Nurturing humanists


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Jamia Millia Islamia, a by-product of our freedom struggle, was established with the objective to impart non-discriminatory, nationalist education, through the mother tongue – primarily among Urdu-speaking Muslims – while being completely independent of the then British government. The evolution of Jamia School – comprising the trio of ‘nursery’ (kindergarten), ‘madarsah ibtadaai’ (primary school, class 1 to 6) and ‘madarsah saanvi’ (higher secondary school, class 7 to 11) – can perhaps be best understood in the backdrop of Jamia’s objective and vision of her founders.

‘Life is not a balance-sheet of profit and loss, but an opportunity to devote life to few convictions’, was Jamia’s philosophy. According to Dr Zakir Husain, Vice Chancellor (1926-48) and one of the makers of the university, ‘Jamia considers both – knowledge for the sake of earning bread, which is the objective of the modern education in our country, and knowledge just for the sake of knowledge, which was the principle of old education – very narrow and limiting. It wants to impart knowledge for the sake of life, the broad ambit of which includes every domain of learning, be it religion, knowledge and industry, politics and economy.’

In 1929-30, Dr Zakir Husain expressed the view that ‘some source of income for the unemployed men and women of the neighbourhood was needed’ – not just to serve the needy but to inculcate empathy for the disadvantaged among students. He opined that ‘independence is not gained once; it is to be attained daily. For it, not momentary passion, but permanent habits, i.e. good conduct is required; and these are cultivated through practice.’


The prospectus of Jamia, for 1931-32, describes the purpose of primary education as ‘to provide enabling environment for blossoming of inborn talent and create affection for duties and objectives of a civilized life.’ In the same year, the vice chancellor said on foundation day, ‘to make proper arrangements for the children’s education is of utmost importance. This thought is leading Jamia to address, first and foremost, the issue of primary education.’ The foregoing clearly reveals that Jamia gave importance to school education – the crucial nursery for nuturing humanists – since her inception, which was unusual for a university.

Above: When the Yamuna flowed near Jamia. Below: One of the builders and Jamia VC, Professor Mohammad Mujeeb, addressing school children.


To be acquainted with the nature and functioning of Jamia School, described as a nursery for nurturing humanists, one only needs to understand that the foregoing was the praxis for the Jamiaites of the ‘Pre-independence Era’ (1920-47). Post-independence, the ‘transition phase’ (1948-73), with Professor M. Mujeeb as the Vice Chancellor, and the ‘recent past’ (1974-2020) of rapid transformation, tell different stories. With the only credential of carefree schooling (nursery to higher secondary) for the self and elder siblings (mid-1950s to mid-1970s) from Jamia and having lived in, and known, only Jamia till I passed Higher Secondry, I propose to provide a glimpse of the history of the first two phases of Jamia School, which is intertwined with the rest of Jamia – a rather small, largely residential, and well integrated entity.

It reflects a forward-looking attitude and thirst for learning that despite the perennial resource crunch for the tiny sapling – in order to nurture the future generation’s humanists in the best way possible – in 1930-31, Jamia started sending primary school teachers to the Training School, Moga (Punjab), which placed special emphasis on project method and story method, gardening and working with hands.

All of the arts and crafts are an influential learning tool, and drama is especially powerful because, besides being enjoyable, its unique balance of thought and feeling makes learning exciting, challenging, and relevant to real life concerns. Drama was introduced as a teaching method. In respect of craft, the students of the secondary school needed to choose one of the vocational studies option – weaving, lock making, printing, copy writing, shorthand and typewriting.


Drama became a regular feature of Talimi Mela (Educational Fare). The girls, not only studied in school but also participated in plays, along with boys, even as many mothers generally moved about wearing a burqa (veil) – which was discarded, sooner or later. The girls were encouraged and given preferential treatment. In 1970, the renowned theatre director Habib Tanvir directed his iconic play, ‘Agra Bazar’, virtually taking the entire cast from Jamia.

For the primary school, a library was established using the earnings from the sale of vegetables. The students were paid weekly to work in the garden. The concept of a ‘bank’ took shape, as some boys preferred to deposit their earnings. The opening of a ‘bachchon ki dukaan’ (children’s stationary shop) was prompted by the need to buy stationary with the saved money. The students, under the guidance of a teacher in-charge, ran the bank, stationary shop, library and museum. In 1933-34, ‘nursery’ (kindergarten) was started. (These institutions existed – meaningfully, but watered down – during my time.) The foregoing clearly reflects that the evolution of Jamia School was need-based – and informed by the latest approaches, improvizations, and innovations – and saw active involvement of the children.


On 1 March 1935, the foundation stone for a school building was laid at Okhla, then a nondescript village on Delhi’s outskirts, by the youngest child – reflecting the centrality of students and the absence of hierarchy – along with a few others. In 1936-37, the primary school and by 1940-41, most of the departments were shifted to Okhla, to the present location that was renamed Jamia Nagar. By now, those working in Jamia, effectively held her reins.

Jamia best exemplified nationalist consciousness and Muslim culture – and treated all religions equally; its proponents, donors, supporters, teachers and students, always included a substantial number of non-Muslims. For instance, Raghunandan Saran, Managing Director, Piyare Lal Sharma & Sons, donated a lorry – the only vehicle even in the 1960s – that used to carry students on picnics, or the Jamia fraternity to the Red Fort for the Republic Day mushaira.

Jamia’s other unique features included – focus on personality development, 24x7 interaction using the mother tongue, a ceaseless innovation and experimentation by teachers, and everyone being assigned a task that suited him. These revolutionary teachers tried to bring out the best in every child by encouraging them to become seekers of truth and explorers of all-encompassing nature, and making learning a – truly holistic and sensitizing – transformational process and pleasurable experience.

The process of experimentation and innovation continued. The currency, accepted within Jamia and at select shops, was introduced – thus reflecting a largely self-sustaining, trustworthy barter economy. The ‘matbakh’ (central kitchen) provided cooked food to students, and on payment to subscriber Jamiaites, thus ensuring good quality food. It was economical and reflected a largely egalitarian society.


The new initiatives included the class being left to the students, to do what they pleased, once a week. A study circle was established. A fortnightly magazine for higher secondary students, and a children’s wall paper were started. The outstation ‘educational tour’ became a part of the curriculum. Scouting activity was introduced. A children’s court – a forerunner to ‘bachchon ki hukumat’ (students’ council) – was introduced. A ‘khwanchah’ (canteen) and a ‘chidyaghar’ (zoo) – with parrots, doves, starlings, pigeons, rabbits, and ducks – was established.

Jamia school children participating in the construction of Jamia School. (Courtesy: Jamia’s Premchand Archives and Literary Centre)

A detailed annual report card of every student carried an assessment, not only for education but also for attitude, health, cleanliness, help to people, discipline, political consciousness, liveliness, large heartedness, and sports. To top it, the students also ranked their teachers for the same attributes.


When ‘khuli hawa ka madarsa’ (Open Air School) for the students of ‘ustadon ka madarsa’ (Teachers’ College) proved to be a success – the primary school followed suit in 1941-42. In class 5 (1968-69), I had a lifetime experience during the week-long khuli hawa ka madarsa near Humayun’s Tomb, and the next year near Qutub Minar. The routine included – day-time roaming around nearby areas with the teacher, night-patrolling (without teacher), sipping tea at frequent interval, ‘kushti’ (wrestling), kabaddi and the campfire drama performances. I still remember my lines as a beggar: ‘… jo dey, us kaa bhalaa; jo nah dey, us kaa bhi bhalaa’ (Wish well to one who gives; who does not give, wish well to him as well).

What had started as ‘bachchon ka mela’ (children’s fair) – celebrated over two days after Eid, when many people from Old Delhi visited Okhla – became ‘talimi mela’ (educational fair), wherein every institution of Jamia exhibited its works and participated in different activities. During our times, the three-day talimi mela – our ‘Eid’ – was organized on the occasion of Jamia’s foundation day, when Jamia wore a bridal look, with stalls for eats and games, participation by several Delhi schools in competitions for different activities, and plays staged at night attracting us most. Even today, my memories of the Golden Jubilee celebrations are as vivid as ever.


The pre-independence Jamia’s distinguishing features included relating to the reality, both social and physical, thereby creating an enabling environment that encouraged students to perform all types of physical work, which included cleaning of the neighbourhood. Engagement with the neighbourhood included holding classes for all age groups at night, and guiding and helping them economically. ‘Qaumi Hafta’ (National Week) was observed in memory of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. All this helped students identify with the freedom struggle, develop respect for labour, and a sense of equality and egalitarianism.

Jamiaites exemplified the professed ideals; treated education as a lifelong process encompassing every aspect of life; understood learning as a character development process, to subsume themselves into the larger humanity; helped bring out the best of a child’s talents by appreciating the uniqueness of each child; adopted a holistic approach and encouraged the use of mother tongue (Urdu) for 24x7 interaction; inculcated best human qualities such as progressive attitude, empathy for the disadvantaged, honesty, punctuality, and placing others before self by setting precedents through one’s conduct; paid attention to health, physical and mental.

The idea was to help students develop qualities, including curiosity, i.e. a perpetual thirst for learning, independent and positive thinking, an aptitude for exploration and experimentation, initiative, democratic functioning, accommodation, conflict resolution, self-confidence, self-control, organizing ability, responsibility, and a desire to struggle and sacrifice for self-rule.

After India’s independence on 15 August 1947, the situation altered and during the ‘transition phase’, the following important changes could be discerned: the residential character of Jamia – and the importance of school – kept diminishing; the financial support from the government drove her towards conformity with the then-prevalent education system; the people joined Jamia for a secure career, and lacked commitment to the ideals of her founders and builders; more and more Jamiaites sent their wards to the English-medium schools. In 1988-89, Jamia herself started an English-medium school. Slowly, the standard of school education kept declining.


Let me recount some of my childhood memories pertaining to both domains, personal and school, to provide a feel of that milieu. My father joined ‘ustadon ka madarsa’ (Teachers’ College) in mid-1950s. Up to the 1960s, Jamia was a sparsely populated educated village. Everyone knew, and frequently interacted with each other. Our relationships grew so close that one virtually became a member of several families. One’s professed religion or observance of religious rituals or classical atheism, region one came from, position held, age, and sex, nothing came in the way of our relationships – both professional and personal. Honesty, integrity, sincerity, empathy, personality, and expertise in a given domain commanded respect and love.

The milieu of Jamia and the opportunity to observe and interact with exceptional personalities made our childhood rewarding. Even the sharp differences between colleagues made no difference to family ties. Bus No. 18, with very poor frequency – that plied on the Okhla-Fountain (Chandni Chowk) route – was the only link with the outside world, and maybe we availed it once or twice a year.

Dr Bahadur, a visiting physician, headed Jamia Dispensary (now full-fledged Dr M.A. Ansari Health Centre), which catered to the entire Jamia fraternity – students, employees and their families. The 24x7 healthcare provider was Somnathji, compounder saheb, a jovial Kashmiri pandit, who would visit any Jamiaite in need, any time of the day or night. And, he was more than happy eating ‘baasi (stale) roti with kabab’, after saying ‘bismillah’.


For over two decades, at our home, a weekly ‘baithak’ (sitting) – a highly truncated legacy of ‘jumerati’ (Thursday-ones), the weekly gathering of a diverse set of progressive Jamiaites on Thursday night, as Friday used to be the off-day – was held, where Ghulam Rabbani Taban Saheb – an eminent ghazal poet, author of From Poetics to Politics, who retired as general manager of Maktaba Jamia Limited, was Chairman of the Presidium, National Federation of Progressive Writers for many years, and who returned his Padma Shri in protest against the then government’s handling of communal riots – was a regular. He would discard his couplet or even an entire ghazal, if not approved by these friends – none of whom was a poet – as he was of the view that none needs to waste time reading his poetry if it was not of high standard.

On the following day of the Shankar-Shaad Mushaira, organized by Delhi Cloth and General Mills (DCM), an All-India Mushaira was invariably held in the open-air theatre at the Arts Institute – thanks to Taban Saheb’s persuasion of fellow poets. The entire Jamia biradri (Jamia fraternity) including those who had attended the mushaira the previous night, would attend.


Today, given my father’s religious persuasion, Taban Saheb’s closeness to my father appears unusual. Their personalities also differed. Taban Saheb was, in the tradition of Ghalib, a typical ‘yak nigaah-e aashna’ (exclusively devoted) to poetry, whereas my father, Qadri Saheb, a practicing Muslim, took interest in virtually everything. But, their shared interest in Urdu poetry provided the unshakeable foundation for their lifelong association. In retrospect, I am amused that my religious father’s close circle comprised mostly non-religious, classical atheists.

Abdul Ghaffar Mudholi Saheb, who wrote Jamia Ki Kahani, the most authentic source of pre-independence Jamia, also attended those sittings. He taught easy Urdu and my father taught philosophy and educational psychology to the students of Teachers’ College; but the interest in Urdu, especially textbooks, provided common ground. Once I overheard Mudholi Saheb recounting how he had countered inflation by making adjustments in his diet.

Professor Mujeeb (longest serving Vice Chancellor of Jamia) writes about Mudholi Saheb, then Principal, Primary School: ‘Once, I was to preside over a function of the Primary School. But when I reached late by a minute or so, I saw that someone else was presiding! On an earlier occasion, Dr Zakir Husain had also been treated similarly. If punctuality is observed in the functions of Jamia, then the major reason for it is Mudholi Saheb.’

It was normal for us children to address elders – who were personally very close – either as their own wards did, or use some other specific personalized address. Some nicknames – such as aapa jaan and mimmi baji, who looked after the Nursery, and abbu, who taught Urdu in Higher Secondary – were so popular that many of us did not even know their real names.


Abul Kalam Saheb (chacha jaan to us), who laid the foundation of the Arts Institute and nurtured it till the 1970s, in addition to being an artist, was a great organizer, strict administrator, and real hunter. His hunting team included all interested – irrespective of any and every distinction – and everyone was assigned a role according to one’s competence. I vividly remember one memorable hunting trip, led by redoubtable chacha jaan, when we travelled by boat and enjoyed hunting and picnic for 2-3 days. My first visit to a proper restaurant (in Connaught Place), as also a visit to Lajpat Rai Market to purchase my first watch, was courtesy chacha jaan.

Once, after attending the late night Mushaira at Red Fort, chacha jaan de-boarded the lorry, whose in-charge he was, and returned to Jamia on foot because his junior (my father, who was very close to him) had allowed an ‘unauthorized’ person to board. For an ordinary visit to our home, he would arrive a few minutes before the scheduled time, and stroll outside.

Sajjad saheb was the first to visit to break the news of my Higher Secondary result, and then went home to tell his daughter, my class fellow. Incidentally, Ralph Russell, an authority on Ghalib, always stayed at Sajjad saheb’s place even for several months, turning down free accommodation at the Jamia Guest House.

Father being the warden of Teachers’ College boys hostel, the boarders used to play Holi with him – and have sweets and fruits later. In my childhood friends’ circle, there were North Indian Muslims and Hindus, a South Indian Christian and a Gujarati Hindu – and so I got to eat cake on Christmas, beside celebrating Diwali and Eid. The religious and regional distinctions provided exposure to rich diversity. And, many of those friendships strengthened with time. Around a decade ago, when I was taken seriously ill and put on a ventilator, the only doctor amongst my childhood friends, Pankaj Shah, came straight to hospital from the Mayo Clinic in the US and returned only after I was out of danger.


My most cherished memories of primary school, other than those already mentioned, like the khuli hawa ka madarsa and talimi mela, include: participating in running the canteen, bookshop, bank, and library; visiting homes of children to collect canteen dues; teaching at aek din ka madarsa (one-day school); assigning duties to different students as the monitor of ‘tarana’ (morning assembly); participating in the morning assembly – reciting ‘hadis’ (sayings of Prophet), news (local to global), essay (self-written and approved by the teacher); involvement in canvassing (after school) during elections for president; and breaking my hand in an after-school ‘kushti’ (wrestling) with a junior, and the school hostel’s warden taking me to hospital to get my hand put in plaster; playing games, and attending classes – craft, gardening, also subjects – in the friendliest atmosphere. In 1970, in the sixth class, Prof Mohammad Mujeeb, the then Vice Chancellor, taught us once a week. Earlier, Zakir saheb, when Vice Chancellor, taught English to the primary students. It obviously reflects the importance of primary education in their eyes.

In Higher Secondary classes, Khalil-ur Rehman Saifi Premi saheb, a scholar of languages, a poet, an author, a freedom fighter, and a wonderful human being, taught us Urdu. With the passage of time, I feel increasingly indebted to him because – like the verses of Ghalib – his lectures continue to reveal new meanings to me, though at that time, I scarcely understood his importance in influencing us students. It was much later that I realized the import of his casual style of ‘out-of-course’ storytelling.

Introducing the ghazal in class nine, he told us that irrespective of our interpretation of a couplet, he would not fail anyone because none was ensconced in the poet’s heart. We were overjoyed because of the unconditional promise of ‘not failing’. At that time I could not decipher that he was encouraging independent thinking and prodding us to dare. But, later, this realization clinched my dilemma in favour of interpreting Ghalib’s chronologically arranged Urdu poetry to trace his intellectual evolution, and write The Evolution of Ghalib – just on the basis of Urdu taught by him.


Leave alone bias, we children were perhaps not conscious of vertical stratification, regional chauvinism, or religious and gender discrimination. My close school friends included wards of a peon, a clerk, a lecturer and a neighbourhood milkman. But these distinctions never crossed our minds. We only registered who was good at what – drawing, mathematics, swimming, hunting, or cricket. The first time I was jolted into the harsh reality of changing times was when, in higher secondary, our candidate for the post of Tarana monitor, Rajendra Saini, was declared unsuccessful by a voice vote, whereas the rest of our panel had won an election.

During the 1960s, Prof Mujeeb could foresee: ‘In this new age, when the urge for Jamia to become like other universities is becoming intense, it is appropriate that we remember the enjoyment of cheerfulness – in poverty and without wherewithal – of yesteryears and maintain the uniqueness of Jamia.’ However, Prof Mujeeb’s pleadings proved to be a cry in wilderness; after his departure, ‘the urge for Jamia to become like other universities’ came to fruition.


In 1969, on the occasion of the centenary celebrations of Ghalib (27 December 1797, 15 February 1869), Professor Mujeeb had a statue of Ghalib – sculpted by Tyagi saheb, sculptor in Teachers’ College, and assisted by Kishori Lal ji – installed prominently on the Jamia campus. Tyagi saheb would make a person sit – who, in his view, facially resembled Ghalib – while making the sculpture. And, this sculpting process involved breaking and remaking – and took a long time to complete. As a child, I never realized that I was witness to epoch-making developments in Jamia’s history.

With the installation of the statue of Ghalib – the free thinker, quintessential seeker of truth, with an insatiable thirst for unravelling the secrets of all-encompassing nature, who understood materialism, historical and dialectical, both – the Nursery for Nurturing Humanists was finally mummified. The couplet of Ghalib, inscribed on the pedestal holding his statue, but seldom noticed, pithily sums up the spirit of Jamia’s founders:

jaam-e-har-zarrah hai sar-shaar-e-tamanna mujh sey / kis ka dil hoon? keh do-aalam sey lagaayaa hai mujhey

(By virtue of me, the goblet of every particle is drunk with craving / Whose heart am I? That I stay absorbed with the universe).


* Hasan Abdullah is the author of The Evolution of Ghalib.

** All quotations and information are sourced from Jamia Ki Kahani by Abdul Ghaffar Mudholi. The book was originally published by Maktaba Jamia and later reprinted (2004) by the National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language (NCPUL), New Delhi.