The International Dr. G.W. Leitner Trail
Marcus Roberts & Silvia Dovoli (Oxford University Jewish Country House Project)


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Leitner's Career in India

Leitner's sojourn in Freiberg was not to last too long, as his need for employment and academic advancement encouraged him to apply for and obtain the post of Principal of Government College in Lahore, in 1864, just after its foundation. The college specialised in the education of Indian students to serve the colonial administration and was in many respects an important position, even if the quality and standard of education in India at the time was not at a high level, or respected by the British, who mostly wanted lower-level Indian clerks. The British felt Leitner's influence and good relations with the Indian people was invaluable and conversely, as one of Leitner's contemporaries noted, he equally knew the British mentality well and how best to deal with them.

When Leitner arrived in Lahore he was in fact arriving at a time of both change and complex political currents in both India and the Punjab and in the way of fate, he seemed quite accidentally to be the ideal personality for the situation at the time. When he came to Lahore, Lahore was becoming the intellectual centre after the destruction of Delhi in 1857, following the revolt against the British. However, the Punjab was suffering from the fact that colonial reorganisation had damaged a lot of the traditional and effective educational infrastructure, which had offered superb local education (particularly in Lahore), though this is in reality a complex picture and some of the damage may have been indirectly due to the decline of the donations needed to maintain schools and some of the losses of schools may have been due to the local acceptance of alternative colonial schools. Also, one must note that this is also a contested history amongst the historians of the different religious groups, so claims need to be sifted with care.

According to Leinter, the Punjab had lost about a third of its native educational capacity, from 330,000 pupil or student places, before 1857, to about 190,000, in 1880. The basic education of girls and women was also apparently surprisingly catered for, with 18 formal schools for girls in Lahore alone and Sikh commentators even claim that Leitner reported that women had a better basic education that the men. Also, it is stated that the reason for an elementary literary education for all was that the Maharaja Ranjit Singh loved to receive letters and in order to communicate with him, you had to send him a letter, thus he made it compulsory for everyone to be able to write letter, leading to a policy where, 'Every village in the Punjab, through the Tehsilar, had an ample supply of the Punjabi 'qaida', which was compulsory for females. Thus, almost every Punjabi woman was literate in the sense that she could read and write the 'lundee' form of Gurmukhi.' The Punjabi educated elite had virtually disappeared, largely as a result of attempts to purify Urdu and the failure to provide religious education and the fact that indigenous people were failing to take advantage of what the western education could offer them under the new political structures. Leitner knew all of this and in his 1882 education report stated that as a result of British actions, 'the true education of the Punjab was crippled, checked and nearly destroyed.'

Leitner was able to achieve his reforms largely because he was an establishment outsider. Leitner was a foreigner, as far as the British were concerned, even if a white European, who had only recently received his naturalisation from the British, and he was known to be of Jewish origin, a fact that very occasionally made it into print, such as in a contemporary Italian biography. Leitner's engagement with the local people was assisted, as he was someone who evidently moved freely between cultures and languages, he treated them with respect and courtesy, and because he had no traditional missionary interests and his evident scholarship and knowledge of Islam made it easier for him to foster relations with Indian intellectuals, who proved vital for him to take his plans forward. Muhammad Hussain Azad proved to be one of his strongest intellectual partners particularly in the creation and publication of the Anjuman-i-Punjab (The Society of Punjab), which was crucial in the creation of the University of Lahore, though as stated before, his alliance with heterodox Islam in the form of the Ahmadiyya Islamic community, was important to him.

One of Leitner's personal characteristics was that he could be difficult, abrasive and combative. He was prepared to have public confrontations, in a way that would have been much at odds with traditional British reserve, but appears to have assisted him in getting what he wanted. In one episode, at the International Congress of Orientalists in London (1874), Leitner castigated the previous speaker for plagiarising his own original research, and objected to the disgraceful practice of sending people out to replicate research he has already done. He also claimed that the lamented field-researcher, Mr Hayward, would not have been murdered in Dardistan, if he had armed himself with Leitner's researches in the first instance, as he would have been forewarned of the political trap that awaited him and which led to his assassination by Mir Vai of Yasin at the behest of the Maharajah of Kashmir. Leitner believed it was Mir Vai of Yasin who was also responsible for the two assassination attempts on his own life in Gilgit. He crowned it all by the statement that, 'when any great Philologist is unable to ask for food in any of the languages on which he is an authority, one is almost tempted to question his claim to leadership'.

Later on at the end of his career in India, in 1886, Leitner confessed to Surgeon-Major O.T. Duke, when asking to be medically excused from his post, that he "considered himself to be subject to 'uncontrollable rages' excited by the opposition he had met with in the work in which he is engaged...'. Some critics have read this very negatively and while this certainly indicates something as to his character and combative tendencies, it is equally about his circumstances and frustrations, as an outsider thwarted by the Establishment, unable to achieving all that he might otherwise. It might also be indicative of a disturbance to his mental equilibrium and burn-out, caused by the stress of his environment.

The India posting was a key moment in Leitner's career and led to his deep engagement with Indian art and Indian (and Islamic) culture, religion and politics. It was clear that while Leitner was serving the British, he was no lackey of the British either and his empathy and engagement with local people and the promotion of their aspirations meant that he cut against the grain of the colonial agenda. However, he had justification for some his reforms, as he was carrying out previously side-lined recommendations for the reform of Indian education, which had been out-lined in a government report, the 'Education Despatch of 1854', which made provisions for Indian schools to opt-out of the English government schools, to form voluntary associations instead, or to provide grant aid (not entirely dissimilar to contemporary provisions in this country!), but which had not been universally taken up. Leitner reformed the educational system and its inadequate curriculum, as he found it, despite very significant opposition, and made a point of honouring the local languages, culture and civilisation he encountered in India. His biographer states that he set about raising the 'spirit of self-reliance amongst the Natives'.

Leitner was indeed enlightened in his attitudes and argued that it was no good having a system of education which did not take into account the feelings and thoughts of the local people. He advocated the use of vernacular and classical Indian languages of the various Indian religious ethnic and religious groups, along with English, as the mediums of education. He also felt strongly that there should be a religious element, or context, to education as well and that it should not just be a secular exercise--it should reference the character, laws and religion of its country. He was particularly keen to ensure that primary school children should have moral education as part of their curriculum, believing that the British (secular) education was letting Indian people down. He was instrumental in founding a number of Islamic schools and other institutions on the North-West Frontier, using the provisions in the 1854 report, including many for young Islamic girls. Leitner founded 50 Islamic Schools for Girls in Rawalpindi District in 1872 in particular (having previously been the European President of a Native Committee on female education in the Punjab, in 1864) and he founded another 22 Islamic and Hindu Schools and Secular Schools by subscription, as well as some Government Schools, also in 1872. By founding nearly a hundred primary schools, Leitner was helping to build an educational base for the future. It is highly likely that Leitner's own educational experience of being sent on a Cook's Tour of faith (and language) schools across Turkey and in the Mediterranean, influenced his openness to native, religion-based education, even though his particular support of girls' education reflected a broader, European reforming agenda.

Leitner's independence and non-colonial outlook is indicated by the fact that he liked to surround himself with Indian people in his household as can be seen in a photograph of Leitner and a large group of retainers on the veranda of his house, which caused him to gain some notoriety amongst the British. His retainers came and stayed on the basis of receiving free bed and board and entertainment from Leitner, which he states they felt was a good deal, enough to coax them from their territories, while he studied their languages. His personal retainers included one from Swat, an area outside of the control of the British. He also employed Indians whose dialects he was interested in learning and studying and took under his employment several of the 'mysterious' Siah Posh Kafirs ('black-garbed infidels') from the Hindukush. One of them, Jamshed, came with him back to Europe, the first 'Kafir' to visit Europe. Others appear in this photograph, including Niaz Muhammad Akhun, the first Yarkandi to visit Europe (1869).

Leitner was strongly involved in promoting better and more equal treatment of native peoples in India by the British colonial administrators. He introduced dinners and entertainments where the British administrators and their subjects sat side by side, which was widely adopted, if only as a matter of show. He even lectured the British government on the rudeness and superciliousness shown by British officials to natives and the vices of the British system in India. Leitner was well regarded by local people and was friends with the local Indian aristocracy. His good reputation is still maintained today.

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