At the beginning of the 20th century, there were hardly any schools for girls in Delhi. The pioneers in this field all over India were Christian missionaries who were allowed to operate in India in the East India Company’s territories after the Charter Act of 1813. Robert May of the London Missionary Society started the first school for girls in Chinsura (Bengal) in 1817. But the pupils in these schools were usually Christians, orphans from lower castes and poor families. ‘Respectable’ Hindus and Muslims did not send their daughters to mission schools.
In the 19th century, Christian missionaries, British administrators, foreign travellers and scholars all criticised the deplorable condition of Indian women. James Mill, in his influential book, History of British India, argued that the position of women could be used as an indicator of society’s advancement and, on this count, India occupied a very low position. The Indian urban intelligentsia, newly exposed to Western education, became sensitive to this criticism and turned its attention to the condition of women. Their new-found faith in modern education led them to believe that the women education was necessary not only to improve the condition and status of women but also of society. Following the Christian missionaries, social reformers of the Brahmo Samaj in Bengal, the Prarthana Samaj in Maharashtra and Gujarat, the Arya Samaj in North India and the Theosophical Society led the movement for women education. John Drinkwater Bethune, Law Member in Lord Dalhousie’s Council, started the first secular school for girls in Calcutta in 1849, which was later named after him. In the same year, Alexander Forbes’ Gujarat Vernacular Society opened a school for girls in Ahmedabad. The students of Elphinstone College in Bombay started girls’ schools. Delhi was far behind the Presidency towns.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, north India was one of the most backward areas in the country in terms of women education. Some of the most enlightened women in public life there such as Rameshwari Nehru, Vijayalaksmi Pandit and Durgabai Vora lacked formal women education. Even in an enlightened household such as that of Motilal Nehru, the discrimination against women education was marked. One of the early efforts was that of Lala Munshi Ram of the Arya Samaj who started the Arya Kanya Pathashala in Jullunder in 1890 where funds were collected by housewives giving a handful of atta every day, and lawyers and merchants standing on the streets begging for money to start a school for girls.
In 1904, Annie Besant wrote a pamphlet entitled The Education of Girls’, which expressed her concern that women in India were deprived of women education and sent it to the Theosophical Society in Delhi. The members of the Theosophical Lodge were bankers, lawyers, academics and bureaucrats. They had received Western women education and many were alumni of St. Stephen’s College the first college in Delhi, established by the Cambridge Mission in 1882 They were among the first to seriously think about the necessity of educating girls. They faced a difficult task as Delhi society was closed and conservative.
A 100 years ago, getting girls to schools was not easy. Among traditional upper classes and castes, women’s lives were confined to the home. Trips outside the home necessitated the use of special modes of transport—the doli (palanquin) or the Mia (horse carriage). Excursions out of the domestic sphere were limited. Domestic life was focused on the haveli—the townhouse—inhabited by a joint family. There were a few primary schools in Delhi started by missionaries, but its students came mainly from poor classes. Affluent middle-class Hindus and Muslims were opposed to sending their girls to schools.
There were deeply rooted prejudices in society against women education which was regarded not only as unnecessary but also dangerous and unorthodox. There was a superstition that an educated girl would become a widow soon after marriage. Women education was supposed to turn docile girls into rebellious harridans who would ruin the peace and tranquility of a family. To grapple with these centuries-old prejudices, not only of men but also of women, was not easy. Reformers, therefore, stressed that women education would make women better wives and mothers, that women would not compete with men in the public arena.
The Indraprastha Putri Pathshala, a lower primary school for girls, was started in May 1904 in a rented building in Gali Anar in Kinari Bazar, Chandni Chowk, with seven pupils. Next year, it was named Indraprastha Hindu Kanya Shikshalaya and shifted to its present building behind Jama Masjid in 1907. The school would not have been possible but for the dedicated efforts of about half-a-dozen of Delhi’s elite citizens—Lala Jugal Kishore, Rai Balkrishna Das, Lala Sultan Singh, Rai Pearey Lai, Lala Banwari Lai Lohiya, and others.
Along with the founders was Miss Leonora G’meiner, an Australian Theosophist, and the first Principal of the school and later of Indraprastha College, who laid the foundation of both these institutions. Her dedication, zeal and sacrifice were truly amazing. Her primary interest was to educate girls and provide them an opportunity to develop their character and talents. She was also committed to removing the barriers to women education such as child marriage, purdah and superstitions regarding the fate of an educated woman. A follower of Annie Besant, she also supported the cause of India’s political freedom. All these concerns were passed on to her students.
It was with great difficulty that in 1904 the first few girls from traditional upper-middle-class Hindu families were persuaded to join Indraprastha School. The fears and anxieties of parents had to be allayed. Women were sent to fetch the girls and horse carriages with curtains were provided.
The secondary school slowly developed into the first women’s college in Delhi, by introducing Intermediate classes with five students in 1924. The shy, nervous young girls who entered the school later showed great enterprise, courage and qualities of leadership. In 1928, for the first time, two former students went abroad to study. Rajeshwari Karki studied medicine in Glasgow, incidentally in the same city where Kadambini Bose Ganguly of Calcutta, India’s first woman graduate and a female doctor, studied in the late 19th century. Lajjawati Ram Krishan Das went to Paris to do her Ph.D. in pedagogy.
Students of the school and college were politically aware. Many of them joined the Civil Disobedience Movement in the 1 Q30s by taking part in hartals (strikes) and picketing and marching processions A Girls’ Students Union was started in 1930 by a student named Chameli with the support of Aruna Asaf AH. The Girl Guides Movement, with the purpose of building confidence and the development of personalities, was popular in the school. In 1934, during assembly in the school, the girls demonstrated their spirit by refusing to salute the Union Jack and sing ‘God save the King’.
During the Quit India movement in 1942, a group of Indraprastha students, led by Aruna Asaf Ali, was arrested for posting anti-British posters on city walls. On 10 August 1942, Indraprastha students jumped over the college walls and joined a procession of Stephanians and Hinduites to protest against the arrest of Congress leaders. They sang patriotic songs, organised meetings and defied government regulations.
In the post-Independence years, the students continued their social and political activism. They organised a massive rally against the harassment of girls in public buses. The first-ever march and demonstration against dowry was also spearheaded by the Indraprastha Women’s College Committee formed in 1978.
Lady Hardinge Medical College had been established in 1916. As women belonging to conservative families did not want to go to male doctors, there was a need for women doctors. Indian families did not oppose girls opting for medicine, which was regarded as a profession suitable for women. Matriculation was the minimum qualification for joining Lady Hardinge Medical College and hence Indraprastha School became a sought-after institution.
Right from the beginning, the founders of Indraprastha School displayed great confidence in the capacity of women. In the latter part of the 19th and early 20th century, there was a debate about what was appropriate for women to study— home-making skills, or all subjects that boys read. Indraprastha School decided that girls must have the same education as boys and made provisions for teaching science, mathematics and English. If male teachers were required for teaching these subjects, suitable arrangements were accordingly made. The school imparted an women education of quality to develop the minds and personalities of its students.
The students of Indraprastha have made their mark in various fields—education, medicine, politics, culture and the arts—such as Dr Radha Pant, who started the Department of Biochemistry in Allahabad University; Dr Chandra Kanta Kesavan, an acoustics engineer with All India Radio; Dr Kanchan Lata Sabarwal, Principal of Mahila Mahavidyalaya, Lucknow, who headed the Central Social Welfare Board; Dr Kapila Vatsyayan, an expert on Indian culture, a Member of the Rajya Sabha, who was Academic Director of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Culture and Arts and is a Life Trustee of the India International Centre; Dr Suvira Gupta, head of the Radiology Department of G.B. Pant Hospital, to mention only a few.
Indraprastha produced the earliest sportswomen in the city. The students excelled in various games and athletics and were runners-up in the 1942 Olympics in Delhi.
Indraprastha was the first school to provide a hostel for girls, the first to provide a library and start science classes with a laboratory, and the first to start a college. Its founders believed that women education was not just for imparting factual knowledge, but for changing consciousness. The school and college, therefore, worked hard to pull women out of the four walls of their homes and bring about attitudinal changes, liberating them from the ideologies of oppression and stereotypes of gender roles. It gave girls self-confidence so that they could assume positions of leadership. Indraprastha School and College opened the doors to the world of knowledge and opportunity to generations of Delhi women. It was through women education that Indraprastha took its students on the path to emancipation and women empowerment.