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Older than Delhi, no other school may have witnessed so many vicissitudes as this one

By Firoz Bakht Ahmed* 

Behind every book there is a writer or writers. Are the books written for the personal gratification of authors? Is the purpose utilitarian, educational or to gain public ovation? There are writers who publish books because they are inspired by a purely disinterested and fair-minded pursuit of knowledge and to clarify the issues that agitate them and society.
The book under discussion  is a masterstroke on the life and times of not only an institution at Ajmeri Gate, Delhi — Anglo Arabic School — but about the complex relationship between the school and the cajoled Muslim community.
Just while you are at Ajmeri Gate, supposedly, the border of Old and New Delhi, barely a few meters from the cacophony and the chaos outside the New Delhi railway station, lies an island of serenity — a school much older than New Delhi, with a wholesale machine tools market on its West, a road leading to Rajiv Chowk (Connaught Place) on the East and colourful confusion of rickshaws, three wheelers, scooters, cars battling for space in the narrow lanes, hawkers on the sidewalks, indolent cows, people jostling along the pavements and of course, the chaiwallah (tea seller) sitting in his khokha (kiosk), right opposite the huge gate.
Anglo Arabic School, one of the oldest running institutions of the world, that even today continues to be a chronicler of the city’s history and Muslim community!
The glorious school, like a living character in one of the stage performances of the Ghalib plays by the celebrated actor cum director, Saeed Alam, seems to hark to all the visitors entering its 1692 sandstone gate, about the checkered historicity beginning as Madrasa Ghaziuddin Khan, Anglo Arabic College, Anglo Arabic School and Delhi College.

Readable and engrossing

No institution in any nook or cranny of the world has gone through an umpteenth number of vicissitudes, as this one, as very aptly brought about in a thoroughly researched book, “The School at Ajmeri Gate: Delhi’s Educational Legacy”, published by Oxford University Press and authored by Dr M Atyab Siddiqui, an independent scholar and lawyer and Prof Azra Razzack of Jamia Millia Islamia.
The book has been blessed with citations in the blurb at the back cover by eminent historians like Barbara Metcalf, Gail Minault and Prof Krishna Kumar, reputed academician. What is most fascinating about the book is the narratives buried in the rubble of history, are absolutely engaging right from the word go till the last word focusing on the complex relationship between the school and beleaguered Muslim community.
The book also focuses on how the glorious institutions like this have been relegated from a high pedestal of unsurpassable glory to a pathetic existence owing to the negligence on the part of the community it caters to. Today, Anglo Arabic is not even a semblance of its glorified prima o pareil (queen of all institutions) existence for three centuries. Quite pathetically, it seems to be languishing on oxygen! Gone are the days when its soccer teams used to lift many trophies and students from illustrious families studied here.

Educational legacy, cultural ethos – Gail Minault

In the words of Professor Gail Minault, the renowned author from Texas University, this lively book traces the history of a venerable educational institution, through its triumphs and vicissitudes, detailing its valuable contributions to the culture, architecture, language, press, politics, sport and spirit of the people of the walled city of Delhi and its people.
Truly, the Delhi walled city life encompasses fun, frolic and street smart food, fuming poster wars, often indulging in character assassination, mushairas (poetic gatherings), oldest of trades, like qalaigiri (coating of copper vessels with silver colour on a furnace), rangrezi (colouring the clothes), bhishti (offering water from a leather bag in a katora that is silver container), karchob (very minute and refined work on expensive clothes with thread and glistening wires) etc which are a rare sight and can be found only in Old Delhi.
Old Delhi had some captivating sports activities like patangbai (flying kites), kabooterbazi, (flying pigeons) baterbazi, (goose-fight) pateybazi (bamboo-fighting) etc.

Anglo Arabic – a historical journey

Despite many books in the past, perhaps, this work, till date, seems to be the best document minutely detailing its varied historical ups and downs. During the mutiny of 1857, a portion of the school was destroyed. Until 1827, this madrasa was a religious seminary but after the interference of the East India Company, it was Sir Charles Metcalfe who also started the education of English, mathematics and natural sciences.
The historic marble tablet on the Chemistry lab of the school says, “Etemad-ud-Daula, Zia-ul-Mulk, Syed Fazal Ali Khan Bahadur Sahab Firoz Jung gave 1.70 lakh rupees for the propagation of this institution and gave it in the trust of the Company Bahadur in 1829.”
Besides, till date, it has some of the best of the vintage old books of science, especially medicine in its library with Neil Harvey’s book on blood circulation and anatomy with hand-made diagrams.
The most important literary activity in the history of the school was the formation of the Vernacular Translation Society in 1832. As Urdu was the medium of instruction, the students could not avail of the variety found in English, German, French, Algebra, social and natural sciences etc.
In 1840, the institution was shifted to the Darah Shikoh (Shahjahan’s son) Library. Incidentally, during 1840 only, Ghalib went here to get a job of a Persian teacher but declined the offer as Thomson, the then college director, didn’t come to receive at the gate owing to his protocol, and hence the clash of egos resulted in Ghalib’s name being associated with it in a discordant way.
In 1840, Ghalib went here to get a job of Persian teacher, but declined the offer as the director didn’t come to receive him at the gate
In the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, it remained closed for 7 years and reopened only in 1867. At that time, the English christened it as “Anglo Arabic College”. It was again attacked during the Partition in 1947, and with the support from Dr Zakir Hussain and other Delhi intellectuals, like Mirza Mehmood Baig, Mir Mushtaq Ahmed and Maulana Imdad Sabri besides others, revived.
In 1975, Anglo Arabic School/ Delhi College was renamed Zakir Husain Delhi College as the family of the late president, Dr Zakir Hussain, wanted some kind of a memorial and hence requested Indira Gandhi.
A better option could have been to let Delhi College as it was and a new institution could have been created in the name of Zakir Hussain that could have additionally benefited the community. However, political whims and fancies have always has harmed the cause of the community by such wishy-washy mismanagement.

Worthy old boys

According to the celebrated author, Barbara Metcalf, the book is a real labour of love depicting in the description of a school, the valuable opportunity to learn about a cajoled and beleaguered community, that today faces so much disadvantage and suffering.
It throws light on the who’s who glitterati of the times of yore, including Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (the eminent educationist and the founder of Aligarh Muslim University), Liaqat Ali Khan (Pakistan’s first Prime Minister), Maulana Altaf Hussain Hali (celebrated poet), Maulana Mohammed Hussain Azad the (father of Urdu prose), Maulana Qasim nanautvi (founder of the school of Sunni theology, Darul Uloom, Deoband ), Deputy Nazir Ahmed, (Urdu essayist and ICS), Akhtar-ul-Iman, (great poet) besides many others.

Football craze

Once released and on the bookstalls, it might sell like hot cakes as it also encompasses in it about the inveterate culture of the Shahjahanabadi walled city of old Delhi’ites, including the famed soccer club rivalries between Mohammedan Sportaing and other famous clubs like Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, BSF Jullundur, RAC Bikaner, Tata Sports Club, Punjab Police etc.
As Anglo Arabic was the nursery of football, players like Manzoor Ahmad Khan, Shuja’at Ashraf, Surinder Kumar, Aziz Qureshi etc. who later joined, bigger. Also in the book, there are some very catchy and interesting of football rivalry and how the walled city residents celebrated their romanticism with the game.
Finally, this book inherently conveys how conscious communities can build towering institutions and ignorant people can easily destroy them as in the case of Anglo Arabic worthily explaining the intricacies and convolutions surrounding an educational institution and its engagement with the community locally and humaneness, globally.
---
*Former chancellor, Maulana Azad National Urdu University, and grandnephew, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad

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