From Purdah To Parliament: Begum Aizaz Rasul

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Begum Aizaz Rasul was the only Muslim woman in the Constituent Assembly that drafted the Constitution.

Excerpts from Begum Aizaz Rasul's 'Purdah to Parliament':

"One rather serious charge brought against my husband and myself was that we had given a cocktail party for Sir Maruice Hallet, the governor of UP, in which alcohol was served. A resolution condemning us for this lapse was sought to be brought against us. When I heard about this, I sought an interview with the Secretary, All India Muslim League, Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan and did some plain speaking with him. Everyone knew that some of our leaders were not averse to indulging in mild drinking so I told him, I would be obliged to defend myself by hitting back. The resolution never saw the light of day."

"After my debut in politics and when I came out of purdah, I had told my husband that I would not accept invitations from people who kept their ladies in purdah. This applied to both Hindus and Muslims as most of the taluqdars did not bring out their wives."

"Women's hockey had become very depleted on account of the exodus of Anglo-Indian players and leaders who formed the nucleus of the game before 1947. I gradually built up the game in different parts of the country, encouraging Indian girls to participate. The question of dress was another problem. Bhopal and UP girls started playing in salwar kurtas. However, by dint of hard work and persuasion I succeeded in overcoming the prejudices."

Begum Rasul's autobiography is breezy and anecdotal but the tone conceals her serious role in the debates on separate electorates in the Constituent Assembly where she was one of the 28 Muslim League members, more importantly, the Assembly's only Muslim woman. Her daughter, Zeenat Iman who lives in Delhi, feels her mother never got her due from historians.

Begum Aizaz Rasul was born in Malerkotla, then a Muslim state in Punjab. She was married to a prominent taluqdar of Sandilah, a qasbah near Lucknow. Her father would introduce her to politics as would her husband. Both supported her despite the opposition she faced from the Muslim orthodoxy. As Zeenat recounts, "When in 1935 Ammi started her political career, she became a member in UP's Legislative Council. There was a fatwah against her that a Muslim woman could not come into public life but she simply ignored it." Both the Begum and her husband joined the Muslim League after 1935 and in 1937 Begum Aizaz Rasul would win her first elections from a non-reserved seat. But her national prominence comes from her presence in the great debates of the Constituent Assembly.

Initially, the Constituent Assembly had retained the separate electorates, created by the Government of India Act, 1919. The Sikh and Muslim members were the most vociferous about the need for this but Partition led to a serious re-think on the issue. A sub-committee chaired by Patel was set up to review the question. Begum Aizaz Rasul was a key member in these and led the debates against separate Muslim reservations, a stand that required great courage in the backdrop of partition and its violent aftermath. This is what she writes about those days:

"I asked Sardar Patel to give me time to consult the members of my community on this important issue. He readily agreed and postponed this item for later discussion. I consulted Nawab Ismail Khan Leader of our Party and we decided to call a meeting of the Muslims member of the UPA Assembly and Council to discuss this matter. The discussions took place in Lucknow. It was agreed that in the changed circumstances and with joined electorates reservation of seats was meaningless. I was authorised to take the appropriate action on their behalf."

Along with Maulana Azad, Begum Rasul was able to convince the Muslims to drop the separate electorate demand. This was a turning point. The Sikh members who were till now arguing for separate reservations, took the cue and also dropped their demand.  She writes in her notes: "I spoke very strongly about the abolition of reservation....It was absolutely suicidal for religious minority to keep alive the spirit of separatism by demanding reservation on communal lines."

Zeenat tells us how her mother would often recount the lambasting she got from her community for her stands, which also included a tough one against the zamindari system. What she did do was to introduce innumerable resolutions to safeguard minority interests. One of them was a resolution she sent asking that any minority residing in any part of India "having a distinct language or script shall be entitled  to have primary education imparted to the children through the medium of that language and script, to which an amendment was moved". It would take decades before this would take place in the Right to Education Act of 2009, and on the ground, still a vision that's unfulfilled.

What did give Begum Rasul great pride was that the Women's Hockey Cup was named after her, a tribute to her efforts to support women's hockey in India. She was both President of the Indian Women's Federation and the Asian Women's Hockey Federation. "Ammi's one regret was that she wasn't a sportswoman but she made that up by doing all she could to get girls out in the field. She even wore full cricket whites to bat for a goodwill match in 1952."

Begum Aizaz Rasul died in 2003 at the age of 90, leaving a treasure of letters, notes and photographs that capture her life, politics and that period of nation building. At the moment, the only real work in English on her remains her autobiography.

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