Claims and counter-claims apart, Rabia Baji, a former Congress activist turned social worker, is full of surprises. All set to contest coming Lok Sabha elections from Srinagar, Rabia talks to Syed Asma about her life and idea of Kashmir
It is a high profile, high-security area. The people putting up here are either ministers, bureaucrats or journalists working with New Delhi based media outlets. Among the large cluster of government-owned residential quarters in Jawahir Nagar, Srinagar, Rabia Baji, 47, has rented a building as her office in 2004- the year when she returned to Kashmir “for her people,” as she likes to put it.
The locality seems unique. Dozens of uniformed state policemen playing catch and throw game with local children. This is how elites grow up! In other parts of Valley, state police is engaged in other activities involving children and youth.
It is literally a rare scene to watch in Kashmir!
Married to a Pashmina manufacturer, Mohammed Altaf, resident of Soura in Srinagar, Rabia was recently in news after dozens of Kashmiri students were expelled from universities of Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, for supporting Pakistan in a cricket match. All of them were sent to different Indian universities through her NGO, All India Centre for Urban and Rural Development (AICURD) under Prime Minister’s Special Scholarship scheme.
In 2004, she permanently shifted her base to Kashmir and started visiting places across Valley. After doing the ‘need assessment’ of people, she came up with an NGO, AICURD. Rabia says it is an off-shoot of a Delhi based NGO owned by a senior Congressman D P Ray, a former MP and MLA from Kolkata.
But the management in Delhi says Rabia is misusing their name. The program officer Tathagat Ray, senior Ray’s son, denies any association with Rabia and says the “off-shoot” does not belong to them.
“There are some internal issues going on in our NGO and I would not like to comment over that,” says smiling Rabia.
Explaining a bit more, Tathagat Ray adds, “Rabia was very close to my father so he was kind enough to allow her use our NGO’s name but he had made it clear in the beginning that she will be operating on her own and will be having no affiliation with us.”
“She is independently running her NGO and we are not related with it in anyway,” clarifies Tathagat Ray.
Born as Nirupama Kaul in a highly influential Kashmiri Pandit family, Rabia converted to Islam in 1989. She was 22-year-old then. Rest of the family, who live in Lucknow, still practice Hinduism.
Her brother is working in Thailand as Director for Pepsi South Asia, Europe and her sister, academically a Medical doctor, is working as an Associate Professor in Lucknow.
Elaborating more about her influential family she says, her great grandfather was the last accountant general of autocratic Jammu & Kashmir; her grandfather was a UN expert for Tanzania and Zanzibar in 1956; and her father, KK Kaul, was an engineer who has done his super-specialization from Sweden, Denmark.
Ever since she converted to Islam, she is putting up alone. For first three years, she was in Kashmir and then moved to Delhi in 1993. Her disconnection with her family has led to her interesting name – ‘Rabia Baji’. “Usually you have your father’s name suffixed to yours, but as they are not in good terms with me, I use Baji.”
“I am interested in building up a close relationship with people, so, I like to hear Baji suffixed to my name. With Baji, everyone relates to me quite easily,” she likes to assume.
Her family had migrated from Kashmir in 1947. She wasn’t born then.
Rabia, then Nirupama Kaul, was born in Ajmer and brought up in Delhi. She completed her education in Delhi. A post graduate in Psychology from Delhi University, Rabia has been an active member of Indian National Congress for many years.
While being in University, she was a part of National Students Youth Union (NSYU) – student’s wing of Congress. Later, she moved to Youth Congress as its joint secretary.
Being a Congress loyalist since beginning she has served the party as a media co-ordinator of All India Congress Committee besides being an observer for Faizabad elections in 1999.
Rabia is a soft spoken woman and a brilliant orator. She, perhaps, has brushed up her skills to stay relevant in her endeavour!
“I joined politics because I wanted to earn a particular status and power for myself,” says Rabia, “when I thought I earned enough of it, I came back to Kashmir for my people.”
Since then Rabia is indulged in different ‘peace processes,’ she says.
She has been involved with the recent interlocutors’ engaged with Kashmir.
Engaging different people – youngsters and women, she says, “I tried to put their viewpoint in front of the interlocutors.”
“I was the one who managed to get 250 locals in a single room with interlocutors and made them to share their viewpoints,” says Rabia expressing her contentment.
But Navnita Chadda, an academician from mainland India who also was part of that meeting has termed the exercise as hoax. “One can think of, what a mess would it result in, if 250 people are given an hour to put forward their thoughts?” Chadda expresses.
The other important development of which Rabia was a part of is the Shehr-i-Khaas cricket tournament.
“I know my children in downtown [old city] are quite talented. So, I wanted to do something for them. I chose sports,” says Rabia.
The ideation of the cricket tournament was done after the 2010 uprising. Rabia says it was her brain child but General Atta Hasnain, the then GOC and the then DIG H L Lohai were of great support to her. General Husnain sponsored the tournament and DIG Lohai coined the name, ‘Shehr-i-Khaas cricket tournament’.
Rabia is a woman of all sorts. She being a staunch Congress worker in the past calls the youth involving in stone pelting as “angry and annoyed” and thinks of ways to fight against India. She tries to get in Islam in every conversation. Besides, she is electoral candidate in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.
“If we need to win over our enemy [India] we need to be at par with them, academically and financially both. Our representation in every stream and sphere is required. Precisely, we need to be very strong to fight and that is what I am working on. Beggars can never be choosers.”
Rabia has decided to be a part of the elections as she believes that Kashmir needs to have a proper representation in the Indian mainland and she chose to be independent candidate because she does not agree with Congress any more, she says. Though, she does not openly talk about her resignation from the party [Indian National Congress].
Living in Kashmir from past ten years, Rabia has been attacked a couple of times by different agencies, she says, and therefore moves around with a couple of Personal Security Officers (PSOs). In fact, they are the ones who welcome you, by interviewing, when you have to meet Baji.
“I am here to help my people but they take me as an informer here, what to do?” concludes Rabia with a smile.