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Through the gate
Delhi's oldest school finally opens its doors to female students despite stiff resistance from traditionalists.
Over the course of its 320 years, Delhi's Anglo Arabic School has accumulated more than its fair share of famous anecdotes. Legend has it that the famous 19th century Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib once applied for a teaching job here. Preceded by his fame, and his vast knowledge of Urdu and Persian, the poet arrived at the gates of the school - situated near Delhi's Ajmeri Gate - in a palanquin and waited for its principal to receive him. When the principal, an Englishman, didn't step out to greet this "desperate job seeker", Ghalib thought it beneath him to teach at an institution which didn't have adequate "etiquette". He left, never to return.
This Old Delhi school - whose earlier avatars have included being called Anglo Arabic College and Delhi College, but is now officially called 'Anglo Arabic Senior Secondary School' - might not have bent any rules for Ghalib, but this year lifted a ban on the admission of girl students. In May, this historic "boys only" school became a co-educational one, and its imposing Kota sandstone structure now reverberates with the sound of girl-talk and plays host to shalwar-kameezes and dupattas for the first time in its long history. The school's 14-acre campus houses, apart from classrooms, arched apartments, a white-domed mosque and a leafy lawn.
By turning co-ed, the school, which caters mainly to Muslim students from Delhi's 'walled city', has sent out a rather strong message, even if there are only 100 girls out of 2, 000 students. The seminary's illustrious alumni include Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (founder of Aligarh Muslim University), Maulana Qasim Nanautwi (founder Darul Uloom Deoband), Pakistan's first Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan, politician Sikandar Bakht and bureaucrat S Y Qureishi, to name a few.
Yet, the school management's decision to allow women students faced ample resistance - mostly from a huge chunk of Muslims in the walled city, and from its own predominantly male staff. However, the Delhi High Court's decision in May this year, on a PIL filed by activist Fatima Tahseen, came as a shot in the arm for a management that was looking to push change through. "The court acknowledged the need to allow Muslim girls to be educated. Our critics have been largely silenced, " says Atiyab Siddiqui, an advocate and also the school's manager. Firoz Bakht Ahmed, member of the school's governing body and grandnephew of freedom fighter and scholar Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, is so enthused that he likens the girls at the school to Malala Yusufzai (the Pakistani teenager currently undergoing treatment in London after being attacked by the Taliban for talking about education). "These are our Malalas who are fighting the conservative elements within, " says Ahmed.
Besides, the walled city's girls sorely needed an institution in the vicinity that taught science and commerce along with the arts at the 10+2 level. "The colleges offering science in 11th are far from my home. This is very convenient for me, " says Aliya Jabbar, an 11th standard science student, who aspires to a B Pharm degree. Saba Parween, another 11th standard student (of Fine Arts) is grateful. "I am learning painting and want to become an artist. I am working hard also because I want to prove wrong all those who say that co-ed would spoil students, " says Parween.
Acknowledging the special needs of female students the school has hired Rubina Yasmin, a supervisor and counsellor. "Most girls here earlier studied in co-ed, so it is not very difficult for them to cope with the co-ed system here. However, I counsel them on the behavioural pattern of teenage boys. I tell them that just because some boys try to be familiar with them with hi-hello or even crack jokes, the girls should not be upset, " says Yasmin. This is the first batch of girl students here, adds Yasmin, and the girls have to perform well to swell further enrolment in the future.
The school's history has been topsy-turvy one though. Founded as a seminary in 1692 by Ghaziuddin Khan, a courtier under Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, the school was originally called Madrassa Ghaziuddin Khan. In fact, there are two hujras (corridors) meant to be used as dormitories for the madrassa students of yore, which clearly signal the seminary's residential character since inception. In 1829, the madrassa came under British control and Sir Charles Metcalfe introduced English, Mathematics and Science subjects here. It was christened Anglo Arabic College and subsequently became Delhi College. Its Vernacular Translation Society, founded in 1832, saw translation of Urdu, Persian and Arabic scripts into Greek, Roman, German and vice versa. "It had one of the richest libraries in Asia, " says Siddiqui. During the revolt of 1857, the college library was first plundered and then burnt. The mutineers saw it as a British entity while the British officials detested its Muslim association, and the library, sadly, bore the wrath of both the mutineers and the British alike.
During the freedom struggle, says Ahmed, freedom fighters like Gandhiji and Maulana Azad, would visit the school to address meetings. After Independence, a part of the school was converted into Zakir Hussain College and many staff of the college occupied classrooms and its hostel rooms. In the 1990s, after a long battle, Zakir Hussain College was finally shifted. And, through a PIL, 51 families who were illegally living in the school premises were also removed. "We wanted the school's sanctity to be restored, its land cleared of the encroachers, " says Ahmed who filed the PIL.
With the opening of its doors to female students, the school has definitely added a new chapter to its rich history. Ghalib might have just been pleased, and perhaps forgiven the "humiliation" he suffered at the gates.
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