((This story was first published on 4 September, 2020. It has been reposted from The Quint's archives to mark teachers' day.)
An interesting and relevant anecdote of Martyr Ashfaqullah Khan and his school headmaster, narrated by his classmate PD Tondon – freedom fighter and ex-Minister –to the author, 23 years ago during an interview.
Generally people prefer visiting the historical Chandrashekhar Azad Park (also known as Company Garden) in my native place Prayagraj, to breathe fresh air and go for their morning walks. Thanks to COVID, I am still in ‘Work from Home’ mode and staying in Prayagaraj these days.
Reliving School Days
Despite the circumstances, every morning, I also try to make my way to this park for a trot. There are six gates in this large and beautiful park – Shaheed Bhagat Singh, Shaheed Ram Prasad Bismil, Amar Chandrashekhar Azad, Shaheed Sukhdev Thapar, Shaheed Rajguru and Shaheed Ashfaqullah Khan gates – all in different directions.
A few days before, I entered the park through Gate Number 3 (Amar Chandrashekhar Azad Gate). As per routine, I first took a stroll around the park. No sooner had I started jogging to cover the second lap, than I saw one of my school friends, Dr Pradeep (who is presently a Sanskrit lecturer in one of the local colleges) approaching me at a brisk pace. We erupted with laughter at this serendipitous meeting.
Dr Pradeep is not always very forthcoming because of his busy college schedule.
So on that day, abandoning our morning routine, we sat down to chat at a small tea shop just opposite Shaheed Ashfaqullah Gate and reminisced about sweet memories of teachers and friends from the halcyon days.
When A Student Crossed The Line & Broke ‘Guru-Shishya’ Relationship
Pradeep used to really admire our Sanskrit teacher ‘Shukla Guruji’. The latter was one of our favourite teachers. He was a teacher with great pedagogic skills, au courant with even the other subjects. His self-effacing personality was so irresistible that whoever would meet him would become his instant admirer. Pradeep was also very good in his studies. He was disciplined, candid, and a good public speaker. He would represent our school at all inter-school debates. It makes sense that he chose teaching as his profession, given that Shukla Guruji was his ideal.
We continued our banter with many cups of scalding kulhad chai. In the course of our chit-chat, I complimented Pradeep – saying that his students were lucky to have a competent teacher like him.
He smiled and retorted: “Times have changed. Nowadays it is difficult to find both ideal teachers and students.”
He went on to share an incident which had put him in a spot last year. Pradeep had tried to stop one of his students from indulging in an act of wrongdoing in his college. The student was enraged and mortified – and vengefully returned to the college with some goons to set upon Pradeep. Pradeep was bruised up badly.
Looking Back At The Ethos Of Martyr Ashfaqullah Khan
I was shocked at this brazen act by Pradeep’s student. My eyes then wandered over to the name ‘Ashfaqullah Khan’ – engraved on the garden’s gate 6, just across the road from us.
What a contradiction – on the one side, was the name of a student who espoused the cause of freedom and sacrificed his life to liberate our country from foreign bondage, and here, on the other side, I had just heard the shocking tale of a student’s misdemeanour against a teacher, namely, Pradeep.
I recounted an incident which was similar to what had happened to Pradeep. In 1997, I had interviewed Mr PD Tondon (Purushottam Das Tondon) who was a freedom fighter, veteran journalist, former state minister in the UP government for higher education –and an old classmate of Shaheed Ashfaqullah Khan.
During the interview, I also requested Mr Tondon to shed some light on the time-honoured ‘guru-shishya’ (teacher-student) relationship. He shared an interesting and evocative story from his school days.
‘I Cannot Harm You Because You Are My Teacher’
Both, Ashfaqullah Khan and Mr Tondon were residents of Shahjahanpur (UP) and students of Abbie Rich Mission High School. Ashfaqullah was very popular among fellow students and he was also an avid hockey player. Their Headmaster, Mr Roofus Charan, was a stickler for hard work.
One day, when Mr Tondon was at the headmaster’s office for some work, Ashfaqullah suddenly appeared with a few rich elderly people of the vicinity. They respectfully told the headmaster about the marks he had received in certain papers in the annual exams, and complained that injustice had been meted out to him.
Ashfaqullah’s answer sheets were brought in, and the headmaster scanned them diligently. He then shouted unceremoniously: “Behude! You do not study and accuse others! ”
Ashfaqullah felt embarrassed by this public humiliation. Oddly enough, he took out his revolver and kept it delicately on the headmaster’s table and said:
“It is a pity that I can do no harm to you because the relationship between a teacher and a student comes in the way. Otherwise I would not have tolerated your shouting.”
The old gentlemen who accompanied Ashfaqullah were upset with his behaviour, but at the same time, they consoled the angry boy. They immediately left the office, extending their courtesies to the headmaster.
‘Respect Towards His Teachers Made Ashfaqullah Khan Immortal’
We all know that young Ashfaqullah, one of the accused persons along with Ram Prasad Bismil in the Kakori Case, was hanged to death on 19 December 1927 in Faizabad Jail.
It was Ashfaqullah’s bullet that had broken the lock of the iron box.
Mr Tondon told me that the headmaster recalled the above incident in the classroom on the day Ashwaqullah was hanged. The headmaster had entered the classroom and started teaching as usual. After a while, he turned his back to the boys and tried to continue teaching.
But he was overwhelmed with sadness at the hanging of Ashfaqullah – “Naughty boy no doubt, and often gave us trouble, but he was very loyal to his teachers. That day he spared my life.”
With these words, Mr Charan broke down before his class. He pulled out a white handkerchief from his coat and left the classroom wiping his tears.
Having narrated this compelling story, Mr Tondon told me: “Among other things, respect towards his teachers and the blessings of our headmaster made Ashfaqullah Khan immortal.”
(The author is director at an engineering and IT services company in Hyderabad and a columnist. This is a personal blog and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)