Tribute: Shahjahan apa is a prominent face of the 1970s movement

28 November 2013 | by Shruti Kohli | NEW DELHI

This is a tribute to Shahjahan apa, a woman who fought against lax laws and an apathetic system that watched from afar even as daughters were being burnt for dowry. Apa passed away on 28 September 2013 in an accident while on her way to the mahila panchayat.


She had nothing but a strong will and immense anger when she started off. And what led her on to this path? Her young daughter was burnt alive by her in-laws when Shahjahan apa, living in a shanty in Nangloi Block A, a slum on the outskirts of Delhi, failed to fulfill their demands.


Sometime in 1977, just a year and a half after her marriage, Apa’s daughter was burnt alive by her husband’s family. Belonging to the lowest economic strata of society, the easiest reaction for Shahjahan apa would have been to feel helpless at the hands of fate, law and the system and to let go. But that was not to be. Apa decided to take the bull by the horns instead. Shahnaz, her younger daughter, tells The Petticoat Journal, “My mother filed a case against my sister’s in-laws. But she had no money and father was always jobless and useless. In such a scenario, my sister’s in-laws were acquitted after two years.”


Shahjahan apa receiving award from Delhi CM Sheila Dikshit

Shahjahan apa receiving an award from Delhi CM Sheila Dikshit


They would ask her sister to get money from her mother and her mother being extremely poor, couldn’t fulfill even the most basic demands, she says. Sometime before being burnt, her sister was brutally beaten up by her husband’s elder brother and mother. She had come back home but went back to her husband’s house after a while. “My mother was in such a poor economic situation that the expenses of both my sister’s and my marriage were borne by well-wishers. Someone sponsored the food, someone, clothes, some others venue and so on,” says Shahnaz.


While fighting for justice for her daughter, Shahjahn apa laid the foundations of Shaktishalini along with Satya Rani Chaddha, Bhagwati, Usha, and Sudha Tiwari. Thereafter, Shahjahan apa became a face of the famous 1970s feminism. It was because of her, and many women like her, who were a part of the struggle, that we got section 498A IPC as it is today. A few years later, Shaktishalini was dissolved but Shahjahan apa continued her work with Saheli and Jagori. The only official recognition of her work was an award in 2011 by the Delhi Women’s Commission.

With her death, this world has lost much as not many women have the courage and intention to devote their whole lives to others even in the face of a personal tragedy. Reena Banerjee, who worked with her since 1987, says, “She would often say that other women should not go through what my daughter suffered. She was sad that she could not get justice for her daughter and strongly felt that she could save many others from such injustice.”


Rafia, Shahjahan apa’s eldest daughter-in-law, says, “Apa felt not enough was being done for the education of girls and women in her locality and the area around. So, in 1987, Apa initiated Nav Shrishti, an NGO which has since aggressively worked towards achieving its core objective.” Rafia lived in the same locality and grew up on stories about Shahjahan apa’s struggle. As a child, she would often hear “about this strong woman who has the guts to take on the monster of a system.” She says she was very small when Apa’s daughter was burnt for dowry. Later, she joined the special tuitions arranged by Apa for girls. “Girls in our community (Muslim) are not allowed to study. So Apa had hired a teacher to educate girls in a non-formal education set up,” says Rafia. When her mother passed away, Rafia had to leave school. Later, Apa chose her for her eldest son.


Bannerjee, who joined Shakti Shalini as a 19-year-old in 1987, says, “Shahjahan apa was driven by a single-minded determination to educate and empower girls and women.” She would often say that women face atrocities just because they are not educated and don’t know their rights. She worked towards her goal till the very end, says Banerjee.


  • Agnishwar

    CORRECTION : Mrs. Reena Banerjee joined Nav srishti when
    she was 19 years needs to be corrected – Mrs. Reena Banerjee joined “Shakti Shalini” instead of “Nav Srishti” in 1987. Mrs. Reena Banerjee is the founder member of “Nav Srishti” along with Shahjehan Appa ! They laid the foundation of Nav Srishti in 1994 ! Shahjehan Aapa was the President of Nav Srishti !

  • Samidha Sharma

    Immense respect for Shahjahan apa! She dedicated her life for others. She can be easily compared to Mother Teresa. And in fact Shahjahan apa didn’t even have funds flowing in even from local sources, forget national and international, like Mother Teresa had.

  • Ashok Rajwardhan

    I bow! It takes guts and lot of will to pursue a crusade against an evil which is deeply embedded in our psyche and system for centuries.

  • Ina Gulati

    Super work done by Apa in the community… hope her work continues to impact the lives of all those she cared for in her physical absence and provide solace to her soul. forever…

  • Sageeta Seth

    I showed this column to my family too. Everybody has great deal of regard for Shahjahan apa and the work she did. My 14-year-old daughter had tears in her eyes! She says she’s a fan of apa :)

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