You are here

The last of us: An elegy for a teacher who remained committed to India's composite culture

Daily O
By Professor  

Raj Kumari Nigam (1951-2018) — a respected teacher, caring mentor, beloved sister and aunt — passed away peacefully due to multi-organ failure on August 10, 2018. In her last few days, she fell grievously ill, but did not suffer much given the loving care of her siblings, nephews and other family members and friends. She was cremated at Pitampura, with her last rights conducted at the Arya Samaj Mandir.

In the form of Miss Nigam, or 'Raj Aunty' — as she was fondly called by the students of Aziz Memorial School, where she taught for 41 years of her life — what also left us was the figure of one of the last contributors of her generation to a rigorous, prolonged and natural commitment to the others in India, particularly in the world of education.

She was one who did not see today's increasingly marginalised 'religious other' as distinctly separate, but through her long and steadfast service also worked in a framework where her students and their parents, her peers, and employers, were part of a holistic 'us'.

Aziz Memorial School was founded in 1951 by Maulana Aziz-ur-Rehman Ludhianvi Jamali as Talimi Samaji Markaz (Educational Social Institute), a secular (in the Indian multicultural sense) school in Old Delhi. Aziz-ur-Rehman was an Indian Muslim freedom fighter and a member of the Majlis-e-Ahrar-ul-Islam, a party that opposed the Muslim League and the Partition of India to the very end.

The institute he founded aimed to provide primary and higher education to the citizens of Old Delhi. Over time, this meant largely a Muslim student body as the locality of Baradari, Ballimaran, turned into a Muslim ghetto.

However, this isolation was not always the case.

Within four years of being founded, the school had moved from Urdu to Hindi as the medium of instruction. This was to facilitate a secular move into mainstream Indian society for all its students. This also allowed teachers from diverse backgrounds to teach in this school for the needy. Students came from diverse religious backgrounds and in large numbers to this school, running on modest means with a very low fee structure, parents preferring it over various government-run (public) schools. The belief, often proven right, was that a good primary school foundation allowed the students to continue to do well in their higher studies, even in public schools, and eventually in their careers.

The school lays claim to many success stories.

The current chancellor and vice-chancellor of Maulana Azad National Urdu University in Hyderabad, a central university, Feroz Bakht Ahmed and Dr Aslam Parvez, are among two of the school's leading lights. Shahid Siddique (former Rajya Sabha member), Haroon Yusuf (former MLA and Delhi state minister), Rashid Hashmi (lawyer), Dr Nayyar Imtiaz (doctor), Ziya Us Salam (senior journalist and author), Dr Riaz Ahmed (associate professor, DU), Dr Shahina Tabassum (assistant professor, DU), Anas Faizi (popular Urdu poet and RJ), Iqbal Firdausi (Urdu poet of humour and satire) and Javed Khan Amrohi (actor of Andaz Apna Apna and Lagaan fame) are some of the other alumni who make the school proud.

Much of this success can be attributed to teachers such as Raj Aunty.

Another incredibly popular teacher who died last year was Ms Nimmi Saxena, who taught at the school for 55 years. Nimmi Didi, as she was called by colleagues, was affectionately addressed as 'Didi Aunty' by students, and is remembered fondly by hundreds of alumni.

Raj Aunty, with an MA in Economics and a BEd, taught math to the senior classes. As both these teachers stood by the school through thick and thin, they served the institution with egalitarian devotion, increasingly only teaching Muslim students as Hindu parents stopped sending their wards due to the school's location in what became a 'Muslim ilaqa'.

The school had changed its name in the 1980s too to Aziz Memorial School, not only to commemorate its founder, but also under various complicated bureaucratic pressures. It moved from Hindi to English medium too, in order to keep up with a changing socio-economic demand. Both teachers stayed put through these transformations.

With the sad demise of both Raj Aunty and Nimmi Didi, the school has now lost the last of its devoted Hindu teachers.

While their loss is deeply felt by the Aziz Memorial School community, it is also symptomatic of the larger losses of the ghettoised Muslim community, not just of Old Delhi, but of urban India at large.

Neither Hindu students, nor teachers, apply to the school for any position, and while the school may in the future continue to do well, the isolation that the community faces seems absolute. The Sachar Committee Report of 2005, which has been awaiting action for about 13 years now, gathers dust, as lower class Muslims continue to languish in their own ghettoes with very few from other communities willing to engage with them there. Opportunities for them to participate in civil society outside of the ghetto are rare and difficult to negotiate.

As we commemorate and mourn our former PM, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, we must also pay tribute to these silent crusaders of harmony and education in increasingly divided times.

Both Nimmi Didi and Raj Aunty are symbolic of this great nation's shared past and beliefs. The most notable example is of Raj Aunty who would even volunteer to teach Muslim students their kalima (creed). We can only hope that she wasn't the last of a united and egalitarian us, and there may be many more nationalists of her ilk, working for the good of this country and its various people.

Raj Aunty is dead. Long live Raj Aunty!

(The author is the grandson of Aziz-ur-Rehman Ludhianvi).