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.
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.
“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.
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.”