December 27 is the 144th birth anniversary of Khanbahadur Ahsanullah, the renowned academician, educator and social reformer, a reputed philanthropist, a famed literary figure and Sufi thinker of the sub-continent. He was the pride of the Muslims in Bengal and one of the most enlightened personalities of his time. He was one of the remarkable pioneers of Muslim renaissance in Bengal. Popularly known as the founder of Ahsania Mission, Ahsanullah is considered a great Sufi thinker. His contributions to society were multi-dimensional; but the aim of this article is to remember and acknowledge his contributions to education.
Khanbahadur Ahsanullah was an educationist, an educational reformer and education scientist. He was an Assistant Director of the Department of Education in undivided Bengal and Assam. For some time, he also held the position of Director of the Department of Education. In undivided Bengal, no Indian had hitherto been appointed as the Assistant Director. Amongst the Hindus and Muslims, he was the first person of Bengal to join the Indian Education Service (IES).
Before speaking of his contribution, it is necessary to understand the then conditions of the Indian education system. Initially, the East India Company did not evince any particular interest in matters of education. In 1757, the British had captured Bengal and after a couple decades, in 1781, Warren Hastings established a Madrasa in Calcutta to encourage the study of Muslim laws as well as Arabic and Persian languages. In 1791, a Sanskrit College was established by Jonathan Duncan to promote the study of Hindu laws and philosophy, in Banaras. Therefore, it must be contended that during the first three decades of the 19th century, the development of education in India took place only through traditional institutions. Then the East India Company began to adopt a dual policy in the sphere of education. It discouraged the prevalent system of oriental education and gave importance to western education and the English language. The Charter Act of 1813 adopted a provision to spend one lakh rupees per annum for the spread of education in India. But Muslims were not interested in this education, whereas the Hindus readily adopted the British system. As a result the entire Muslim community was detached from this modern education stream. Here, Ahsanullah began a movement to elicit interest from the Muslim community in modern education.
Khanbahadur Ahsanullah was born in a respectable Muslim family of the Village of Nalta Sharif under Satkhira district on December 27, 1873. He obtained his BA in 1894 and an MA degree in philosophy from the Presidency College under the University of Kolkata in 1895. After getting his master's degree, he joined as a supernumerary teacher at the Rajshahi Collegiate School under the education department of the government of Bengal in 1896. He was appointed as the first Muslim headmaster of the Rajshahi Collegiate School in 1904. In 1924 he was promoted to the post of Assistant Director of the Education Department of undivided Bengal and Assam.
Khanbahadur Ahsanullah's unparalleled contribution for the development and reformation of education as well as his philosophy of education are remarkable milestones in the Indian sub-continent's educational history. The entire service life of Ahsanullah was spent in the Department of Education. During his career, spanning 34 years, he not only served the government dutifully but also was devoted to the welfare of the neglected and backward people of his community. He undertook various reforms for their educational development. By reforming the secondary and higher madrasa curriculum and syllabus, he enabled students who passed madrasa examinations to go to university. He played an active role in creating the post of Maulvi, (equivalent to the post of Pundit), in schools and colleges. He also contributed to the creation of the New Scheme Madrasa. In schools and colleges, he readjusted the ratio of stipends for the Muslim students and made provisions so that an increasing number of poor but meritorious students could study free of cost.
In his lifetime, Khanbahadur Ahsanullah wrote more than a hundred books. Many of his books, specifically, Shikkha Khetre Bongio Musolman, Teacher's Manual and Calcutta University Commission Report 1917–1919, expound on his philosophy of education. Ahsanullah believed that education's main objective should be creating enlightened human beings. He also put great emphasis on women's education.
Ahsanullah established many educational institutions during his lifetime in different areas in British India. Islamia College (Moulana Azad College), where Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman studied, was established by his contribution. Ahsanullah made valuable contribution to the establishment of Baker Hostel, which was also related with Sheikh Mujib's education and political emergence. He played a major role in establishing many other student hostels in and outside Calcutta including the Taylor Hostel, Carmichael Hostel, Muslim Institute of Kolkata and the Fuller Hostel in Rajshahi.
Ahsanullah was a prominent decision maker in almost every committee related to education. He was elected member of the senate and the syndicate of Kolkata University. He was a member of the Hornell Committee and a member of the special Committee to establish the University of Dhaka. He was the Court Member (senate) of the University of Dhaka as well. For his numerous contributions in the sector of education and social reformation, Ahsanullah was conferred the title of Khanbahadur by the British government in 1911. He was also elected a member of Royal Society of London in the same year. Ahsanullah was an official member of the Muhammadan Educational Advisory Committee.
Khanbahadur Ahsanullah had a significant contribution in the establishment of the University of Dhaka (1921). When the British government showed interest in establishing a separate university in Dhaka, many Hindu leaders were not happy with the government's intention. Though, the Nathan committee was formed to establish the university, during the period of World War I, the committee remained mostly inactive. In 1914, the Hornell Committee (special committee to establish Dhaka University) was formed with Khanbahadur Ahsanullah as a member. As a member of the committee, Ahsanullah was able to convince the commission of its importance, eventually leading to the setting up of the University of Dhaka. On November 1, 1919 a nine-member senate special committee was formed (Khanbahadur Ahsanullah was a member of the committee) which submitted its report along with a note of dissent from Khanbahadur Ahsanullah. In the note, Ahsanullah reiterated the reasons for the establishment of the university. Most of the suggestions from Khanbahadur Ahsanullah were adopted in the Dhaka University Act-1920.
During his time, there was a practice of writing the names of students in examination papers. Many people believed that this open identity went against the interests of a section of the students. For this reason, Ahsanullah went all out to introduce the system of writing the roll numbers of students instead of their names. This was first applied in the honours and MA examinations and later adopted in the IA and BA examinations of the time.
Khanbahadur Ahsanullah was blessed with a long life which he dedicated for the advancement of a largely backward Muslim population. He played a pioneering role in consolidating the social status of Muslims of British-governed India by rejuvenating their thoughts and values and by lifting them from an all-consuming process of social degeneration. The goal of bringing a positive change both in the lives and the psyche of the Muslims that he had set himself to, was fully accomplished through his works and deeds. As a result, Khanbahadur Ahsanullah became an institution in himself. The name of this vast, prodigious personality, who lived long enough to drench himself in the sunlight of an entire millennium, will be remembered again and again for generations. Although his life and activities are now a part of history, this nation and its people will continue to be indebted to him in many ways.
Md Monirul Islam is a columnist and a researcher at Khanbahadur Ahsanullah Institute. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org