Intriguing plaques preserve the philanthropic legacy of an old school in Bannu amidst changing times
hen I visited my friend, a civil servant, a few weeks ago, he had an intriguing request. He politely asked me to visit his school ‘for a very special reason’. There were a couple of challenges. First, the school was in Bannu, his hometown, while we were in Swat, enjoying a cup of tea at his office. Second, Shahidullah, the commissioner of Malakand Division, was uncertain whether the school’s old building still stood or if an ambitious Buildings Department had demolished it. His “special reason” was incredibly enticing. As I bid farewell to his office, I assured him I would make every effort to visit the place.
Sometimes there are strange coincidences once you have made a promise. Purely by chance, I found myself needing to visit Bannu the following week. As soon as prior commitments were concluded, I eagerly made my way to Shahidullah’s old school, Government High School Number 2. Interestingly, my colleague Saeed Khan’s father had been a student at the same school in the late ’60s. The emotional bond enticed him to join me on this journey.
It was late afternoon, an unusual time to visit a school; however, the visit was facilitated by the local administration. We were guided around by two teachers from the school, one of whom was Shahidullah’s former classmate. The school was a double-storey, red-bricked, rectangular building with a large central courtyard. Unfortunately, the courtyard was unkempt, and the overgrown shrubs indicated years of neglect. The building had two gates in its wings, facing each other and opening onto opposite streets, although one of the gates appeared to be perpetually locked.
In the past, the school building had been more spacious. A few years ago, the roof of one of the upper-floor classrooms had caved in due to a lack of annual repairs. Currently, the classes are being held in a similar building nearby. The classrooms were of fairly large size, with tall roofs and sizable ventilators that allowed for a comfortable cross breeze during the hot summers of Bannu. A unique feature of each classroom was a fireplace at the back, facing the blackboard. It was evident that these fireplaces were used to keep the rooms cosy during harsh winters. These were likely fuelled by coal or logs.
Most of the classrooms, particularly those on the upper floor, were constructed through donations from the enlightened citizens of the city. This was evident from the marble plaques fixed on the walls near the doors. The inscriptions on these plaques were simultaneously etched in Hindi, English, and Urdu, clearly displaying the name of the donor and the circumstances in which the donations were made. Most of the donations were made in memory of a loved one who had passed away. Some of the plaques mentioned the amount of the donation. The dates on these plaques all fell within the pre-partition era, ranging from 1930 to 1946, indicating that the generous Hindu donors had likely migrated to India after Partition.
A room was constructed through a donation from ShrimatiMulibai, the wife of RS Dass Ram, in memory of her beloved daughter, Shrimati Sita Bai, in the year 1936. Another room was donated by Seth Gurutha Ram Lakhani in memory of his father, Seth Tilkan Das. In 1940, Lala RakhpandChawala had donated a room to honour his deceased brother, Lala Tej BhanChawala, at the cost of Rs 420.
Babu Hira Nand, Ram Lal and Sukh Ram Panyani had donated a room as a tribute to the loving memory of Duo-ki Bai, which cost them Rs 200 in 1939. Although the lady’s relationship to them was not specified, she was likely their mother. Seth Wisanda Ram Nandwani and his sons, Manohar Lal and Thakar Das, had a room built, but no date was mentioned on the plaque. However, Ch Bahat Singh MC, while donating a room in loving memory of his father, L Das Ram Chawala, specifically mentioned the year as 1930, making him the earliest donor for the cause of education in Bannu.
There were a few more plaques, and as we moved along the corridors, we paused to read them and marvelled at the philanthropic zeal of the donors. Shahidullah’s ‘special reason’ for asking me to write about his school was these plaques and the philanthropic spirit of the donors. He feared that once the Building Department pulled down the old structure, a part of the glory of Bannu would disappear forever.
My colleague Saeed Khan, a jovial Waziri from Bannu, is well-versed in keeping you engaged with his stories and interesting anecdotes. One particular plaque, placed by Hukam Chand, Tilak Chand and Naunit Ram in memory of their illustrious father, Seth Chotu Ram Chopra, caught Saeed’s attention for two reasons.
Seth Chotu Ram had been a wealthy and renowned lawyer from Bannu who passed away in April 1943. In 1936, a young Hindu girl named Ram Kori had eloped with a Muslim youth named Mir Noor Ali Shah from Jhandu Khel near Saeed’s village. She married him and adopted a Muslim name, Islam Bibi. This incident sparked intense street protests from the Hindu community. Seth Chotu Ram filed a lawsuit in the local court to agitate abduction and forced marriage. The British judge ruled against the marriage, citing that the girl was a minor and unable to make independent decisions until she reached the age of maturity. The girl was returned to her community, which caused strong protests from the Muslim community.
One month after this verdict, a popular mendicant named Mirzali Khan called for a tribal jirga in the village of Ipi near Mir Ali and declared war against the British Empire. Soon, more Pashtun tribes joined the jihad led by the Faqir of Ipi, and by 1937, the forces of the Faqir had defeated a British expeditionary column, which withdrew after suffering heavy losses. However, the balance shifted when the Royal Air Force squadrons bombed the tribal lashkar of the Faqir of Ipi, forcing them to retreat to the mountains and resort to guerrilla tactics. Subsequently, the tribal uprising in Waziristan fluctuated in intensity. Finally, in 1940, a renewed vigour was observed in the forces of the Faqir, which the British Indian government alleged was due to clandestine support from Germany through Kabul.
The Faqir of Ipi’s uprising continued until June 1947, when he convened a grand jirga in Bannu. Alongside the KhudaiKhidmatgars, he demanded that the Pashtuns be given the choice to establish an independent state of Pashtunistan. However, the British government disregarded his Bannu Resolution and the subsequent referendum only offered the option of joining India or Pakistan. In response, the Faqir of Ipi and the KhudaiKhidmatgars boycotted the referendum. From that point onwards, the Faqir gradually faded into obscurity. He passed away in 1960. A road in Islamabad was named after him.
Saeed Khan believed that the Germans did provide clandestine support to the Faqir of Ipi’s guerrilla campaigns in Waziristan during World War II. Following Faqir’s visit to Kabul, he consistently carried a new Mauser 7.65mm pistol, a model introduced in Nazi Germany during the same period. Saeed Khan speculates that the pistol was a gift to the Faqir of Ipi by undercover Nazi agents in Afghanistan.
One of Saeed Khan’s classmates at Bannu Degree College was Seth Suwinder Nath, the great-grandson of the eminent lawyer Seth Chotu Ram Chopra. This family was the last of the rich Hindu families residing in Bannuuntil the 1980s, after which they migrated to India. After graduating from the college, Saeed Khan moved to Peshawar, joined the Civil Services of Pakistan, resigned a few years later and is currently working on a British-aided programme to help improve governance in the province. Consequently, he lost contact with Suwinder Nath, but fondly remembers him. Suwinder Nath achieved a unique feat for a Hindu boy by winning a speaking contest on Sirat-un-Nabi in the college, surpassing all his Muslim competitors. Shahidullah also remembered Soni, as Suwinder was lovingly called by his friends. Soni’s family migrated to India in the early 1990s.
Shahidullah’s maternal uncle, after graduating from Khyber Medical College in 1965, migrated to England. In 1992, while visiting Jaipur, the ‘Pink City’ of India, he entered a shop to buy a watch. The owner of the shop asked about his nationality. Upon finding out that the gentleman was a Pakistani-born Briton, the owner inquired about his native city. Dr Abdur Rehman took some time to explain the geography of the Frontier Province, thinking that perhaps Bannu was too small a city to be known internationally. However, the name of the city sparked an unexpected reaction.
The shop owner almost dragged him to his home, where he was introduced to an old man, the owner’s father, as the Pathan from Bannu. Tears started rolling down the misty eyes of the old man. He began asking about the streets and mohallahs(neighbourhoods) of Bannu, where he used to wander around with family and friends as a young man before migrating to India in 1947. The old man mentioned various places such as Katchery Gate, Chowk Bazaar, Das Street, Mohallah Bhagat Singh, GopaMohallah, MollahaChota Ram, the water tank and a few wells. They conversed in Bannuchi Pashtu, speaking with the purest accent. The scars of their tumultuous migration were healed and Dr Abdur Rehman was treated like a celebrity, embraced by the old man several times. The old man expressed his wish to visit Bannu someday along with his son. As a parting note, he asked the doctor about Sanatan Dharam High School in his beloved Bannu.
The name of Shahidullah’s old school underwent several changes, mirroring the historical changes in the city’s name itself. The city was founded as Daleepnagar in 1848. It became Edwardes-abad in 1869 and Bannu in 1903. Similarly, the school, situated near Katchery Gate, was established as Sanatan Dharam High School. It was renamed Islamia High School in the 1950s and became Government High School Number-2 in the 1970s.
There were other plaques in the city that depicted the cultural history of Bannu, and Saeed wanted to show them to me. We swiftly made our way through the bustling traffic on Qasaban (Butchers) Road, took a right turn from Das Chowk and entered Custodian Street. Much to his surprise, the beautiful haveli he had intended to show me was no longer there. In its place stood an unsightly modern shopping plaza courtesy of a Superior court judge. After unlawfully occupying the property belonging to the Evacuee Trust Property Board, it is alleged that the judge manipulated a judicial decision in his favour and demolished the magnificent structure. Saeed vividly recalled that at the arched entrance of this haveli, there was a plaque that read: Gokhale Art Academy - 1868.
The haveli that once housed the province’s first art academy is no longer standing, but the plaque could have been preserved to showcase the rich cultural history of Bannu. Gokhale, the founder of this art academy in 1868, could never have imagined that his beloved city would veer towards intolerance and a biased decision would only benefit an individual while depriving the city of its priceless heritage.
Will Shahidullah’s old school, Government High School Number-2, along with the marble plaques that hold its history, withstand the challenges of changing times? The school building was deemed unsafe after the roof of one of the classrooms collapsed, prompting the authorities to approve a plan to demolish the old structure and erect a modern one in its place. However, thanks to the efforts of the Bannu ADC, who, with the assistance of the Archaeology Department, succeeded in having the school declared a heritage building, the approved plan was halted before implementation. Ikramullah, another civil servant from the old school, currently serving as an additional chief secretary for planning and development, has promised to preserve this cherished heritage of Bannu.
As I fulfil my promise to Shahidullah, I have high hopes that my friend Ikramullah will also honour his commitment. I believe the plaques in the school’s old building will remain intact, serving as a testament to the remarkable history of Bannu. Saeed Khan has more captivating stories to share, and he insists that we allocate more time to exploring the other plaques scattered throughout the city. Among these stories, the tale of Mecham Ferangi stands out and deserves to be told separately.
The writer is a retired civil servant, conservationist, and animal rights activist. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org