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Made in England: Education the Liberator - Chapter 2- Made in England - The Memoirs of Dr Choudry Mohammed Walayat MBE

Enrolling at that infant school, known as a muktab, in the small village of Chang, changed my life forever, although I could not realise it at that time. It was in the early months of 1941 that I joined Atta Mohammed’s little school of forty pupils aged from four to seven. Atta Mohammed was probably about fifty years old at that time, an imposing figure with a long beard, a strict disciplinarian and devoutly religious. He seemed a god-like figure to us very small boys. Possessed of an inner strength he lived to be 109 years old, but he was quite prepared to use his sotti, a long stick, to chastise us if he felt we were not working hard enough. Despite this we felt that he loved and cared about all the boys under his charge and for me he was a proper role model, a father figure, whom we all admired.

He had probably set up his school unofficially, catering for the basic education needs of boys in the area, before they went on to official primary schools. Education was only for boys and only a small percentage of them sought out an education, so most children were illiterate and therefore so were most adults in our rural community. No-one in the Mirpur District, or indeed all of Kashmir, would have felt it was necessary to educate village girls at that time, except in religious knowledge, but then that had been the position in England before Gladstone’s 1870 Education Act brought in free elementary education for all in Britain. My “sisters” certainly were not envious of me getting an education; rather, they were indignant that I was not doing work in the fields all day as they had to do. To them I appeared to be skiving off work that the family had to do to survive and having an easy time doing a bit of book learning instead. So, to overcome a little of their criticism, I did some work in the fields as soon as it was light and before I set off for school. Therefore, I had a very busy day which included the long barefoot walk to and from the school in Chang.

I loved that small school, even if we sat on the floor because there was no furniture, although some pupils did get to sit on sacks of grain or rice occasionally. The only equipment we had were a few textbooks, but real education is about inspired teaching and motivated pupils and both of those existed at our muktab. I progressed to the 3rd Class, the final year at the infant school, and I came top of my class. It was clear that I had an aptitude for formal education and I could now read and write, an immense advancement in a society where illiteracy was the norm. I could do elementary arithmetic and knew the alphabet in Urdu and best of all I relished the stories that were told to us by Atta Mohammed. One of them was the story of the Tortoise and the Hare, that in one version or another seems to be a cautionary tale for children in most countries of the world. Another was the saga of the cunning crow who got the willing, but gullible, sparrow to do the work of providing his meal of rice for him.

At this early age I grasped that I knew things that the adults in my family and village did not know. This gave me a renewed confidence and an enthusiasm to learn more at school and to progress up the educational ladder. Next would come the Government’s primary school, and who knows what might lie ahead for a bright village boy who excelled at school. I knew there were High Schools in the cities that seemed rather posh and daunting to a little boy from my background, but perhaps one day I might get to one of these schools.

I felt I had discovered a secret weapon to help me progress and, of course, I had, as millions of poor children throughout the world in the Twentieth Century would discover. A bright child could make the most amazing advances in life’s fortunes by moving up the educational ladder, as happened to two of my future Sheffield City Council colleagues and good friends, David Blunkett and Clive Betts, who were both born in ordinary circumstances on Sheffield council estates. Ironically, many of the pupils in that muktab in Chang would find their way to England and many of them came to live in Sheffield and remain to this day. Education was not free at the muktab, but my Grandmother paid for my education in kind by giving the teacher milk and butter from our buffaloes, although to get the certificate at the completion of my time at the infant school she had to find five rupees, equivalent to five shillings (25p) at that time.

Two Primary Schools

When I was nearly eight I moved on to the primary school at Nalloy. This school was on an altogether grander and more organised footing than the muktab. I should have been there for the next seven years but the terrible events that happened after partition in 1947 meant that my education there was cut short, forcing me to finish my primary schooling at another school, a middle school, in Lidder.

The school in Nalloy was not far from Mirpur town and was a government run institution that was more recognisable as a proper school. It had over a hundred pupils who came to the school from eight years of age until they were thirteen, when they might go on to a middle school and then a high school. The pupils were nearly all Muslim boys but there were a few Hindus, including a couple in my class, Gul Pushan and Rattan, with whom I became good friends. One of our teachers was also a Hindu, Mella Ram, and rather surprisingly he taught us Islamic Studies. The teachers now were specialists and on a regular salary, and included among the subjects taught were History and Geography both of which became my lifelong abiding passions. Perhaps it was not surprising in those times that I should get bitten by the history bug. When I went to Nalloy in 1944, the XIVth Army, in whose ranks Indian regiments and corps formed the majority of troops, were just going on to the offensive in north western Burma. By the time I had to leave Nalloy – flee might be a better term – I had lived through the end of the War against Japan, and all the protracted, if not desperate, negotiations with the British viceroys, Wavell and Mountbatten, that led Jinnah to create the new state of Pakistan for the Muslim population of the subcontinent. There can have been few moments in history that were more critical, not just in our century but throughout time. The princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, usually referred to just as Kashmir, was at the eye of the storm over partition because of the refusal of the Maharajah, Harri Singh, to bow to the wishes of the massive Muslim majority (80%) and join Pakistan. He believed he could defy history and continue to behave as an absolute ruler of four million people in a state that was as big as Britain in area.

It was while I was at Nalloy that I saw this overblown autocrat for myself. He was on his way to enjoy some hunting – tigers no doubt, when he was scheduled to pass through Nalloy village. We schoolchildren were all lined up along both sides of the road and instructed to shout out “Long Live the Maharajah” as he drove by in the back of a jeep. He was a large man with a typical wide moustache, dressed in a khaki uniform and wearing a turban. At the time I did not feel anything much either way, but this selfish man has caused the greatest amount of suffering over the years because he was not prepared to accept basic democratic principle of self-determination.

When partition became a reality and Pakistan was declared an independent new state, our family and our school were on the wrong side of the line. All the world knows what happened next as Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims began to slaughter each other as they moved to their parts of the subcontinent. My Grandmother feared for her life after we had been bombed and strafed in a field near a main road by Indian Air Force planes. We had lain in the furrows of that field because they gave us a little protection as the planes kept circling round for another shot at us. I now believe they were trying to protect Hindus on the road who were fleeing for their lives. They may have come from Mirpur town, which was largely Hindu and whose citizens had decided to pack up and flee to India after they had been attacked in the streets and then had their houses looted by Muslim mobs.

My two Hindu schoolfriends and Mr. Mella Ram must have tried to flee too but I never heard of them again. It is most likely that they perished on some track in the countryside. With such a large Muslim population in the area it would have been virtually impossible to get through, as there were no proper roads or railways that might have allowed a speedy escape.

My Grandma took us across the border into Pakistan and I never saw my school again. In the communal rioting it was burnt down, just another of the thousands of buildings that suffered in this way. We found refuge in a town on the Jhelum river called Nokoder and some people there, who we did not know, very kindly gave us a room for no charge. For the moment we were just another refugee family who had made it safely to their own country, while a million others were not so fortunate.

Meanwhile, civil war had broken out in Kashmir. As the new Pakistan Army had not had time to get itself organised from those officers, men and regiments that had opted for Pakistan, most of the fighting was done by mujahadeen from Afghanistan, Peshawar and tribesmen from the NWFP, the North West Frontier Province. They drove the Indian Army out of a quarter of Jammu and Kashmir and, when the cease fire was finally agreed upon in early 1949, the western part of the province came under Pakistan’s control and has been known ever since as Azad Kasmir — Free Kashmir in English. Most of the Muslims of Kashmir still live under Indian administration, including those in the capital Srinigar which has ended up on the Indian side of the cease fire line. Mirpur was now in Azad Kashmir and so my grandmother decided it was safe for us to go home and that she would find me a new school.

At the Middle School

Lidder Middle School was a larger and more important school than my previous school at Nalloy. It took pupils from 8-15 and I continued my education there until I was fifteen and could go on to a High School. It was at Lidder, which was only four miles away – nearer my home village than Nalloy Primary School had been – that I first started to learn English. I found this new subject, which could not have been more vital and practical for my future, very enjoyable and intriguing. It was exciting to be speaking a language from another continent, that you knew had become the international language for the entire world. Even though you were still at school, you felt special just to be part of that wider important community.

However, soon after I arrived at Lidder another event happened that also probably had a profound effect on my life; although it remains one of those great unanswerable questions of history. In September 1948, the Quaid-IAzam, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who had become the Governor-General of Pakistan, in effect the first President, died of the cancer that he had been carrying for some time. He had courageously carried on through all the turmoils of the creation of Pakistan knowing that he was terminally ill. How would Pakistan’s history have turned out if he had lived? Would he have had the prestige, as the virtual founder of the nation, to chart a more stable course for the new country and created a working democracy and a successful economy? Islamic countries are almost all ruled by Kings or military or civilian dictators and Pakistan has had its fair share of generals in charge in the last sixty years. I have often wondered how Jinnah, if he had been spared to lead a longer life, might have planned and led the future progress of my country. Or was he “fortunate” like Ghandi, assasssinated just a few months earlier in January 1948, and John F. Kennedy, to have gone while their reputations were intact. In recent years I have compared Jinnah to Nelson Mandela and the role that he has played in South African history since 1994. It is remarkable how Mandela’s spirit pervades the politics of that country, and especially its foreign reputation, even though he withdrew from the controversial day to day business of active politics some years ago.

Important as the death of Jinnah was, children quickly forget these adult public tragedies and we just got on with our lives. It was after the fighting had forced Nehru to ask for a cease fire, and the United Nations insisted that there must be a plebiscite to ascertain the wishes of the population of all of Kashmir, that I saw my first ever Europeans. I was about thirteen at the time and the UN had sent a commission to visit Kashmir and get first hand information on the views of the people. Our headteacher got us all lined up along the road where the delegation were to pass. As we waited for them to come into view he instructed us that when he called out “What do we want?”, we would all yell out at the tops of our voices “Pakistan!!”. When the Europeans passed by – and I am not certain which country they came from, they may have been Scandinavians, who were felt to be very neutral in those days – on the head’s cue we shouted out till our lungs might burst “Pakistan! Pakistan! Pakistan!” I am sure we must have impressed the men from the UN, but Nehru reneged on his promise of a plebiscite and no Indian Government has ever agreed to one since for the simple reason, as Krishna Menon once let slip publicly, India was bound to lose.

Our teachers were on a salary from the Government, but still were not very well paid. The school looked to the parents to make a contribution towards the cost of their boys’ education and it was customary at the end of the year for parents to tip the teacher for his efforts in educating their sons. You would not get your final certificate if you did not tip the teacher and, as at the muktab, there was also an official price to pay for the actual certificate.

Mirpur High School and Matriculation

I had done well to get so far up the educational ladder for a poor boy from a poor village, but I was not certain if I would be able to progress to a High School. These were largely for the middle classes in the towns and the fees seemed very steep to people of my family’s means. However, my family found the money and so I was enrolled at Mirpur High School, which before partition in 1947 had been mainly for Hindu boys from comfortable backgrounds. At that time the school was not called after the town but rather after the son of the Maharajah, Kirn Singh, and designated itself a college; because they thought Kirn Singh College had a more prestigious ring to it. The new Pakistan authorities soon got rid of that name, but while I was there, at the age of sixteen, I took my matriculation examination for a School Certificate set by the University of Punjab.The system of schooling there would have been familiar to anyone from a British grammar school or, indeed, any secondary school in the Commonwealth.

The school itself was quite impressive, as one would expect from a prestigious school. Although we still did not wear school uniform, as they would do later on, I now at least had some shoes to go to school in, as my Father was now in a better position to pay for my education. So things were no longer so desperate financially, although I still had the long walk to school every day. I continued to improve my English, although my favourite subject was still History, which included Pakistani History about the Mogul Empire and the rule of the Maharajahs and the role of Islam, but also, as a leftover from the British Empire, we studied the Tudors and other English kings. So, I knew all about Henry VIII and his six wives, the wily Cardinal Wolsey and the Reformation, even though they were very remote from life in Nineteen-Fifties Azad Kashmir.

Now, at the High School, I acquired some proficiency in Maths as well, something that would be more use to me in my career than the Tudor monarchs. Maths, Urdu and English were compulsory subjects that had to be among your five passes if you were to matriculate, but I also studied Geography and Farsi, the language of the people of Iran as well. We had the choice of Farsi or Arabic, and I knew some Arabic because like every Muslim boy I had been instructed in the Koran, which is, of course, in Arabic. I thought Farsi would be much more interesting. After all the Iranians were our neighbours whereas the Arab lands were much farther away, but also because Farsi is the language of Persian poets and philosophers and I was attracted by the romance of that rich and exotic culture. On the other hand I did very little Science when I was at Mirpur High School, and perhaps this was a real shortcoming of the education on offer there.

I matriculated in the summer of 1953, passing the examination in the second division and gaining the highest marks. This qualification made me something of a minor celebrity in my rural area. I was the only boy from there ever to have matriculated and my close family, as well as friends and more distant relatives, began to recognise me as an unusual youth with considerable academic ability, which could lead on to a well paid professional job. I was regarded rather like Sheffield boys from working class families on council estates, who having gained their 11+, had gone to grammar school and then got a large number of passes at “O” level. Later they would often become the first member of their family to go into a sixth form and then on to university or college.

The buildings of our school were rather grand and initially we had to share the school with the new Pakistani Army, who needed a depot in the disputed territory of Azad Kashmir. They eventually found more suitable accommodation and the premises they had occupied were now designated as an Intermediate College of the University of Punjab. That decision allowed me to remain on the same campus and continue my education after sixteen.

The Intermediate College of Mirpur

My father was not at all sure that it was necessary for me to continue in education after sixteen. It must have seemed to him that I was spending a lot of time with book learning. He must have thought that it was time for me to get a proper job like all the other boys of my area, and earn some money to help the family. On top of that he was having to pay for this education that he did not really understand. He was persuaded by the solicitor, Abdul Khaliq Ansawri, for whom he worked, to let me continue my studies and I have him to thank for being allowed to stay on at the College. Not that it was a foregone conclusion that they would have me, but Abdul Khaliq Ansawri knew the Principal and in the time-honoured way he had a word with him. On his recommendation the Principal agreed to accept me, providing my father could stump up the fees. Plenty of bright working class boys, and especially girls, in England were having that self-same conversation with their families and some of them dropped out of education. I was lucky and carried on.

Although the College shared the same campus as the High School it was a separate institution with its own staff, and considered itself in a different league to a mere secondary school. The boss was called a principal and the staff were either professors or lecturers, depending on their status. Some of them were starting a new life too, having previously worked in India and having also been forced to flee to Pakistan in 1948, whilst only one of the lecturers actually came from Azad Kashmir. The Principal had been working in the United Provinces and his teaching had been in Hindi and Urdu, as his former post was at a mixed college of Hindu and Muslim students. One new feature of the college was the requirement for us all to have identity cards that showed our photograph. So, for the first time in my life, at the age of sixteen, I had my photograph taken. That is why I do not have any photos of my childhood, family or village while I was growing up because no one could even dream of owning a camera .

However, the subjects I specialised in were much the same as in the High School and I began to become more familiar with English literature and especially with the poets. Not just Shakespeare, but Wordsworth, Milton, Tennyson and many others. You get some real sense of a country through its literature and poetry, just like today when you learn about countries through feature films and TV programmes, and it helped to develop an interest in who these English were, not imagining at the time that I would spend most of my life living among them.

I got on well with my classmates at the college, although they were mainly boys from comfortably well-off city families who used to make fun of the country boys like me, as I expect happens in all societies. I remember some of the incidents as if it were yesterday. For example, when a boy called Butta missed prayers, which the college took very seriously, and slipped off for a bath instead. While bathing another boy pinched all his clothes and he had to appear before the principal stark naked much to everyone’s amusement. Some of my friends from those days have remained lifelong friends and several went on to very senior positions in later life. Raja Sultan Zamurrad Khan retired as a Deputy Inspector General of Police, the equivalent of a Deputy Chief Constable, and Choudry Mohammed Bashir, after a long career in public service in Pakistan, retired as a Commissioner of Revenue Administration.

I started at the College in 1953 and I was there for two years until I was eighteen. While I was there, the College was awarded the right to award degrees of the University of Punjab, and if I had stayed on for another two years I could have taken a Batchelor’s Degree whilst still in Pakistan. Instead, I left after two years with an Intermediate Degree because I had secured my first ever professional post as a teacher in a primary school in a hill-village in Kusgumma. I did eventually receive a degree, but it was forty years later in 1996 when I had the honour of receiving an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Khartoum, which claimed to be the largest University in the whole of Africa.

By Dr. Choudry M. Walayat MBE

Copyright 2009 - Dr. Choudry M. Walayat MBE

You May contact Choudry Walayat on his Mobile - 07941016417 (UK)


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