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Footprints: A monument to Hindu philanthropy turning 100

Updated September 30, 2016

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A view of the Government College Hyderabad from the rooftop of one of the college’s departments.—Yousuf Nagori
A view of the Government College Hyderabad from the rooftop of one of the college’s departments.—Yousuf Nagori

HYDERABAD: After crossing a small bridge over the Phuleli canal, a dusty, narrow road leads me to the once glorious Government College, Hyderabad, on the left bank of the channel fed by the mighty Indus.

Seeing a signboard reading ‘Frontier Constabulary’ outside the main entrance is no surprise as it is not the only building occupied by the paramilitary forces in Sindh. Enter the college — celebrating its centennial on Oct 1 — and one notes that it still offers a peaceful haven away from the bustle of the city.

The feeling of calm and tranquillity that this environment must have once offered its students seems like an enviable experience — until the decay sets in. Traces of the lawns and plantations around its premises urgently require conservation.

As I walked around the college with two of its oldest faculty members, Prof Nazir Qasmi and Prof Saleem Mughal, their nostalgic memories are noteworthy. “Slogans of ‘surkh hay, surkh hay Asia surkh hay’ and ‘sabz hay, sabz hay Asia sabz hay’ still echo in my ears,” reminisces Qasmi, excitingly recalling the days of vibrant student unions when the right-wing Islami Jamiat Talba and left-wing National Students Federation (NSF) would mobilise their cadres, until the unions were banned.

“Look at this picture from 1940 in which the edifice of this prestigious institution is seen from the canal side. A gardener is mowing the lawn in this one,” says Mughal, showing me treasured, rare pictures of the college and its history in his laptop. He is the general secretary of the college’s alumni association, which is trying to have the institution’s status upgraded to general university.

While its 100-year-history is not fully available as it is lost for one reason or another, senior faculty members and college teacher Yaqoob Chandio (who is doing his PhD on the college) have been connecting the dots to unfold the institution’s colonial history before the events of the subcontinent’s blood-soaked Partition. According to one account, Dr Annie Besant (a social reformer) is the founder of the college — she championed the cause of Indian self-rule and education from The Theosophical Society’s platform.

“She [Dr Annie] attended a meeting in Hyderabad at the residence of Deewan Bolchand Shahani in September 1917, where it was decided that Hyderabad should have a college so that Sindh’s people did not have to go to Bombay University,” says Qasmi. Various pieces of information, he elaborates, put together so far reveal that the college was initially named Sindh National Arts College, then NED College (for a brief period), Dayaram Gidumal (DG) National College, DG Government College and, finally, having re-opened on June 21, 1948, today’s Government College, Hyderabad.

This is how the college came into being on Oct 1, 1917. [Oct 1 is Annie Besant’s birthday also]. It has produced a constellation of alumni who made names for themselves in the arts, film, science, education, politics, media, judiciary, etc. Dadi Leelawati Harchandani — who will celebrate her 100th birthday this Dec 20 — is the college’s oldest surviving student. India’s seventh deputy prime minister L. K. Advani had also studied in what was then called DG National College after completing his schooling at St Patrick’s High School, Karachi, in 1942. So did Pakistan’s former prime minister Raja Pervez Ashraf.

“We are trying for the college’s land ownership, which is to come through the revenue department’s form-VII for the existing 20 acres and eight ghuntas. The land is squeezed from 64 acres thanks to bogus, forged documents and encroachments that still threaten the college as the relevant authorities have turned a blind eye to it,” says Qasmi as we walk upstairs to the college’s spacious auditorium in its architecturally majestic assembly hall, built in 1925.

The auditorium’s stage has several entry points and houses a make-up room in the basement with teak woodwork. Its ground floor houses the Bhai Dialdas Molchand Library. Partab Rai donated funds for the library, named after his father, and a hall (now housing the physics department) in memory of his brother, Narain Das, in 1936.

The 64 acres of fertile land was donated by Partab Manghar Singh. Yaqoob Chandio believes that although Singh had major share in that land, there were multiple landowners/donors. A man — who did not disclose his name and preferred to be known as a ‘son of the soil’ — contributed Rs20,000; some others jointly contributed Rs40,000 more. Dewan Metharam (brother of Dewan Dayaram Gidumal) Dharmada Trust pitched in a hefty amount of Rs100,000 for the construction of then DG National College. Dayaram Gidumal, then a sessions judge, collected donations to help build the college.

The structure of Government College, Hyderabad, needs massive uplift though piecemeal development continues. For instance, a monument — a tower with a quote by M.K. Gandhi carved in Hindi and bearing the name of Azhar Jodhpuri (probably the calligrapher who carved it) — was only recently retrieved from debris in the old hostel area and erected in the middle of the college premises.

“I got Gandhi’s saying in Hindi translated by a professor of geography at Sindh University to preserve — it was all about knowledge and spreading light of education. One fine morning, we found a portion of the saying blackened with spray [paint]. Some people didn’t like it for obvious reasons. Now there stands a cemented tower with [its] history lost,” adds Qasmi. The demand to upgrade the college as a general university is longstanding given its location and structure, according to him.

Although the college is entering the 100th year of its establishment, since Partition it has become lost somewhere in the unregulated growth of the city’s urban settlements. The college stands as a monument to the people of its illustrious past and cries for true governmental ownership to protect it against the odds.

“This institution must deliver — be it a college or general university,” remarks Chandio.

Published in Dawn, September 30th, 2016