Born into the nawab family of Dhaka, Salimullah’s ancestors were originally Kashmiri merchants who came to East Bengal during the mid-eighteenth century to pursue trade and they settled in the districts of Dhaka, Sylhet and Bakerganj. After the death of Khwajah Alimullah in 1854, his son Sir Abdul Ghani succeeded him. After his death in 1896, he was succeeded by his son, Nawab Sir Ahsanullah, who was a generous, pious and talented individual. In fact, Nawab Sir Abdul Ghani had been so impressed with him that in 1873 he had renamed their refurbished family residence after him, namely the ‘Ahsan Manzil’ or ‘Palace of Goodness’.
Nawab Sir Ahsanullah died in 1901 at the relatively young age of 55, and Salimullah, his eldest son, was born at the Ahsan Manzil when he was in his mid-20s. Young Salimullah had a privileged upbringing and received his education at home under the tutelage of several prominent Muslim teachers and scholars who taught him Arabic, Persian and Urdu followed by English and aspects of modern European thought and culture from British and German tutors. Salimullah was a devout Muslim and his parents adored him. After completing his formal education in 1893, he married his cousin, Ismatunnesa Begum. In the same year, he joined the Indian Civil Service as a junior deputy magistrate. During his time in the Indian Civil Service, Salimullah established his reputation as a wise and intelligent arbitrator of legal disputes. After only two years of government service, Salimullah resigned in 1895 and returned to Mymensingh until his father died of heart failure in 1901. He succeeded his father, thus inheriting the title of ‘nawab’ at the age of 30.
The new nawab was a proud Muslim who was determined to improve the social, political, economic and educational condition of the Muslims of Bengal. Unlike the Hindu community, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the Muslims of Bengal suffered from a combination of economic loss and educational backwardness. This undermined their political and cultural standing, and as a result their morale and self-confidence suffered. During this period Calcutta (the capital of Bengal) became the hub for social, political, economic and educational activities. The Hindu-dominated West Bengal prospered at the expense of the Muslim-majority East Bengal. Likewise, the Calcutta University was dominated by the Hindu elites and, as a result, an educated Hindu middle-class emerged in and around Calcutta who had no desire to see the Muslims of East Bengal make progress (as this would—they felt—lead to stiff competition for jobs, services and other provisions).
This state of affairs persisted despite the valiant efforts of the members of the nawab family to reverse this trend by funding social, economic and educational programs in East Bengal. Following in the footsteps of his father, Salimullah became interested in the political affairs of his people soon after becoming the head of the nawab family. This occurred during 1903–1904 when he had backed the government’s proposal to partition Bengal. He was convinced that it was in the interest of the Muslims to back the partition of Bengal. He felt that the educated and wealthy Hindu middle-classes of West Bengal had not only consolidated political and economic power, they were also the main beneficiaries of modern education, thanks to their domination of the University of Calcutta; while the Muslims of East Bengal suffered from political isolation, economic impoverishment and educational backwardness. According to Salimullah, the only way to reverse this trend was to partition Bengal: namely, the province of Eastern Bengal and Assam (with its headquarters in Dhaka), and the province of Western Bengal (with Calcutta as its capital). Lord Curzon devised a proposal to make political administration of the province of Bengal straightforward, and Salimullah welcomed it because he felt that it would enable the Muslims of East Bengal to reclaim their political rights and take control of their affairs. This would enable them to establish educational institutions, initiate social and economic programs and undertake cultural activities in accordance with their faith, culture and sensibilities.
After publishing the government’s proposal to partition Bengal in January 1904, Lord Curzon went on an official tour of East Bengal, visiting the districts of Dhaka, Chittagong and Mymensingh, to assess public reaction to his proposal. He came back having received positive feedback from the people. However, although the Muslims of East Bengal had approved of his proposal, the Hindu leaders of West Bengal were incensed by the idea. Soon after the publication of the original proposal in 1903, the Hindu elites of Calcutta whipped up such an unprecedented political storm against the proposal that even the Indian National Congress was forced to oppose this measure. By succumbing to the political pressure of the Hindu nationalists of Calcutta, the congress effectively became their mouthpiece. The Hindu elites then launched mass protests and political agitation to force the government to abandon their plans. Their ideology of ‘one Bengal’ was influenced by the Hindu notion of Bande-Mataram (‘Hail Motherland’). They felt the partition of Bengal would be a humiliation for them and a major victory for the Muslims of East Bengal: not least because the latter could challenge their domination of Bengal’s political, economic and cultural spheres. Their opposition to the plan to partition Bengal was initially peaceful, however as soon as it became clear that their protest was being ignored, they encouraged their followers to engage in a campaign of boycott and terror. They even attempted to assassinate prominent government officials such as Sir Andrew Fraser and influential pro-partition Muslim leaders including Salimullah. As Salimullah had direct access to high-ranking government officials, he became a very unpopular figure in the Hindu community of West Bengal.
Undeterred by the Hindu leaders subversive activities, Salimullah and other prominent Muslim leaders of East Bengal gathered in Dhaka on the day Bengal was partitioned (16th October, 1905) and they announced the formation of the Muhammadan Provincial Union. Through this union, the Muslim leaders, led by Salimullah, campaigned vigorously in favour of the partition; while the Indian National Congress, which was firmly under Hindu nationalist influence, campaigned against it. A year later, to strengthen their powerbase and unify the Muslim leaders of India, Salimullah convened the first session of Eastern Bengal and Assam Provincial Educational Conference at Shahbag in Dhaka, where he was duly elected president. He responded by swifting dispatching a communiqué to the leading Indian Muslim leaders, urging them to set their differences aside and unite under the banner of one political party. The call for Muslim unity and solidarity, issued by Salimullah, was published widely in Indian newspapers and journals.
Prominent Muslim leaders, including those associated with the Aligarh movement of Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, responded positively to his call. They urged him to organise the 20th session of the All-India Muhammadan Educational Conference in Dhaka. Salimullah, then only 35, agreed to this, and from December 27th to 30th 1906, he lavishly entertained more than 2500 Indian Muslim scholars, leaders and their associates at his two-story Israt Manzil building in Shahbag. This gathering of Indian Muslim leaders was chaired by Nawab Viqar ul-Mulk, enabling all the participants to engage in extensive discussion and debate on the challenges facing the Indian Muslims at the time. However, the young and visionary Salimullah proved to be the real mover-and-shaker at the event. He proposed that the meeting should agree to establish a national Muslim political party under the name of ‘All-India Muslim Confederacy’ and the nawab made a powerful and cogent case for Muslim unity and solidarity in the face of rising Hindu nationalism, that the meeting unanimously agreed to his suggestion. His proposal was seconded by Hakim Ajmal Khan of Delhi and supported by Mawlana Zafar Ali Khan, the editor of the Lahore-based Zamindar. Other prominent Muslim scholars and leaders (including Nawab Muhsin ul-Mulk, Mawlana Muhammad Ali Jauhar, Mawlana Shawkat Ali, Allama Shibli Numani, Mawlana Abul Kalam Azad, Mawlana Altaf Husayn Hali, Sir Syed Ali Imam, Nawab Sir Sadiq Ali Khan, Syed Nawab Ali Chowdhury, Munshi Muhammad Meherullah, Mawlana Muhammad Akram Khan and Raja Naoshad Ali) also backed the proposal but amended the name to ‘All-India Muslim League’.
Salimullah was elected as vice-president of the Muslim League and a vice-chairman of the committee that was entrusted with the task of drafting a constitution for the new political body. During this important period in the political history of India (and specifically Bengal), Salimullah recruited a group of very able and talented advisors, including Nawab Sir Syed Shamsul Huda, Maulvi A. K. Fazlul Haq and Nawab Syed Nawab Ali Chowdhury, who advised him on strategic and policy matters. This three-day educational conference cost the nawab six lakh rupees, which he was happy to pay to achieve Muslim unity and solidarity. Needless to say, the formation of the Muslim League was a personal triumph for Salimullah and it marked the beginning of Muslim political re-awakening in India (and especially in Bengal). The credit for the creation of this historic Muslim political party, which was destined to dominate Indian politics for much of the twentieth century and beyond, must go to Nawab Salimullah of Dhaka. He had played an important role in the partition of Bengal in 1905, however, by establishing the All-India Muslim League he became one of the most influential Muslim leaders of the subcontinent.
Salimullah’s active role in the political unity and solidarity of the Indian Muslims was not well received by either the Hindus or the British government. The former saw the nawab as a major obstacle to their campaign against the partition of Bengal, while the latter feared that the birth of the Muslim League could lead to the resurgence of Muslim political activity across India, potentially threatening their grip on power. On more than one occasion, Salimullah’s opponents tried to assassinate him. For instance, when he visited the district of Comilla on 4th March 1907 to speak at a public meeting, the local Hindus instigated a communal riot. On the following day, Salimullah’s personal secretary was physically assaulted by Hindu mobs. Furthermore, on his way back to Dhaka a group of Hindu extremists tried to assassinate him by derailing his train although, luckily, he escaped unscathed.
Despite the threats and challenges he faced during this period, Salimullah never wavered in his determination to improve the condition of the Muslims of Bengal. Having played a crucial role in the partition of Bengal and the formation of All-India Muslim League, he was profoundly disappointed when the government revoked the partition in December 1911, thanks to unprecedented opposition from the Hindu nationalists. Despite this setback, Salimullah continued to champion the cause of the Muslims of Bengal. Viceroy Hardinge was aware that the Muslims of East Bengal had felt betrayed by the government and thus he met some prominent Muslim leaders of East Bengal including Maulvi A. K. Fazlul Haq, Nawab Syed Nawab Ali Chowdhury, Khan Bahadur K. A. Siddiqi and Salimullah himself in January 1912. During this meeting Salimullah presented his eight-point demands to the viceroy to protect the rights and interests of the Muslims. These included a case for establishing a government-funded university in Dhaka: an idea that he had first shared with Governor Lancelot Hare and his successor back in August 1911 at the Curzon Hall. Viceroy Hardinge agreed to recommend this proposal to the government in order to meet the educational needs of the Muslims of Bengal.
However, as soon as this proposal became public, many influential Hindus, such as Dr Rashbihari Ghosh, expressed their concern and dismay. They felt that the establishment of a separate university in Dhaka would lead to ‘an internal partition of Bengal’. Some Hindu leaders even suggested—as recorded in the Calcutta University Commission Report—that since the majority of the Muslims of East Bengal were farmers they ‘would benefit in no way by the foundation of a university’. Although such views appear to be patronising and insulting, the reality was that the Hindu elites of West Bengal did not want the Muslims of East Bengal to progress to the extent that the Muslims could challenge the hegemony of the Hindu elite. Viceroy Hardinge tried to reason with the Hindu elites, assuring them that the new university would be open to everyone, irrespective of their gender, caste and creed; unlike the University of Calcutta, which at the time was dominated by the Hindu middle-classes of West Bengal.
After the government accepted Viceroy Hardinge’s recommendation to establish a separate university in Dhaka, many more years of research and consultation were carried out before the Dacca University Act 1920 was formally approved by the government. Although Salimullah did not live long enough to witness the creation of the University of Dhaka, it was his dedication and hard work, along with that of his colleagues (including Syed Nawab Ali Chowdhury and A. K. Fazlul Haq) that ensured that his dream became a reality. In December 1920, Dr P. J. Hartog, a former official of the University of London, was appointed the first vice-chancellor of the new university for a five-year term. Alhough Salimullah had died five years before the inauguration of the University of Dhaka, it is not an exaggeration to state that without his political influence and his persistent demand for a separate university in Dhaka (specifically, one that incorporated a Faculty of Arabic and Islamic Studies) this historic institution may not have been created. For this reason, he deserves to be recognised as the main founder and benefactor of the University of Dhaka.
Salimullah actively participated in numerous educational committees, often arguing in favour of reforming existing educational institutions and teaching methods. Thanks to his efforts, in 1915 the government produced a plan for reforming madrasah education, and also suggested ways to make education accessible to women. Salimullah never failed to emphasise the importance of practical education and skills.
Referring to Salimullah’s vision for the future and his progressive educational philosophy, Maulvi Mazharul Haq, a prominent Indian Muslim leader, once stated, ‘What the Nawab Bahadur of Dacca thinks today, the Mussalmans of Eastern Bengal will think tomorrow’. Salimullah’s concern for the welfare of the Muslims was not confined to Bengal. In 1912, when the Muslims of the Ottoman Empire faced serious difficulties and challenges as a result of wars in the Balkan, he not only spoke in favour of the Turks but he was not a blind supporter of any particular political cause, Muslim or otherwise: any cause had to be a just and fair one.
In April 1914, after convening the Muslim Educational Conference of United Bengal and the Muslim League a day later, Salimullah finally bowed out of active politics. However, he continued his religious and charitable activities and established one of the largest orphanages in Bengal, which became known as Salimullah Muslim Orphanage. In 1902, he donated (in accordance with the wishes of his father) one lakh two thousand rupees for the establishment of an Engineering College in Dhaka. This institution is today known as Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET). He also established the Salimullah Muslim Hall, a residential hall for the Muslim students in Dhaka. In recognition of his services, the Sir Salimullah Medical College in Dhaka was named after him, and the British government awarded him many honours including the Companion of the Order of the Star of India (CSI) in 1906, Knight Commander of the Order of the Star of India (KCSI) in 1909 and Knight Grand Commander of the Indian Empire (GCIE) in 1911, which was one of the highest awards to have been conferred by the government on a Muslim.
On a personal level, Salimullah was pious, gentle, friendly and polite. He was fluent in Urdu, Persian and English, but was also familiar with Arabic and Bengali. Although he was a devout Muslim, he never forced his views and opinions on others, even his own family members. The nawab was selfless when it came to assisting others, and according to Muhammad Taifoor he used to stand in prayers before his Lord with complete devotion and utter humility. He died unexpectedly in his residence in Chaurangi, Calcutta, at the relatively young age of 43. Salimullah is today considered to be a leading politician and freedom fighter in both Pakistan and Bangladesh, as his work defined and changed the course of India’s history during the early part of the twentieth century, and beyond.
By Muhammad Mojlum Khan