Swapping classes: A sectarian decision tears apart a corner of the old city

MOONIS IJLAL in the Indian Express
Friday, July 01, 2005 at 0006 hours IST
I was 12 when for the first (and the only) time I entered the Maharani Laxmi Bai campus. From a busy street with bazaars on both sides, we stepped into a narrow pathway with houses painted yellow. At the end of the gali was a gateway that enclosed a huge area. The building was concealed behind rows of thick trees. In the shade glowed hundreds of faces of girls. Some had moustaches painted on their lips. It was the annual day at the MLB Girls College. I had come with my sister and her friend for their qawwali performance. Since I came from an all-boys school, it was quite an experience for me. Anshuma, a Hindu girl and my sister’s friend, had short hair. I remember how they both picked two burqas and forced me to accompany them to a “beauty shop” to buy a false braid (naqli choti). That day I gave my word to them: “I’ll never let this out.”
Today I am breaking that promise. Because the safe havens of MLB have already been violated. The Madhya Pradesh government uprooted the college overnight, because after 50 years of its life in flawless peace in Old Bhopal, Chief Minister Babu Lal Gaur feels the area (primarily a Muslim locality) is unsafe for girls. But, the residents — mostly Muslims and Hindu baniyas — say MLB was the safest place for their girls. “The barber, the iron smith, the mattress wala, small beauty parlour owners, the stationary guy, the boutique owners, all treated us students as their own children,” said Anshuma. “Most of the girls from poor families in the area are post-graduates. Why is that?” added a close friend, an MLB alumna who is now an IAS officer. “Because they walked to the college and parents didn’t object.
Nothing could replace MLB’s ambience, rued Farhat Jehan, a writer. “Our’s was the first batch. We went to the then CM, Kailash Nath Katju, and got the BA course sanctioned. We planted that botanical garden.”
The yellow and red building reflects in the “chhota talab” which splashes against the department of fine art. The hostel was across the lake. Teachers took a ferry to the college. “Nowhere else would girls enjoy a boat to college,” remembered Alka Gopal of Saifia College, an alumna. “There is no cheap transport from Old Bhopal to Hamidia (the new building). Hamidia has low walls and gets deserted. Girls from conservative Muslim and Hindu girls will drop out.”
The boats have stopped ferrying the girls to class. Their custodian, the boatman, will have to prove his faith to a sectarian ruler.
For the official view, check here.

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