Razia Sultana was the first female head of the state to rule over the subcontinent in an age of complete male domination.
It was unusual for her father Sultan Iltutmish to nominate her as his successor and it proved quite an anomaly as her rule was bitterly contested and she was subsequently dethroned. Her father is credited with putting the fledgling Muslim rule in India on firm footing and he is rightly considered the founder of Delhi Sultanate that ruled for more than three centuries after which it was replaced by the Mughals.
As Iltutmish was nearing death after hastily returning from a campaign due to his illness his courtiers urged him to nominate a successor with a view to avoid succession struggle. Iltutmish was convinced that his eldest daughter Razia had all the attributes required for kingship though she lived out of the public eye and accordingly named her successor and put her name in writing as the heir of the kingdom, and successor to the throne. He brushed aside the reservations of his courtiers by saying that his sons are devoted to the pleasures of youth and not one of them was qualified to be the king and that Razia was the best choice to succeed him as she was more competent to guide the state.
Sultan Iltutmish chose Razia not out of any sentimental attachment to his daughter but due to sound judgement, as she was a very capable woman possessing ample administrative experience as Iltutmish had often left her in charge of the government when he was away on military campaigns and she had exercised royal authority with great dignity and competence.
His preference was unconventional as according to prevailing practice in Islamic societies, royal women, however ambitious and able, could indulge in political affairs from behind the harem screen. It was therefore not surprising to witness the nobles discomfited with this nomination that had disastrous results for Razia Sultana.
As was expected the powerful nobles of the Sultanate disregarded the choice of Sultan Iltutmish and placed his eldest surviving son, Rukn-ud-din Firuz, on the throne. However by placing Firuz on the throne they allowed the very feminine influence they were avoiding as Shah Turkan, the low-born former handmaiden of Iltutmish who was Firuz’s mother to rule the roost as Firoz was only interested in pursuit of pleasure and left the rule in hand of his mother.
Shah Turkan was a very vindictive woman and soon she set about avenging the indignities that she had suffered in the royal harem at the hands of the high-born wives of Iltutmish, by putting some of them to death and subjecting others to gross humiliations. She even blinded a young son of Iltutmish and had him put to death, fearing that he might grow up to be a threat to Firuz.
Shah Turkan also tried to kill Razia but did not succeed. The environment was conducive for trouble and soon several provincial governors broke out in rebellion, and when Firuz marched out against them, Razia successfully garnered public sentiment against Shah Turkan. The people rose in revolt and after seizing the royal palace imprisoned Shah Turkan. Firuz was left with no option but to rush back to Delhi where he was also seized and put to death clearing the path for Razia to win the throne. She was proclaimed the sultan by public acclaim and the nobles accepted her sovereignty. It was a sea-change in the annals of governance and created history in so many ways. In November 1236 she ascended the throne and assumed the title Raziya-ud-din and following the footsteps of her father issued coins bearing that title. It may be worthwhile to mention that her father was the first Muslim ruler in the subcontinent to issue coins in his name that actually made him the first Muslim ruler as issuance of coinage was a specific privilege legitimising kingship. He also initiated reading of Friday khutba in his name understood to be another attribute of kingly power and status.
Right from the outset Razia had to face difficulties as her accession was resented by some of the provincial governors who then threateningly converged on Delhi with their armies. Razia very resolutely faced this situation and was able to sow dissension within their ranks letting the confederacy against her collapse.
Razia’s energy and decisiveness in dealing with the crisis earned the admiration of several of the vacillating nobles and won them over to her side. Emboldened by her success Razia then broke free from the conventional constraints of harem and three years after her accession removed her veil and appeared in public.
She caused tremendous sensation when she appeared riding a horse without wearing a veil without caring that such a display was most offensive to the orthodox Muslim nobles of the Sultanate, who resolved to remove her from the throne.
They however waited for the right opportunity. They soon got a chance when Razia appointed Jalal-ud-din Yaqut, an Abyssinian, to the post of Amir-i-Akhur or Master of the Stables, a very high office of the sultanate that granted its holder a close proximity to the ruler. This move was deeply resented by Turkish nobles and they believed the rumours of Razia keeping an amorous liaison with him.
It was not very long after a conspiracy was hatched by a group of nobles headed by Aitigin, the Lord Chamberlain, to depose her. Owing to her personal popularity in Delhi they could not mount an open rebellion and waited.
In the summer of 1240, Razia embarked upon a campaign against a rebellious governor in southern Punjab that catapulted the conspirators into action who swiftly killed Yaqut and the other close associates of Razia who had accompanied her on the campaign and threw her into prison in the Bhatinda fort.
In Delhi they raised Muiz-ud-din Bahram, Iltutmish’s third son, as sultan. Razia was however determined to fight them and enticed Malik Altunya, governor of Bhatinda and her erstwhile opponent to marry her, which he did. Together they advanced on Delhi with an army but in the ensuing battle her army was utterly routed by the Delhi forces and not even one horseman remained with her. She was left with no option but to abandon the battlefield and run for safety.
Unfortunately both Razia and Altunya fell into the hands of the local people who killed both of them ending the brief reign of Razia Sultana.
It was quite a feat for her to ascend the throne in such prohibiting circumstances and to rule for three years and six days. She was buried on the banks of River Yamuna and a small tomb was erected there to mark her grave.
After her death people realised her worth and she is ranked as a wise, just and generous monarch. It was recognised that she was blessed with qualities befitting a king but her only failing was that she belonged to the fair sex.
This was a singular failing that paled all her virtues and she was unceremoniously dethroned.