ISLAMIA College, Peshawar, a renowned heritage landmark, reveled by historians and travellers worldwide; was conceived by Sahibzada Abdul Qayum as a centre of excellence for students of the erstwhile NWFP in 1913. Its iconic image is etched in the psyche of its admirers, on Pakistan’s Rs100 note, besides other vintage memorabilia.

The unique combination of Gothic, Indian and Mughal architecture is reminiscent of Osmania College in Hyderabad Deccan and Aligarh Muslim University, having inspired its architects and founders Sir Sahibzada Abdul Qayum and Sir Roos Keppel. Many prominent alumni members played a pivotal role in the Pakistan movement. The Quaid bestowed a major part of his will to this beloved institution. What would have been his reaction of turning his dream into a concrete wasteland?

Recent images of Islamia College are a disturbing and painful reminder of our collective amnesia and neglect of a unique jewel of architectural beauty that has been an attraction for global tourists. The decision of modern development in a renowned 110-year-old landmark is a grave offence against national and provincial antiquity Acts.

Construction of eight new buildings on the historic premises was undertaken without an official NOC from the directorate of archeology. The directorate also issued several directives to the authorities concerned, and even approached the court against the blatant violation of the KP Antiquity Act, 2017. The conversion of a sprawling Islamia College into a cramped campus defies logic and common sense.

The reason given was “to accommodate an increasing number of aspiring students”. However, Islamia College trust owns several lands in various districts of the province including Charsadda and Swabi. New campuses in other districts were a long term solution; instead, a convenient and short term measure was used as a justification to bulldoze a precious heritage asset. The concrete-building mafia operates sans legal or moral constraints.

Fareeda Nishtar, an ardent conservationist for the built heritage of Peshawar, with an illustrious family history, said that the initial report was that the construction was far removed and in Dhobighat area however during a recent visit the construction was hideous and in close proximity as the open grounds were all compromised.

“AstroTurf is being laid for hockey. The library site was depressing as the old building is overwhelmed by the concrete construction and completely sandwiched, while it’s indoors was rundown and shabby. This is a typical psyche of our people! Losing sight of its precious heritage value, the premises has sadly lost its ambience” she lamented.

Prof Shakeel Ahmed, former chairman of English department, who has fond memories of his Alma Mater said: “The foundation of lslamia College in Peshawar, served as a game changer for the then North West Frontier Province and its turbulent inhabitants. Modern education amalgamated with religious teaching was the ploy for a peaceful penetration in the thitherto known “land without laws”. This philosophy is reflected in the beautiful edifice of the main college building, as well as the array of hostels that housed from far off recesses in the province and abroad”.

He said that the college and school buildings, interspersed with vast green lawns and playgrounds, not only provided a conducive and healthy environment for the education, but also became an important landmark of the historic city of Peshawar. He added that the vast verdure all around in the college not only was soothing for the eyes and tired minds, but also maintained a marked difference of temperature within campus in the scorching summers.

“The ruthless mushrooming of concrete structures interspersed within old college buildings, present a hideous combination of old and new, devoid of the past grandeur and serene environment, which has robbed the premises of its ambience and heritage value” rued Prof Shakeel.

Islamia College is a test case for residents of Peshawar to stand up to defacing of a prized heritage site. Complacency and nonchalance precedes doom. It is a wake-up call for us all.

Published in Dawn, September 28th, 2020