For virtually an entire generation of Indians, the words Rajya Sabha deputy chairperson would be followed by Najma Heptulla. Now headed for Manipur as governor, Heptulla, 76, conducted the Rajya Sabha for a record-breaking 17 years before walking out of the Congress, a party she had been a part of for over 40 years. The BJP fielded her in 2007 as the candidate for the post of the vice-president, which she lost to current incumbent Hamid Ansari.
Heptulla’s appointment as Manipur governor comes after her resignation from the NDA Union cabinet last month on “age” grounds. The government is believed to have set an unwritten ‘75-year age bar’ for ministers and has kept veterans such as L K Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi out of the cabinet.
Heptullah’s two-year stint as minister for minority affairs was peppered with occasional controversial statements like when she questioned the logic of categorising Muslims as minorities or talked about the people of Hindustan being Hindus. Overall, Heptulla never let her ministerial charge come in the way of her unflinching loyalty to the BJP, with a resolute refusal to criticise controversial, often blatantly anti-Muslim statements of her party colleagues.
Dressed in colourful saris and sporting an Apple watch, mostly in a strap matching the colour of her sari, the tech-savvy Heptulla, who did her PhD in cardiac anatomy, belongs to a generation when women, when they entered politics, switched to whites. That she did not, she says, was because her husband Akbarali Heptulla forbade her to. A storehouse of knowledge about Indian handlooms, she never tires of talking about USTAAD, the minority ministry’s scheme for traditional artisans.
From the Rajya Sabha galleries it is common to see Heptulla playing Candy Crush Saga on her phone but it is also a House about which she has lots of anecdotes to share. She recalls when an MP who had thick glasses was talking about organ donation and she had told him from the chair that he would have to donate his glasses too along with his eyes. She often rues the lack of wit and humour in parliamentary debate these days.
As the 76-year-old former minister is headed to the Northeast, she would of course miss the sea that she had grown so fond of during her years in Mumbai, then called Bombay.