The maharajah and education

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn August 12, 2006

ONE abiding lesson one learns about a people is the state of their educational institutions. No where was this more stark than the situation of learning and teaching among Muslims in Lahore in 1850. The Sikh empire had crumbled. The emerging British Empire had taken hold. A new order had taken root.

The story of education in Lahore holds potent lessons for us today. By any standard we have been grand failures in educating our youth. As a critical mass we are ‘illiterate’. A few beacons are fine as they show the way, but they remain beacons, not the light or ‘enlightenment’. Let us return to the year 1838. Maharajah Ranjit Singh was in power and within a year he was to pass away. In those days the Muslims of the Punjab had been beaten to complete submission to Khalsa rule. But what had Khalsa rule achieved in terms of education? How had the Muslims repositioned themselves to meet the Khalsa challenge? These are important questions for any nation.

Maharajah Ranjit Singh had been fighting to consolidate his hold and by the time he was accepted even by the British as the undisputed ruler of the Punjab, it was the 1820s. By this time he had some impressive ‘foreign consultants’ in the shape of French military generals from the defeated army of Napoleon, a few Italian, some Hungarian doctors and a sprinkling of other nationalities. He kept a very strict check on all of them. These consultants advised him, for he spent long hours talking to them.

Because of them he reached a firm conclusion which he implemented. He decided to educate every Sikh girl, with special classes for women. He had reached the conclusion that if every female was educated, the next generation would be educated, and in this he saw the salvation of the empire he had carved up for himself.

The year was 1832 when the ‘Punjabi Qaida’ was enforced. A massive movement was launched and in 1837 East India Company documents state from intelligence reports that “over 61 per cent of the females of the Punjab can read and write, far more than those in England”. More than the excellent Punjabi Army, the Company was scared of the population of the Punjab. The foreign generals enforced adult literacy programmes in their units, and very soon the fighting force was “second to none”. Lord Roberts was to comment to the Company: “The forces of the Maharajah can truly be said to be among the finest in Asia”.

It was the death of the maharajah in 1839 that led to the Punjabi Qaida programme not being given funds. That is why it is important to see how the Muslims were faring. The situation in Lahore has been docu mented and it makes interesting reading. Not a single government educational institution existed in Lahore. Their entire emphasis was on the countryside, for it was from there that the Khalsa Army got its recruits.

In Lahore the finest ‘maddrassah’, belonged to Khalifa Ghulam Rasool and Khalifa Ghulamullah of Bazaar Hakeeman inside Bhati Gate. Their ancestors have left the walled city. Khalifa Naseeruddin, the cement technologist, belongs to that famous family.The beauty of this maddrassah was that it admitted Muslim, Hindus and Sikhs. Their curriculum included three major languages, they being Persian, Arabic and Urdu (or Hindustani as it was then called). Along with these communication aids, they provided a heavy dose of mathematics, which was considered critical for any educated person.

Also in the courses were philosophy, hadiths and various interpretations of the Quran, the Veds and the Granth. It was a massive dose of ‘comparative religion’. According to one description, the course in the maddrassah of the Khalifas of Lahore catered for communication skills in excellent language courses, mathematics for skills in logic, and ‘comparative religion’ for moral and social skills. The problem was that they never admitted more than 300 students at a time. Students from all over the Punjab came here and most students were provided hostel facilities.

The second well-known maddrassah was in the Masjid Noor-eimani inside Lohari Gate. Here the famous Maulvi Jan Mohammad taught and was assisted by his senior pupils. Even here the syllabus was the same as that taught by the Khalifas of Lahore, but with a slightly greater emphasis on Sufi learning.

The third and largest maddrassah of Lahore was in the Fakirkhana of Fakir Syed Azizuddin and Fakir Syed Nooruddin. The course was against the same as that of the Khalifas, who were related to the Fakir family and respect them immensely. This school was also `secular’ in the sense that it educated the Muslim, Sikh and Hindu pupils of the elite of Lahore. When the British took over, this was the premier Muslim school of Lahore.

Come the British and the first school opened inside the Lahore Fort, followed a few years later by Dr. Forman at Rang Mahal, which was to take the shape of the Forman Christian College, while the Rang Mahal High School was to emerge as the finest institution of its time. The first major college was the Government College, Lahore, and the Forman Christian College, both of whom even today can be termed as the finest in the land.

The state of education among the Muslims of the Punjab, over the last 150 years, can be said to be a case of a small elite class, and a mass of illiterates. Changes definitely have taken place, but that is material for another piece, and by a person more qualified than me. Education among the rulers was a serious matter, and it seems the maharajah had got it right. Today’s maharajahs have other ideas, at least that is what we see with two mediums of education (imagine) and the majority never making it to school.

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