Her name, Rasheda Hussain, itself is loaded with meaning. Rasheda is derived from Rashid—one of the 99 names of Allah meaning “The Guide” or “one who takes to the right path”—and Hussain was the son of Ali and the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. “God is inside me… not something external—that I have to be afraid of. I am always trying to evolve as a better person. That is my religion. Religion is something that makes you strong,” she says.
Her brother, Shahabuddin Yaqoob Quraishi, was the first Muslim IAS officer from Old Delhi and went on to be India’s Chief Election Commissioner. Seven years later, this alumnus of Lady Sri Ram College became the first Muslim lady in the civil services from Delhi and went on to retire as the Director-General of the National Academy of Customs and Central Excise (NACEN).
Three years later, she married Siraj Hussain, a 1979-batch UP cadre IAS officer and currently Secretary, Ministry of Food Processing. After a formal introduction at the Academy’s library in Mussoorie, they spoke to their respective parents who agreed but for a slight hitch—Siraj was younger to her. “The Prophet himself was 25 years old and his first wife was 40. There is no harm if you repeat what the Prophet himself did,” he said and she agreed. His wit won him the bride. Today, the couple has two children—their son is pursuing a PhD in computer science in the US and their daughter is an HR professional who is married and lives in Singapore.
She has had the best of both worlds. She studied in an Urdu-medium school and topped in Class XI, which in those days enjoyed almost the same status as Class XII at present. Those days, most girls even from educated families used to study in government-run Urdu-medium schools and very few girls could go to English-medium schools. Later, she went on to do her MBA from the University of Hull, UK, which makes her a perfect blend of tradition and modernity.
Soft-spoken, modest, humble and philosophical she is anything but a stereotypical bureaucrat. She always asked her subordinates to sit before talking to them. “I wanted my juniors to respect me but not be scared of me,” she says.
“Speaking softly does not mean being weak. If you get angry and start shouting, would the other person hear you better? No, on the contrary, when you speak softly the other person listens closely. It is like rainfall—when it rains hard, the rain water strikes the ground and gets deflected. Whereas, when the rain falls gently, the drops sink into the ground. I have been trying to practise this. So what if people find me humble or sisterly?” she adds with a smile.
Her passion in life was to pass on the goodwill that she received from her seniors to her juniors. Many years ago, when she was expecting, her Commissioner, Lajja Ram, in Meerut called her to his office, gave her a divisional responsibility (Asst Commissioner) and told her that she could come and go anytime to look after the child as long as the dak (post) in office was promptly attended to! She remembered this considerate gesture, and offered the same flexible conditions to a junior officer, Abhilasha, who wanted to extend her maternity leave to feed her newborn. The officer changed her mind and rejoined duty the next day.
The designation on the nameplate outside her office as Director-General simply read: Public Servant. The message that she wanted to convey to the current lot of young officers, who are more concerned about power and perks, is that all officers across the board are public servants, with specific duties, roles and responsibilities.
In school, when everyone kept saying that they wanted to be a good teacher, doctor, nurse or engineer, she would say, “I would want to be a good human being….”
“Today as I look back, I discover that I did not become a doctor or engineer but I did become a good human being and it is a different matter that I was also a bureaucrat. To remain a good human being I have to make fresh efforts every day. I read good books and learn new things from everyone,” she says.
She belonged to an illustrious but unconventional Muslim family in Old Delhi. After Partition they were one of the two or three Ashraf—meaning “educated” families left in Old Delhi—where the bulk of the people were Karkhanedars, or the ones who run small factories or working class. Both her father and brother went to St. Stephens, which was a co-educational college even at that time. The family owned the only radio and the only telephone in the area. Her father was a versatile personality, well-versed in English, Urdu, Persian, Arabic and German. He used to teach English and German and translate from Persian to English and English to Persian, as well as present programmes for the External Services division of All India Radio and take part in religious discourses. Apart from that, he was also the founder of the Delhi Football Association and President of the Swimming Club of Delhi. As per tradition, every year for the Nizamuddin Baoli swimming festival people used to play the naphiri (a musical instrument) while marching in a procession to invite him as the President. “I was inspired by my father–who had so many qualities–which all my brothers and sisters put together don’t have,” she says.
Even in those days, women were allowed to discuss politics or listen to news over the radio in English followed by free and frank discussions in their home. Girls were encouraged to study and provided equal opportunities. “We had total freedom—but we also knew that freedom is not to be misused. Our father would tell us do whatever you wish to do but do it modestly, as without modesty you are neither here nor there,” she says.
It was at the instance of her brother that she decided to join the civil services but not before finishing her B.Ed. from the Delhi University Central Institute of Education. Thanks to her training as a teacher, had she not joined the civil services, she might have been teaching in a university. “There is a teacher in me,” she says with pride in her eyes.
This explains how after 33 years of service, Rasheda Hussain was keen to hand over the prestigious post of Additional Secretary, Cofeposa, and step in as the DG of the National Academy of Customs and Central Excise (NACEN).
In her two-year stint as DG, she was instrumental in starting the mid-career training programme under which young officers are sent to prestigious business schools and institutions abroad and come back with greater exposure and confidence. Another initiative which seems to be fructifying is a new 300-acre Customs Academy at Hindupur in Karnataka. The present 22-acre academy at Faridabad is grossly over-stretched. Initially set up for about 20 probationers, it is now catering to batches of 200-250 probationers. Apart from this, she tried to develop soft skills and esprit de corps or affinity for service among the probationers.
Over the years, the values, ethos, customs and traditions among the IRS probationers have undergone a sea change. Young officers come in with a lot of expectations about what they want but not what the organisation should get from them. In the early 1970s, when there was no academy, probationers used a makeshift guest house in Delhi’s Hauz Khas colony where 20 chairs were put in the living for study. There were no complaints, whereas now young officers want the best of faculty, comforts and easily feel disgruntled. Soft skills like gratitude is lacking in them.
Things have changed since Hussain joined the Indian Revenue Service. Some 20 years back, the Income Tax officers argued that since they were also generating revenue for the government, they should also be called IRS. It became the IRS (IT) & IRS (Customs and Central Excise). Both are considered sister services. The income tax officers are concerned with direct taxes while the customs and central excise officers collect indirect taxes. Then, in 1994, service tax was also added to the customs and central excise portfolio. Currently, the challenge before the service is to manage GST in collaboration with State Sales Tax Departments.
“When I joined service and occupied a seat I forgot that I was a female and the person sitting before me was a male. The way I treated them, they would get the message and treat me as a colleague, not a woman,” she says.
Other landmarks in her professional life included a deputation as PS to the Union Health Minister and Joint Development Commissioner, Textile, as well as the Commissioner, Central Excise, in Faridabad and Mumbai before moving to the Centre again as Joint Secretary to the GOI, Department of Revenue, handling Cofeposa cases as the detaining authority. It was a very sensitive assignment: A person could be sent to jail without trial on the basis of a detention order issued by her. In addition to this, she held charge as Joint Secretary, Revision Application, and passed final orders in certain types of cases of customs and excise on behalf of the Government of India. These cases do not go to the tribunal.
“I didn’t have unrealistic expectations from the Service. My husband was transferred quite frequently and I was always seeking a posting after him and most of the time my Board was sympathetic and I got a transfer within a few months. I got my dues, my promotions on time and earned the respect of my department,” she says. This, in fact, gave her the luxury of self-confidence where nothing could tempt her or make her go astray.
One of the priorities that she set for herself was that family was her primary responsibility. “Working ladies—Muslims or otherwise—should behave like an officer in office and forget that they are an officer at home and behave only like a mother, sister, wife or daughter-in-law. I gave my 100 per cent from 9.30 am to 6 pm. Once I reached home I would forget the office files. An eight-hour job is not 100 per cent part of a woman’s life. You have to learn to switch on and switch off.”
Luckily, she has an understanding and friendly mother-in-law who was used to her own husband’s transferable job in the UP irrigation department and provided full support to Hussain for her work. Both share a healthy understanding and make it a point to celebrate the two Eids together. “I invested in relationships and earned the respect of my service colleagues and my family,” she says proudly.
As told to Neeraj Mahajan