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Thursday, January 21, 2021

The Europeans who made Aligarh Muslim University

As Aligarh Muslim University turns 100, it is a good time to look back at these men, mainly from England, who braved the hot Indian summers, often paying for it with their lives, to give their best to educate the Muslim community.

Written by Faisal Fareed | Aligarh | Updated: December 30, 2020 8:31:07 am
Conceived by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan in the late 19th century, the idea of AMU was to impart the Western system of education among Muslims in India.

Barely 500 metres from the Aligarh Muslim University campus is a Christian cemetery flanked by Tasveer Mahal, an erstwhile single screen theatre in the Uttar Pradesh city. Among the many graves here, one epitaph stands testimony to the historical association that AMU has with the European community. The inscription reads: In memory of Eric Arthur Horne, Pro Vice-Chancellor, Muslim University, born at Clevedon Somerset, November 29 1883, Died at Aligarh, June 7, 1930.

Conceived by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan in the late 19th century, the idea of AMU was to impart the Western system of education among Muslims in India. Inspired by Oxford and Cambridge universities, Khan envisioned a space in India where the British model of education could be emulated. Consequently, many Europeans, like Horne, were associated with the institution since its birth and helped nurture it during its early days. As Aligarh Muslim University turns 100, it is a good time to look back at these men, mainly from England, who braved the hot Indian summers, often paying for it with their lives, to give their best to educate the Muslim community.

Prof Shafey Kidwai, chairman of AMU’s Department of Mass Communication, believes the European teachers were instrumental in the overall personality development of the students. “Sir Syed Ahmed Khan himself had spent 17 months in England and had first-hand experience of the British education system. The emphasis was more on Taleem & Tarbiyat,” he adds.

These foreigners looked after the day-to-day functioning of the institution, coordinated with the management, and ensured optimum utilisation of the meagre resources by keeping the accounts book tidy. They even cultivated a healthy social life among the students with a boarding facility on the campus. It was the practice to keep the schoolboys in distinct and comparatively small areas, where they can efficiently be managed by a resident warden, as was the fashion in English public schools of the time.

Jama Masjid (Photo credit: Atif Maroof)

The importance of keeping the students under the watchful eyes of an Englishman appealed to the parents. English House, with Gardner Brown as its housemaster, was a huge success, receiving so many applications that it was common for admissions to be refused.

The principal of Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental college (the predecessor of AMU), Theodore Morrison once mentioned that he envisioned Aligarh to be such a home of learning as to command the same respect as scholars of Berlin and Oxford, Leipsic and Paris. Some of them also roped in their wives to take care of English classes on a part-time basis.

The journey began in 1875, when Madarsa-ul-Uloom appointed Henry George Impey Siddons, an Oxford graduate, as the first headmaster at a salary of Rs 400. He was an able administrator and during his tenure the number of students rose from four to 272.

Though it was difficult for him to bear the hot summers of India, Siddon still gave the much-needed impetus to the institution during its infancy. Siddons was instrumental in getting many dignitaries during his tenure, like Ambassador of Turkey Syed Ahmad Khulusi Effendi (1877), Governor of Bombay Sir Richard Temple (1878), United Provinces Lieutenant Governor Sir John Strachey (1880) and his successor Sir Alfred Lyall (1883), to visit the institution during his tenure. The Madrasa-ul-Uloom later transformed into Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College in 1877 and the foundation stone was laid by Viceroy of India Edward Robert Lytton Bulwer-Lytton with Siddon as its first principal.

Even as the European principals brought with them astute administrative ability and introduced modern subjects like philosophy and science, they also ensured that the community had cordial relations with the British officials.

In 1884, Siddon’s Debating Club was constituted by Principal Theodore Beck to inculcate the process of discussion and exchange of views among the students. Beck was a graduate from Trinity College, Cambridge and held important posts as President of the Cambridge Union and a member of the Country Council of London. It was during his tenure that the number of students in the college increased to 456 and for the first time a student passed the MA Examination in English. Law classes also commenced during his tenure and were inaugurated by Justice Douglas Straight on December 29, 1891.

Beck was succeeded by Theodore Morrison who doubled the number of students at MAO College. He also established a riding club, perhaps the only one in an Indian university.

Maulana Azad Library (Photo credit: Atif Maroof)

Theodore Morrison described the life and academics at the college in his letters. In the letters, he often addressed students and appreciated their activities. In the year 1892-93, a student, Khushi Mohammad, took his B A degree with honours in English and Persian. During the four years of his stay in the college, he played a leading part in its intellectual life and composed Urdu poems. Morrison addressed him as ‘Longfellow’, a name that he gave due to his height of 6’ 3”.

Another big name was J H Towle (1909 – 1919) during whose tenure several eminent personalities like Dr Zakir Husain, President of India, Ghulam Mohammad, the Governor General of Pakistan, Zahid Husain, the Finance Minister of Pakistan and General Mohammad Ayub Khan, President of Pakistan, passed out.

The college also witnessed an all-round development with introduction of full-fledged cricket and football clubs. Gerald Gardner Brown even started the League Matches in Football Club.

A A J Nesbit, L Tipping, who later joined Mayo College Ajmer, and Walter Raleigh, who later also served at Liverpool and Glasgow before he became Professor in English, Merton College, Oxford, all helped strengthen English education in the institute. Even today, the Department of English has an active Raleigh Literary Society.

AMU Students Union Hall (Photo credit: Atif Maroof)

Yet another notable contribution to AMU was made by Viceroy Lord Curzon. In 1901, he visited AMU and inspected the college and boarding house. He expressed the desire to make a gift to the college in some form to meet its immediate needs and also promote its advancement. Morrison apprised him that there was no hospital inside the college for students. The probable cost was estimated to be around Rs 15,000. Lord Curzon offered Rs 1,000 with the condition that remaining Rs 14,000 be raised by donation similarly from 14 persons. Within a short span, Rs 17.000 was raised with the Nawab of Bahawalpur offering Rs 1,000.

Another notable person was Major E W Dann who founded the Department of Geography in 1924, which was the first independent Geography department in the whole subcontinent. Major Dann also started a Geographical Society and launched The Geographer in 1926, which is still under publication.

(Faisal Fareed is an AMU official)

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