HARKING BACK: The complex story of Lahore’s three Islamia colleges

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn June 18, 2017

In Lahore there are three Islamia colleges, which when combined remind us of an important portion of Pakistan’s history. They are primarily off-shoots of one of the three major educational movements in northern colonial India.

After the events of the First War of Independence in 1857, better known as the ‘Sepoy Mutiny’, the Muslims found themselves being blamed for the uprising, probably because the last Moghal emperor was a Muslim. Sikhs emerged in a far more positive light, while the Hindus remained a semi-neutral majority community. That was the perception even though every community participated in those events in their own way. It was the beginning of the ‘divide and rule’ policy of the colonial power, in which they ‘allowed’ separate development. This was especially true of education, which was seen, correctly so, as the best way forward to progress.

The Muslims, encouraged by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, set up the Muhammedan Anglo-Oriental (MAO) College on January 8, 1877 in Aligarh, when Lord Lytton laid the foundation stone. It was the first attempt to be seen as progressive and loyal to the British Raj. They were followed on the first of June, 1886, by the majority Hindu population’s Arya Samaj, which set up the D A V (Dayanand Anglo Vedic) College in Lahore. The Raj was not involved in this in any way. Lastly, the Sikhs set up the Khalsa College, Amritsar, in 1892, when the Punjab governor laid the foundation stone.

These three communities had their own educational traditions, and, ironically, because of their separate religious histories stretching over centuries, they had grown while living together over time in their own languages. The Hindus wanted Hindi using the Devanagari script, the Muslims wanted the newly-evolved Urdu in the Persian script, and the Sikhs were wedded to the Punjabi language but in their own created Gurmukhi script. This use of different scripts certainly compounded differences. Hence we see the colonial power, though not to be blamed for this situation, allow the three communities to develop separately with three religions with three different languages having as many scripts. In Lahore, ironically, all spoke the same Punjabi.


Educational development faced this complex situation. In Lahore different groups, both large and small, used Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit, Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu and English as their mediums of instruction. Hindu and Muslim Punjabis did not understand the Gurmukhi script of the Sikhs, even though everyone spoke a similar Punjabi. The Muslims, like the Sikhs, did not know the Devanagari script. Language, script and religion came to form a confused national mix which tended to move towards extreme positions.

The end result is before us, and that remains the case even today. In Pakistan the issue of script certainly has been resolved to a large extent, but religion being mixed with the Urdu language is not an issue, just that now it is seen as over-powering mother tongue. This is true of post-1947 India too, and could be an explosive issue as time passes.

In this situation the influence of the MAO College Aligarh was felt in Lahore and the result was that on the 24th of September, 1884 - seven years after Aligarh saw the first Muslim college emerge - when the Anjuman Himayat-e-Islam was set up in Masjid Bakan inside Mochi Gate by Khalifa Hameeduddin. The Anjuman’s main objective was, and probably remains, the promotion of education among Muslims. They started off by setting up girl’s schools, an orphanage and a publishing house.

As the Anjuman expanded its role in education their first major enterprise was the setting up in 1892 of the Islamia College on Railways Road. Of the three that exist in Lahore today, this was the first one. The foundation stone was laid by the Shah of Afghanistan, with Allama Iqbal, Sir Fatah Ali Khan Qizilbash and Sheikh Barkat Ali present at the ceremony. A photograph of that ceremony hangs in the Nawab Palace of the Qizilbash family on Empress Road opposite the Railway Headquarters.

Very soon it became a platform for Indian Muslims in need of political clout. Mr M A Jinnah would over time be a regular visitor. The Qizilbash ‘nawabs’ would play a major role in educational expansion and the ‘anjuman’ stuck to its major role of promoting Muslim female education. So it was that in 1939 they set up the second Islamia College on Cooper Road as an all-female college.

The role of the ‘anjuman’ was fast becoming politicised and it was seen as the student wing in the Punjab of the Pakistan Movement. The students of Islamia colleges on Railway and Cooper roads played a major role in the Pakistan Movement, even those of other institutions played their part too.

The third, and now the largest, known as Islamia College Civil Lines, came about after the Partition in 1947 when the DAV College of Lahore was taken over and converted into an Islamia College. Just how did the Anjuman Himayat-e-Islam manage to acquire this property is another story. The only redeeming reason that comes to mind is that the educational tradition continued. The DAV College was an institution based on the Hindu religion, language and script. In 1947 this overnight converted to the Islamic religion, its associated language Urdu in its Persian script. The mother tongue of the people was never bothered about.

For quite some time the original ‘DAV College’ name remained on the front of the main building. Then suddenly, probably the year was 1997, that the Hindi script was removed and the Islamic ‘kalima’ on a painted board took its place. All over the walls of the college, even today, the slogans of an extreme Right-wing Islamic student organisation are written. Interestingly, within the college building the ashes of the cremated wives of Maharajah Ranjit Singh stand in two major ‘samadhis’. From Sikh ‘samadhis’ to Hindu DAV College to the Anjuman’s Islamia College Civil Lines. It is the same complex equation coming full circle. The DAV College shifted to Ambala in Indian Punjab in 1947, where it is still, appropriately, named the DAV College (Lahore), Ambala. That province was sub-divided on religious grounds and today Ambala falls in Hindu Haryana.

The story of the three Islamia colleges of Lahore is a study of the 140-year complex relationship of three religions, three languages and three scripts that defined the land of Punjab, most importantly, of Lahore and its defining role as the educational and cultural capital of undivided north-western India. To the east Calcutta had two major religions, but one language and one script.

When Mr Jinnah tried to enforce Urdu on the people of East Pakistan, it took just 24 years - less than a quarter of a century - for the people to ‘shuffle off the mortal coil’ of religion, language and script. That is why we must today, in Pakistan, give this lethal combination a ‘pause’. Will we continue to bear all the ills of an “undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns” as Shakespeare’s Hamlet puts it. Are we destined to bear all the ills of a complex past which gives rise to nothing but hatred and prejudice? We surely are a talented people who deserve better.

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