Abadi Banu Begum1

The 97th death anniversary of Abadi Banu Begum passed subduedly and unobtrusively, much like every other year in the past. Bi-Amma, which was the popular sobriquet bestowed upon her by comrades, was a stand out marvel of astonishing courage and patriotism in India’s independence saga. She broke the religious taboo for feminist activism to inspire thousands of Muslim women to take to the streets of the country in a bid to defend their motherland against British colonialism. Born into a family of nationalists in Rampur (present day Uttar Pradesh), Bi-Amma ‘s childhood was spent in the midst of displacement, deprivation and devastation inflicted by the British for actively participating in the freedom movement.

Married and widowed at a young age, she was left to raise her six children by herself in absolute penury and despair. The story of her tribulations with finding the means to provide food and clothing to her wretched kids find mention in the chapter on Maulana Mohamad Ali in chronicler Rajmohan Gandhi’s Eight Lives: A Study of the Hindu-Muslim Encounter. Being an extremely intelligent woman, she wanted her children to benefit from the outstretched worldview which Western education would bring, and approached her brother for funds to enroll them in an English school. However, she was turned away at the door for promoting ‘Christian’ education and was ostracized by her family for sin of blasphemy. Undeterred, she chose to sell her jewelry and the unused pots and pans in her kitchen to ensure quality education for her kids. Not having enough to pay for all six, she decided to have her brightest sons Mohammed Ali and Shaukat Ali take the western route to empowerment, while the others were sent to the local school. As the adage ‘the apples don’t fall far from its tree’ goes, Mohammed Ali went on to attend Oxford while the older Shaukat Ali attended the prestigious Aligarh University later.

Bi-Amma had taken special care to instill the spirit of nationalism and anti-imperialism in her kids at a young age. Through their youthful years, both Mohammad Ali and Shaukat Ali had been mindful to not let the patriotic spark in their minds simmer, let alone be doused. Upon graduating from the university, the brothers took the decisive plunge into the blazing flames of the national movement, and published magazines like Hamdard in Urdu and Comrade in English to exhort Muslim youth to join hands to obliterate colonial authority from the Indian soil. Together, they grew up to be the inseparable duo of Ali brothers who played an unarguable role in drawing up the political manifesto for Muslim participation in India’s independence movement. While her sons were vacillating between activism and incarceration, Bi-Amma was waiting in the wings to create history for her shackled motherland and some serious headache for the colonial establishment.

This brings us to the curious and compelling connection the mother and her children had with the newfound leader of India’s national movement against British imperialism, Mahatma Gandhi. The middle-aged lawyer who had just wrapped up the international phase of his anti-British activism and had landed at the Apollo Bunder just over a year ago, was instantly gripped by the zestful and vibrant Ali brothers who were instrumental in putting the fire of nationalistic fervor in young Muslim bellies across the country. This dragged Gandhi to the proud mother of the dutiful siblings, whose magnetism and resolve won him over at the very first meeting. He was also fascinated by the unwavering fidelity of the trio to non-violent action (Ahimsa) which was life breath for him. Another stimulating element in Bi-Amma’s social outlook that instantaneously struck a cord was her passion for Hindu-Muslim comradeship and staunch belief in the need for joint action for the country’s freedom. Thereupon, Bi-Amma was “Ammi-jaan” to Gandhi whom she introduced to her children as the incorruptible beacon to follow on their road to freedom.

Bi-Amma’s passionate, progressive and punctilious worldview prompted Gandhi to invite her to join the national cause. The astute strategist that he was, Gandhi promptly realized the possibility of cashing in on Bi-Amma’s persuasive communication and social efficacy to draw more women, especially those from the predominantly conservative Muslim society into the largely male-dominated struggle scene of the time. Bi-Amma, being a devout Muslim who subscribed to its traditional life style, was burqa-clad which posed an issue within her community and, for some, ran counter to the liberal values of the Congress party. Nevertheless, while religious orthodoxy buckled under Bi-Amma’s resolve, the push back within the Congress was adeptly surmounted by Gandhi who directed his apprehensive colleagues back to the organization’s libertarian tenets. Thus, garbed in her burqa, the spirited sexagenarian traversed the length and breadth of the country addressing crowds, chiefly of women and children, and calling upon her countrymen to start dreaming of the dawn of freedom. Her fiery speeches like “even the cats and dogs of my country do not deserve to be ruled by the British” scared the living day lights out of the imperialists who put her on the ‘dangerous’ list of the time.

The popularity of the frail, yet lionhearted Bi-Amma helped Annie Besant’s Home Rule Movement and the Congress raise funds for several initiatives including the Swadeshi movement and the Tilak Swaraj Fund set up by Bal Gangadhar Tilak. As a key associate of Besant, she rubbed elbows with the likes of Begum Hazrat Mohani, Sarla Devi Chodrani, Basanti Devi and Sarojini Naidu to set the stage for fighting the colonialists with renewed vigor in the days of the First World War. The end of the war marked the beginning of the Khilafat agitation in India, which was part of the global Islamic protests demanding the reinstatement of the Ottoman Caliph of Turkey. Soon, the Khilafat Committee was formed with the Ali brothers alongside stalwarts like Maulana Azad, Mukhtar Ahmed Ansari and Hazrat Mohani at the helm. The Congress under Gandhi decided to spread the wings of its Non Cooperation Movement by joining forces with the Committee in order to double down on their struggle against the British, which caused all frontline leaders of the coalition to get arrested. Thus, at the ripe age of 70, Bi-Amma found herself in the saddle of a monumental agitation, negotiating with the British authorities for the release of the incarcerated leaders including her own children.

This brings to the fore an extremely riveting account of the septuagenarian unswervingly placing her allegiance to her motherland above her love for the lives of her own children. When the British police negotiated with the Ali brothers for abdication from the protests in exchange of their immediate release, a humiliated Bi-Amma declared unflinchingly that her frail and trembly arms wouldn’t stop any short of strangling them, should they try to ditch the gallows by submitting to the British. She also asked them to chant the prayer “la ilaha illallah” and sing praises of their motherland and the headman of their movement, Mahatma Gandhi as they walk up to the scaffold to embrace martyrdom. Not many people know that it was Bi-Amma who conceived the idea of the ‘Gandhi cap’ and hand knit one for the first time for the Mahatma as a token of her respect and affection for the great leader. Sadly, her invention lost its sanctitude over time, and has lately been reduced to a deceptive tool employed by today’s politicians to legitimize their evils and iniquities.

The trials and tribulations of repeated and prolonged stays in grossly deficient and unkept jails of those days along with the impacts of relentless and exhausting activism took a toll on Bi-Amma’s health. On November the 13th, 1924 this lodestar of indomitable perseverance and invulnerable patriotism departed the expansive skies of the Indian national movement. My salutations to Bi-Amma, the burqa-clad ‘mother’ of endurance and hope for all feminine protests to come.

Binoj Nair is an author and history enthusiast with special interest in Medieval Indian history. He is also a doctoral researcher in cognitive psychology, who is based in Edmonton, Canada and can be reached at nair_bin@yahoo.ca .


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