The historical edifice of the Government High School No 1 Chakwal, with its embellished turrets and arches, is today perhaps, the only sign of the school’s rich history and lost identity.
Few remember that this school was once called the S.S. Khalsa High School Chakwal and fewer still remember the great men who laid the foundations of this school.
One of the school staffroom walls, like any other government building in Pakistan, bears the portraits of Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Allama Iqbal. However, on the opposite wall there is a portrait of a Sikh man, with the inscription: S. Harbans Singh Sistani, founding chairman of the S.S. Khalsa High School Chakwal. Similarly, the portrait of Sardar Chet Singh hangs in the principal’s office.
These men were among the five students of Munshi Sant Singh who founded this school in 1910 and named it Sant Singh or S.S. Khalsa School in his honour.
A marble plaque has survived from the time and with Punjabi words etched in it in Gurmukhi script.
“It says that five students of Munshi Sant Singh built this school in the honour of their teacher,” explained Qazi Baqir Waseem, a Punjabi poet who has also taught at this school.
“Before this school was set up, Munshi Sant Singh used to teach students in Chakwal voluntarily and was highly respected in the area,” Sardar Rattan Deep Singh Kohli, the grandson of Sardar Chet Singh told Dawn from New Delhi.
“When five students of Sant Singh decided to come together to set up a school that would educate students in the nearby villages, they decided to name it after him. The foundation school was laid by five people of the area, according to Sikh tradition of Panj Pyaray (five loved ones), laying the foundation stone,” Mr Kohli said.
He said that many other notable Sikhs of the area made financial contributions for the construction of the school. Since there was no reliable mode of transport for students to be able to reach the school from remote villages, a hostel was also built next to the school.
The hostel is walking distance from the school and today it houses classrooms for 6th and 8th grades.
Mr Kohli talked about his grandfather, Sardar Chet Singh, who was a businessman and a philanthropist.
His friend Sardar Harbans Singh Sistani was also a wealthy man and together the two of them contributed to a number of charitable causes, with education being their prime area of interest. The friendship between them was so strong that they had made each other ‘pagri-badal’ (turban-exchange) friends, Mr Kohli said.
The turban in Punjab is a symbol of honour and Punjabi men exchange turbans as a sign of respect and strength of ties.
“In 1918 when the S.S. Khalsa School was up and running, my grandfather took up the task of building another high school in Munday, our ancestral village,” he said.
Sardar Chet Singh named this school after his father Sardar Hira Singh. Here too, a hostel, bigger than the one in Chakwal was built next to the school. Today this school is known as Government High School, Munday. Sardar Chet Singh also built a hospital in this village.
The schools built by Sardar Chet Singh were educating
hundreds of students in Chakwal and adjoining areas when India gained independence in 1947 and the independent state of Pakistan was born.
The bloody riots that broke out, forced people to leave their homes and the S.S. Khalsa High School was shut down.
“After the school was shut, authorities turned it into an Exit and Reception Centre where people who were leaving Pakistan for India gathered before they were sent to the other side of the border.
Similarly, Muslim migrants from India were housed here before being allotted houses,” said Qazi Baqir Waseem.
According to him, the S.S. Khalsa School remained closed for two years after which the Government School Chakwal was moved to this building.
S.S. Khalsa’s name was removed.
The school was rechristened Government High School Chakwal.
Later, in 1992 this school was renamed to Government School No. 1 Chakwal.
Sardar Chet Singh and Sardar Harbans were also forced out of their homes and settled in Delhi.
Soon after settling down, the first thing they did was opening another school. They acquired three acres of land in Amar colony, in Lajput Nagar Delhi and laid the foundation of a school which they named ‘S.S. Khalsa Senior School Secondary School (Chakwal)
Although now in Delhi, the name of this new school included the word Chakwal in brackets, paying homage to the beloved homeland they had left behind.
“This new school operates to this day, educating 1,300 students free of charge,” Mr Kohli said.
He said that the school educates underprivileged students and does not discriminate on the basis of religion.
Back in Chakwal, the S.S. Khalsa School educated a number of notable students, among them the renowned Urdu writer Colonel Mohammad Khan, former chief minister of Punjab Arif Nakai and many high ranking civil and military officers. Brigadier Akmal, the current Military Secretary of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, also studied in this school.
The grandsons of Chet Singh – Sardar Rattan Deep Singh Kohli and Sardar Harbans Singh – were invited by the Old Students Association of Government High School No. 1 Chakwal for the school’s centenary celebrations.
When the two men arrived from across the border and saw the marble plaque with the names of their grandfathers, they were overwhelmed by emotion. Today, an international border and hundreds of miles separate them from their ancestral land and the legacy of their grandfathers. They kissed the plaque, unable to hold back their tears.
Meanwhile, the Old Students Association members were somewhat embarrassed.
“We had nothing to show our distinguished guests from India, the original name of the school had been removed, and a market and a bus stand had encroached upon school property,” said one member of the association.
“Sardar Chet Singh and Sardar Harbans Singh were great benefactors. Chakwal owes a huge debt to them which can only be repaid by restoring the school to its original name,” said Yunus Awan, Old Students Association president.
“I hope that one day both the schools in Chakwal and Munday are restored to their original names,” said Mr. Kohli.
SARDAR Harbans Singh Sistani (L) and Sardar Chet Singh (R), the founders of the school. — Photos by the writer