KARACHI: The 172nd birth anniversary of Dr Annie Besant turned out to provide a good opportunity of learning about the life and times of the social reformer, activist and theosophist at the historic Jamshed Memorial Hall here on Sunday.
Organised by the Karachi Theosophical Society, a branch of Theosophical Order of Service (TOS) Pakistan, founded by Dr Besant, the programme saw eminent speakers, such as the people’s historian Dr Mubarak Ali; dean of the faculty of social science & education at Szabist Professor Dr Riaz Ahmed Sheikh; obstetrician and writer Dr Shershah Syed and Mushtaq Ali Jindani of TOS-Pakistan, express their views.
Side by side and in-between the students of Jamshed Memorial School also presented a programme to commemorate Dr Besant’s work for human rights and human dignity in the Indian subcontinent.
Joining in from Lahore through Skype, Dr Mubarak Ali said that when the British ruled over almost all the world, there were also people in the world who questioned their rule and Dr Besant was one of them.
“She was secular and believed that religion and politics should not be mixed and should be kept separate from each other. She was also a human rights activist and upheld labour rights and women’s rights. She was also against the Hindu caste system and believed that all of mankind was born equal and should be treated as such,” he said. “To make her beliefs known, she wrote and brought out pamphlets.”
Providing some background to what led to her difference of opinion from the British way of thinking of ‘divide and rule’, he said that Dr Besant came from an Irish family and knew only too well the suffering of her people at the hands of the British.
“When Ireland was colonised by the British, they drove out the farmers there to take over their lands. The indigenous Irish were left without any say or rights of their own. Things became so bad for them that they didn’t even have anything to eat except potatoes. It was also a time when many great Irish poets such as William Butler Yeats highlighted the struggle of their people through poetry and literature. And they also played a part in Annie’s intellect and mindset and in her being a part of the movement for freedom in Ireland,” he explained.
“And our very own Mohammad Ali Jinnah and even Gandhi were impressed by leaders like Dr Besant. She felt that revolution didn’t have to be violent,” he said.
He added that it was good of the Karachi Theosophical Society to remember her on her 172nd birthday. “People should know of her work, which deserves much appreciation,” he said.
Dr Riaz Sheikh said that Dr Besant was a towering female political personality of the subcontinent. “She struggled for women’s rights, was a diehard feminist, against child marriages, class divides and the Hindu caste system, contributed to spreading awareness about population control, promoted education, and wanted to keep religion separate from politics.”
“In fact, her being secular and wanting to keep religion and politics separate ended her marriage as her husband belonged to the clergy,” he added.
“It is relevant in today’s polarised and divided society to talk about Dr Besant and her ideas and lessons. There are many of her writings which we need to read and revisit,” he said.
On a separate note, Dr Shershah Syed shared some of his fond memories about the Jamshed Memorial Hall and its adjoining library. “I used to study at the NJV School nearby from where I would come to read the Hurriyat and Jang newspapers in the library, which also stocked some rare books,” he said.
Mushtaq Ali Jindani said that the Theosophical Order of Service was founded by Dr Besant in 1908 and its branches in Karachi and Hyderabad were vital organisations and a way of continuing with her legacy.
“Dr Besant had the quality of compassion and empathy as she could feel the pain of others. And the schools run by TOS-Pakistan are doing their best to impart good education in the form of academics as well as awareness and principals that need to be upheld,” he said.
“We also award scholarships to some 300 students, who can then continue their education paying only partial fees. We are also imparting training in Montessori teaching to girls who have passed their intermediate and were otherwise sitting idle at home,” he added.
Published in Dawn, October 7th, 2019