For the first time I heard the name of Mrs. Mumtaz Jahan Haider when my niece started living in MJ Hostel in Abdullah Hall. I knew nothing more than that Mrs. Mumtaz Jahan Haider after whom the hostel was named Mumtaz Jahan Hostel (popularly known as MJ Hostel) was daughter of Shaikh Abdullah "Papa Mian" and served as Principal of Woman's College. I learned a lot about her and her contributions for the promotion of Woman's Education when I was writing an article for TCN and for my website Struggle for Women’s Education and Establishment of Women’s College ( http://aligarhmovement.com/Institutions/womens_college ) .
I am thankful to our respected senior Mr. Naved Masood, who was kind enough to accept my personal request to write an article on Mrs. Mumtaz Jahan Haider. I am also thankful to Dr. Rahat Abrar (PRO-AMU Aligarh), Mrs. Farah Nizami (Oxford -UK) and Mrs. Sana Qamar (UAE) for providing the relevant pictures.
Here is brief life sketch and reminiscences of a staunch pillar of Aligarh Movement who gave a shape to the Woman's College of Aligarh Muslim University. Her dedication and passion for Woman's College was a true reflection of her love to her beloved parents and founders of Woman's College, Papa Mian and Ala-Bi.
Mumtaz Apa – Reminiscences
History of many successful institutions, educational or otherwise, often demonstrates that they owed their stability to a dogged founder being succeeded by an exceptionally competent person; contrarily, many institutions founded by people of exceptional talent floundered because the immediate successor could not step into the over-sized shoes of the pioneer. If the Girls’ School and the Women’s College, now forming the larger AMU behemoth, are rightly counted among the better institutions of female education in North India today, much credit can be given to an extraordinary founder (Shaikh Mohammed Abdullah) being followed by an equally extraordinary successor, his daughter, Mumtaz Jahan Begum who held reins as Principal of Women’s College for well over thirty years. In a manner of speaking, Mumtaz Apa (formally, Mrs. Mumtaz Jahan Hyder) was herself a founder inasmuch as she was the first Principal of the collegiate section.
Third among seven siblings, Mumtaz Apa was born at her maternal grandparents place in Koocha Chelan in the Old Delhi in 1907. Around that time her parents – Shaikh Abdullah aka Papa Mian and Wahid Jahan Begum affectionately called A’la Bi had recently established the Madrasa-i-Niswan or the Girls’ Primary School in the Bala-i-Qila area in old Aligarh in the teeth of stiff opposition from not only the ultra conservative locality but even among the former’s old circle of friends in the MAO College. Young Mumtaz Jahan was virtually brought up in the school premises as she spent the working hours there with her nanny under the watchful care of her mother who would look after the management of the institution in the confines of the school. Her early education was in the same school but as the Abdullah sisters were not purdah observing the parents thought it prudent to send the girls to school in Simla and Delhi so that the local orthodoxy did not create road-blocks in the progress of the nascent institution being nurtured in the ‘Purdah’ milieu. She did appear in the matriculation examination as a private candidate from Aligarh and later joined the Isabella Thoburn College for Women – the famous IT College – at Lucknow. She obtained FA (later known as ‘Intermediate’) and then her B.A degree from that institution and obtained M.A in English in 1931 from the Lucknow University, being possibly the first female student to do so from there. After a year of teaching at the school founded by her parents, she proceeded to Leeds in the UK for her Bachelor of Education and was back at her ‘parental institution’. With the opening of collegiate classes in 1940, she became the first Principal of the Girls’ College – a position that she retained till her retirement in 1971. In 1935 she married of her own accord “Colonel” Hyder Khan, Head Department of Chemistry and her senior by almost a couple of decades. Hyder Sahib passed away in 1948 and she brought up their two children Shahla and Salman in an exemplary fashion – the former retired as a senior official of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and the latter a former Foreign Secretary Government of India.
Mumtaz Apa built the Women’s College from the scratch and mothered/ fathered the institution and its pupils with loving care and an attention to detail that is almost an anathema to the Aligarh wala. When she laid down office she left one of the best managed Women’s Colleges anywhere in the country with most of its ‘old girls’ turning out to be well rounded personalities.
My contact with Mumtaz Apa was as intimate as it was unique – I was the only male resident of the Abdullah Hall from 1961-64 as my mother was a Warden there (during the absence of my father in England for his PhD) and occupied one of the residential units right in the middle of the campus between the New Hostel and the compound housing the Girls School along with Sultania and Wahidia Hostels. As the sole male inmate, albeit a juvenile, I received more than a fair share of ‘cheek pinching’ from the assorted “Bajis and Apas” – Prof Hamida Ahmed aka “Hammo Apa” currently a Senior Professor in the Department of Psychology is a relic of those days though my cheeks did not have the privilege of being pinched by her. Possibly, the trauma of being uprooted from our house in Tar Bangla and finding myself in the company of so many young ladies, (alas) much older than me made me feel quite insecure and I developed this habit of following my mother wherever she went. Noticing this Mumtaz Apa started calling me “memna” i.e. a lamb. There began an association that continued for the rest of her life which came to an end in 1981. I had a regular correspondence with her after I joined service in 1977 – she was a lively, though largely illegible letter-writer; my unhealthy habit of not saving correspondence deprives me of the opportunity to share with the readers her conversational style of writing, her sense of humour and her counseling without being sanctimonious. What follows in the rest of this piece is my assessment of her personality and managerial style which impacted so positively on the her “girls” who consisted both her own college students as also the Post Graduate girls. (Before the establishment of S.N Hall around 1971, all Post Graduate ‘boarder’ girl students were obliged to stay in the New Hostel within the ‘Abdullah Hall – Women’s College Complex’).
Mumtaz Apa carried a quite, moral authority which I suppose was as much the result of her complete dedication to the institution she largely nurtured on her own, as it was due to her being the offspring of the “founders”. When I look back in my ‘upper middle age’, I realise that this authority enabled her to develop personalities without sermonizing or becoming ‘preachy’. It is a moot point if girls of the College today receive instructions on how to carry themselves with dignified modesty and be good citizens, the point is that their morals, such as they are, are shaped by overt instructions which often borders on propaganda by the well meaning but misguided fanatic. Mumtaz Apa was, on the other hand, a person who led by example – she had a knack of quietly appreciating good qualities and she knew how to be tacitly disapproving! I suspect that her personality forced her students to try and come up to her expectations of good conduct and good performance – I trust ‘old girls’ of that era will agree with this appreciation. I wish there could be videographic evidence of the celebrations of all female (sans the pediatric Naved Masood) Basant and Sawan and the musical soirees in winter evenings on the plush carpets of her palatial Abdullah Lodge (virtually within the campus). There was so much bonhomie and joyous participation with the Principal being a part of it all but still retaining the reins without appearing to do so – this would have been object lesson to the contemporary kill joys and the elderly revelers alike – her forte was to see that the youth did not go haywire without the wild youth realizing that it was being tamed.
Despite her own liberal outlook to life, she was deeply sensitive to the susceptibilities of the religious ‘right’ and the need to maintain the cultural identity of her community alike. It was her conviction that her ‘girls’ should get the best of their culture and extra-curricular activities without alienating any section of the community. She was aware that the struggle for female education among the Muslims was far from over. While the Muslim elite, the ‘catchment of her ‘girls’, had accepted female education there were large areas of darkness and that it will not help the cause so assiduously espoused by her parents if she encouraged her ‘girls’ to be part of the ‘cultural mainstream’ of the University. Ever the pragmatist, she did the next best things – she saw to it that debates, ‘bait bazi’ and colloquia etc were organised in Abdullah Hall itself. There the select few were invited from the University – the choicest of the ‘samples’ were available to the girls without exposing them to the ‘bulk’. It is my ‘take’ that her modus operandi was appreciated by the ‘extreme right’, in any case for her there was no ‘untouchable’ she had easy access to was accessible to the hirsute gentry of the University. This scribe clearly recalls that the late Mohammed Muslim Sahib, the editor of “Dawat”, the mouthpiece of the Jamat-i-Islami, had publicly acknowledged that her approach to the problem of educating muslim girls was such that girls trained by her could further the cause of educating the Muslim girls elsewhere in the country.
She was perceived by the hoi polloi to be only a ‘cultural Muslim’. (For the uninitiated a ‘cultural Muslim’ is a person well versed in Urdu, a votary of the so called Mughlai food, Qawwali and Paan but does not offer Namaz or Roza and its progressive variety may even be harbouring agnostic ideas in peace time – in crisis situations, no doubt, the Taraqqi Pasand will invoke intervention of Allah Mian). She was not an exhibitionist when it came to practicing her faith but she was a ‘serious Muslim’ with unconventional views. In the large compound of “Abdullah Lodge”, her parental home, she had set aside a plot for constructing a Mosque devoted exclusively for the women. In fact, I attended its foundation-laying where a ‘time capsule’ i.e. an Urdu newspaper in a clean marmalade bottle was kept – I understand that the project was abandoned after her death as some “Islamists” deemed the project to be “Un-Islamic”. The meelads in Abdullah Hall were not the usual medley of out of tune salaams and readings from conventional books – there will be eloquent discourses by her younger sister Begum Khurshid Mirza who would visit from Pakistan every once in a while. Her Islam was a moral code where dos and don’ts counted far more than rituals and observances. On a personal note, I recall that while I was proceeding to Manipur after completing my training in Mussoorie for my first posting as a Sub-Divisional Officer and I had gone to take her leave, while wishing me ‘Godspeed’ she urged me to carry out my duties sincerely for the betterment of the poor and the needy and added that what is called ‘integrity’ is nothing but akle halal!
To her the role of a teacher was not so much as an imparter of knowledge but more of a friend, philosopher and guide to the students. I suspect that among her subordinates she had a bias for those she felt were also ‘mentoring’ the students than teachers who only excelled academically. While the issue whether higher education should be about character building or acquisition of knowledge is debatable, there is no doubt that if Colleges and Universities stop producing good, caring human beings, they cannot be said to have succeeded in their mission.
By the time I saw her, age was creeping in and leucoderma or vitiligo had marred her appearance which from the older sepia tinted photographs showed a handsome visage if not an ethereal beauty. Despite development of Parkinsonism after retirement, she retained a razor sharp memory recounting personalities and events that she had encountered in a full life. She was a good judge of people though she shared her opinions sparingly and was brutally frank when the need arose. In the time honoured tradition of Aligarh I found that in the later year she used to sit alone in the sprawling Abdullah Lodge and most of the female academics who owed so much to her will be conspicuous by their absence. It was particularly remarkable that her loneliness was relieved chiefly by women with plebian origins whose lives she had touched by lending them a helping hand quietly in their hour of need. The cynic may claim that literacy and gratitude are inversely related.
If the Aligarh Movement is to be regarded as a continuum with its horizons adjusting to the vicissitude of changing times, then Mrs. Mumtaz Jahan Hyder is definitely a pioneer of that Movement in its latter phases. One can safely assert that those of her ‘girls’ who took public service, including Teaching as a career, in India, Pakistan and elsewhere carried their own imprint and were faces in the crowd. Like in cases of many other luminaries of Aligarh, we must part with this piece with a pensive note that Aligarh has specialized in forgetting its benefactors in a hurry – may be it is on account of the institution producing too many of them for a time. It is well to remember, however, that those who do not remember and celebrate their ‘greats’ are condemned to be served by pygmies – perhaps poetic justice is visiting the institution and the movement that is supposed to overarch it.
*Mr. Naved Masood is an AMU Alum and a senior Civil Servant in Govt. of India and he is based in New Delhi. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org