The Anglo Arabic School is housed in the walled city of Old Delhi. The school was established in 1692 as Madrasa Ghaziuddin. It was renamed in 1948, when it was also placed under the direction of Jamia Millia Islamia and lost its administrative autonomy.
The School at Ajmeri Gate by Azra Razzack and M Atyab Siddiqui, uses archival data and personal accounts to tell the story of a fascinating institution of historic importance.
The following is a excerpt from the chapter ‘Challenges: Conflict and Drama’ of the book.
Mira Nair herself reached out to Najeeb Jung via an email dated 11 October 2011, hoping they could come to an agreement. An offer of Rupees Ten Lakhs was made. This, she wrote, was the least they could do.25 However, now, convinced with the argument put forward by the Secretary, Najeeb Jung supported the high demand. After final negotiations the school was rich by close to thirty lakhs.
More valuable than the money which came was the level of exposure for the students. The children of the school were hobnobbing with some of the stars of the Hollywood film industry. Mira Nair, of course, was there. Along with her were Riz Ahmed, Liev Schreiber, Mohsin Hamid, British Pakistani novelist and author of the book ‘Reluctant Fundamentalist’, and many others. In fact, for Riz Ahmed, the British-Pakistani actor, the shooting of this film at the Anglo Arabic School, was an opportunity to discover his Indian connections. It turned out that Sir Shah Suleiman, one of the Presidents of the Anglo Arabic College and Schools Society, was his ancestor. One of the Principals of the school was a distant uncle.26 The students were taken in groups to watch the shooting.
Children’s excitement knew no bounds. This was an entirely new experience for them. Many also bunked their classes to watch the shooting, many stayed back after school hours to watch it. The hostellers considered themselves lucky that they were staying on the campus at a time when this film shooting was on. They could watch it at leisure. The high-end cameras and other film, sound and light equipment were fascinating for the students. It also brought them knowledge of the variety of career options available in the film industry besides acting and directing. That it required the coming together of more than 150 people to produce a film of three-hour duration was an eye-opener. The scope of this as a possible career option opened up before them. Producer, location manager, music directors, script writers, lighting assistant, camera, and many more. For the cynical this was merely tamasha!
How could controversy be absent when such a film was being shot at Anglo Arabic. One day when the shooting was going on, the Manager received frantic phone calls early in the morning that Islamuddin Sahib, the Principal had agreed to do a role for the film, that of a teacher at the madrasa. Being a teacher of Arabic and donning a beard and sherwani, Principal Islamuddin seemed to fit the role perfectly. Not quite sure of what was happening at the school from his residence in distant Noida, the Manager called up the Principal, when this news reached him. Afraid this may generate controversy and flare up into a larger issue in a sensitive walled city the Manager very apologetically had to request the Principal to withdraw. Deciding that this may not be in the best interest of the school, Principal Islamuddin decided to forego this opportunity of becoming a Hollywood star which had suddenly materialized! Between all of this some teachers complained about the loss and disturbance of school days. We were, however, convinced that this exposure, to an international film crew, was of great value for the students.
A scene which required the depiction of a madrasa and children reading the Quran provided the perfect background for another controversy. A teacher of the school is said to have expressed his reservations before the students in his class about the possibility that the Quran would be defiled in the enactment of this scene. Word spread fast. It was with some difficulty that the rumour was set to rest. If this had leaked outside the gates of the school there would have been mayhem that day.
Other sources, too, were tapped on a continuous basis. One summer morning in 2011 Nuzhat Ali, Advisor on education with the Tech Mahindra Foundation (TMF), met the Secretary and shared the Foundation’s intent to work with girls from marginalized communities. This was an opportune moment. Determined on getting financial support for the school, Secretary Azra Razzack posed a question before her—‘Why don’t you work with Muslim boys instead.’ Convinced by the argument put forth about the need to do something for this only boys’ school (the school had not yet opened its doors for girls), Nuzhat Ali returned to the school some days later along with Mr Khanna, the then, CEO of TMF. This was the beginning of Tech Mahindra’s intervention and association with the school. Soon there was vibrancy in the air and a hope for better days to come. Major components of this School Enrichment Programme included setting up of a Teachers’ Resource Centre, Sports Club, strengthening of the Junior Science Laboratory and Library, and the setting up of a Multi-Media Centre materialized.
This intervention helped the school take up a number of additional activities. Suchita, a bright young woman with experience in the social sector, became the co-coordinator of this programme. The School Enrichment Programme ensured that students were exposed to a variety of activities which soon became a part of the students’ everyday life at school. Through professional help the students were exposed to—sports, photography, film-making, art, painting, theatre and mass communication, and literary activities.
However, getting this kind of funding comes with its attendant risks as well. Those willing to ‘help’, come along with their stereotypes about the community. Similarly Tech Mahindra’s entry into our school did not come without its expectations from their side—something which could have been counter-productive for our children. Along with agreeing to sponsoring our activities, Tech Mahindra also saw the spacious campus as offering something substantial for their own benefit.
Being an affiliate of Mahindra and Mahindra group of the automobile sector a suggestion put forward was to set up a training workshop for mechanics (to be housed in the school gymnasium)—titled attractively as an automotive engineering workshop. Those trained could then find employment with the industry, we were told. This was meant to target especially those who drop out after Class X and XII, as well as, youth from the walled city who could pick up necessary skills which would open up avenues for employment. In the nature of the hegemonic process they initially managed to convince us that this indeed was an idea worth pursuing. However, we soon realized what this would entail. This was clearly something we did not want for our children. Our children were already into small-time repair and mechanical jobs. We could not be promoting more of this. The aspiration of the community was no longer only survival—but survival with a purpose and a cause. The entire thrust behind the school enrichment programme was meant to be aspirational—to offer opportunities where students could identify their interest areas and excel in the chosen path. Pushing them down the same line in which they were engaged in or surrounded by27 would be suicidal we felt. The idea was soon dropped. Tech Mahindra which had promised that it would support the school for an extended period of time withdrew after a short intervention!