On the day that the Delhi police raided the Nizamuddin Markaz mosque to evacuate over 1,500 members of the Tablighi Jamaat religious congregation for defying India’s nationwide lockdown, Yasmin Kidwai happened to be close by, getting the neighbourhood of Nizammudin West sanitised with her team of municipal workers.
As an elected councillor of the municipal corporation of Delhi (MCD), the area falls under her constituency, and with coronavirus in town, it was an essential service that the mother of two could not avoid even if it came at a risk.
Yasmin was aware that hundreds of Indians and foreigners were stuck inside the mosque’s residential quarters. “I don’t know them nor identify with their beliefs, but I do know that they are religious travellers. The Indian government had no business letting them into India in the first place with the threat of a pandemic. And if you knew they were inside, why the delay in evacuating them? And after evacuating them, why allow them to travel all over India?” asks the Hindu College alumnus, shaking her head with disbelief. “It was completely mismanaged.”
Yasmin is only a reluctant politician. Born and raised in the capital, she has had a long, fruitful career as an independent documentary filmmaker, capturing the most fascinating aspects of India, its colours and diversity.
With a Bachelor’s in sociology and two post-graduate diplomas in filmmaking and journalism, she has made close to 50 documentaries in two decades, with a focus on rural and social development issues. The films span varied, nuanced topics: from the Bhuj earthquake, the rights of the aged, to women’s role in Panchayati governance. She has also made over 50 informational videos for MGNREGA, which are still screened in villages across India.
Her 2015 film about the rural solar electrification project run by the Barefoot College in Tilonia, Rajasthan, No Problem! Six Months with the Barefoot Grandmamas, was nominated for over 20 awards and citations worldwide, and was voted Best Film at various film festivals. The uplifting documentary followed a group of illiterate rural women from Africa as they trained as solar engineers in India.
Her 2017 film Filmistaan, commissioned by the Ministry of External Affairs, is a fascinating look at the worldwide popularity, inclusivity and the secular nature of Bollywood, and features interviews with the likes of the Bachchan family, Shah Rukh Khan, Shyam Benegal, Priyanka Chopra, Saif Ali Khan, the late Irrfan Khan, and more.
Politics was a subject Yasmin avoided for many years. Making films, being married to an Army officer, raising two sons, now 14 and 11, and even running a fashion label by the side, she was gainfully occupied. But eventually, her ancestry caught up with her.
Her political legacy goes back a long way. Yasmin’s maternal grandfather WM Babar had fought under Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan in the Red Shirt movement of the 1920s before joining Indian National Congress post-Independence. Her maternal grandmother Tajdar Babar is a three-time elected member of Delhi’s Legislative Assembly. Her maternal uncle Farhad Suri, a former Delhi mayor, is a three-time elected leader in the MCD.
Yasmin’s father too belongs to a long line of freedom fighters and government servants. A descendent of Shafiq Ur Rahman Kidwai, who was one of the founders of Jamia University, Imran Kidwai was general secretary of the Youth Congress and later chairman of the minority cell of the Congress.
His sister Mohsina Kidwai is a former member of the Rajya Sabha and former Union minister. Yasmin’s uncle AR Kidwai has been the governor of three states, a member of the Rajya Sabha and chairman of the Union Public Service Commission.
Brought up discussing politics on the dinner table, however, only made Yasmin averse to the whole process. As a young woman, she would rather spend time in villages, filming women and children, encouraging change at the grassroots with her own enthusiastic idealism and unflagging optimism. With her kohled curious eyes, candid demeanour and generous laughter, she was always naturally gifted at attracting people and evoking trust.
No doubt these very qualities made her the perfect candidate for electoral politics. Eventually, after years of protests, avoidance and excuses, she found herself dragged into the ring to fight her first bout.
The Congress fielded Yasmin from its largest MCD constituency, Daryaganj, in the 2017 polls. Though the incumbent BJP won the election, Yasmin was among 30 Congress councillors to secure a seat in the 272-member corporation.
The complicated character of governance in Delhi leaves Yasmin frustrated on the best of days. “The drainage system comes under the MCD, which is my responsibility at present, but the sewage system comes under the Delhi Government, which is run by Aam Aadmi Party. And, in certain departments, it is the Central Government, right now the BJP, that takes the call,” says the 47-year-old, who is not paid any salary as an MCD councillor.
She is vocal in her criticism of the Centre’s handling of the COVID crisis. “India had an advantage compared with other nations – but we mismanaged it from day one. Honorable Prime Minister Modi should have closed borders at the earliest, but instead, he kept them open for Namaste Trump in February, and did not declare lockdown until his party had toppled the elected government in Madhya Pradesh in March. And then he gave ordinary people only four hours notice before the lockdown,” she says. “Wow.”
The humanitarian crisis created in the process also infuriates her. “Now that I’m inside the system, I know it doesn’t take much to arrange buses and trains to transport migrants to their home states, or to distribute surplus food grains among areas that need them. It is so simple for an official or leader to end someone’s struggle by just making a phone call. Even I was able to arrange buses for Uttar Pradesh migrants and feed out-of-work labourers and garbage collectors with contributions from civil society and good Samaritans,” she says, referring to actor Manoj Bajpai and scores of ordinary folks who chipped in for her cause.
“But our prime minister preferred petty politics over compassion and governance during the pandemic, and it’s the common man who suffered,” she adds with emotion, “I hate this. It angers me when people who have the power to help so many don’t use it or use it only if it’s to their own advantage. Indians gave full majority and power to a man who doesn’t care.”
The most obvious aspect of BJP’s divisive politics – its anti-Muslim rhetoric and religious polarisation – doesn’t move her too much. “I don’t take it personally,” says Yasmin, who is Muslim married to a Hindu.
“The Indian right-wing has always had its extreme narratives of hate. Their modus operandi is division and distraction. The BJP and their affiliates have targeted someone or the other all along – anti-Christian, anti-missionaries, anti-women, anti-Dalit. They just happen to be anti-Muslim right now, and anti-anyone with a scientific temper.”
But even if she takes an objective view of the RSS-BJP brand of politics, Yasmin cannot help reacting viscerally to news of lynchings and riots. “I react as a mother, as a human. Those who were called ‘fringe elements’ earlier – the likes of Yogi Adityanath and Pragya Thakur – are now mainstream. When we stay silent and let others be persecuted, we embolden these elements further. Using development as a plank is no excuse to kill people and get away with it,” she states.
It was finally this last sentiment that pushed Yasmin into entering politics. “It was an assertion of my identity as a woman, as a Muslim woman, as an educated working woman, as a mother, as an Army officer’s wife, as someone committed to India and its people,” she says, but reflects that there are moments she questions this construct.
“I find my identity continuously shifting. One label doesn’t describe me completely. I do know, however, that I am not a politician,” she laughs.
She enjoys her identity as social entrepreneur, though. Her new venture, the Namaste Orchha cultural festival, aims to promote sustainable development and livelihoods in the little Madhya Pradesh town that Yasmin often visits for a break.
Its 16th-century forts, palaces and temples, along with its natural beauty lying along the Betwa River, drew the creative spirit in her. Driven to encourage the local economy, she directed the festival’s first edition in March this year, inviting the likes of actor Swara Bhaskar and singer Shubha Mudgal.
There were films, cultural performances and a crafts bazaar. “Did you know Orchha is the only place in India where Ram is worshipped as a king and not a god? Orchha is a treasure, a rare town with a syncretic culture. It’s everything I love about India,” Yasmin says. “It is my greatest happiness that the festival was a success.”
The lockdown is a hectic time for Yasmin, as she is busy ensuring sanitation in her constituency using whatever tools she has at her disposal. “I am still surprised when people thank me for things they had found so difficult to get done, but which only require a small effort from me,” she says. “That’s the power of this seat.”
First published as the cover story of eShe’s August 2020 issue