When Tabassum’s Mother Azghari Begum Became Shanti Devi By Opting For ‘Shuddhi’ From Swami Shraddhanand

Well-known television personality Tabassum Govil, known for pioneering talk-shows in India and who won many a hearts by her sweet demeanour and voice, passed away on Friday (18 November) at the age of 78.

She suffered a cardiac arrest and was hospitalised, but died “peacefully in sleep”, her son told the media.

Condolences trickled in soon after the sad news, with her peers and many fans across the country recalling her trademark sari, bindi and flower-in-the-hair look and how she defined an entire era of graceful TV presentation.

Born in 1944, her real name was Kiranbala Sachdev. She went on to be a popular child actor in the 50s, featuring in several prominent films such as Nargis (1947), Bari Behan (1949), Jogan (1950), Deedar (1951) and Heer Ranjha (1952).

After another stint in Bollywood films in 70s, she became a talk-show host with India’s first such show telecast on Doordarshan named ‘Phool Khile Hain Gulshan Gulshan, and became a household name. She remained a host on the show from 1972 to 1993.

In recent years, she was running her YouTube channel named ‘Tabassum Talkies’. The iconic talk-show host is survived by son Hoshang and husband Vijay Govil, who is elder brother of actor Arun Govil, known for playing Lord Ram in Ramanand Sagar’s serial Ramayan.

While much of Tabassum’s life has been in public space, there is a piece of history related to her family that remains unknown to many of her audience and admirers.

It’s the story of her Muslim mother Azghari Begum’s remarkable journey towards Hinduism and how it unfortunately became the trigger for the infamous murder of national freedom fighter and distinguished social reformer Swami Shraddhanand in the 1920s.

The story was narrated by Tabassum on video to a documentary-maker, Subhash Agarwal.

Tabassum’s mother Azghari Begum was born in a Muslim family. Her father was a maulvi (an Islamic cleric) named Taj Mohammed.

 A picture of Azghari Begum with her father Taj Mohammed (she is the first child on his right)

  A picture of Azghari Begum after she became Shanti Devi

When she was just 12 years of age, her father introduced her to Arabic and Persian languages, and Islamic holy book Quran. The girl however was not satisfied. She told her father that she wanted to also know about Hindu texts.

Tabassum narrated, “Just imagine, in that era, a girl telling her Muslim father she wanted to read Ramayan and Mahabharat, Ved and Puran, and Upanishads. It’s anybody’s guess what must have happened.”

She continued, “My nanaji got really angry. But fortunately for my mother, she learnt about Swami Shraddhanand and his Shuddhi mission [conversion to Vedic religion]. She ran away from her home. She was always very proud of the fact that she ran away from home not for a man or pursuit of wealth, but to enhance her knowledge.”

Azghari Begum was married at that time with a man from her Muslim community.

She came in touch with Swami Shraddhanand, who welcomed her into the Hindu faith. He gave her a new name – Shanti Devi.

Swami Shraddhanand, a disciple of the great Vedic scholar Swami Dayanand Saraswati, had taken to large-scale Shuddhis in 1920s. The Shuddhi movement was started by Swami Dayanand with the establishment of Arya Samaj in 1875.

From its very inception, the Arya Samaj was a vocal critic of birth-based caste hierarchy and conversion of Hindus by foreign faiths.

Swami Dayanand advocated that birth-based casteism is against the original message of Vedas and a later aberration.

In its initial days, the Arya Samaj worked towards raising the status of the untouchables and other lower castes through Hom (yagna), Yagnopavitha (investiture with the sacred thread) and recitation of Gayatri Mantra, which were, in most cases, denied to them by birth.

It took no more than two years for the organisation to include Mohammedans and Christians in the Shuddhi mission.

In his 1915 book ‘The Arya Samaj’, Lala Lajpat Rai, who joined the movement in early 1880s, wrote that Shuddhi literally means purification, but when used by Arya Samajists, it includes reclamation and conversion.

Returning to the story of Azghari Begum, her Shuddhi caused a massive national level uproar, and it was not unexpected. Her family kept meeting Swami Shraddhanand, demanding their daughter be given back to them.

Swami Shraddhanand told them that they could not take Shanti Devi back forcefully, against her wishes, at least till the time he was alive. He said that Shanti Devi was her daughter and he would like her to stay wherever she was happy.

On her part, Shanti Devi refused to go back to her family or the faith of her birth.

Subsequently, her family filed a police case against Swami Shraddhanand and two of his Arya Samaj associates on the charges of kidnapping and forcefully converting Azghari Begum.

On 4 December 1926, the court acquitted the three of all charges.

                      A picture of Swami Shraddhanand

The controversy however did not end there. Authors like Khwaja Hasan Nizami and Abdul Bari instigated their community members against Swami Shraddhanand, using the incident to fuel passions.

At that time, Swami Shraddhanand was also involved in reconversion of Malkana Rajputs in western United Provinces to Vedic faith.

The Malkanas were Rajputs mainly living in Mathura, Agra, Etah and Mainpur. Despite conversion to Islam centuries ago, they had continued to observe Hindu customs.

It is estimated that Swami Shraddhanand managed to reconvert nearly 60,000 of them.

The reformist leader was eventually killed by a fanatic named Abdul Rashid on 23 December 1926.

He was bed-ridden at that time due to a bout of Pneumonia.

As per Agarwal’s documentary, it was as if Swami Shraddhanand had got an inkling of what was to unfold because two days before his murder, he had called up some lawyers and noted down his will.

Not much is known about Azghari Begun thereafter, except that she re-married with one Ayodhyanath Sachdev, described by the media as a freedom fighter and journalist.

The circumstances of Swami Shraddhanand’s murder define the communal politics of that era. Mahatma Gandhi, a secularist, was miffed with Swami Shraddhanand for his efforts of Shuddhi of Malkana Rajputs.

In the 1922 issue of his magazine Young India, Gandhi criticised him in an article titled ‘Hindu-Muslim-Tensions: Causes and Resistance’. Gandhi wrote:

“Swami Shraddhananda has also become a character of disbelief. I know that his speeches are often provocative. Just as most Muslims think that every non-Muslim will one day convert to Islam, Shraddhananda also believes that every Muslim can be initiated into the Aryan religion. Shraddhananda ji is fearless and brave. He alone has built a great Brahmacharya Ashram (Gurukul) in the holy Ganges. But they are in a hurry and it will move soon. He inherited it from the Aryan society.”

A day after Swami Shraddhanand’s murder, Gandhi was scheduled to address the All India Congress Committee Meeting in Guwahati. He mentioned the murder, but called it a “blessing” for Swami Shraddhanand. He also made repeated references to Rashid as a “dear brother”.

Interestingly, it was Bhim Rao Ambedkar, a proponent of total ‘annihilation of caste’, who openly supported Swami Shraddhanand. Ambedkar, in fact, went so far as to call Shraddhanand “the greatest and the most sincere champion of the untouchables”.

Ambedkar said so in his highly critical book, ‘What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables’, that criticised Congress for abandoning their Dalit upliftment programme.

Later, in his 1945 book Pakistan or the Partition of India, Ambedkar criticised Gandhi for silence over a spate of murders of Hindu leaders, beginning with Swami Shraddhanand.

In the same book, Ambedkar cited a report published by The Times of India to say that the Deoband seminary held special prayers for murderer Rashid.

Ambedkar wrote:

“It is reported that for earning merit for the soul of Abdul Rashid, the murderer of Swami Shradhanand, in the next world, the students and professors or the famous theological college at Deoband finished five complete recitations of the Koran and had planned to finish daily a lakh and a quarter recitations of Koranic verses. Their prayer was “God Almighty may give the marhoom (i.e., Rashid) a place in the ‘a’ ala-e-illeeyeen (the summit of the seventh heaven)”— Times of India. 30-11-27 Through Indian Eyes columns.”

Since then, the country has been partitioned on communal lines. A lot of bloodshed happened, and continues to happen.

With death of iconic Tabassum, an era has come to an end. Yet, the causes that led to murder of one of the most influential persons of her times, remain the same even after almost 100 years. We seem to be stuck in time.

Watch the documentary here.

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Swati Goel Sharma is a journalist with close to 10 years of experience with India’s leading publications such as The Times of India and Hindustan Times. She writes mainly on issues concerning the deprived and marginalised groups, women and children.

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