“There was much propaganda against me, specially a ‘Fatwa’ by the Ulemas that it was un-Islamic to vote for a non-purdah Muslim woman,” writes Begum Aizaz Rasul in her autobiography, “From Purdah to Parliament”. The only Muslim woman member in the Constituent Assembly, Aizaz Rasul formally gave up the purdah in 1937 when she won her first election from the non-reserved seat and became a member of the Uttar Pradesh Legislative Council.
Being in purdah had never been a hindrance for Rasul. Her father, Zulfiqar Ali Khan, had prepared her for a life both with and without the purdah. In her book, Rasul views her life as having “progressed” with the times, “modern” yet a traditional citizen of a “secular” India.
Born to a princely family of Maler Kotla, a Muslim state in Punjab in the early 20th century, Aizaz Rasul’s introduction to politics started early. Her father had carved a niche for himself in political, social and intellectual circles. Rasul, from a young age, accompanied him to various political meetings, even working as his secretary.
Like her father, Begum Rasul had a long political innings. It was in 1946, when a young Aizaz Rasul through her speeches and interjections in the Constituent Assembly debates would become a major part of drafting India’s constitution.
In the summer of 1941, she recalls her meeting with M.A Jinnah, the founding leader of Indian Muslim league. She remembered Jinnah asking her about why she did not join the League, “when people in thousands were flocking to join”. The idea of Pakistan did not convince her.
At the time of Partition, Begum Aizaz Rasul stood in Parliament opposing reservation for minorities in legislative assemblies. She was against a separate electorate for minorities formed by the colonial government in 1909. Her debates were focused on political rights of minorities in a secular state.
“To my mind, reservation is a self-destructive weapon which separates the minorities from the majority for all time. It gives no chance to the minorities to win the goodwill of the majority. It keeps up the spirit of separatism and communalism alive which should be done away once and for all,” she said in the advisory committee meeting chaired by Vallabhbhai Patel in December, 1948.
Decades after the violent aftermath, Rasul in her autobiography wrote about the speech with equal conviction. “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, ” she writes. A contradiction though can be noted when in April 1999, Begum Rasul was invited to a convention to discuss the condition of Muslims and demand reservations in services and legislatures, an ailing Begum sent a message –“As communal feelings have grown and the concept of Hindutva has gained popularity, it is time now to think anew of how to improve the educational and socio-economic conditions of Muslims.”
While Rasul faced severe criticism from her community on abolishing separate electorate for minorities, she also introduced resolutions to safeguard their interest. One of them was moving an amendment for 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”.
Married to a Talukdar (landowner) of the former princely state of Oudh, Nawaab Aizaz Rasul, the Begum was a fierce critic of the Zamindari system. Member of the “ Tenancy reform committee”, she was committed to the abolition of the Zamindari System in UP. In 1939, when the bill was discussed in the House, she advocated for more rights for the farmers. More than 1,000 amendments were made to the bill where more hereditary rights were given to tenants.
“The bill should not be opposed and Zamindars should see the writing on the wall and graciously give these rights to the tenants who toil and sweat. If they did not, their land would be forcibly taken away from them,” she writes in her autobiography.
A lot of Zamindars opposed the bill. Rasul believed her support to this government measure affected her re-election to the UP legislative council in 1940.
“Chairman” of several committees and sub-committees, Rasul was a strong voice in the assembly. Her speeches and ideas carried clarity of thought and purpose. She supported India’s membership to the Commonwealth, when many members opposed to it. She was critical of the limitations put to the Fundamental Rights in the framing of the Constitution. “I find that what has been given with one hand has been taken away by the other,” Rasul said demanding an agency to make sure that fundamental rights and directive principles were observed in all provinces in letter and spirit.
Rasul was in favour of autonomy to Ministers from party affiliations. As someone well versed in law and with knowledge of constitutions of other countries, she believed at that time, “In India which is so young in democracy, where the sense of responsibility is neither ingrained nor so well developed, we should have a strong and stable Ministry which can initiate long-range policies and be uninfluenced daily by the repercussions in its party.”
Beyond her rigorous political career that spanned most of the 20th century, Rasul was the President of Indian Women’s Hockey Federation for nearly 20 years. The establishment of the All India Women’s Hockey Association (AIWHA) and its affiliation from the international women’s hockey federation was a moment of pride for her.
Remembering the glorious days of Indian Hockey, Elvera Britto, former captain of the Indian Women’s Hockey ( 1960-1967) said, “ Women’s hockey was least recognised until Begum Aizaz Rasul took over as the president. Under her guidance along with other committee members, hockey made notable progress. She set up committees with different hockey personalities to improve the standards. Begum’s presence and influence at most of the activities including national championships and test series with various foreign countries like Japan and Sri Lanka brought great interest to women’s hockey.”
#GenderAnd is dedicated to the coverage of Gender across intersections. Read more about the 15 women architects of the Indian Constitution: Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Durgabai Deshmukh, Amrit Kaur, Ammu Swaminathan, Hansa Jivraj Mehta, Dakshayani Velayudhan.
Read our entire coverage of the series here