Friday Review » History & Culture

Updated: November 22, 2013 19:02 IST

The quiet achiever

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An archive photograph of Khan Bahadur P. Khalifullah.
An archive photograph of Khan Bahadur P. Khalifullah.

Khan Bahadur P. Khalifullah was instrumental in changing the lives of many people in pre-independence India

With the drums of electoral war being sounded, every political party in the fray is on the hunt for a leader who, even if posthumously, can endorse them to the voters. The tussle over the ‘legacy’ of Sardar Vallabhai Patel is one such example.

On the other hand, P. Khalifullah is among those innumerable leaders who made a mark on pre-independence India’s polity, quietly.

Born in 1888 in Tiruchi into a wealthy rice merchant’s family, his birth name was Mohamed Pichai Rowther Ibrahim Khalifullah. He went on to be known by the honorific ‘Khan Bahadur’ title bestowed on him by the British. In later years, his work as the Dewan of Pudukottai made him more popular as ‘Dewan Khalifullah.’

He was the eldest child in a family of six sons and seven daughters.

The Khalifullah family traces its roots to the village of Iluppur in Pudukottai district. “His great grandfather was a Hindu merchant who, while travelling to Tuticorin on a business trip, fell ill with severe stomach pain. A Sufi saint staying in a nearby mosque offered prayers for him. He converted to Islam after this incident,” says K.Kutbuddin, 84, the youngest son of P. Khalifullah, a retired engineer now based in Chennai.

Early years

Khalifullah had his early education in Tiruchi, and then did his post-graduation from Madras University. He is thought to be the first south Indian Muslim to obtain a Masters degree in 1913. “My grandfather was a man of vision, and was very keen to educate all his sons,” says Kutbuddin. “Being educated then was a way to help others in life.”

P. Khalifullah decided to study law soon after, and sailed for Britain. But it was to be a tragic sojourn as had to return to India within a month to attend his father’s funeral. “The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 put paid to my father’s plans to study law in Britain, so he completed his studies in Madras Law College in 1929 and became an advocate in the Madras High Court,” says Kutbuddin.

P. Khalifullah was married at 13 years to Varsaisammal (8), and the couple had 12 children. His grandson F.M.Ibrahim Khalifullah is a Supreme Court judge.

Family life

“My father never pampered any of his family members,” says Kutbuddin. “Every year, he would stitch clothes for 10-15 street children at the same time and using the same fabric as for his own children,” he adds.

“We all loved him, but our relationship with him was a little formal. In fact, his younger brother would not even sit down in his presence, such was the respect he commanded.”

The family’s ancestral home in Pakkali Street, Bheema Nagar was large, and it was not unusual for at least 50-100 guests to be served a meal there at any given day.

“On the 26th fast of every Ramzan, he used to serve food to thousands of people from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. Around 350 measures of rice used to be cooked for this annual event. My mother stayed out of the public eye, but she was the one who took charge of the home,” says Kutbuddin.

Political career

Elected to Madras Presidency Legislature in 1930 as a Muslim League candidate, P. Khalifullah nurtured an activist side to him.

He was a keen advocate of secular education for Muslims in the south, and was a convenor of the Khilafat Movement (1919-24).

He was the Councillor in the Tiruchirappalli City Municipal Corporation for over 20 years, and also served as its chairman for two terms.

Other highlights in his political career include the membership of the Madras Presidency Legislative Council from 1930-36, and a stint in 1937 as the Public Works Minister under the leadership of K. Venkata Reddy Naidu.

He was personally close to Periyar E.V. Ramasamy, K.A.P. Viswnatham, P.T. Rajan and Sir A.T. Panneerselvam, with political affiliations obviously no impediment to their friendship.

P. Khalifullah was openly supportive of Periyar’s Self-Respect movement, though not of its atheist tenets.

He was a vocal opponent of the introduction of compulsory Hindi lessons in the south, and with Periyar, flagged off the 100 Anti-Hindi Volunteers march in 1938. Later on, though, he dissociated himself from the demand for a separate ‘Dravida Nadu’ by the Dravidian Movement as also Mohamed Ali Jinnah’s move for partition.

Dewan of Pudukottai

First appointed as Assistant Administrator of the Pudukottai State in 1941, P. Khalifullah assumed office as the Dewan upon the death of Sir Alexander Tottenham in 1945.

His tenure, which was supported by the then king Raja Rajagopala Thondaiman, witnessed the modernisation of the princely state. As Dewan, P. Khalifullah abolished the Devadasi system in Pudukottai and through several measures, worked for caste equality which often brought him into conflict with the old order.

Under his directive, four cotton mills and a matchstick factory were established in Pudukottai. When he stepped down from his post in December 1947 (ahead of Pudukottai’s amalgamation into independent India), he ensured that a substantial sum of the state’s savings was returned to the central treasury.

P. Khalifullah died on February 10, 1961.

“Two days before he passed away, he called me from Madras (where Kutbuddin was studying engineering), and asked me what I wanted for the future. He noted down all my requirements, and sent me back to college. Two days later, he died of a heart attack. But before that, my father had already instructed his brother on all that had to be done for my education,” Kutbuddin says.

“It was almost as if he had foreseen his death.”

Very happy to read such articles of heroes of yesteryear. Since i belong
to Pudukkottai District, the news item brought to me the nostalgia of
princely state.

from:  Ramani Subbumahalingam
Posted on: Nov 25, 2013 at 06:24 IST

Thank you Hindu and Nahla Nainar for publishing this article. It is well researched and throws light on the torch bearers of history who can make or break a city. Kudos.

from:  Umaima Shafiq
Posted on: Nov 24, 2013 at 06:53 IST

@ T. Sathyamurthi Saab: I feel myself to be blessed and fortunate that I happened to read your invaluable comment concerning the present article in this column here.

from:  Murtuza
Posted on: Nov 23, 2013 at 13:33 IST

Life and times of Late Shri P.Khalifullah as narrated in the article above are inspiring indeed.

from:  Murtuza
Posted on: Nov 23, 2013 at 09:29 IST

It should be 1939 or 1940. I was a small boy doing 3rd or 4th grade in
a small village, 15 miles north of Pudhukottai. One day the village
was agog with the news that the Dewan of Pudukottai would be visiting
that village in connection with the annual revenue assessment work. I
asked my father who was that Dewan. He said that he was Khan Bahadur
P. Kalifullah Saheb. The Head Master of the elementary school selected
four boys for singing a welcome song for the Dewan on his arrival at
Circuit house. I was one among them. But he came straight to our
school first. The H.M was stunned at the unscheduled visit of the
Dewan. He talked to us very kindly and inquired the HM about the
school problems. We sang the welcome song there itself for him and he
appreciated it very much. He was in a western suit and in his gold
rimmed spectacles and grey whiskers, he looked handsome. As he left
the school, he saw a blind beggar on the way and gave him a silver one
rupee coin, a big money in those days.

from:  T.Sathyamurthi
Posted on: Nov 23, 2013 at 06:55 IST

Well done "The Hindu" we are expecting more forgotten stories like this, to give awareness to the present generation who doesn't know anything except the flash news of the TV channels.

from:  Abdul Hameed
Posted on: Nov 23, 2013 at 00:15 IST

That was India in time of Britishers!
Every one had opportunity to use his/her talents. They used to Honor them with titles.
Without Britisher it would have been like Africa.

from:  Ashok
Posted on: Nov 22, 2013 at 20:38 IST
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