“I appeal to the youth of this country that they sit at the feet of this goddess (Nishat un Nisa Begum) to learn the lessons of independence and perseverance.” Famous Indian writer Brij Narayan Chakbast wrote this in 1918 about the freedom fighter Nishat un Nisa Begum.
People knew more about her husband Maulana Hasrat Mohani, who coined the slogan Inquilab Zindabad (Long live revolution). Historians have kept Nishat, like many other women, at the margins of historical narratives. She existed not as a protagonist but as a supporting actor in a play that had her husband as the protagonist.
This happened even though Hasrat admitted that he would have remained an apolitical editor if he had not married her. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad likened her to "a mountain of determination and patience." Mahatma Gandhi also acknowledged a key role in the Non-Cooperation Movement. By no stretch of the imagination, she was a dependent woman and owed her existence to Hasrat.
Born in Lucknow in 1885, Nishat was home tutored, as was the custom of those times. She knew Urdu, Arabic, Persian, and English. Even before she married Hasrat in 1901 was teaching girls from backward sections of the society at her home. Marriage exposed her to the world of politics. Nishat and Hasrat were among the first Muslims in India to join Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s extremist group of Congress and open a Swadeshi shop in Aligarh. In 1903, the couple started a nationalist Urdu newspaper ‘Urdu e Mualla’. The British did not like it and jailed Hasrat in 1908. After his release, the couple resumed the newspaper. The newspaper had only two employees - Nishat and Hasrat.
Hasrat was again jailed during the First World War. Nishat, who like other Muslim women of her times, used to take a veil, came out in public to defend her husband in the court trial. She wrote letters to leaders, and articles in newspapers, and removed her veil while visiting courts. To go out of one's house without a purdah was a courageous act.
Hasrat’s friend Pandit Kishan Parshad Kaul wrote, “She (Nishat) took this courageous step at a time when the veil was a symbol of dignity not only among Muslim women but among Hindu women as well”.
In those times Congress and other organizations used to raise public funds to help the families of jailed freedom fighters. Nishat declined to accept her share from it. Pandit Kishan Parshad recalled later that in 1917 when he once visited her in Aligarh he saw her living in abject poverty. Being a friend of Hasrat, he offered her money. Nishat told him, “I am happy with whatever I have”. She later asked him if he could help her in selling the Urdu books printed by their defunct press.
Kishan Parshad told Shiv Prasad Gupta, another prominent freedom fighter from Lucknow about Nishat’s condition. Gupta didn’t take a moment to write a cheque to purchase all the books from Nishat.
When Edwin Montagu visited India in 1917, Nishat was among the representatives of the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC) to meet him. In the meeting, she demanded that all the freedom fighters be released from jail.
Nishat had abandoned the purdah for good. In 1919, she attended the Amritsar Congress session after the Jallianwala Massacre and impressed everyone with her passionate speeches. A Muslim woman, without purdah and participating in politics at par with her husband, she was noticed as a "comrade of Hasrat."
Nishat and Hasrat were sure that asking for concessions from the British was futile. They moved a resolution for Purna Swaraj (Complete Independence) and not a dominion status at the Ahmedabad session of Congress in 1921 as the party's goal. Nishat spoke in support of the motion. The resolution was defeated as Mahatma Gandhi opposed the idea. Eight years later, Congress adopted the Purna Swaraj as its goal.
Hasrat was again jailed in 1922 and this time Nishat attended the Congress Session at Gaya without him. She eloquently opposed the participation of Congress members in the Legislative Councils. She said those who wanted complete independence from British rule could not dream of entering the assemblies formed by them.
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According to Prof. Abida Samiuddin, Nishat’s politics did not depend on Hasrat alone. She was the first Muslim woman to address a Congress Session. Her work for the popularisation of Swadeshi, the All India Women Conference, correspondences with the nationalist leaders, articles in newspapers, public speeches, and other political activities are proof that she carried her identity in the Indian Freedom Struggle. She was active in workers’ movements till her death in 1937.