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A Legacy of Love

Syed Zain Al-Mahmood

Begum Serajunnesa Chowdhury June 26,1910 – June 24, 1974

The year was 1947 and British India was burning. A stroke of Viceroy Lord Mountbatten's pen had split the country along religious lines and the flames of communal violence quickly engulfed the subcontinent. Sylhet was not immune. Rioting broke out as Muslims and Hindus fell on each other. One day people were themselves, living peacefully side by side -- the next day they degenerated into communal symbols.

Reboti Mohan Dey, a local banker, was travelling in a rickshaw near Amberkhana when he was stabbed and left bleeding on the road. The attack happened in front of a house with a sturdy iron gate, and a little plaque that said: Rasheed Manzil. As Reboti Dey lay there, too weak to call for help, the gates opened and people rushed out to carry him inside. The house belonged to a prominent Muslim lady, Begum Serajunnesa Chowdhury, better known in Sylhet as Begum Rasheed.

In those days of rabid communal hatred, it was dangerous to shelter someone belonging to “the other community”. But Serajunnesa had never flinched from doing what she thought was right. When it came to helping her fellow human beings, she stood second to none. Within days, she had several Hindus sheltering under her roof -- among them, Romola Devi, a young teacher of the local Girls' School.

It was not only Hindus who found a safe haven at Rashid Manzil. Muslim families fleeing the communal violence in Calcutta and Bihar arrived in Sylhet, destitute and in a state of shock. She sheltered several Muslim families who later became life-long friends.

Begum Serajunnesa, humanitarian extraordinaire, was born in June, 1910 at the village of Ita-Bali Dighir Par under Rajnagar upazila of Moulvibazar district. To her family, she was known simply as Sarah. Her father Zaminder Dewan Abdul Karim Chowdhury arranged for Sarah to be home-schooled in Bangla, Arabic, Urdu, Persian and English by the best tutors available. These teachers, mostly staunch anti-colonialist, instilled in her a fierce independence that she carried throughout her life. It was a quality that compelled her to stand up for the truth when others were afraid to speak.

When she was just 16, Serajunnesa was married to Abdur Rasheed Chowdhury of village Durgapasha in Sunamgonj district. Abdur Rasheed Chowdhury, who also hailed from a Zaminder family, was working as an Extra Assistant Commissioner in Sylhet at the time. He later resigned and started his own business -- and played an instrumental role in developing tea plantations which in time became the family's flagship enterprise. He joined politics and became a member of the legislative assembly in British India.

Abdur Rasheed Chowdhury died in 1944 when Serajunnesa was only 34 years old. The eldest of her seven children, Humayun Rasheed Chowdhury, was only 17 at the time, and the youngest, Jahanzeb Rasheed was only seven months old.

Serajunnesa faced the crisis with unwavering courage. In the absence of her husband, she shouldered the burden of running the family enterprises. Proving to be a deft chief executive, she consolidated the businesses, and expanded them. If the late Rasheed Chowdhury had been a pioneer of tea plantation in the private sector, Serajunnesa became one in rubber and cold storage. For a lady who hailed from a traditional family in the first half of the 20th century, it was a heroic feat.

Through it all, she was the glue that held the family together. Alongside the seven children she had with her husband, she looked after the three children Abdur Rasheed Chowdhury had from his previous marriages. She made sure they were well educated and settled in life. “She considered us her amanat, her sacred trust,” says Zeba Rasheed Chowdhury, her daughter.

But Serajunnesa always had time and energy to serve society. She was concerned that Muslims were lagging behind in education, especially Muslim women. Although she had been home-schooled, she became an outspoken advocate for girls' education.

At the time there were only a handful of Muslim girls studying in the local Girls' School. She established Kazi Jalaluddin Madrassah and went from door to door motivating parents to send their girl children to school. She donated most of her property to Abdur Rashid High School in Sunamgonj.

After partition of India, the Sylhet Women's College ran into problems, and the Pakistan government decided to stop its grant. Serajunnesa campaigned against the decision. For a while operational expenses were met by donations collected by the indefatigable Begum Rasheed and her lady friends. She was totally committed to the cause, and didn't hesitate to go to the Mahajan Patti -- the downtown trading post of Sylhet -- to collect donations from local businessmen. She kept this up until the government finally decided to take over the college.

Begum Serajunnesa Chowdhury with her family at Rashid Manzil.

Her desire to serve the nation forced her into politics. She believed in and supported the partition of India. She had witnessed the deprivation of Muslims and the bloody riots and was convinced that Muslims needed self-determination. Serajunnesa became a member of the Pakistan National Assembly. She was quite vocal in the assembly and would touch on many delicate issues with her trademark courage and forthrightness.

When the War of Liberation broke out in 1971, Sirajunnesa played a brave role. She arranged shelters for freedom fighters during the war. Just as she had done in 1947, she hid a lot of people at her Sirajnagar tea garden. At her request, her son Humayun Rashid Chowdhury left the Pakistan Foreign Service and became the first ambassador of Bangladesh to India. He went on to become the Speaker of the National Parliament.

To her, the empowerment of women depended on two things: education and economic freedom. She detested women being dependent on men. She formed the Rashid Foundation and extended assistance to many people in getting an education and vocational skills.

Serajunnesa was a wife, mother, entrepreneur, and politician and excelled in every role. National professor Dewan Mohammad Azraf called her “Sylhet's last flame”. But the widow with the radiant smile was a reluctant celebrity.

“She would be seen in every social event worth its name, clad in her trademark white saree and covering her head modestly,” recalls Syeda Fahmia Nazneen, a grand daughter by relation. “She always had time for family, friends and neighbours. But she never courted publicity.”

“She would help many families with money,” says Zeba Rasheed. “But even we didn't know whom she was helping. She was a staunch Muslim who followed the Prophet's saying: the left hand should not know whom the right hand helps.”

Begum Rasheed touched many people's lives in Sylhet until she passed away on June 24, 1974. During her last days, she remained vitally interested in community issues and listened and cared about the details of people's lives.

Begum Rasheed will be remembered not because she was an MP or businesswoman. Her name will be remembered long after MPs and businesspeople have faded into obscurity. Mother to many, role model to most -- the people she touched remember her for her compassionate nature. Begum Serajunnesa Chowdhury loved and cared about her fellow human beings. That will be her enduring legacy.

Tomorrow, June 26, will be her 100th birth anniversary.

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