These words were once echoed by a Muslim woman, whom many consider as one of the greatest voices of communal harmony when she termed Hindus and Muslims as “the two eyes of India”. Born in 1850, Abadi Bano Begum (popularly known as Bi Amma) was raised in a family that was victimised by the British in the aftermath of the First War of Independence in 1857. Despite all the trauma, it was her youthful spirit that ignited a flame within her to fight for her country’s freedom. Bi Amma got married off at a very early age to Abdul Ali Khan, a senior official in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh. They became parents to a daughter and five sons. Of all her children, Maulana Shaukat Ali and Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar, have written their names in the annals of Indian history as the Ali brothers who started the Khilafat Movement against the British regime.
Bi Amma was widowed at a young age when she lost her husband to the dreaded cholera. However, this did not hamper her efforts toward fulfilling her mission. Despite all her hardships and having no formal education, Bi Amma marched on, as she was determined to ensure that her children received a good quality education. When their uncle refused to educate them, fearing that they would remain uneducated, Bi Amma with the assistance of her neighbour’s maid, mortgaged her jewellery to pay for their education. There are narratives about how this young widow nurtured her children on simple food and simple clothes and educated them at Aligarh Muslim University and Oxford.
Despite her progressive nature, Bi Amma believed in the concept of ‘strict purdah’. She broke all shackles that were associated with veiled women by becoming the first Muslim woman to address a political gathering donning a burqa. In 1917, Abadi Bano Begum joined a demonstration that petitioned for the release of both her sons– Muhammad Ali and Shaukat Ali, who had been imprisoned for their anti-British activities. It was during this agitation that Mahatma Gandhi convened a meeting with Bi Amma and sought her assistance to solicit women’s support for the Indian independence movement.
In the same year, in her address during the Indian National Congress and the All India Muslim League sessions held at Calcutta, she emphasized that complete freedom could be attained only if Indians of all faiths united. Bi Amma’s contribution during the Khilafat and Non-Cooperation Movement in 1919 was truly inspirational. At several meetings, she used to openly declare that, it was her ambition that even the dogs and cats of her country should not be under the slavery of the British.
With the assistance of Sarojini Naidu, Sarala Devi Chaudhurani, Basanti Devi, and Begum Hasrat Mohani, Bi Amma collected funds, organised and called for all-women meetings, emphasized the importance of forsaking foreign goods and at the same time promoted local wear. She also inspired many Indians to commit to the Tilak Swaraj Fund, which was set up by Bal Gangadhar Tilak for the freedom struggle.
Abadi Bano Begum passed away in 1924, leaving behind her indelible footprint on the minds of Indians, both young and old. Sixty-six years post her death, even the Govt. of Pakistan acknowledged her contribution to the freedom struggle by issuing a commemorative postage stamp in her honour. On 28th September 2012, a girl’s hostel was named in memory of Bi Amma at the Jamia Milia Islamia Institute in New Delhi.
Her writings epitomize the patriotic spirit and total commitment of a strong and courageous woman and mother who was willing for her sons to sacrifice their lives for the cause of India’s freedom.