In Peshawar, passing through the narrow and twisted lanes of Dubgari, you enter the famous Mohalla Jogan Shah of the vicinity where the lanes further narrow down and bend between the multi-storey buildings made of Waziri bricks – like a snake, but one that evokes nostalgia.
Among the narrow lanes stands the Gurdwara Bhai Joga Shah that diverts the eyes from the decades old houses. A policeman, deployed to guard the Sikh community’s place of worship, inquires the purpose of every newcomer. Since he knows the residents of the Mohalla by face, he can immediately identify a newcomer amongst the visitors to the Gurdwara. He permits the visitor to proceed towards the Gurdwara when he is satisfied with their responses to his questions.
Behind the Gurdwara, the voices of children reading can be heard from the windows of a four-storey building, built before the 1947 Partition of the Indian Subcontinent. The building, once a residential compound like the others in the lane, now houses the Rising Hope Public School.
This is the only school of the Sikh community in the city.
A retired soldier serving as watchman peeps out through a small opening in the metal gate of the school as he hears the doorbell. The gate opens and the voices of children become louder. In a class on the ground floor, they are repeating “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall” after their teacher.
“We are not asking for jobs or any other benefits from the government. We need quality education for our children – which is our fundamental right. We are not satisfied with the government schools,” Gorpal Singh explains
The school’s principal, Umair Zahid, sits in a small office, adorned by a cupboard carrying trophies and mementos. Zahid watches visitors on the computer monitor fixed to a wall opposite to his chair – it displays the footage from a CCTV camera installed at the gate of the school. This is a security measure mandatory for schools in the province.
He has been serving as the school principal from the day when it opened. Like the principal, all the teachers are Muslims and there is no bar on Muslim pupils to get admission in the school. “All the teachers are female and Muslim,” he says, adding that they have never faced any problems in the Mohalla or their own neighborhood for teaching in a Sikh community school. The school provides education from nursery school to Class 8 – and presently over 300 Sikh and Muslim students are enrolled. Some 80 percent of the students are from the Sikh community and the remainder consists of Muslims and others.
Principal Zahid notes that though the school is privately run, it is mostly dependent on donations from the community. “We charge the least possible fee in the area since the purpose of the school is to impart quality education,” he says, explaining that the maximum fee bracket is Rs 1,000.
The curriculum taught in the school is same as that of the rest of the other schools in the province. “Islamiat is a regular subject in all the classes and every student has to take the class,” the Principal says. He emphasizes that the school greatly prides itself on its teaching methods.
Gorpal Singh, an elder of the Sikh community in the city, started the school in 2015 to provide quality and affordable education to Sikh children in the Mohalla – when he realized that Sikhs are left behind in education in the city and consequently found themselves missing out on government jobs.
“I would feel this whenever I used to visit government offices. I could rarely see a Sikh working in a government office and the only reason I found for it was the lack of education for our people,” Gorpal Singh says. He adds that Sikhs in KP are left behind in terms of education when compared to the Sikhs of Punjab province. “We have zero percent literacy amongst women. It is a shame for us, being the elders of the community,” he says.
With the aim of educating his community’s children, Gorpal Singh started the school and rented an old building for the purpose. In 2017, when the owner of the building sold it, the school found itself facing a problem – to find another suitable place to move to.
News regarding the issue surfaced in the media and the provincial government offered to enroll the students in government-run schools in nearby areas.
“We approached the government to allot us an empty building of a primary school where we could move the school, but they, instead of giving us a school building, offered to admit our students in government schools,” Singh explains.
Eventually, Singh and other elders in the community approached the new owner of their old building and persuaded him to permit the school to continue in the building. In return the school agreed to pay him rent of his own choice, with a high security deposit to sweeten the deal.
According to Gorpal Singh, the KP Department of Auqaf and Religious Affairs has agreed to finance a building for the school. But as per this offer, the land will still have to be purchased by Singh and the Sikh community.
“We, the Sikh community, have purchased a plot in the vicinity through donations and we are arranging for money to purchase another plot to start the construction work,” he says, adding that if the government didn’t assist with construction then he would request the community to donate for the building too.
“We are not asking for jobs or any other benefits from the government. We need quality education for our children – which is our fundamental right. We are not satisfied with the government schools,” Gorpal Singh explains. In his view, the best solution is for the government to help him acquire a plot dedicated to the school.
“It’s an effort for the community and the community will help in running it,” he confidently says.