Home Feature How Dehradun Schools Won the Literacy Race

How Dehradun Schools Won the Literacy Race

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Bygone Doon:

By Pradeep Singh

Among the many blessings that have shaped the uniqueness of Dehradun, one has been more lasting and meaningful and has impacted countless in the past and continues to do so year after year. As vision can reap rewarding harvests, it no doubt was the foresight of certain determined individuals and institutions that Dehradun today is a beacon for the country’s children and youth to come and educate themselves at some of the finest schools located in the Doon Valley.

Dehradun was not one of the earliest regions acquired by the East India Company in its territorial expansion across the Indian subcontinent. Yet, the Valley and the Himalayan ridge to the north surged ahead of the rest in the field of education. Despite its relative geographical isolation, a few advantages did lie in the sylvan valley and the surrounding uplands. The coming of the railways to Dehradun in 1900 created a boom in people buying residential plots to live here and enjoy the general good climate that the Valley had to offer. The fame of Dehradun had been growing ever since the British had annexed the district after defeating the Gorkhas in the Anglo-Gorkha War of 1814-15.

The growth of educational institutions in the Valley and also in the hills was much nuanced and their evolution was not always smooth. Unlike their counterparts in Britain, the schools in Dehradun, as elsewhere too, were the outcome of efforts of missionaries and religious organisations that had come out to the colonies in pursuit of their social mission.

The British, to start with in India, had no aristocracy and the elite that they generated amongst themselves were the service officers who could afford luxuries here as well as back home in Britain. The other Britishers and Eurasians were not so privileged and worked in the Railways, Police, hospitals, clerical jobs or in small trades. A large number were soldiers of Scottish, Irish and Welsh origins who had chosen to better their already poor prospects by coming out to India. These social groups were anything but privileged but, nevertheless, were part of the expat population that the British gave rise to in their efforts to govern the country.

While the elite echelons of the British could afford to send their children to their home country to be educated at the best of schools there, the remaining British and Eurasians were left to fend for themselves. This created unforeseen and unpalatable social conditions for the latter. Demobilised soldiers, widows, and other destitute were often driven to beggary, theft and prostitution and other unsavoury means to survive. It was in a sense this growing uneasy groundswell in the non-native population that stirred thinking amongst the British administrators but concrete steps were taken by non-government or non-official organisations which were largely religious or philanthropic in orientation.

The British East India Company had always tried to justify its rapacious colonisation of the subcontinent as a white man’s burden where it was extolled that the savage natives had to be civilised by British good influence and its institutions. But, here, in the Doon Valley, the British were too busy to keep up the facade. It was the American Presbyterian Mission in India that took up the task of opening two significant educational institutions. American Presbyterian missionaries Woodside and Gilbert McMaster chose the heart of the town, in the Paltan Bazaar area, to start in 1853 the American Presbyterian Mission School for Boys and, a little later, the American Presbyterian Mission School for Girls. With a lull for a few decades, two more institutions emerged on the landscape of Doon. In 1901, the Catholic sisters of Waverly Mussoorie set up a school adjacent to Doon’s Parade Ground. This was the St Joseph’s School (not to be confused with St Joseph’s Academy).This was an exclusive school for Europeans. In 1938, this institution started the St Francis School for Indian students. The two institutions in 1947 merged calling themselves the Convent of Jesus and Mary.

The national movement, besides its political agenda, also made forays in the field of education. In 1901, Jyoti Swarup, a famous barrister opened the DAV College on land donated by a landlord, Puran Singh Negi, in the Karanpur area of the town. In 1904, this philanthropic barrister and his wife, Mahadevi, established the Mahadevi Kanya Pathshala aka MKP for educating the girls of the city and, today, it is a premier institution in Uttarakhand.

Yet another effort was made by some English and Anglo Indian families led by RK Bruce, Maj General Beazeley, RS Pearson, etc., for the benefit of Anglo Indian children and Indians. In 1916, they opened the St Thomas’s High School at Cross Road and it has completed a century in service. Not too far away in the erstwhile Tea Estate of Col Dick in Dalanwala, Col William Brown and his wife started the Col Brown’s Cambridge School for boys. It started functioning at 5 Dick Road from March 1926, where former Indian Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh had his education.

The mid-1930s added another lustrous chapter in the history of Doon. Two more path breaking initiatives gave us the St Joseph’s Academy and The Doon School in 1934 and 1935, respectively. Rev Brother Adrian Keog arrived with a batch of Irish Brothers of the order of St Patrick’s and on 2nd March, 1934, started St Joseph’s Academy in the former estate of another legendary Irishman, Col Frederick Young. Nearby, at Chand Bagh, lately vacated by FRI, SR Das started the Doon School which with rapid strides established a global reputation for its unique and impeccable standards. The collective efforts of all these institutions made the district, despite being the smallest, number one in literacy in the entire United Provinces (later Uttar Pradesh).

Independence for the nation came in 1947 and the challenge of educating the new generation was taken up by other public minded figures. Mahant Indresh Charan Dass of the Darbar of Guru Ram Rai started the SGRR Education Mission in 1953, which today has over 150 schools under its charge besides institutions of higher learning. His contemporary, Ch Puran Singh, a leading lawyer of the day, took the responsibility to take education to a remote rural area of the Valley and started the Dehra Dun Hills Academy, which was ably nurtured by its founder Principal, Madhu Singh. Other women with vision have also come forward in this field – Mrs Oliphant of Welhams Preparatory School, Mrs Sneh and Meenakshi Gandotra of Jaswant Modern School and Mrs Chhaya Khanna of Scholars Home being pre-eminent. (Schools of Mussoorie are not covered in this article as they followed a different trajectory and deserve a separate write up.)

(Pradeep Singh is an historian and the author of the ‘Suswa Saga: A Family Narrative of Eastern Dehradun'( 2011) and the ‘Sals of the Valley: A Memorial to Dehradun'(2017). He can be reached at chpradeepsingh@gmail.com)