Indraprastha College's Historical Significance

Indraprastha College's Historical Significance

in Interview
Published on: 30 January 2018

Babli Moitra Saraf

Principal Babli Moitra Saraf is Associate Professor at the Department of English, and Head of the Department of Multi-Media and Mass Communication at Indraprastha College. She taught English at Ramjas College, University of Delhi for 29 years. She translates from several Indian languages into English and among others, has co-translated Mahasweta Devi’s works into Italian. Her work ‘Rajouri Remembered’ (2007) is a translation from Urdu, Punjabi, Hindi and Orality, of a family narrative which recounts the effects of the Partition of India in Jammu and Kashmir. Among other awards, Dr Saraf received the Dr. S. Radhakrishnan Memorial National Award for Teachers in 2011, and the C.F. Andrews Distinguished Alumnus Award from her alma mater St. Stephens College for lifelong pursuit of excellence.

Interview by Suparna Sengupta of Babli Moitra Saraf, Principal of Indraprastha College, in Delhi, October 2016

The process of history of which I really sense myself to be a part became a kind of impinging reality, something which I was both comfortable with as well as excited about. And I engaged with it very actively, proactively I would say, in the sense that one of the first visits was really to the founding fount, I would say the fount of the college, which is the Indraprastha Girls School, founded as early as 1904 if I am not mistaken. It had already celebrated its centenary. It had been declared a heritage building. It is a beautiful old haveli behind Jama Masjid in a place called Cheepiwada and the college was founded on the second floor of that school building with three students, one of who went on to become the vice principal of that school later.


However, I began to think the college as therefore a part of that entire stream, the trajectory of women’s education. And of course, our colleagues had written about the college, our colleagues, Meena Bhargava and Kalyani Datta had written about the college and the movement for women’s education in the city. I think it was extremely important that we saw ourselves as a part of that trajectory and continued that movement. I see IP college as a movement. I still see IP college as a movement in the sense of activism. And the school somehow made this distinction between or posed the question of women’s education as matriculation or marriage. And that was really the choice that the school made real and the founding fathers, and I say ‘fathers' very deliberately though the Theosophical Society was a huge inspiring force and impetus behind the school was Dr Annie Besant and even the first principal of Indraprastha College, Leonara G’meiner, they were theosophists. And so, this entire move for women’s education was helped by the philanthropists who were actually from the mercantile classes of the city.


The current campus of IP College is more than 100 years old but coming here also was a whole sort of a relocation, and struggle with the powers that be at the time. And everything had to be negotiated. So, the struggle was really two kinds. One was to get the women out of their homes and for that, the school arranged carriages with purdah, coaches to go from door to door. The men went from door to door knocking and saying, give your daughters an education and they arranged for transport back home. I find this very interesting because there came a time in the '70s, late '60s, early '70s when this whole notion of transporting women back, the school or the college had a fleet of buses. Actually, the women began to articulate that they no longer needed escorting back home. And so, these fleet of buses were sold. So, this is very interesting. And now again we have bought one bus for transportation. So, it is also tracing the history of the city and the women’s sense of security or sense of empowerment through what transport the college provided.


However, the college was founded in 1924, Delhi University had come into being in 1922 and it became soon a constituent college of the University of Delhi. Began with a few courses, science was one of them which we discontinued later because of the fact that Lady Hardinge College actually encouraged the sciences and the money as well as the space for laboratories was not enough to go all around. So, the college slowly veered towards the humanities. Today we are very proud to position ourselves as a liberal arts college offering almost the entire spectrum of the liberal arts plus the mathematical sciences which are also fundamental to the liberal arts. And one course in commerce.


But just to go back, the entire negotiation with the government is itself a story. And we got from Lala Narayan Prasad who was the chairman of the governing body till February this year. He passed away in February. He was born in 1924 also, so I was very fond of saying that the Lalaji is as old as college which he was. And the college however survives him as institutions do individuals. But he was a tremendous factor in creating this sense of history in the college because of the sheer possession of the documents. And in history documents are essential, so chronicling the history of the college was important.


In 1924 and onwards the girls when they got their education began to get the education specially by the '40s, by the time Gandhiji came with his Quit India movement, Indraprastha College had, the girls had taken a lead there, the faculty too. The wheat supplied to the college was stopped because of its so-called subversive activities. And the college joined the students of St. Stephens and Hindu and Ramjas to protest at various places against government decisions. It is very interesting that in a women’s college which is talking in terms of restricted movements, other kinds of social constraints, certain kinds of stereotypes, what we call stereotypes but was the way of life of women in those days, this college spearheaded many important movements in the city. And apart from the national movement in which one of the girls got jailed, was taken to Lahore Jail and was put in solitary confinement also, there is a whole piece written by her in one of our books, this became a kind of frontrunner, almost avant garde in the way that it seized the women’s, it garnered the women’s energy here.


So, that in 1947 when there was the partition of the country and there were huge numbers of women coming out of the Punjab states, the college ran an evening shift to accommodate those women so that they could complete their education at that moment affiliated to Punjab University. So, we see a spike in the roles of the college and all this is a matter of documentation also.


In the '70s of course we have the women’s empowerment movement or what we knew—we were the generation that grew up in the '70s—as the women’s liberation movement, where IP again was the seat of ideological leadership as well activist leadership, you know, people with like Kumkum Sangari, Sudesh Vaid, all were from IP College and Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid went on to write this absolutely path-breaking critique, Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History (New Delhi: Kali for Women; Routledge, New York, 1989), which redefined the ways in which we saw or even history saw and evaluated women and their place in society during colonialism.



Dr Aruna Sitesh thought in terms of creating an archives, the college archives, archiving the history of the college. And in that first move several kinds of documents were given by Lala Narayan Prasad and a room was given in the college for storing these and displaying them. But it was a room which was little secluded, locked and opened on special request so that the dissemination of this history, this absolutely glorious history of IP college and its place in the city was not disseminated in the way that it ought to have been. And that was found also in the conscious memory of students. IP college was a college, yes, not up there, but comfortable to be in but without that sense of history. I think that one of the things I realised in the seat in the chair and moving with various sections of the population of the city and indeed the country whether it is the bureaucracy or the ministry or educationists, teachers, housewives etc. is that every family who educated a woman had to pass through the portals of IP college. This is the reality of this city. Every family which has a third-generation learner or a second-generation learner, maybe second generation not so much but third generation, fourth-generation learners could be traced back to IP college.


From 2007 when the archives were created and some of the documents came out and Lala Narayan Prasad was very, very possessive about his documents. He really prized them, he prized the college in a way that it is very unusual to see today. And I say today because he just passed away. Until his last breath, he was in touch with the college. In 2013-14, we really thought of expanding the archives. And it fell on me to whine with Lalaji to persuade him to yield his documents. And in tandem we started creating what we now call the Museum and Archives Learning Resource Centre because this sense of history, at least I had as an outsider and there are many alumnae who are our teachers, almost 26 of them, there is this sense of us being part of the movement for women’s education. This became a very very pressing and urgent engagement, for me at least, and we began to conceptualise the museum and archives. Dr Bhargava, Dr Sinha, both of whom are here now, were prime, fundamental to the realisation of that, and Lalaji of course.


And he finally handed over his papers to me after seeing what we made. We created a professional space, you will see it. And he used to bring them in instalments, his papers, the first governing body minutes, the documents, the decisions, the papers, photographs. Even the clothes that his father wore as a bridegroom and his mother’s dupatta. He was a keen photographer, lots of photographs, that is another story. But he said that, yes, you will be able to look after it. So, there was that confidence that the papers would be looked after. And as a result, we got lots of valuable documents and we put them up in the museum and archives. And the museum and archives became a place which is accessible, It has become a research centre and people who, the Australian university who is interested in tracking the life of Leonara Gmeiner who was an Australian woman and so Australian women in India, in Delhi. Her sister was the founder of the Montessori system in the city schooling system.


So, areas of interest open up. So, lots of students who are researching on women’s education have to pass through this. I think that we are finally in a situation where our students want to now take up projects within the museum and archives centre.