Photographs: Dr Ruveda Salam Prasanna D Zore
'It's all about conviction and a burning desire inside you,' says Dr Ruveda Salam, the Kashmir valley's first Muslim woman to crack the UPSC exam.
This has been a good year for women from Jammu and Kashmir. While Sehrish Asgar from Kishhtwar district in Jammu ranked 23rd in the Union Public Services Commission examination, Dr Ruveda Salam became the first Muslim woman from the Kashmir valley to pass the UPSC exam.
Dr Salam, who hails from the border district of Kupwara, currently works as a manager at the Department of Industries and Commerce in Jammu & Kashmir. She asserts she will appear again for the UPSC exam and improve her rank (she is ranked 820 in this exam).
Even when she was studying for a medical degree at the Government Medical College, Srinagar, she was determined that she would join the civil services. Thanks to her parents -- her father is a former deputy director general of Doordarshan -- she could fend off pressure from orthodox relatives to get married.
"I am not going to blame my religion for this, but yes, Muslim girls are supposed to marry early," she tells Rediff.com's Prasanna D Zore in a telephone conversation.
She thanks her mother for being a buffer and fending off suggestions of early marriage. "They (her parents) knew I had it in me to do it. So they always supported my convictions," she adds.
This was not the only hurdle she faced in her desire to be a "nation builder." Absence of adequate and timely study material, frequent political disturbances in the valley leading to strikes were other challenges the 27-year-old Dr Salam confronted.
How does it feel when people refer to you as the first Muslim woman from the Kashmir valley to crack the UPSC exam?
I feel very proud of reaching such a level. My parents too are proud about it. There is this sense of turmoil in the valley and the situation does not allow you to pursue such dreams.
So being the first woman to get a rank in the UPSC from the Kashmir valley does give me a sense of pride.
I had not expected it. When I went about the preparation I never thought that this is going to happen. I was preparing to get into the all-India services... this is just the icing on the cake.
How did you prepare for your exams?
I have not done any coaching. I had already qualified for the state civil services exam without coaching. Then I was on a job; I was on probation for some time. It was not possible for me to move to Delhi or any other metropolitan city to undertake coaching.
I prepared for one whole year before my preliminary exam, I got the right material; I did order certain books from Delhi. Then, the Internet also helped me.
Like Facebook has many pages, many newspapers have their pages on Facebook and they regularly update you and those updates come in your news feed. I was able to get the information I needed (for the UPSC exam preparation) on Facebook.
Besides that, I also took guidance of some senior IAS officers in the state. I carried my study books to office and whenever time permitted I'd take them out and study.
'If I had an opinion about a political situation I would not comment'
Photographs: Danish Ismail/Reuters
The challenges while preparing for the UPSC exam...
In J & K, especially in the Kashmir valley, you have things going around which really don't allow you to focus on your studies.
But it depends on one's conviction. I was able to get those things out of my mind and focus on my strategy.
What kind of things would bother you?
Off and on, we have strikes in the valley. It is important for us to deliver even during strikes. We risk our lives in the midst of stone pelting. It is very difficult to get newspapers, study material whenever you need it.
Another thing I feel is that because of the disturbances, because of the political nature of the entire dispute you tend to get involved in the political situation.
People ask you (uncomfortable questions) and being a part of the state civil services it was particularly difficult to deal with this. We face many challenges while we work.
We have to reach our office even when there are strikes, no matter what. It does take a lot of time to reach office if you don't have your own vehicle. Somehow I managed.
I would take some time out (to relax) from all those things that do depress you, which actually make you lose your focus. Putting them aside was very important.
I tried to restrict myself from indulging in gossip. That is a very general thing in the Kashmir valley. Most of the talk revolves around the political situation. That is one challenge.
Another challenge is that of being a woman.
While I am not going to blame my religion for this but yes, Muslim girls are supposed to marry at an early age.
In my case. my father being a central government employee and my mother also being educated, they were able to support me.
My mother acted as a buffer against all those demands and perceptions of our relatives who wanted me to get married at an early age.
How did your maintain your focus?
I tried to restrict my social relations. Like, no gossip; even on Facebook if I had an opinion about a political situation I would not comment.
When you have conviction, you are able to focus and things go your way. It's all about the conviction and the burning desire inside you.
I was able to overcome subjects that would distract me from my studies. My parents had faith in my abilities. They knew I had it in me to do it. They always supported my convictions.
'Give women confidence, teach them self-defence,sensitise the police, regulate obscenity in films'
Photographs: Adnan Abidi/Reuters
How did you convince your parents that you wanted to be a civil servant?
I had already done my MBBS and joined the state civil services. They said if you want to fly higher we are not going to act as a barrier.
I had already made up my mind while doing my MBBS that I would shift over to the civil services. Had I pursued MD or MS it would have been very difficult to switch over to the civil services.
There was another problem. After the Plus 2 level there were not many opportunities (in the state). There was this craze going around that you have to be either a doctor or an engineer.
In the Kashmir valley being a doctor or an engineer was considered to be a blessing in 2003-2004.
Parents forced their children to take up medicine or engineering.
My parents didn't force me. I asked them for their advice and they asked me to follow my conviction. They asked me to first complete my MBBS and then go for it, so that in the event of not qualifying for the civil services I'd at least have a good profession to fall back on.
It was in 2009. I had already completed my graduation and the notification was out by the J & K Public Service Commission. In 2009 I had passed my final year of MBBS and I was doing my internships as a doctor at the Government Medical College, Srinagar.
Some 398 posts were advertised. I applied and after one-and-a-half years I qualified with 25th rank in the state. It was quite logical then for me to leave medicine and join the state civil services.
I worked with the state government for two years: One year on probation and one year as a full-fledged employee. I have also functioned as an under secretary in the home department for four months. After I completed my training that was the first posting I got.
How did your stint as a state civil servant help you prepare for the UPSC exam?
Once I got into the state civil services I felt that there was something better and bigger out there.
The canvas is bigger, the promotion opportunities are higher and while I was at the home department I was really motivated by my principal secretary, Mr B R Sharma, a very senior IAS officer.
Very few months were left for my main examination and I told him I had qualified in the preliminary exam and needed some time to prepare for the mains.
He sanctioned my 20-day leave and that helped a great deal.
As part of the state machinery I could get an overview of the total administration. I got a glimpse how the overall state administration is directed and controlled from one place.
Tell us something about the personal interview. What questions were asked?
Most of the questions were related to my state, global warming and the Pragaash controversy. The music band was disbanded after a controversy. They also asked me about the Delhi gang-rape and how we can provide safety to women and work for their empowerment.
A lady member asked me about the Pragaash controversy. I had to narrate the chain of events, what led to the controversy. Then she asked my opinion about women practising music, should they hold a guitar.
I said they should; there was nothing wrong with women being part of a band. They (the girls who formed Pragaash) were well dressed, within the garb of religious teachings.
Sufism is part of the culture of Jammu and Kashmir and they didn't have to let it go.
I said we have to take the middle road; we can allow girls to pursue their dreams, but there should not be a show of vulgarity or obscenity.
About women's safety I said we live in a patriarchal society in India and we have to work at two levels: Give women confidence and teach them self-defence skills in schools, improve lighting on the roads, sensitise the police and regulate obscenity in the movies.
I quoted research done by a very popular NGO in Delhi that said pornography does have an impact on the minds of young men.
On women empowerment I told them that education is the basic tool which will empower women, make them financially independent, help them make the right choices.
'It all started with Dr Shah Faesal'
Photographs: Hitesh Harisinghani/Rediff.com
Your success mantras...
Believe in your capabilities. That gives you the conviction and the perseverance required to achieve your aims.
Discipline is very important because you have to overcome many distractions.
Sticking to your plan and working towards your goal is very important if you want to achieve something in life.
Consistency is yet another attribute that helps.
I remember not having taken out a book and not read it. I would take out a book each day and definitely read two or three pages of course material every day so that I did not lose the enthusiasm for studying.
What is the reason behind more candidates cracking the UPSC from Jammu and Kashmir?
It all began with Dr Shah Faesal and you are likely to see it becoming more prominent in the coming years.
After I cracked my state civil services exam I started teaching at a coaching institute for some time. I could see the enthusiasm in the youth. Even students who had not completed their graduation came for UPSC coaching.
It all started with Dr Shah Faesal because he was the first person from J&K to top the civil service exam. He has been the prime motivation, coming as he does from a very humble background.
There are a lot of senior IAS officers serving the state who have motivated the youth with their counselling sessions, guiding aspirants on Facebook, e-mail, through mobile phones and that is how the trend started.
Yesterday (on May 7, four days after Dr Salam got her UPSC rank) a couple of small children came visiting -- must be Class V or VII -- from the neighbourhood and they were so enthusiastic.
They came over to congratulate me and they said 'Didi, we also want to become IAS, KAS (Kashmir Administrative Service) and IPS'.
Right from their childhood children are getting into it. They feel they are going to make a big difference.
Once they become civil servants they can make a big difference to the valley and the state.
'Serve the country in whatever capacity you can'
Photographs: Dr Ruveda Salam
Your message for India's youth...
I would advise them to serve the country in whatever capacity you can.
If you are a professional or into the civil services or a farmer or doctor or lawyer or journalist... you should make efforts to contribute something the nation's development at your own level and in whatever way you can.
Only through small contributions can a big change be experienced at the national level.
How do you look forward to your future?
Life is a struggle and this was one hurdle that I crossed.
Now that I have qualified in the UPSC exam, the struggle is going to continue.
I will work with integrity and more so being a woman I would be able to relate with other women, understand their problems.
Empathy is very important to understand women's problems and make a change in their lives.
Whatever challenges I will face in the future as part of nation building I will face them with honesty and dedication.
So you are prepared for whatever comes your way?
I had already made up my mind no matter what rank I get in the UPSC exam I would join the services.
It hardly matters if you get IAS or any other allied service because I want to be the part of the system and contribute to nation building in whatever position I get.
I want to serve the nation and it would be a failure on my part having worked so hard for two years and not joining the services.
Cracking the UPSC has boosted my confidence. I would definitely appear again for the UPSC exam and try to improve my rank.