The government in Bihar changed in August after Chief Minister Nitish Kumar snapped ties with the Bharatiya Janata Party and joined hands with the Rashtriya Janata Dal. But some decisions taken by the previous government, of which Kumar’s party the Janata Dal (United) was a part, remain in place.
Among these is the proposal on June 17 to demolish Patna’s Sultan Palace, the beloved abode of the freedom-era figure Sir Syed Sultan Ahmed. The Sultan Palace at Gardiner Road – now known as Beer Chand Patel Marg – is commonly referred to as the Transport Bhawan.
The palace was built 100 years ago at a cost of Rs 3 lakh and completed in three years in 1922. Designed by architect Ali Jaan, the Sultan Palace is a splendid example of Indo-Islamic architecture of the early 20th century. A high-vaulted clock tower at its centre represents the colonial influence while its corners are topped with domes. The palace stands on grounds that are spread over 10 acres.
The Bihar government has granted approval for the construction of three luxurious five star-hotels in Patna, one of which will be at the site of the Sultan Palace.
Civil society organisations and political parties have already demanded the protection and preservation of the historic building. But Kumar has remained silent.
In 2017, the BJP and Janata Dal (United) coalition had considered a suggestion to turn the Sultan Palace into a heritage hotel. This was promising but under Kumar, several monuments and historical structures in Patna have been demolished over the course of a decade.
Other historical structures that the Bihar government has attempted to demolish or demolished directly or indirectly include the Gulzarbagh Estate, Nawab Muhamad Raza Khan Estate, Anjuman-e-Islamia Hall, Pathar Ki Masjid, Sangidalaan, the Patna Collectorate and the Khuda Bakhsh Khan Oriental Public Library.
The Sultan Palace stands as one of the last surviving monuments of the past grandeur of Azeemabad – modern-day Patna.
The Sultan Palace is not just a marker of a lost past but of collective belongingness as well. It is a reminder of the pre-Partition era where efforts were being made to bridge the increasing communal chasm between Hindus and Muslims – a reminder of a multicultural past.
Syed Sultan Ahmad, the successful barrister who lived in the palace, was born in 1880. He even served as a judge of the Patna High Court for a short period of time. Ahmad was bestowed the honour of Knight Commander Star of India.
He was the first Indian vice-chancellor of Patna University and a delegate to the first and second Round Table Conferences to discuss constitutional reforms in India. Three such conclaves were held in London between 1930 and 1932.
Ahmad was also elected to the Bihar legislative Assembly in 1937, but he resigned and later joined the Viceroy’s Executive Council. He also served as an adviser to the Chamber of Princes, a forum for the rulers of India’s princely states to hold a dialogue with the colonial administration.
Though Ahmad held these positions in the British Indian government, he was a staunch patriot. Ahmad, along with freedom-fighter MC Davar, opposed the Partition of India. Ahmad joined Davar’s United Party of India and was among its first members including Bengal Premier AK Fazlul Haq and Mahatma Bhagwan Din. Ahmad declined Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s offer to be a cabinet minister in Pakistan. He remained in India until his death in 1963.
A multicultural past
In times of communal strife and polarisation, the Bihar government would do well to publicise the work of Ahmad rather than eliminating traces of his life.
Patna has historically been a centre of culture, art and literature, but while walking through its lanes today it is evident that the city has already been stripped of its past.
Even as the Sultan Palace faces demolition, another majestic structure stands neglected – the Rizwan Castle. Similarly, the Government Press building at Gulzarbagh where Mughal ruler Shah Alam II was crowned as emperor nor the Dutch House at Doolighat figure among the concerns of the Bihar government.
While the Patna Sahib Railway station was developed and beautified, the historic Gulzarbagh railway station has been ignored.
The historical Anjuman-e-Islamia Hall, which stood witness to the political activities of the Independence struggle, was demolished in 2018 and replaced with a modern structure.
Ali Fraz Rezvi is a poet, writer, theatre artist and activist covering history, heritage and literature. Shivangi is a translator and poet.