What makes Syeda Hameed hopeful about India’s future?

A feminist-policymaker shares her experiences of giving a human touch to governance


Aasha Khosa | January 12, 2016

A day after launching her co-edited book encapsulating the writings of legendary film-maker Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, “Bread beauty and Revolution” (Tulika Books), Syeda Saiyidin Hameed was sitting in the lawns of her Jamia Nagar home in south Delhi. This is the 20th book to her credit but the one closest to her heart. 

“Khwaja Abbas sahib was my uncle,” she says, beginning our conversation. A multi-faceted personality, Abbas was a writer, journalist, and above all a great film-maker in the league of Satyajit Ray, Hameed says. A visionary, he made films on issues like Naxalism and water scarcity (‘Do boond Pani’) way back in the 1940s. “Only now, the world is getting serious about these problems,” she says. 

Hameed continues further down the memory lane. “Abbas sahib holds a record of sorts by having written his column ‘Last page’ in the tabloid Blitz for 45 years.” The column’s popularity made its editor Russi Karanjia quip, “Readers start reading my paper from the last page.”

As the conversation begins to warm up under a smudgy winter sun, I broke to her the news that Rajya Sabha had  just passed a bill amending the Juvenile Justice Act that will treat 16-year-olds involved in heinous crimes at par with adults for punishment. In fact being busy with book launch, she had missed out on previous day’s news. “Have they done it?” she almost jumps out of her garden chair, shocked. This is followed by a spell of silence. “This is done in too much of a hurry,” says Hameed, the former member of the planning commission who is active on the child rights front as well. “The law is retrograde as a seven-year prison term to a child offender would surely make him a hardened criminal.”

She goes on in a soliloquy. “Nirbhaya’s was a horrible case,” she says referring to the brutal gangrape of Jyoti Singh in Delhi three years ago – the trigger for the new law. “But have we gone into the conditions in which he (the juvenile involved in the rape) had been brought up? We have failed to provide for even the basic needs to our children and now we are going to treat them as adults in criminal cases.”

Hameed’s concern matters as she had been part of policymaking on women, children and minorities for years. A former member of the national commission for women (NCW), she has worked as academician and is a prolific writer. 

With this, the conversation was getting sombre as we tried to barely soak ourselves in the sunlight. Hameed’s thoughts went back to a Panipat village, where her ancestors had first arrived from Herat (Afghanistan), about 800 years ago. It was during the reign of Turkish Sultan Ghiyasuddin Balban that the head of the family was invited to Panipat for spreading education. The Herat family followed the Sufi cult of Islam and were renowned educationists. The Sultan gave the family a huge chunk of fertile land to live on in what is today’s Panipat.

“Panipat was a progressive society – women were owners of the land and looked after cultivation and other farm responsibilities, while men went to the far-off places for jobs,” she recalls. So centuries later, when she, as member of NCW, had to go to Haryana to work on countering a dismal trend – the state had recorded the worst sex ratio, she says “I felt ashamed”. Haryana has the lowest sex ratio (857 girls per 1,000 boys) among the States and within the state Panipat holds the second place for the low girl-boy ratio  (the first position is taken by Jhajhar). 
Hameed wondered as to how the society had changed. It was from here that her great grandfather Altaf Husain Halli had recited his famous poem espousing women’s emancipation way back in 1857. “I couldn’t understand how the society has changed so much that people are killing their unborn girls today.”

Partition had dealt a blow to the Halli clan. “The governments (of India and Pakistan) officially decided to swap Muslims and Hindus of Panipat and Jhang. “My family was bundled off in trucks to Pakistan. None of them believed that it was a permanent resettlement; in fact they left notes and graffiti on the walls of their homes for their friends and relatives telling them they would be back soon,” she recollects.

That was not to happen. “Governments make neat plans on papers but unfortunately the ground realities are different.” Her father was away serving as education advisor to the state of Bombay then and therefore her family escaped from being sent to Pakistan. 

From this emotional throwback, our conversation shifts to the government: How does the government function? Is it efficient system to make peoples’ lives better? Hameed ponders for a minute. “Government can make grandiose and neat plans on paper but is very poor in execution. All plans of the government have very low implementation rate,” she says. “Also the message from the top echelons of the government rarely percolates down. In this process, the purpose of an idea is lost on the ground.” 

Also, the government, she feels, sometimes boils down to an individual’s perception. To make the point, Hameed recalls her visit to a police station in Madhya Pradesh. She was leading an NCW investigation team to probe the facts of a woman’s death which was being passed off as a case of ‘sati’ in a village in Mahouba district. 

She was shocked to see the reaction of policemen. “The policemen had no idea that the NCW is a statutory body,” she recalls her experience. Finally, after some explanation from her, the in-charge at the small police station was able to place her. “Achchha, toh aap ghar phod mahilayein hai (Ok, so, you are among the women who break other’s homes).” She could do nothing to change the perception of law implementers in India’s hinterland. 

I ask her that since she has spent so much time in academics, government and social service, how she thinks change would come about. Or maybe she can explain what had made the women of Panipat, who once lorded over as landladies, join forces that connive to kill their unborn daughters.

“The hunger for power is insatiable and nobody wants to surrender their authority and power to make place for others” is her reply. She however explains: the root of all ills lies in women’s low participation in governance. The bill to grant 33 percent reservation to women in parliament was introduced in 1996, and it is yet to become a reality. “Geeta Mukherjee (chairperson of the parliamentary select committee that made final recommendations on the women’s reservation bill) told us that we, as women leaders, should never allow the 33 percent quota to be diluted or diverted. But all the parties are one when it comes to giving space to women in running the affair of this country and that is why the women’s reservation bill is hanging fire,” she rues.

So, is the system anti-women? I ask her. She says: not only the government but even the social system has taken a position against women. Or why else should the Hindu families create moral pressure on girls to surrender their share of property in favour of their brothers while they have equal right on it? 

The resistance to women’s quota often makes men behave rather cleverly. “Whenever the issue about women’s low participation in decision-making was raised from NCW or the planning commission before a ‘neta’ he would invariably show his helplessness by asking, ‘Where are the women to be given power?’ 

“We would take it as a positive sign and start preparing lists of eligible women without realising that this was his diversionary tactic to buy peace with us,” she says. 

So, with a seemingly unjust system and an insensitive government, how can the Indians ever have hope of a good future? This question suddenly makes Hameed’s eyes sparkle and her face brightens. 

She quips, “The people of India are remarkable” – her voice is many decibels up as if she wants this to go far and wide. She narrates stories from the villages of India, which she had picked up during her travels as part of her official responsibilities. 

At Ganiyari village near Raipur, she had met a group of doctors who had quit their prestigious jobs at the AIIMS, Delhi, and set up a hospital in the homeland of Bhil and Gond tribes. They were not into raising big money or putting up fancy gadgets but had used locally available materials to set up a modest hospital. They were able to provide healthcare to the poorest of the poor, that too with dignity. 

She recalls meeting a man known as John Herbal who was running a naturopathy clinic for the poor living in Meghalaya’s Garo hills. “He was not providing them any modern medicines but ensuring that they get relief with indigenous medicines and their dignity remained intact.” 

In a village in Maharashtra’s extremist-dominated Gadchiroli district, Hameed recalls meeting an army of healthcare volunteers who were doing their best to make newborn babies survive and feed children. “Many of them were uneducated girls but their energy and dedication for saving women and children were so infatuating,” she recalls. The women had combined traditional practices with modern-day norms of hygiene to make child delivery safer for women. They also fed locally grown food to the growing children at the community centres. The pioneering work of these volunteers, called shishu rakshak (saviours of children), had helped bring down maternal mortality rate (MMR) and infant mortality rate (IMR) in the region. “I was so excited to see this human effort that I wrote about it to prime minister Manmohan Singh. The government later incorporated lessons from this model in what is today known as the national rural health mission (NRHM),” she says. 

Hameed says she would never forget the face and name of a woman she met in Guwahati years ago. “Her name was Jilli Das. She had come to meet the visiting team of the planning commission whom she knew as some people from the government.” It was on a hot day that this middle-aged woman had come on her bicycle to tell the visitors that they should arrange food supply for her anganwadi centre, as she had run out of supplies. “She was panting from cycling. She pleaded with us that her children would go without meals in case we did not help her. 

“Hers was a predominantly Muslim village and definitely she was a non-Muslim. Her passion and care for the children, who would get a meal or two as supplementary nutrition at her centre, is something that makes me hopeful about India’s future,” Hameed says. 
Today Hameed’s family is spread across all continents while she is working on unifying people of south Asia on cultural and social levels. “The other day a granddaughter who was born in the UK and goes to school in the US called me from Lahore. We exchanged notes about Bajirao Mastani (the Ranveer-Deepika starrer Bollywood blockbuster). That made me think of how unity on the basis on oneness of cultures is required to take south Asia out of the conflict mindset.” 

She advocates the idea of involving Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and other nations into making south Asia a cultural fraternity, even as Pakistan takes its time to join. Today her extended family is spread across continents but has lost their ‘watan’ (motherland) – Panipat. “We have no watan and it’s a sad situation.” She signs off on this sad note. 


(The interview appears in the January 1-15, 2016 issue)



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