India’s first war of independence – saw mutinous soldiers declaring the now fragile 82-year-old as the leader of their insurgency.

The emperor, who preferred writing poetry to war, knew the chaotic uprising was doomed and was a reluctant leader.

British forces surrounded Delhi within a month and ruthlessly crushed the revolt, executing Zafar’s 10 surviving sons despite the surrender of the royal family.

Zafar himself was exiled to neighboring Myanmar, traveling under guard in an ox cart, and died penniless in captivity five years later.


Many buildings in Fort Rouge were demolished in the years following the uprising, and the complex fell into disrepair before colonial authorities ordered its renovation at the turn of the 20th century.

It has since become a powerful symbol of freedom from British rule.

India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru raised the national flag from the fort’s main gate to mark the first Independence Day in August 1947, a solemn ritual now repeated annually by his successors.

Begum’s court case hinges on the argument that the Indian government is the illegal occupiers of the property, which she says should have been passed on to her.

The Delhi High Court dismissed his petition last week as a “big waste of time” – but did not rule on the legitimacy of his claim of imperial ancestry.

Instead, the court said its legal team had failed to justify why a similar case had not been brought by Zafar’s descendants in the 150 years since his exile.

His attorney Vivek More said the case would continue.

“She has decided to enter a plea in an upper chamber of the court challenging the order,” he told AFP by telephone.


Begum endured a precarious life, even before she was widowed and forced to move to the slum she now calls home.

Her husband – whom she married in 1965 when she was just 14 – was 32 years her senior and earned some money as a soothsayer, but was unable to support their family.

“Poverty, fear and lack of resources pushed him to the brink,” she added.

Begum lives with one of her grandchildren in a small shack, sharing a kitchen with neighbors and washing at a common tap on the street.

For a few years she ran a small tea shop near her home, but it was demolished to make way for a road widening, and she now survives on a pension of 6,000 rupees ($80) a month.

But she did not lose hope that the authorities would recognize her as the rightful beneficiary of India’s imperial heritage and the Red Fort.

“I hope that today, tomorrow or in 10 years, I will get what I am entitled to,” she said.

“God willing, I’ll get him back…I’m sure justice will be done.”

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