Long before the recent security craze, we were told to be cautious if we entered the Forman Christian (FC) College in Lahore. During my school days in the 1990s, the government-run FC College had a reputation of campus violence, drugs, and general disorder. An unsuspecting visitor could easily be scared by the old deteriorating buildings, the unkempt and weed-infested lawns and the frightening predominance of Islamists on campus. Academically, too, the college was a failing institution with low standards, poor quality of teachers and almost no research.
In the 1990s, I simply could not imagine that this college was once, one of the premier educational institutions of India and then Pakistan. Established in the same year as the famed Government College of Lahore (1864), FC College showed the strong commitment of Christian missionaries to education in Punjab — regardless of religion, class or caste, and later, significantly, sex. From its beginning, the mission of FC College has been: “By love, serve one another.” This verse taken from the letter of St Paul to the Galatians, beautifully summed up the whole message of Christian missionaries in India. The establishment of several missionary colleges throughout India was a testament to the firm belief of the missionaries, that service to the community preceded attempts to convert them. In the end, not many people converted to Christianity, but these institutions still continued, serving — in a largely secular ethos — the people of the country.
The college remained a pre-eminent institution in Pakistan, educating, two presidents, a prime minister, a prime minister of India, the first chief justice of Pakistan, numerous ambassadors, ministers and others. However, the short-sighted nationalisation policy of the government in 1972 almost destroyed this once-premier institution.
It was only in 2003 that a former pupil and ex-president Pervez Musharraf, denationalised the college and gave it back to its original owners. Thereafter, undeterred by terrorists threats, political instability and other problems, several committed educationists came to Pakistan (mainly from the United States), to literally reconstruct and re-establish it. Since then, FC College has achieved a most remarkable transformation. Not only has the college been cleaned up, old buildings restored and new ones constructed, but academic standards have also dramatically improved. Today over half of the faculty members have terminal degrees in their fields, faculty research output has increased considerably, and the students, rather than indulging in violence and other nefarious activities, are again at the forefront of social service. The commendable efforts of FC students after the 2005 earthquake, and last year’s floods, clearly exhibit the turnaround of this previously almost soulless institution.
When I completed my DPhil (PhD) in modern history at Oxford, earlier this year, many people thought I would never come back to live in Pakistan. And then I heard of the transformation of FC College, and the commitment several foreigners had made to education in Pakistan. Not only did Dr Peter Armacost leave the comfort of Florida to move to Lahore, his successor, Dr James Tebbe, the son of a former principal of the college, is also returning to the country of his birth. So I wondered: if these westerners can go to Pakistan, amidst such volatile conditions, just to serve the people, then why can’t I go back to my own country and work for my own people?
Dr Charles Forman established the Rang Mahal School and FC College in a hostile environment, with little security and few prospects of success. In 2003, the refounders of the college faced the same situation. In the eight years since, the college now stands at the threshold of being accredited in the US. A lot still needs to be done to make FC College a world-class institution, but let us not again depend only on foreign pioneers to aid us — let us also “by love, serve one another” and our country.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 21st, 2011.