The Other Sheikh Abdullah

by Naeem Akhter
Around the time in 1905 Sher i Kashmir Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah was born in Srinagar, far away in a dusty town of Indian heartland, another Abdullah was busy in seeding a veritable revolution among Muslim Indians. This Abdullah, also a Sheikh had as well a Kashmir connection. He was a convert Thakur from Poonch who made it to the nascent MAO College of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and passed out as a lawyer. He made Aligarh his home and was to become for women’s education what his mentor Sir Syed was to Muslim men’s emancipation in India.
I got a photostat copy of his memoirs in Urdu from a friend in Jamia Millia Islamia. The book written in the informal format of his time is obviously out of print now. Parts of it at least deserve to be not just reprinted but also need to be translated in English to serve as an inspiration, for one would surprisingly find the scenario among Muslim community still qualified for interventions of the kind that Sheikh Abdullah executed a century back.
Sheikh Abdullah started his venture with a monthly grant of a royal sum of 100 rupees from the Nawab Begum of Bhopal. There was no looking back for him or the girl’s school which later became a full-fledged college and continues to be a part of the Aligarh Muslim University. Dr Zakir Hussain the late president of India who also served as the Vice-Chancellor of AMU describes Sheikh Abdullah as the “founder of women’s movement of India”.
Sheikh Abdullah of Aligarh took up the cause of women’s education in an unimaginably dark scenario. He was setting a new trend that contravened even the views of the greatest Indian Muslim reformer Sir Syed. To a reader today those times look unreal when Muslim public opinion was completely under the spell of Moulvis. Abdullah quotes Sir Syed as having remarked: “is mulk mein ya moulvi zinda rehenge ya qoum zinda rahegi”. (In this country either the moulvis would survive or the nation) But, even while having such radical views the great Syed is quoted as having been totally against formal schooling of Muslim girls and advocated purdah for them in its strictest form.
The galaxy of Muslim elite that spearheaded the educational movement along with Sir Syed and after him included many known names. But the least celebrated among them is Abdullah’s wife whom he calls Abdullah Begum. She comes out as a great hero(ine) in the establishment of the college and the boarding house for girls.
To meet the concerns of the conservative parents Abdullah Begum moved herself to the boarding house and serve as its mother and matron. The couple hired dolis to ferry girls from different parts of the town to school in order to maintain the sanctity of purdah. Later it was tonga and buggies. To popularise the boarding house they admitted their own three daughters among the first nine arrivals who were joined by their cousins.
Shiekh Abdullah donated his entire property, which was considerable, to the University. His daughters also served the institution later and one of them Mumtaz Jehan Hyder, the mother of former foreign secretary Salman Hyder remained the College principal for a long time.
Obviously, any Kashmiri’s thought while going through the memoirs would go to the better known Sheikh Abdullah the Sher e Kashmir. One can’t miss the contrast. Four of Sher e Kashmir’s progeny are currently in news for being in the electoral fray and have declared close to Rs. 20 crores as their assets. Another happens to be our chief minister. While the valuation leaves much room for speculation one fact stands out: All the landed property is shown as inherited except Farooq Abdullah’s Bhatindi house.
Comparison of our Sheikh with Omar Mukhtar might not be the only dimension of the debate around him.

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