The old dream of having Siani Maa, Siani Dhee

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn June 11, 2017

It is accepted logic that ‘we reap what we sow’. The intolerant views and laws that we face today are the direct result of an educational curricula that has been forced on us by a handful of religious extremists. You can call it the curricula of ‘cloud cuckoo land’. It would be interesting to study how in Lahore the educational system has evolved. Within this we can see how women’s education that once promised to produce a society that was 100% literate, degenerated into a colonial swamp that today sees us - a ‘free’ people – producing mostly semi-literate extremists. Officially this is not the case. We are supposed to be 25.9% per cent literate with 39% plus being able to sign our names. If Pakistan has only a million newspapers being printed every day for a population of almost 200 million, we are only 0.01 per cent ‘functionally literate’: At least United Nations indicators on education tell us. This is the world’s lowest rating. A lot of MA English ‘pass’ people are known not to be able to write a simple letter. That is why recently only two persons passed the CSS Examination. This is Pakistan’s real tragedy, and one that needs immediate attention if we are not to sink under the load of illiteracy.

We surely need to take a look at the past, say over the last 200 years, to see how we have evolved from 1817 to 2017. In this brief piece we can mention a few basic facts, and better still we should focus on Lahore. In 1817 the Lahore Darbar of Maharajah Ranjit ruled the Punjab, and his interaction with his French military generals made him realise that the route to universal literacy, and hence survival, was through his country having ‘educated mothers’. A few years later he was to launch the compulsory ‘Punjabi Qaida’ to be provided free of cost to all women who marry.

The end result was that the Walled City of Lahore possessed the most literate population of the entire Indian sub-continent when the East India Company took over ten years after the maharaja’s death in 1839. The maharajah’s slogan was, as Dr G W Leitner was to note, ‘Siani Maa Siani Dhee’ (sensible mother means sensible daughter). The 1875 Parliamentary Report (C1072-II, Part 3) mentions in an annexure a flippant remark by a Punjab Education Committee member: “Gentlemen, they are more literate than us, so let’s go home’. Leitner informs that the gent was transferred to ‘cooler climes’.

In an earlier piece I had mentioned the number of schools of every religious type in the Walled City of Lahore as chronicled by Dr Leitner in his famous ‘History of Indigenous Education in the Punjab’ (1881), in which he also tells us of 12 schools for girls each with over 50 students, not to speak of many small single-room centres run at home by educated women. Leitner writes: “Indigenous female education in the Punjab requires less development ….. the Punjab happens to be the most liberal country in the entire British Empire”. But once the colonial system, based as it was on large feudal supporters set in, we see Leitner in his report mention: “female education is being brought into discredit by the respectable classes by official interference, which is actively doing so much mischief”. He goes on to comment: “If this mischief is not checked, the halt in the rise of female education will surely see a decline”. He mentions that it were the missionaries who tended to restrict female education to sewing, knitting, spinning and embroidery. Surely this Victorian view of women took hold. That Victorian trend still continues as our educationalists follow a colonial missionary mind-set.


But as female education declined with feudal orthodoxy discouraging it aggressively, we see that the colonial government followed a policy of producing only ‘brown sahibs’ for the huge clerical work needed by a vast Empire. From within these institution also raised the future bureaucrats, whose dubious legacy we see today. Only now our extremist bigots have made such a curricula that the outcome is before us in the shape of the CSS examination result. We learn that it has been decided that the examination system may be changed instead of the extremist curricula. Imagine.

A word about then Lahore’s emerging colonial educational structure. As far as indigenous schools were concerned, we see the emergence of ‘The Lahore Oriental College’, based as it was on the combined structures of the Benares Sanskrit College, the Calcutta Arabic Madrassah and the Lucknow Persian College. This effort was led by the Anjuman-i-Punjab. Next was the Imamia School of Nawab Nawazish Ali Khan, then there was the Badshahi Mosque’s Islamia School, as was the Guru Singh Sabha School and the Anjuman-i-Punjab’s Sanskrit School.

Along with these we see the emergence of the Anglo-Vernacular schools under different religious shades. It must be pointed out that all these schools had a tendency to support one communal group or the other. However, alongside these institutions, we also see the newly-introduced English medium of education having colleges of excellence like the Government College of Lahore, as also for the feudal supporters of the British having their Aitchison College, which was initially appropriately named Punjab Chief’s College. So a separate class of English-medium students with a secular system came about, while the needed clerks were restricted to a few, in terms of the total population, newly-introduced Urdu medium schools. Lahore, and the Punjab for the first time had two foreign languages imposed with their ancient language being looked down upon. Education for the masses was deemed a low priority.

As this system of restricted religion-based schools imparting education in Arabic, Sanskrit and Persian, laced with Urdu and English, all foreign languages, playing out. Hence we see the emergence of a population that was semi-literate, that ironically looked down upon their mother tongue, and tended to be purely communal in outlook. The population was forced to think within their communal space only.

Hence a mind-set developed that led to the Partition. The divide-and-rule policy was at its ferocious best. After ‘freedom’ with time we see in Lahore that even speaking Punjabi is frowned upon. It is an elite without a mother tongue with roots in thin air. What could be more tragic?

In Pakistan the rule of Gen Ziaul Haq saw the rise of religious extremism penetrate every curricula, where even physics courses mention the possibility of ‘jinns’ one day producing electricity if only engineers could harness their pious abilities. Communal madness has punctured our syllabi to such an extent that our ancient history, probably the oldest in the world, is not taught lest “it pollutes young minds”. Our history starts with Mahmud the Afghan invader’s demolition of the Walled City of Lahore. Ironically, today the city is without its walls. Heritage is a swear word today, and the Orange Line alignment issue is just one example of such a mind-set.

The lessons of 200 years of degradation of our educational direction are before us. Surely we must now learn to cut out all communal bias in our syllabi if we are to exist as part of a world where knowledge and tolerance is critical to economic and human development. We can surely manage to have 100% female literacy for ‘Siani Maa Siani Dhee’ to be possible. Our mother tongue needs greater respect as the basic medium of education as we move forward in this beautiful land that is as ancient as time.



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