75 years of independent India through the eyes of a Muslim woman

Amalendu Upadhyaya
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Dr. Syeda Hameed Interview by Shikhar Sachdeva

Dr Syeda Hameed, referred affectionately as Apa by those closest to her, has donned various hats throughout her long and successful career. She has at various times during her lifetime been an academician, an author, an educationist, a women’s and social rights activist, a writer, and a member of the Planning Commission.

Dr Syeda Hameed biography

Born in 1943, Apa’s life story has coincided with the story of independent India, and this provides her with a unique perspective on the struggles of her generation, be it the bloodshed of the partition, the Nehru-Gandhi era, or the growing intolerance in the BJP era. Her identity, not only as a woman but as a Muslim woman, has shaped people’s perspective towards her as it has shaped her perspective towards the goings-on in our country.

Dr Hameed was born in 1943 in the state of Kashmir in a family where her father was an educationist and a high ranking official in Nehru’s cabinet. She was brought up in Delhi, did her graduation (BA) from Miranda House, Delhi University and MA from the University of Hawaii, and later began her career as a lecturer at the Lady Shri Ram College.

Dr Hameed later became a part of the Planning Commission of the Indian Government, undertaking responsibilities revolving around issues such as the health and rights of children, women, and minorities. Currently, she has been appointed as the Chancellor of The Maulana Azad National Urdu University – known for providing higher education to women. She has been a founding member of many groups aimed towards improving policies pertaining to women’s education. Her career portrays a long but fruitful commitment towards sustainable development and women’s education.

Apa’s forefathers had migrated from Persia to Herat in Afghanistan in the 10th century, and from there to India during the Delhi Sultanate period.

As missionaries of Islam, they had been allocated land by the Sultan in the Panipat region near Delhi and that was where the clan prospered for the next 800 years.

Apa was a 4-year-old in 1943 when the country underwent partition. All her relatives living in and around Panipat were forcefully evicted to Pakistan on the pretext of their safety. Apa’s father and his brother, living at the time in Pune, were amongst the only family members to stay back in India, the other 95% of the family having been displaced to Pakistan, some still hoping to return to their familial home in Panipat at some point in the future.

Apa recounts several tales of the horrors of the time, a time when mob mentality overtook all humanity. She recounts two tales from Mumbai, one from a Marathi dominated colony, and the other from a Muslim neighbourhood, and draws a parallel of how at both these places members of the other religion were lynched to their deaths, people who had served the community for years before that. And Apa does not mince her words when she says that the women at these times were not innocent bystanders either, if the men had blood on their hands, the women were the ones helping them clean this blood, literally and figuratively.

Apa also brings out one of her favourite stories of Abbas ji, a metaphorical wall replacing the border of India and Pakistan, withered old men on either side carrying huge burdens on their frail shoulders as they tried to cross over this wall, showing just how similar the situation and trials and tribulations of daily life were on either side of the border.

Apa, however, does opine that the partition, despite its violence was not the worst time to befall the nation. She says that there were as many stories of individual acts of bravery from Sikhs and Hindus willing to save their Muslim brothers, and vice versa, as there were of those befallen by greed and spite. One such incident that she talks about in much detail was how a Sikh man lay down his own life to save the life of Apa’s uncle, Abbas ji.

Dr Syeda Hameed education

She next talks about her youth in the 1970s. Apa left India to pursue her PhD from the University of Alberta, Canada where she met her future husband, and later had two children. She decided to settle down in Canada and got Canadian citizenship. But over time, something brought her back to India. Apa returned to India, working for a while as a speechwriter for Indira Gandhi, while she awaited getting back her Indian citizenship.

But Apa says next, in a somewhat dejected tone, that the feeling of homeland that brought her back to India all those years ago, seems to have vanished in today’s India. She ruefully regrets her decision to come back, wondering if it would have been better had she stayed in Canada.

She mentions how the media, which had done well at shouldering the responsibility of keeping a check on the governments, from Indira Gandhi to Rajiv Gandhi to Vajpayee ji, had shrugged its shoulders in the past few years. On being asked what could be done to counter the narrative being propagated by the ruling party and its agents, she chastises her own community, the intellectual elite of the nation, who had been caught up in echo chambers, talking to only those who reciprocated their vision of what modern India should be, while failing to hold dialogue with the other India, the one at the fringe, the one with biases, the one that felt for the first time that they had representation in the government.

The interview with Apa ends with her voicing her disappointment at what the state of the nation was. She pessimistically voices her hope that all may not be lost, that there might still be a chance to regain the lost soul of this diverse nation.

Belonging to a refugee family myself, I had grown up listening to the struggles of those that had to cross the border and start anew in the newly independent India. But my family was perhaps one of the lucky few that had not been broken by the unimaginable violence of the partition. Not once in all these years did I think of the lives of those that were left behind, the countless families broken and divided by borders that did sprung up overnight.

Talking to Apa brought me in contact with a generation that I hadn’t previously interacted with. The generation that had once been the elite of this nation, but whose fortunes had been upturned by the partition, only to have to build it all over again. Her humility, as she shifted effortlessly between English, Hindi and Urdu recounting tales of what was, what she has lived through and what she expected the future to hold, recounting tales of Nehru and Gandhi amid stories and prose of Abbas ji, spoke of a long, vivid, well-lived life.

(Shikhar Sachdeva is a 2nd year MBA student at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Ahmedabad.)

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