Ruqayya Jafri, 83, has suffered two geographical partitions in her lifetime.
One, in 1947, left her with a sense of partial triumph and a dream that somehow soured too soon.
The other, in 1971, gave her a shock from which she is still recovering.
Between the two events, she progressed from a student leader to a member of Pakistan’s national parliament, where she was instrumental in organising opposition to General Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s first military ruler in the 1960s.
But she feels her career as a high achiever has done little to ameliorate her own plight as the forgotten matriarch of a divided house.
Born in 1925 to a lawyer in Sirajganj town of Rajshahi in East Bengal, Mrs Jafri spent the prime of her youth organising the women students’ wing of the All India Muslim League in Calcutta, where she went to college.
The best years
“My father was a colleague of known Muslim League leaders like Fazlul Haq and Husyn Shaheed Suhrawardy. When they visited Rajshahi, they used to stay at our residence. So I grew up in a dense political environment.”
She studied up to high school at home, in keeping with the Muslim sensitivities of the time. But then opportunities opened up to her.
The nearest girls’ college was in Calcutta, and there was no separate hostel for Muslim girls. “My father could never have agreed to send me there,” she says.
To her good fortune, the Bengal government set up what was then called a purdah (veil) college, the Lady Brabourne College, which also had a hostel.
The college was established in 1939, the year Mrs Jafri finished her high school studies. Permission from her parents to attend was not long in coming.
She considers the following eight years as the best part of her life.
“I cherish every moment of that life,” she says.
“There was freedom, and a lot of work to do. Transport was cheap, there was a tram service, and there were friendly people all around. I cannot recall a single Calcutta street, lane or by-lane where I did not leave my footprints.”
During this period, she emerged as a student leader, social worker, newspaper columnist, election campaigner and a broadcaster. She also fell in love with a fellow student leader from West Bengal, whom she married in 1946.
The partition of India in 1947 brought triumph, but there was a sad subtext to it.
“Calcutta and Assam, which we had always considered a part of the eastern wing of our new country (Pakistan), went to India.”
Her group had to shift to Dacca, the capital of East Pakistan (later to become Bangladesh), which few of them had seen before.
“There was a feeling that we had been robbed of a part of our victory, but not the entire victory. We had achieved something too.
“But the secession of Bangladesh in 1971 was a full blown shock, in which we lost everything.”
She feels the seeds of secession were sown as early as 1948, when united Pakistan’s first governor-general, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, told a students’ gathering in Dacca that only Urdu would be the national language of Pakistan.
This gave birth to the Bangla language movement, and agitation erupted in 1951, causing political re-alignments that led to the complete elimination of the Muslim League from East Pakistan.
Mrs Jafri, then running a school in Dacca and raising a family, joined Suhrawardy’s Awami League and was also quietly working in the background for this new movement.
In 1962, she was able to beat Gen Ayub’s restrictions on political parties and was elected to a women’s seat in the national parliament, where she emerged as a firebrand campaigner for Bengali rights.
“I spent three years at the parliament trying to tell the rulers they should not spend all the East Pakistani money for development in West Pakistan. I tried to warn them that there was already smoke in East Pakistan, and there would soon be fire.”
But in the West Pakistan of the 1960s, no one seemed to be in the mood to heed such advice.
When Bangladesh seceded, she suffered a nervous breakdown and was in hospital for several weeks.
As a member of parliament, Mrs Jafri had her first chance to visit West Pakistan, where all the infrastructure of state she had fought for was located. The parliament then used to meet in the city of Rawalpindi.
She didn’t like the place much.
“The first thing I noticed here was that men looked at women with lust, something I had never experienced in Bengal. And then there was bonded labour due to the domination of feudal lords.”
But this is the land where she has remained. She was widowed in 1956, and married a West Pakistani journalist 10 years later.
A widow again, she now lives in Karachi with two daughters, while her only son and the rest of the family live more than 3,000 miles away, in her native Bangladesh.
“Often, I lie awake all night, thinking about my life. I have much to thank for, but the divisions I have suffered hurt me. They prick my heart.”
Posted on August 16, 2008 by alaiwah