Lest we forget: The pioneering educationists from East Bengal
We would like to recall with gratitude some harbingers of education from East Bengal (now Bangladesh) in the 19th century, who have 'illumined' the lives of generations by founding modern educational institutions at the primary, secondary and university levels in British India. Long years ago, theirs was a journey fraught with odds and impediments amidst the poverty, ignorance and deprivation of a colonial society. However, these dauntless pioneers were visionaries who took upon themselves the formidable challenges of a noble mission by spreading public education with remarkable tenacity regardless of the lack of ready resources. They managed to build schools and colleges too often by stages with relentless effort, perseverance and dedication with the help of local philanthropists. Their conscience were beholden to the notion of the 'noblesse oblige,' that is to say, privilege entails obligation and responsibility. The following are stories of such bravehearts.
Dr. Aghorenath Chattopadhyaya
(1851–1915) was a distinguished British Indian educationist, intellectual, scientist and social reformer. He was born in Bhrahmongaon in Kanaksar village of Bikrampur, Dhaka, East Bengal (Bangladesh). He was the first Indian and Bengali to secure a D.Sc. (Doctorate of Science) degree, a rare distinction in those days. He attended the Pogose and Dhaka Collegiate Schools and the prestigious Presidency College, Calcutta. A meritorious student he moved to the University of Edinburgh for higher studies on a Gilchrist scholarship. During his student years in Edinburgh he excelled in his studies and was awarded the Baxter Scholarship and the Hope Prize.
On his return to colonial India, he was specially invited by the Nizam (ruler) of the premier Princely State of Hyderabad, Nawab Mir Mahboob Ali Khan (1866-1911) Kt, Asaf Jah VI, to modernize the education system there. He began by opening an English medium school there. With the Nizam's support he soon founded the Hyderabad College with himself as its first principal. It was later renamed as the Nizam College. He was instrumental in starting a Women's College in those highly conservative days as part of the Osmania University and implemented the progressive Special Marriage Act, a courageous step in Hyderabad State. For his principled stand on important matters of the State in which he sometimes strongly differed with the Nizam, he had to leave Hyderabad twice, regardless of the fact that the ruler always professed a high personal regard for Aghorenath, for his integrity, erudition and sound administrative acumen.
Aghorenath and his wife Varada Sundari Devi were blessed with eight children who included the celebrated Indian poetess and political activist against the Raj, Sarojini Naidu alias 'the Nightingale of India' their eldest daughter, who was the mother of Padmaja Naidu. Their second daughter Mrinalini was a Cambridge graduate who became the principal of the then well-known Sir Gangaram Girls' High School in Lahore before the partition. The third daughter Sunalini was an accomplished Kathak dancer. Their eldest son Virandranath (also Birendranath) was a dedicated leftist and an avowed political activist against the Raj, so much so, that he was listed in the British Crime register as a wanted revolutionary. He managed to slip away to Europe to carry out his clandestine activities from there. However, during his stay in the Soviet Union, he fell afoul of the political authorities there and became a victim of the pathological Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin's infamous purge of abominable cruelty. He was executed in 1937. The youngest son Harindranath was a social activist, poet and actor who received one of independent India's highest civilian award the Padma Bhushan in 1973.
Dr. Aghorenath Chattopadhyaya died at his Lovelock Street residence, Calcutta on 28 January 1915. In his passing a befitting tribute was paid by his eldest daughter Sarojini Naidu, who said that her illustrious father could aptly be characterized as - a dreamer by temperament, a man of intense curiosity, a visionary with bold initiatives coupled by a passion for holistic learning which extended even to the realm of Alchemy. We should take pride in the fact that the ancestral roots of this extraordinary scholar- educationist lie in Bikrampur (now Munshiganj), Dhaka Division, Bangladesh.
Gopalchandra Lahiri (1858-1936) son of Mahimchandra Lahiri was born in Rokonpur Pargana, in Kacharipara under Gopalpur Mauza, Pabna. In his lifetime he became a renowned pioneer of higher education, particularly at the college level in the district of Pabna. It was an enviable achievement in those difficult days of the colonial era. However, Gopalchandra was a public spirited, dedicated soul imbued with the noble mission of spreading the 'light' of modern education among the young.
Gopalchandra's family profession was that of Jotdaari (semi-feudal wealthy peasants). It is interesting to note that his birth almost coincided with the establishment of the Pabna Zilla School in 1853. Therefore, it is quite possible that he may have attended that school, although there is no provenance. As a meritorious student he later enrolled in Rajshahi College, another renowned institution of the time. He was taken in as a free boarder in the house of a well- known lawyer of Rajshahi named Shrijukto Guruprasad Sen, where he became the private tutor to Rajanikanta Sen, the school going son of Guruprasad. It was the same Rajanikanta Sen (1865-1910) who would later go on to become the famous 'Kantokobi' of Bengal, that is, poet and composer of devotional (Bhakti) as well as patriotic songs. Today, Rajanikanta Sen along with Rabindranath Tagore, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Atul Prasad Sen and Dwijendra Lal Roy (D. L. Roy) are famously regarded as the 'Pancha Orko' or the 'Five Sun' of Bengali Literature and culture.
Gopalchandra Lahiri graduated with a Bachelor's degree (B.A.) in 1881-82 from the Rajshahi College, while lodging with lawyer Guruprasad. In the same year, Rajanikanta too passed his Entrance Exam. The biographer of Rajanikanta, one Naliniranjan Pandit in his book, 'Kantokobi Rajanikanta' paid rich tributes to Gopalchandra Lahiri by saying that, 'his superb teaching skills, holistic approach to education profoundly enhanced the knowledge base of Rajanikanta within a short period of time and transformed him into an erudite young man.' Later on, Rajanikanta also reverentially dedicated his much acclaimed second book of verse entitled, 'Kalyani' to the memory of his beloved private tutor.
On his return to Pabna town, Gopalchandra Lahiri, embarked on his life's mission of initiating formal institutional education. In March of 1894, he established the 'Pabna Institution' a High English School in the town. However, the school had to be relocated soon due to its unsuitable location in the congested bazar area. Besides, the school had already started to attract a lot of eager students for whose proper accommodation more space was urgently needed. Therefore, with the generous financial help of the enlightened Bhaduri zamindar family of the locality, a new school building was erected on seven bighas of land. In the meantime, Gopalchandra also opened a college in a room of the school to introduce higher learning by producing college graduates. For a while he took on the extra burden of being the headmaster of the school, college and the principal teacher at the same time. Thus, it was the 'Pabna Institution' (school) which finally gave birth in July 1898, to the renowned Government Edward College in Pabna as we know it today. Both the school and college are amongst the oldest educational institutions in Bangladesh. On the death of Gopalchandra Lahiri in 1936, a pall of gloom descended upon Pabna town. Soon the grateful civil administration and people of Pabna, renamed 'Pabna Institution' (school) as the 'Gopalchandra Lahiri Institution' in loving memory of the noble man for his selfless dedication and virtuous contribution towards public education.
The eminent pioneering educationist Rai Bahadur Ananda Chandra Roy (1863-1920) of Comilla, was born in his village home in Gobindapur taluk, Homnabad, Laksham, in Comilla district. His ancestors came from Rajasthan to East Bengal and settled in Comilla in the 18th century. After becoming wealthy traders they became zamindars (feudal landlords). The Roy family soon started to acquire landed property in Comilla town and constructed attractive residential homes, one of which was on forty acres of land in the Kandirpar area near the posh 'Talpukur Par'. Ananda Chandra Roy was the eldest son of his father. On his father's premature death, he had to take over charge of the Zamindari at a tender age. In his lifetime, he judiciously managed to substantially extend the Zamindari and became very wealthy and influential. Apart from the Zamindari, he also invested wisely in the contracting business through his contracting firm. When the plan of the Assam Bengal Railway was being implemented, he was awarded the lucrative contract to build the railroad. He built a beautiful house in the Ranirbazar area of Comilla town for his only daughter Labanyaprova. Presently, it is the residence of the District Judge of Comilla.
However, Ananda Chandra Roy is best remembered for the establishment of the Victoria School (1877) and Victoria College (1899) in Comilla town in late 19th century. His enlightened quest for initiating public education at the primary and secondary levels, was the outcome of his ceaseless efforts. It all began modestly in 1886, when at the age of twenty three he established the 'Roy's Entrance School' with a handful of students, which was subsequently renamed as Comilla Victoria School in commemoration of the Golden Jubilee (50 years of reign) of Queen Victoria in 1877. It is heartening to know that Dinesh Chandra Sen (1866-1939) another outstanding son of East Bengal, born in village Suapur in today's Dhaka district was the Head Master of this school (tenure:1890-97), prior to his attaining all Bengal fame as a famous writer, researcher of Bengali folklore and contribution to Bengali literature for which he was invested with the title of Rai Bahadur. Hiralal Sen born in Manikganj, East Bengal, who is generally regarded as the first Indian filmmaker was Dinesh's cousin, while Samar Sen the prominent Indian poet, litterateur and journalist was his grandson.
At present the Victoria School is known as the Comilla Victoria Collegiate School. The renowned Victoria College eventually grew out of this school in 1899 and, was affiliated up to the F.A. standard at the time. Unfortunately, the school was completed gutted by a big inferno in 1902, and had to be rebuild by its founder within a short period of time. The Trust Deed of 1904, which practically separated the College from the School was replaced by a new one in 1908. The main reasons for the Trust Deed was for the overall improvement of the College. The expectation of the founder was that the problems faced by the new College would be overcome from grants made available from the Trust Deed. When the New Regulations of the Calcutta University came into force in 1904, the affiliation of the College was restricted to the Intermediate of Arts (I.A.) standard. However, in 1918 when a second building was constructed, the status of the College was raised to the Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) standard and the Intermediate Science classes (I.Sc) were introduced in 1924, soon after the sad demise of the Rai Bahadur in 1920. However, Ananada Chandra Roy died a satisfied man having witnessed in his lifetime that the modest School he once started with only five students, was finally able to produce College graduates with B.A. degrees.
Ananada Chandra Roy established a primary school in his native village of Gobindapur, Laksham in Comilla district. He also donated land for establishing a post office there for public welfare. As an eager patron of religious and cultural activities, he was always forthcoming. As a person he was benevolent, affable, endowed with kindness, but also displayed a strong personality for which he was highly respected by all people. He passed away peacefully on 8 November, 1920 at the age of fifty seven. His last rites were performed at the family cremation grounds in the presence of thousands of mourners irrespective of religion, caste or creed.
Waqar A Khan is the Founder of Bangladesh Forum for Heritage Studies.