Mystery of the Royal Family of Oudh and the Jungle Prince of Delhi Unravels a Bit More
For 40 years, the reclusive family presented itself as the last surviving heirs to the princely state of Oudh, which once ruled a swath of northern India. With the death of Cyrus, more information about their true origins has come to light.
Prince Cyrus (left), Princess Sakina (right) and a servant on the roof of the Malcha Mahal in New Delhi in 1998. (Barry Bearak/The New York Times)
For 40 years, a reclusive family in Delhi presented itself as the last surviving heirs to the princely state of Oudh, which once ruled a swath of northern India. The three of them — the mother and her adult son and daughter — were an incredible story, living in a ruined palace in a forest, a living link to India’s ancient, traumatic past.
In November, The Times published an investigation of the family’s true origins, revealing that their claims of royal lineage were in large part invention. They were an ordinary family displaced by Partition, the bloody separation of Pakistan and India in 1947. The Begum, or queen of Oudh, was actually Wilayat Butt, the widow of a Pakistani civil servant. Her son, Prince Cyrus, was actually Mickey Butt; her daughter, Princess Sakina, was Farhad Butt.
After the article ran, The Times received hundreds of letters and emails, including a few valuable leads that helped unearth more information about the family. Special thanks to two sharp-eyed readers, Venkat Singh and Iftikhar Drabu, who contacted us with new information. Here is some of what we’ve been able to find out since then.
1) How was this Pakistani family able to return to India, 15 years after Partition?
Wilayat Butt and her children were Pakistani citizens, but they used political connections to secure the right to resettle in Kashmir, where she and her husband had family roots, a dogged effort that was documented in a 58-page dossier by the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs.
In petitions starting in 1962, Wilayat Butt argued that she faced persecution in Pakistan because of her political activism. She claimed that her husband, a top official at Pakistan Aviation, was fatally poisoned in 1951; that one of her sons was killed in an “air force plane crash”; and that she had suffered “inhuman tortures” at the hands of the authorities after she publicly confronted Prime Minister Mohammad Ali Bogra over the status of Kashmir.
“As long as we lived there, our lives, property, future and everything was constantly in danger due to the conspiracy and the policy of the ruling authorities to ruin us, just because of difference in political views,” she wrote.
She makes no mention of any connection to the royal family of Oudh.
She also omits any mention of her oldest son, who was a decorated officer in Pakistan’s air force — a fact that would have unsettled her Indian patrons — and says nothing about the existence of family and property in Pakistan.
The dossier suggests Indian officials were split on what to do about the family. “We are of the view that there appear to be no reasonable grounds on which she could base her claim to resettle in the Jammu and Kashmir state,” an Intelligence Bureau official wrote.
But she was viewed sympathetically by senior officials in Jammu and Kashmir, including an old friend who had become the state’s leader. In July 1963, the government concluded that Wilayat Butt and her children should be allowed to legally remain in India on a year-to-year basis, “subject to good behavior,” but that they would not receive Indian citizenship. So their legal status was tenuous.
2) Why was she so well-connected politically?
Before Partition, Wilayat Butt and her husband had been active in Kashmiri politics, and had struck up a friendship with G.M. Sadiq, who later became the leader of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, said Iftikhar Sadiq, 52, the official’s grandson.
She continued her activism in Pakistan, where she argued for Kashmiri independence, and served as president of the All-Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, mentions her in a memoir as an activist who was particularly troublesome to Bogra, Pakistan’s third prime minister.
Nehru describes her as “a Kashmiri woman by the name of Bhat who did a lot of mischief.”
In 1954, she confronted Bogra at a public event in Karachi and argued with him about Kashmir. Family members said she was subsequently arrested and confined for six months to a mental hospital in Lahore. Some relatives said she received electroshock therapy there.
After she left Pakistan for Kashmir, she lived under the patronage of Sadiq, her old friend. “They used to be very close to the ‘who’s who’ who mattered here in the valley at that time,” his grandson said. “In those days, people used to really care about these bonds. They used to develop them into personal relationships — they would never get rid of them.”
3) When did she first publicly claim she was the Begum of Oudh?
The family stayed in Kashmir from 1962 until the early 1970s, living in housing provided by Sadiq. It was during that time that Wilayat Butt told neighbors she and her children were the heirs to Oudh.
She would not allow her children to associate with the neighbors, saying they were royalty and the neighbors were “commoners,” said Sabia Rashid, 56, an ophthalmologist who lived a few doors away. She had even ordered workers to demolish the interior walls of her house so that the children could play cricket inside, Rashid said.
“She looked like the witch from ‘Hansel and Gretel,’” Rashid said. “She would not talk to anybody. People were scared of her.”
She lived with two sons and a daughter, who made no claim to royal lineage, Rashid said. Her daughter, Farhad, who was then known as Marzia, told neighbors they were a Jewish family who had moved to Kashmir from Iran. The youngest, a boy known as Raza, was the friendliest, and a talented cricketer.
Wilayat Butt and the two younger children left Kashmir in the early 1970s. Her departure seemed to coincide with the death of G.M. Sadiq, her patron, in 1971.
“I remember my grandaunt saying once, ‘She left, and she never came back, and they never knew where she was,’” Iftikhar Sadiq said. “Maybe she felt she didn’t have anyone to fall back on.”
Her older son, known as Assad, remained in the government house in Kashmir in near-complete isolation. Years after the rest of the family left, his body was discovered in a state of decomposition.
Rashid said it was widely believed that, left alone in the abandoned house, he had starved to death.
3) What happened then?
Wilayat Butt and her two youngest children relocated to Lucknow, and demanded the restoration of the properties of Oudh. They now called themselves Begum Wilayat, Princess Sakina and Prince Ali Raza.
They became objects of pity, said Satya Pal Malik, who was a member of the state parliament in Uttar Pradesh when he went to visit them at the Lucknow train station, “with the belief that they must belong to the royal family.”
“Actually, she was the creation of the local press,” Malik said. “She never told me that she was from the royal family. But to look at and talk, they were good looking. Even the children were very beautiful looking. So it would seem, that yes, they are blue-blooded people.”
Eventually, state officials offered the family a house, but Wilayat Butt was haughty and rude, Malik said, even to those who were trying to assist her. They eventually relocated to a train station in New Delhi.
Officials from Uttar Pradesh continued to work on their behalf for permanent housing. Ammar Rizvi, a high-ranking state official who was then with the Congress Party, said he had briefed Indira Gandhi about the case, and that she also felt sorry for them.
“She was a very kind, very generous person,” he said. “She said, ‘Ammar, see to it that she is not put to any inconvenience.’”
Rizvi said he was never certain whether there was any basis to the claim, because the family said all their documents had burned in a fire. No one in the government had seen proof.
“Maybe some of her relatives might have some relationship, contacts with him, only God knows,” he said “Unless I know for certain, I cannot blame her, and I cannot accuse her, and I cannot pass any verdict. That would be unfair.”
He said he lost contact with the family when they were resettled in Malcha Mahal, the ruined 14th-century hunting lodge where they lived until their deaths. Rizvi said the fate of the family made him profoundly sad.
“It’s sort of a psycho case,” he said. “Like Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho.’ They thought themselves to the real successor or heir apparent to the throne of Oudh. That was the tragedy.”
Ellen Barry and Suhasini Raj c.2020 The New York Times Company
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