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The Sir Syed Ahmed Khan of Sikar

Wahid Chowhan wanted to provide quality education to the girls in his hometown. Despite opposition from certain 'traditionalists', he set up a first-of-its kind school in rural Rajasthan. Srinand Jha writes.

india Updated: Apr 16, 2012 20:12 IST
Srinand Jha
AGAINST-ALL-ODDS-Wahid-Chowhan-with-students-at-the-Excellence-Knowledge-City-for-Girls-a-school-he-set-up-in-Sikar-Rajasthan-The-school-provides-a-unique-mix-of-madrasa-education-with-more-mainstream-subjects
AGAINST-ALL-ODDS-Wahid-Chowhan-with-students-at-the-Excellence-Knowledge-City-for-Girls-a-school-he-set-up-in-Sikar-Rajasthan-The-school-provides-a-unique-mix-of-madrasa-education-with-more-mainstream-subjects

Cruel enough was the accusation that he was being funded by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence. Even viler were the whisper campaigns that followed.

Some said that Wahid Chowhan's purpose in setting up a girls' school was to corrupt the minds of innocent Muslims and lead them astray. Others insinuated that his project was just a smokescreen to set up a five-star hotel. Some 'muslim intellectuals' described him as a fly-by-night operator - out on a mission to earn a fast buck through the buying/selling of real estate.

Despite the air of controversy, Chowhan survived these accusations (and more) to build the Excellence Knowledge City for Girls in the dusty township of Sikar, 101 kilometres from the capital, Jaipur, in 1997.

This is no ordinary school. Built entirely from his personal savings, the schools offers free education - including books and uniforms - and a unique curriculum. Open to both Muslim and Hindu girls, it has a unique mix of 'madrasa' education with more modern, mainstream subjects; business administration for those who want it; Farsi, Urdu and Sanskrit for those interested in the languages. A first in Rajasthan, if not India.

Humble but determined
Unwilling to align himself with the likes of Raja Ram Mohan Roy or Savitribai Phule (who established India's first girl's school at Pune in 1848), he said, matter-of-factly, that he is "no social reformer, academician or an educationist." It's the assertion of a self-made man.

Chowhan financed his own education by working as a mason, fixing the roof of his hostel in Mumbai's RK College. He set up a construction company, Likproof India Private Limited, in a one-room apartment in the city. He also had plans to build a hotel in Goa. But in 1997, he sold that property to finance his big dream - a girl's school in his hometown.

From fixing roofs to fixing the minds of the obscurantist mullahs - what brought about this transformation?

"The more the moulvis opposed me, the stronger grew my resolve. Rather than wait for the Sachar committee recommendations to get implemented, it is better for Muslims to do something themselves. I refused to be a quitter," said the 63-year-old, talking of the school's beginnings.

Critics such as Taj Mumtaz Ahmed of the All India Quomi Ekta Committee said, "None of the girls are staying at home these days. They are all going to schools and are moving rapidly up the social ladder. It is now becoming increasingly difficult to find eligible grooms for these educated girls". Pamphlets, brochures and hand-bills were distributed in Muslim homes, asking parents to stay away from the evil designs of this "immoral man"

Chowhan feels it is atrocious to deny education to girls on such grounds. His philosophy? "When a boy gets educated, he takes care of one family (his own). When a girl gets educated, she takes care of two families (her parents and her in-laws)."

Changing lives
"Chowhan's real and lasting contribution", said social worker Ashfaque Kayamkhani, "has been 'domino effect' triggered off in Sikar and the rest of Rajasthan's Shekhawati region. More and more madrasas are switching over to a modern curriculum."

Societal support or not, Chowhan has always had the confidence of this students. Shabana Mewafaros, an alumna, has been selected for the Pre-Medical Tests (PMT). "Nobody in my family has been ever educated. I want to make my parents proud by becoming a doctor", she gushed. Rahila Jattu, a student in the final year of the Bachelors of Business Administration at the college, is keen to work with the Islamia Bank. "The financial crisis in the world has been caused by the commercial banks. I want to work for the Islamia Bank, which provides interest-free credit", she said. Parveen Kayamkhani, a class 12 pass-out, said she wanted to become an architect. Shabnam Bhatia who had represented Rajasthan in basketball, kho-kho and athletics, nurtures ambitions of representing India one day.

The importance of Chowhan's work is not lost on 83-year old Noor Mohammed Pathan, a local historian. "A silent revolution is happening here. It is history in the making. Chowhan is the Sir Syed of Sikar", he said, likening him to Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, great muslim reformer and founder of the Aligarh Muslim University.