NEW DELHI: Shaista Ambar has this way of grabbing the headlines every now and again. This time when she met the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat at a function near her residence and invited him to visit a mosque that she runs. “If you want to reach out to the Muslims and convince them that you are not against them, why don’t you visit our mosque (that was close to the venue of the function he was attending),” she said when introduced to Bhagwat by the organisers. He laughed, Ambar told The Citizen, and said that he would certainly do so the next time he visited Lucknow.

Since then she has been back in the news with the local media asking her for comments, and the phone ringing ceaselessly with some persons critical of her meeting, “but mostly all appreciative of the fact that I had reached out.” The last time when the headlines were even bigger was in 2005 when Ambar set up the All India Muslim Womens Personal Law Board, with now 25 women in the executive, to take up issues related to the discrimination against women, and ensure them full rights. In her view the discrimination arises from wrong interpretation of the Sharia by the male Maulanas, and the Personal Law Board that she started exclusively for women was intended to correct this wrong. And ensure that the rights of Muslim women were safeguarded. At the time it was a bold and novel step, more so as it was seen as direct challenge to the male dominated All India Muslim Personal Law Board that has not established a reputation for its sensitivity towards the Muslim women.

Ambar, who is a free floater, gregarious, outspoken remains well within the religious parameters, earning her revenue and establishing her contacts through the same. Explaining how she came to meet Bhagwat, she launched into a long narrative starting with the purchase of land on the outskirts of Lucknow, near the Sanjay Gandhi hospital in 1992. Her husband was in the government service and came on to speak with this reporter on the phone confirming that he was the home secretary in the state government before retirement, and that at some point was in the Sahitya Akademy where he had written extensive volumes on the principles guiding Sanskrit poetry. To cut their long story short, Ambar decided to earn some revenue on the side by one, building a mosque for the patients to the hospital; and two, starting what she calls a dharamshala for the relatives and others on rent. She currently has seven rooms, and is also open to donations.

Soon other houses came up in the isolated area, with Ambar finding that she was the only Muslim living in what became a colony of RSS supporters. She said that she has established excellent relations with them since, with the neighbours and others visiting her dharamshala for Id and Holi Milan functions, and on Republic Day and Independence Day when her mosque flies the national flag. In return she is invited to functions at the local Saraswati Shishu Mandir, and to a Madho ashram next to her mosque which is where Bhagwat came for a function now.

She was invited for this meeting, and clearly practicality determines her responses as always. Ambar said that if she had turned down the invitation she would have been accused of not following what she preached, and so decided to attend the function. A sea of media cameras, separated Bhagwat from the audience but she was impressed with his speech where he urged the doctors from the hospital who were also present, not to discriminate between communities while dispensing treatment. “He said that the poor should become so that they started giving charity, and I was reminded of Islam sayings 1400 years ago where it was said that Muslims should give so much zakat that the recipients should become donors as well,” Ambar said. Towards the end when she was leaving the hosts insisted she meet Bhagwat for a cup of tea with him and other special invitees. With this long precursor to the meeting Ambar was seeking to establish that the meeting was spontaneous and not planned.

She was introduced to the RSS chief with “great warmth” and during the conversation she asked him to visit her mosque to dispel the notions of the RSS being against Muslims. “Why don’t you visit the mosque,” she told him, “so that people know you want to spread love and peace and are not against the minorities.”

Ambar,in response to specific questions merely insisted that “like we will not speak about our personal issues to our neighbours, others too might have an agenda that they will not share.” And that in her view there was no reason for the RSS chief to say that he would visit her mosque, if he did not intend to. She evaded questions about her own personal assessment of the meeting, or about the RSS per se as clearly this is not an area where she wanted to go.

Significantly senior Muslim journalists and academics in Lucknow did not seem to entertain any reservations about her as clearly she is a pleasant sort, who has taken positions against fundamentalist fatwas, and worked for equal rights for Muslim women. Of course there are contradictions indicative of ambitions outside philanthropy. She did float a political party briefly, managed to get her candidate win the Assembly seat from Malihabad, only to lose him to the BJP in the last Lok Sabha elections. He is now a MP. She has three children who are all independent. Her husband now does not keep well and she is a lone Muslim woman out in the field as it were, with one of her tasks being to manage not just those who stay in her dharamshala, but also the two or three Imams attached to her mosque. Women are encouraged to offer prayers she says even as she continues the fight for their rights through the personal law board that she continues to head.

The work of the Womens Muslim Board continues. She said that she just held a conference on March 7 at the Lucknow University where scores of women came to participate in a discussion on triple talaq. Ambar has been against these restrictive laws for decades now, insisting that new interpretations should ensure better rights for Muslim women. Ambar has not been able to take the Womens Muslim Law Board exactly where she wanted to initially, but she has stood steadfast nevertheless, keeping it afloat and fairly active. As she said, she works on donations, “after all I do not get any Saudi money.”