“We grew up in Delhi and my mother told us how absolutely wonderful Lahore was. As children we heard the same story again and again. Ruchi Ram Sahni wanted to tell his grandchildren what growing up in Punjab meant”, stated Neera Burra, great-granddaughter of Ruchi Ram Sahni (1863 – 1948). Burra was in Lahore for the LLF 2018, on a panel with Khalid Aftab and Sajida Vandal, moderated by Khaled Ahmed.
Burra’s labour of love has been to edit her great-grandfather’s memoirs, which were published in 2017. They constitute a fascinating and invaluable historical resource – since they are about far more than the experiences of one extraordinary man in pre-Partition Punjab. Through the eyes of Ruchi Ram Sahni, and through the story of his rich life and many accomplishments, we find a window into the Punjab of a bygone era.
Sahni originally hailed from Dera Ismail Khan. The vicissitudes of fortune brought him, eventually to Lahore. Here, he acquired for himself a modern education. He put it to the finest use possible – scientific research and teaching at the renowned Government College in Lahore.
In 1914, Ruchi Ram Sahni proceeded to Karlsruhe in Germany in pursuit of his scientific research in the field of physical chemistry. During his time abroad, he collaborated with as eminent a scientific mind as Ernest Rutherford.
Eventually, he returned to colonial Punjab to make himself useful to people across boundaries of caste and creed, as an educationist and gentle social reformer.
Much of the panel discussion focused on trying to connect with the vibrant atmosphere of pre-Partition Government College – an institution which owes a great deal to educationists and rationalists such as Ruchi Ram Sahni. This, of course, was a fact that Khalid Aftab, himself having served as Vice-Chancellor of the institution, emphasized greatly.
The memory of Ruchi Ram Sahni in today’s Pakistan was perhaps best summed up by Sajida Vandal, when she observed that “he was known here and yet very unknown”
Khaled Ahmed, in his inimitable style, caste the discussion in a fascinating light. He remarked:
“As a nation we have two processes going on: one is the process of forgetting, the other is that of remembering. When we write the history of Partition, there is a lot of remembering, and that tends to consolidate our nationalism – because much of it is unpleasant.”
Khaled Ahmed then asked Khaled Aftab and others on the panel to reach out into the domain of remembering. This, ultimately, is an exercise which involves commemorating the role played by men and women like Ruchi Ram Sahni – people whose lives showed that inter-communal harmony and intellectual achievement were possible, even viable goals in a Punjab that was eventually ripped apart by the forces of bigotry and ignorance.
Khaled Ahmed spoke at some length about the personal qualities that allowed Sahni to be what he became:
“He was a polyglot, fluent in Punjabi, Urdu, Persian and English. He was a polymath. He was a scientist who could also apply his scientific knowledge in practical problems – such as applying scienctific knowledge to agricultural problems in India. He was above all very tolerant of others – he believed in communal harmony. For example way back in 1920, at the time of Khilafat Movement, he surrendered his title of Rai Bahadur in sympathy with the Muslims of that time in India. This is no ordinary thing. There were very few people who would surrender such a title at that time, in such a context. He would have endured some significant degree of pressure for it.”
As an educationist himself, decades after the era of Ruchi Ram Sahni, Khalid Aftab recalled how he and his colleagues, in their effort to revitalize the educational and intellectual atmosphere at GC, found themselves reaching into the past. And Ruchi Ram Sahni was one of the remarkable figures from the past of the institution whose memory and legacy they found invaluable.
Khaled Ahmed pointed out that according to the memoirs, Sahni had read John Stuart Mill, one of the founding fathers of liberalism – a worldview that is increasingly under attack in both India and Pakistan. He asked the great-granddaughter Neera Burra as to whether Sahni’s rationalist leanings, which took him into the Brahmo Samaj, were adopted also by the family and his descendants.
Burra explained that her great-grandfather’s leanings did not come without costs. He writes in his autobiography about how he was ostracized by upper-caste Hindus. If he went to an Arya Samaj function, they wouldn’t serve the Prasad until he and the other few Brahmo’s present would get up and leave. According to Burra, “The fact that upper-caste people would do that to another upper-caste person just because he had Muslim and Christian friends sounds surprising. But even his own mother would not eat in his home. He begged her. He promised to perform her last rites in as ‘orthodox’ a way as possible, even though he didn’t believe in orthodox tenets himself. But she refused, and went to live with another son until she died.”
“So he did pay a price. He was willing to pay the price for his beliefs[…] I asked my uncles, whose fathers were his sons. Today they are mostly Arya Samajis and most didn’t know until the book came out that he was so secular and progressive-minded.”
Perhaps nothing sums up his pluralistic outlook better than the attitude he took in the Punjab Legislative Assembly, of which he was a member in the 1920s. According to Burra,
“He quotes the rights given by Islam to women for education and property and so on. So he makes the case that we need to look at the best things in each religion.”
In a time when India and Pakistan are both moving towards more fundamentalist, communal and particularistic ways of thinking and living, the courage and intelligence of social reformers from a bygone era – people like Ruchi Ram Sahni – become all the more vital to remember and learn from.