The City of Nawabs has a long and rich history of noteworthy personalities engaged in various facilities. Here is one of them, a living icon of our times – the woman who has been called “the iconic face of Indian womanhood in post-Independence India”.
Petite, graceful, confident, determined, tireless, exuding an old world charm… there are many words that can be used to describe the charming Begum Hamida Habibullah, parliamentarian, educationist, social worker, and icon, who has just turned 100! Her very public birthday celebrations in her hometown Lucknow were replete with cake-cutting, confetti, speeches, songs, and loads of nostalgia. In addition to her long years, it celebrated her many achievements, contributions, and sustained efforts to enrich her community, and especially to reach out to underprivileged girls and women.
Going down memory lane with her at her ancestral home in the sprawling Habibullah Estate, a landmark in the Nawabi City, a fortnight before the big day, turned out to be an unforgettable experience. Sipping tea and surrounded by her loving family and her pet dog, she looked the quintessential matriarch, truly satisfied with her life. Indeed, her manicured hands, perfectly styled hairdo, the elegant pearl jewellery, and hospitality… everything seemed so much in sync.
As the conversation stretched over two hours, she displayed no signs of fatigue and, in fact, it was not always easy to keep pace with her thoughts as she spoke of a distant past, describing in details things that are now only a part of history.
Born in Hyderabad, the Begum’s father, Nawab Nazir Yar Jung, was the Chief Justice of the Hyderabad High Court, and Hamida, the only daughter among three brothers, was the apple of his eye. She excelled in academics and topped the Senior Cambridge examinations from Osmania University. Hamida learnt a lot in her classrooms, but it was her trip to London as a teenager that changed her views about life. She really took to English society and lifestyle, and wanted to stay back and do her higher studies at Cambridge University.
“But this greatly upset my mother who had already settled my marriage in India in the Habibullah family, the Taluqedars of Saidanpur, Bara Banki, in Uttar Pradesh. She did not want to go back on her commitment and so she cajoled me into returning,” recalled Begum Habibullah, confessing that she was hugely disappointed as her great desire to study at Cambridge remained unfulfilled. But she is glad she heeded her mother and “did not cause her or the family any pain or embarrassment”.
In 1938, she married the young, dashing man who, in later years, became the illustrious Major General Enaith Habibullah. Of course, nuptials didn’t put brakes on the young woman’s dreams and academic pursuits. She did go back to London to do a two-year teachers’ training course from White Lands College, Putney. On her return, she played a major role in furthering women’s education in the region.
“My mother-in-law [Inam Habibullah] was passionate about girls’ education and she supported me in completing my studies. She prepared me to carry forward her great work in the field of education and upliftment of women,” she elaborated.
It was under Begum Inam’s guidance that Hamida took to working towards making quality learning accessible to girls in Lucknow. Talimgah-e-Niswan, a school for minority girls set up by her mother-in-law, began with three students on its rolls. Today, this iconic institution has grown exponentially, admitting a whopping 3,500 students, the majority from lower-income minority families. Additionally, Begum Hamida was the president of the Avadh Girls Degree College (AGDC), Lucknow’s first English degree College for girls.
Begum Habibullah manages many community-centric activities and her responsibilities as the head of the family-run educational institutions. However, she always took time out to travel and spend quality time with friends and family. Indeed, the stories around her outstanding skills as an attentive hostess are the stuff of legend.
From the Russian president Khrushchev to the Mountbattens, she has welcomed several world leaders into her home.
Her family’s close proximity with the Nehrus – intact till date – paved the way for a hectic political life. A staunch Congress supporter, it was in 1965, after the retirement of her husband, that she joined active politics. She served as an elected Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) from Haidergarh, was State Minister of Social and Harijan Welfare, National Integration & Civil Defence from 1971-73, and Tourism Minister from 1971-74. Thereafter, she was a member of the Rajya Sabha from 1976 till 1982. For her, the Nehruvian era represents the “best period” in India’s political history, a time when people practised “gentleman politics”. Today, she is very disturbed by the way politics plays on caste and religion.
The turning point for Begum Habibullah came with the passing away of her husband in 1990. For a while it seemed like everything had come to a naught, a standstill. For a brief period, she even moved to Delhi to be with her daughter. But Lucknow has always pulled at her heart strings and she couldn’t stay away. She took control after a while and returned to helping people and taking an interest in their lives. These days, she divides her time between Lucknow and Delhi, enjoying the best of both worlds. When asked what she’d wish for when she blew out her birthday candles, pat came the reply: “I pray that my family remains healthy and happy.”
A woman with strong family ties, Begum Habibullah remains concerned for the welfare of her people and her city. She is indeed a matchless centurion, still going strong.
Click here to learn more about Lucknow’s Talimgah-e-Niswan Inter College.