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January 23, 2017

Turangzai vs the Raj


January 23, 2017

In one of my previous articles, titled ‘Frontier and resistance’, published in these pages I focused on the armed resistance in the frontier where a number of freedom fighters, including Haji Turangzai, with their meagre resources challenged the might of the Raj.

This article focuses on Haji Turangzai’s educational resistance to the Raj that started in a quiet manner and permeated the social fabric of Pakhtun culture until the time that the British felt the heat of the project. What was special about Turangzai’s educational project? Why were the British afraid of these madressahs? To answer these questions, we need to know about the context of the frontier and the personality of Haji Turangzai.

The frontier was always a place of defiance for the British. To curb any potential revolt, the Frontier Crimes Regulation was passed to deal with the Pakhtuns with an iron hand.

The local context was crying for social reformation. The educational opportunities were rare. Under the patronage of the Raj, Christian preachers were active in spreading Christianity by exploiting the poverty of the locals. There were a number of local leaders who stood up against the British and took part in an armed resistance.  

Haji Turangzai’s role, however, was unique. He realised that only a holistic approach for social change could be effective. He firmly believed that education could be used to inculcate sociopolitical awareness among the locals, reform their social lives and throw away the yoke of slavery from the Raj. 

The real name of Haji Turangzai was Fazal-e-Wahid. He was born in 1859 to a Syed family in the Turangzai village situated in Charsadda. His grandfather, Syed Rustam Shah, was known for his anti-imperialist stance and lent his cooperation to Syed Ahmed Shaheed during his visit to the frontier. Haji Sahib inherited an anti-imperialist stance from his family. He started dreaming about the social reformation of the Pakhtuns living in far-flung villages of the Frontier province.

After completing his religious education, he came back to his village and started living there. A turning point in his life was his visit to Deoband where he was hailed by Pakhtun students. It was here that he met Shaikhul Hind, Mahmud al-Hasan, who was a young and dynamic teacher at Deoband. This meeting turned into a long-standing friendship with Deoband leaders and he decided to go for hajj along with a caravan led by Maulana Qasim Nanotvi. It was perhaps during his interaction with the Deoband that the decision to set up madressahs in the frontier was taken. This was a strategy that was initiated by the Deoband leaders when they established Darul Uloom Deoband to put up discursive resistance to the Raj.  

The guiding principle of the madressah was not to accept any help from the British government to maintain the autonomy of policy. Haji Turangzai also wanted to establish a madressah that would be independent in its policy and that would work for the freedom of India. Haji Sahib decided to name his madressah the Azad Madressah. Azadi in Urdu/Persian meant freedom, or independence and Azad denoted the state of being free or independent.  Thus the name of the madressah reflected its vision and mission. One of the objectives of these madressahs was the social reformation of Pakhtun society. 

Haji Sahib was concerned about some of the social practices, for example extravagance during different parties or family feuds in Pakhtun culture.  In order to produce a social transformation, he visited different villages to spread his message. Because of his charismatic personality, he instantly attracted a large following of locals. He would talk to the people in their own language about the required changes in social practices. 

Haji Sahib was passionate about the freedom of India from foreign control. Because of his anti-British activities, he was arrested in 1908. After his release, he devoted his time to set up Azad madressahs. Besides others, Abdul Ghaffar Khan, was associated with Haji Sahib as a young volunteer. There are contradictory claims about the number of these madressahs but, according to a conservative estimate, there were about 35 madressahs in the area. With the exception of a couple of madressahs in Peshawar, most of these madressahs were opened in small villages. The madressah at Utmanzai attracted a large number of students. The headquarters of the Azad Madressah’s chain was in Gadar, a village which was strategically located in relation to some important centres, ie Mardan, Charsadda, and Swabi. 

Keeping in view the meagre financial resources, most of the madressahs were run in mosques. These madressahs started working quietly and grew steadily in terms of number of students. The period between 1911 and 1915 saw these madressahs gaining popularity among the locals. The madressahs were run on a scientific basis. There was an advisory council of scholars to run policy affairs. The manager of the madressahs was Taj Muhammad from Mardan, who was a graduate and was well-versed in contemporary trends in education.

The madressahs had a proper assessment system for the students. They were regularly inspected and Haji Sahib would himself go on inspection visits. On these visits, he would give rewards to the teachers and students on their good performance. Most of the teachers at these madressahs were ideological followers of Haji Sahib and, like him, were passionate to free their country from foreign rulers.

The eruption of World War I in 1914 provided a vent to the pent-up feelings of the Indians, and freedom movements in India were stepped up. Haji Sahib’s radical thoughts and activities could not be spared by the British rulers who were used to stifling any voice of dissent. Sensing an imminent crackdown by the British, Haji Sahib moved to Sur Kumar, situated in the tribal areas. 

On Haji Sahib’s departure to the tribal areas, the chain of the Azad Madressah was disbanded by the British rulers. A number of teachers, who were loyal disciples of Haji Sahib, disappeared and the rest of them were arrested. The financers of these madressahs were also put behind bars and their properties were confiscated.

Haji Sahib set up two madressahs in the tribal areas but most of his time was spent in armed clashes with the British. Haji Sahib’s long resistance ended with his death (due to natural causes). But his message of freedom inspired a large number of people who, along with other freedom-loving forces, realised his dream of an independent country.


The writer is an educationist.

Email: [email protected]



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