More than 100 years ago, the northern areas of the subcontinent — namely Gilgit-Baltistan — were engulfed in absolute illiteracy as the inhabitants were happy to make their living from vocations such as agriculture and harvesting the yield from fruit trees. Since access to the areas was extremely difficult and people were disinterested in getting education, the governments of the day did not take any initiative in that direction.

In contrast to those times, the current standard of education in the northern areas is comparable to, if not better than, that of Pakistan’s larger towns. How this excellence was achieved and who were the people instrumental in bringing about this revolution has been comprehensively narrated in the book Roshni Ka Safar: Arz Shumaal Mein Ilm Ki Pehli Kiran Aur Diamond Jubilee Schoolon Ka Amali Kirdar by Abdullah Jan Hunzai.

Since the foundation of the education system had to be laid in an area where people were not even aware of its purpose, the initiative was begun by setting up schools at the primary level. The author quotes from research carried out by Mehrdad Yousuf, Director Education, Northern Areas; according to him, the first primary school was established in Gilgit in 1892 by the British political agent Colonel Algernon Durand. Another primary school was established in the Astore district in 1898 on the recommendation of Captain A.H. McMahon. In 1911, a primary school was set up in Bunji and the school in Gilgit was upgraded to middle level.

Documenting the educational revolution since 1946 in Gilgit-Baltistan

By 1916, there were 10 educational institutions in Gilgit and the only middle school had 166 students. Out of these, 23 students were from Jammu and Kashmir and the rest were from adjoining areas — before independence, Gilgit-Baltistan was under control of the Dogra Raj, therefore some influential people of these areas would send their children to Srinagar for higher education.

However, the real credit for starting a vigorous and consistent struggle to inculcate the importance of education among the people of Gilgit-Baltistan goes to Sir Sultan Mohammed Shah Aga Khan III, the longest serving (1885-1957) Imam of the Ismaili community. He strove to bring improvements in the education, health and economic conditions of the Muslims of the subcontinent in general and the Ismaili community in particular. On the completion of 50 years of imamat, his golden jubilee celebrations were held in Bombay [Mumbai] and Nairobi in 1936 and 1937 respectively. On these occasions he emphasised the priority of education by saying, “Give education to your children, give education, give education.”

The Aga Khan III’s diamond jubilee was celebrated in 1946, and he reciprocated by establishing the Diamond Jubilee Schools — D.J. Schools — in Gilgit-Baltistan. On completing 70 years of imamat, he was weighed in platinum by members of his community from all over the world, who had gathered in Karachi in 1954. Such was his enthusiasm for spreading the flame of education in the most backward areas, that the funds so generated were used to set up more D.J. Schools in Gilgit-Baltistan.

The Aga Khan III’s educational mission was continued by his successor, Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, with the same zeal and spirit. Besides the northern areas, Aga Khan Schools were established in Karachi and Hyderabad and run by the Aga Khan Education Board, Pakistan, a charitable institution. Schools in the northern areas were run by a Central Education Board. In 1986 the Aga Khan Education Services, Pakistan (AKES, P) was established and the responsibility of framing policies for Aga Khan schools and colleges in Pakistan was assigned to professional people who render their services to the AKES, P on an honorary basis.

At present around 100 D.J. Schools — having an enrolment of 20,000 students — and overall 41,000 students in Aga Khan educational institutions all over Pakistan, are under the control of the AKES, P.

The Aga Khan IV has also been keen for the development of teachers’ skills and, expecting high standards, wants them to play a positive role in their field. The underlying purpose is to enable them to provide quality learning to children. Soon after assuming the imamat of the Ismaili community, he addressed a gathering of teachers in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, in November 1957 and said: “I would like you to remember from now on that those of you who go in for teaching, I consider as leaders in the community. Teaching is one of the most important and one of the most honoured professions that exist. Teaching guides your children and those of you who take up the profession, I give you my special loving blessings. I would also like to see more of our young men go in for the profession, because after the age of 16, it takes a man to make a man.”

When the D.J. Schools were established in 1946, they catered to the education of boys only; educating girls was considered a taboo by the community. In the 1950s, a few progressive families ventured to educate their daughters, but as the majority considered female children a burden, it was common to marry girls off while they were still teenagers. However, some stalwarts, who were instrumental in the establishment of the D.J. Schools in 1946, again took the initiative for girls’ education and another journey began in 1960. Now girls from the northern areas have not only excelled in various disciplines, but have also made strides in sports and mountaineering at national and international levels.

Regarding the publication itself, grammatical errors at a number of places must be corrected and some apparent anomalies of facts at one or two places must be removed. For instance, the author mentions the fabulous hostel for boys built in Gilgit in 1968 and states that no help was taken from any design engineer or building expert; it was the result of imaginative contributions made by members of the Gilgit Managing Committee which was assigned the responsibility for construction. Later, however, he mentions that one of them happened to be a building expert. Additionally, the Urdu words “maashi aur iqtesaadi” have been used quite often in the book, but as both carry the same meaning — ie economic — one of the words needs to be deleted.

Nevertheless, the great initiative taken by the two Imams of the Ismailis is a living example of how education can bring miraculous improvements to people’s lives in economic, social and cultural spheres. The author has painstakingly gathered and presented all the facts relating to the educational revolution in the northern areas since 1946 and it is important for everyone to know the factors behind the meteoric rise of a population to prosperity and progress in all fields.

The reviewer is an industrial relations professional

Roshni Ka Safar: Arz Shumaal Mein Ilm Ki
Pehli Kiran Aur Diamond Jubilee Schoolon
Ka Amali Kirdar
By Abdullah Jan Hunzai
Sang-e-Meel, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9693530711

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 28th, 2018


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