This is in response to the thought-provoking article titled ‘Annie Besant, SP College, and why Dogras, elite Muslims and Pandits discouraged education of Kashmiri Muslims’ by Dr Ashraf Shah Kashmiri published in Kashmir Reader a few months ago. Unfortunately, the author made a mistake by claiming Annie Besant was a Christian missionary, which is factually wrong. I, as a student of history, could not stop myself from writing a piece to enlighten readers about Annie Besant and her clash with Christian missionaries in Kashmir. Criticism is a healthy scholarly activity and by no means am I trying to demean the author’s scholarship.
Dr Ashraf Shah Kashmiri has written a fascinating piece but there are some factual errors. He writes in the article: “After facing such criticism, the Dogra ruler Shri Maharaja Pratap Singh requested Annie Besant, a Christian missionary, to establish a college in Kashmir”. Thus the author describes Annie Besant as a Christian missionary, which is factually incorrect.
Annie Besant was a member of the Theosophical Society founded at Adyar, near Madras, in 1882. The Society’s philosophy was aimed at attainment of such wisdom that helps realise the godhead. This organisation acquired considerable influence among the English educated, especially after the arrival of Annie Besant in India in 1893. She was an ardent supporter of traditional Hinduism and vehemently attacked social reformers that were looking for a drastic change in it (See Modern India 1885-1947, Sumit Sarkar). Even the famous Christian missionary Tyndale Biscoe could not escape from her criticism. In fact, Annie Besant pitched herself against Tyndale Biscoe, a Christian missionary.
C.E Tyndale Biscoe joined the school in 1891 AD to assist Rev. J.H. Knowles, the then school head, in the mission school of Srinagar. In 1894 J.H. Knowles handed the principalship to Mr. Tyndale Biscoe. The arrival of Biscoe witnessed a new chapter in the annals of mission schools in Kashmir. Under his able guardianship, drastic measures were taken to renovate the entire school curriculum.
The news of Biscoe’s aggressive reforms travelled to far-off lands and reached the most influential persons in India through telegraphs, one among them being Annie Besant. Meanwhile, rumours spread like wildfire that “Mr. Biscoe, principal of the Church mission school in Srinagar, makes his Brahman boys drag dead dogs through the city” (See Character Building in Kashmir, C.E. Tyndale Biscoe).
At about the same time, Annie Besant happened to visit the Maharaja as a guest. Tyndale Biscoe visited her to discuss the untruthfulness of fabricated rumours. However, she was not pleased with his arguments. After Biscoe, the headmaster also visited her and invited her to visit the mission school to discover the truth for herself. Annie Besant, however, declined the offer (See Tyndale Biscoe of Kashmir, p 77).
In 1905, Annie Besant opened a rival school along with her two Australian associates in the city of Srinagar. The school is now known as Pratap Singh College, named after the then Maharaja of Kashmir, Pratap Singh. The basic idea behind the school was, according to Tyndale Biscoe, to wreck the mission school.
This resulted in a mutiny in the mission school of Srinagar. Three teachers along with three-hundred boys left the school and joined the rival school established by Besant. Such was the impact of the mutiny that it was thought that the mission school may vanish. However, very soon an Australian member of Besant’s school also left. The mission school which had received a heavy jolt earlier started recovering the shock, and within two years its numerical strength of boys went up to 1600.
The facts produced above clearly indicate that Annie Besant was not a Christian missionary. As mentioned previously, she, in fact, came to Kashmir intending to counter them (Christian missionaries), and later established a rival school right opposite the mission school in the capital city of Srinagar.
The writer is a research scholar at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. [email protected]