In the 1970s, she stitched phirans to pay for her school fees; in 2014 she was listed among the richest women in Srinagar. Five years earlier, she along with 90 other women from India was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. But unfazed by feats and ardour, Dialfrose Qazi remains an educationist and social reformer at heart, whose biggest achievement has been, as she puts it, “to get people to embrace as well as pursue education.”
Despite facing a three-pronged onslaught—from politicians, militants and society—she has built and nurtured an institution that is one of the largest private engineering colleges in the strife-torn Valley of Kashmir. As the Vice-Chairperson of SSM College of Engineering and Technology at Parihaspora in Pattan, near Srinagar, she has spent over three decades empowering the youth of Kashmir through education. Her multifarious contributions in the field of women’s welfare are no less exemplary.
An educationist, social worker and philanthropist, Dilafrose fought a running battle with a local politician, braved militant threats and tackled the regressive mindset of Kashmiri society to bring SSM College to the position where it is today. Spread over 125 kanals of land, with over 4,000 boys and girls on rolls, the college offers UG, PG and diploma-level courses in science, computers, engineering and management. Plans are afoot to upgrade the college into a university. An off-campus study centre of the college was opened at Palwal in Haryana a few years ago, though it could never really take off due to pandemic-related disruptions.
The origins of SSM College are as humble as that of Dilafrose Qazi. She was born in 1962 in a village in Baramulla in a poorly literate family where no one had ever been to school. Dilafrose’s father made leather garments, and her mother wove pashmina shawls and they found it tough to pay her school fee, which was a mere eight anna. The Valley was just seeing the phiran trend those days and she started stitching these traditional Kashmiri gowns to fend for her studies. She was paid Rs 7 for one phiran and used to stitch four to six pieces every night, making about Rs 50 “which mattered a lot then,” she remembers nostalgically.
Dilafrose studied at a local Government school, and then finished her Master’s degree in Education and a Law degree from Kashmir University. Post-studies, she started a small venture – imparting classes to girls and housewives in cutting, stitching, cooking, and shorthand – from a rented place at Raj Bagh colony in Srinagar in 1988. This, incidentally, was also the year that saw the rise of militancy and everything – violence, state security agencies and militants – worked against women and girls attending schools and colleges. At times, she had to shell out a ransom to keep her classes running and her husband was also kidnapped for a while. But she refused to give up and worked relentlessly to ensure that her institute grows. More courses were added, the number of students kept growing and soon the existing space became inadequate.
In 1994, Dilafrose procured a piece of land in Baramulla to house her institution. But the new premises brought with it fresh troubles. A local religious cleric, who also happened to be a powerful politician and a minister, picked up a feud with Dialforse as her college had put paid to his plans of opening a tourist resort on that land. Reports also suggest that he was opposed to people in that Shia-dominated area getting educated for fear of losing his vote bank. There were repeated instances of violence and rampage at the college campus, but Dilafrose pursued her vision with determination and resilience. Besides ensuring that SSM expanded and became an institution of repute, she opened free primary schools nearby and also in some villages close to the border.
Alongside, she has been working vigorously on women’s empowerment and has opened self-help centres in various villages. In Sopore, the women trained at her centre have opened boutiques that are working successfully. Besides, she has been helping the women victims of militancy get trained in dairy farming by giving them a cow each. She has also been imparting training to women in nursery development. Importantly enough, all her social initiatives are self-funded; she has not established any NGO and never sought any funding.
Besides getting the Nobel nomination in 2005, Dilafrose has been honoured with various awards, both at home and abroad. But refusing to rest on her laurels, she carries on with her nation-building pursuits ceaselessly.