On Eid, two stories in Times of India June 28, 1958: Ayesha Kidwai

Guest post by AYESHA KIDWAI


On the same page of the Times of India of June 28, 1958 are two news items. The one on the left is a report of how Bakrid was celebrated the day before in various cities, including Jammu, where Hindus and Sikhs offered namaz along with their Muslim brethren. On the right  is another story that reports the expulsion of Ms. Mridula Sarabhai from the Congress party for her ‘anti-party activities’ in opposing the arrest of Sheikh Abdullah in 1953 and the muzzling of democratic rights in Kashmir.

Staunchly secular, fierce, and thoroughly opinionated,  Mridula was the woman responsible for the rescue of tens of thousands of Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim women abducted women during Partition, and the one who organised citizens in Delhi to end the spiralling violence that had gripped Delhi and its neighbourhood. It was the efforts of Mridulaji, and thousands like her, that made Bakrid celebrations like the one reported here in Delhi, the Punjab and J&K possible at all.

What an irony that on this very day, this ardent disciple of Gandhi and Nehru’s close friend, also began a journey to become an enemy of the state. A few months after this expulsion, she was arrested on 8 August 1959 and spent nearly ten months without trial in Tihar jail and a similar period of house arrest. She was banned from visiting Kashmir for close to ten years that followed, but kept up her relentless support for all those arrested, and her home and all the means she had at her disposal were available to help any person from Kashmir who came to her doorstep.

What did Mridulaji do that made her so dangerous? She was the author of cyclostyled pamphlets in defence of democracy in Kashmir, she lobbied with whoever she could approach for the release of Sheikh Abdullah and other political prisoners, and tried to mobilise political opinion outside Kashmir. This hero of our freedom movement — dismissed as hysterical and ranting by all the powers that were in the last decade of her life and obliterated from popular memory — knew that while nations can be born at the stroke of a midnight hour, democracies only exist and endure in constant dialogue with the will of the people. That she was right was eventually accepted by the Indian government a few years later, when it released Sheikh Abdullah on 8 April 1964, dropping all conspiracy charges against him.

Mridulaji never made it back in exactly the same way though to the public influence she had before, although in the years that followed she continued to fight communalism and sectarianism with the same vigour. The ceaseless vilification she was subjected to disappeared the debt Indian democracy owed to her valiant and, on the matter of Kashmir, lonely fight. On her death in 1974, there were a few obituaries that remembered her as an ‘institution’, a ‘social worker’, a ‘freedom fighter’.

But, as Anis Kidwai in her tribute remarks: “No one said this one thing: I wish I was a ‘traitor’ just like her, who could save this nation from the deshbhakti of so many self-proclaimed patriots.”

It is no more than a coincidence that today is Bakrid and by that calendar, also the day of Mridulaji’s arrest. The situation in Kashmir is of course not comparable at all — millions of Kashmiris, and not just their political leaders, are incarcerated in a giant prison.

Tens of millions of secular and democratic Indians across the country watch with horror, terror and feelings of utter impotence at what is being done to Kashmir, to Muslims across the country, and to Hinduism. In both these newspaper clips from 61 years ago, there is perhaps the messages we need to read — shower petals of peace and BE THE MRIDULA.

Ayesha Kidwai is Professor at JNU



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