Lahore recently saw the launch of Against all Odds, an account of Lahore’s Government College (GC) as it became a degree-awarding university in 2002. The author, the university’s iconic principal Vice-Chancellor Khalid Aftab, headed the institution from 1993 to 2011. Aftab’s career was a struggle against an ideological transition that was opposed to the values of the enlightenment he cherished. He also wanted to retain the institutional memory of the pre-Partition Ravians — as old GC students were called — who had moved to India.
Aftab reached out to old Ravian Khushwant Singh in Delhi, actor Dev Anand when he visited Lahore with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and recalled Balraj Sahni who came from Rawalpindi in 1930 to Lahore to study for BA but ended up editing the college magazine Ravi, apart from doing theatre with the great principal, Guru Dutt Sondhi, and actor-teacher Patras Bokhari. Aftab crossed over into Indian Punjab to invite old Ravians to an increasingly inward-looking and conservative Lahore. But the story he tells in detail is about Madanjeet Singh born in 1924 in Lahore.
Singh turned up at GC in 2004 and offered to fund the building of a dream: The Institute of South Asian Studies with a region-based faculty. He offered $120,000 as seed-money. Aftab found out that Singh was an ex-ambassador of India who was once made the goodwill ambassador of UNESCO. He was visiting his alma mater and the city he had loved. In Lahore, he had lived close to the tomb of Sufi saint Mian Mir whom Guru Arjan Dev, the fifth Guru of the Sikhs, had approached to grace the foundation-laying of the Golden Temple at Amritsar. Singh knew the family of poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz in Lahore.
He joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1953, serving in Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, Laos, Sweden, Denmark, Spain, USSR and South Vietnam. In 1995, the UNESCO Executive Board created the biennial UNESCO-Madanjeet Singh Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non-Violence. Abdul Sattar Edhi, Pakistan’s revered philanthropist and social worker, is one of its recipients.
In Lahore, VC Aftab took him around the university which looked transformed. “What have you done to my old gymnasium?”, Singh asked. On being told there was no money for restoration, he begged to be allowed to take on the job. Aftab asked the university syndicate which vetted the project enthusiastically. The money came through too. The Institute was planned tentatively to work under a SAARC faculty to discuss South Asian issues with internationally acknowledged scholars. The restoration of the gymnasium building was completed. But the final permission had to come from the government. This is where the VC got into trouble. He consulted a number of Old Ravians who could be persuasive with Islamabad. He tells what happened next: “Shamshad Ahmad Khan, former Foreign Secretary and Pakistan’s Permanent Representative at the UN, had some reservations on the future of the Institute. In his opinion, the university had to get clearance of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) before taking any further step in this matter. This was discouraging. I didn’t like the idea of going to a military establishment for clearance to start an academic project.”
The fate of the Institute of South Asian Studies was thus sealed. The idea of education under the British was different and the Ravian’s mind developed by it had become irrelevant after 1947. The trajectories followed by India and Pakistan condemned the minds of their people to abandon memories of living together peacefully. The gymnasium that Singh thought could bring the South Asian mind to think together still stands in the Government College University waiting for its students and faculty and the quarterly journal it was supposed to produce.
Singh was an extraordinary human being. He was a prolific author whose publications included Ajanta: Paintings of the Sacred and the Secular, Himalayan Art, The White Horse, The Oral and Intangible Heritage of South Asia, and Kashmiriyat. His ancestral house in Mian Mir Lahore was built-over long ago along with other historical sites. Singh passed away in 2013.
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