She was just 14 when her farmer father died. But destiny was on her side. At 26, she left behind a life of comfort in New York and returned to India to crack the UPSC exam!
Ilma Afroz, the daughter of a small farmer from Kundarki town in Moradabad district, Uttar Pradesh, was always destined for a life of public service.
Inducted into the prestigious Indian Police Service in August 2018, the 26-year-old left behind a life of comfort in New York, to assist with the collective realisation of the Indian dream—one of progress, peace and prosperity.
Her journey to the Indian Police Service, however, wasn’t without its fair share of challenges and obstacles. She was only 14, when her father, a dedicated farmer who had helped her understand the delicate intricacies of nature, succumbed to cancer.
With a young daughter and 12-year-old son to take care of, her mother took up the mantle of raising the children.
“My mother raised my younger brother and I all on her own. She is a very strong woman. Instead of quietly accepting the norm—saving up for a girl’s dowry and marrying her off—she gave me the chance to fulfil my potential,” says Ilma, in a conversation with The Better India.
After graduating from high school in her hometown, Ilma attended the famous St Stephen’s College in the national capital, and studied philosophy.
“The three years I spent studying philosophy at St Stephen’s, were the best years of my life so far. Learning the subject in an environment where professors can closely engage with students helped me imbibe important lessons. We learnt so much outside the classroom as well. Learning philosophy encourages one to think on their own,” she says.
Ilma goes on to state how the undergraduate course, in some way, laid the foundation of her eventual transition to public service. She calls it a “treasure trove for civil servants.”
“I learnt to formulate an argument, write convincingly and listen patiently. In class, we would read, discuss and debate Gandhiji and weigh what impact would a particular decision have in facilitating change in the life of the last person (antodaya) in the darkest village. The six schools of Indian Philosophy taught me to appreciate the diversity of thought and value systems. As the Kena Upanishad says, ‘knowledge is like Uma Himavati—bahushobhaniyam; the most illuminating of all,’” she adds.
Ilma’s hard work and dedication secured her a scholarship to attend the world-renowned Oxford University. Attending Wolfson College for her Master’s, she had the opportunity to witness events at the hallowed Oxford Union debating hall. There, students, faculty and intellectuals from around would discuss, debate and exchange ideas with people from around the world.
The experience opened her mind to the world. Moreover, it enabled her to appreciate different worldviews.
After her time in the United Kingdom, she made her way to New York City, where she attended a voluntary service programme in the Manhattan area. However, something was missing.
“Every single day when I returned to my room in downtown Manhattan, I would yearn for home. For Ammi, and her smile. I would look out from the window of my room at New York skyline and watch the matchbox-like yellow taxis swarming the streets—a ubiquitous image associated with the American dream. I asked myself will my Oxford education go towards running after a ‘foreign dream’?
Inspired by Gandhiji’s dream to ‘wipe every tear from every eye’, the feeling that the nation should reap the benefit of my education and experiences grew manifold. I wanted to do my bit in fulfilling Gandhiji’s dream,” says Ilma, speaking to The Better India.
Whenever Ilma would return home for the holidays, she would notice that the people’s eyes would twinkle with joy, thinking “our beti will take away our pain.”
Relatives and acquaintances would seek her out for simple things like acquiring a ration card, filling a form or taking someone for cataract surgery. “I always knew that my happiness lay back home in India, with Ammi and all those around me,” she says.
That’s when she realised applying for the civil services presented her with the ultimate opportunity to work for the betterment of people, and she returned home.
After clearing the examination in 2017 with an all India rank of 217, she was inducted into the Indian Police Service. Allocated the Himachal Pradesh cadre, she will soon undergo a 16-month training process.
The road ahead indeed looks rosy. However, she emphatically states that it wouldn’t have been possible without the sacrifices made by her mother and younger brother.
“My mother taught me the value of hard work. My brother didn’t save money for my dowry. Instead, he spent it on my education. Ammi and bhaiyya made numerous sacrifices to educate me,” she says.
Even before Ilma has the opportunity to perform her duties on the ground, she is already fulfilling her goal of furthering the Indian dream.
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Back home in Kundarki, she founded Hope, a grassroots community network promoting education for underprivileged children.
“I want to enable young students to fulfil their immense potential, excel in academics, and hopefully, one day, give back to the nation. I want all students to get an opportunity to shine, and lend a healing touch to those around us,” she says.
Firmly embedded in the national ethos, Ilma believes that the Constitution of India is the guiding light for all of us. As a police officer entrusted with enforcing the law, one takes great comfort in knowing that the pride of Kundarki is determined to perform her duties.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)