Bibi Harnam Kaur
Sikh women always have been and will be the backbone of their community. Their selflessness lies second to none in the world.The life story of Bibi Harnam Kaur , a selfless pioneer in the field of female education, is one shining example. She was born to Bhai Bhawan Das and Bibi Ram Dei in a village in the Ferozepur district of the Punjab state. Her original name was Jiuni. Her father was a religious minded person who became the head of a seminary after the death of his religious leader, Sadhu Ram Das. She was mature in childhood and by the age of six, she had read many religious books like Punj Granthi.
Bibi Harnam Kaur studied Punjabi from a priest in a Gurdwara. Bhai Takhat Singh, a devoted selfless worker in the field of education, had started a Gurmukhi School for boys under the Singh Sabha (Sikh Society). In Ferozpur city in 1882. He offered to open a school exclusively for girls. The Singh Sabha liked the idea, but was hesitant to let it be run only by a bachelor. To overcome this difficulty, Juini's parents were approached to allow their daughter to help Takhat Singh for running the girl School. They agreed and the school was started in 1892. Bhai Takhat Singh was the manager and the Bibi was the only teacher. Neither of them was paid more than eight rupees per month. She was engaged to Bhai Takhat Singh in 1893 and married the next year. She was baptized in 1901 and named Harnam Kaur. The couple worked whole- heartedly, but due to intolerable and undue interference of the management community which was suffering from internal dissensions, they quit service in 1900, and continued to teach privately. Now the couple wanted to start a Chief Sikh Girls school (The Sikh Kanya Mahavidyala), but financial problems surrounded them. They did not lose heart, sold their ornaments and unnecessary articles, and started the school with determination and faith in God in 1901. It was a name- sake of a school run by a couple in a thatched dripping house with only 3 students on its rolls. The following year teaching of English was also started.
Bibi Harnam Kaur persuaded her husband to open a boarding house for girls. They had to take loan to purchase land to build the boarding house which started in 1904. This facility was rarely available in those days. Parents from far and wide got their daughters admitted in the school. The school did not charge any tuition fee. It also did not receive any grant from the state as many conditions were attached with the financial help. Girls belonging to poor families and widows were given free boarding and lodging. It was run on donations collected from well to do Sikh families. The school was treated as important as the Khalsa College, Amritsar which also started up to 8th grade at the same time. Bibi Harnam Kaur worked as superintendent of the boarding house and along with her husband lived there. The boarding house was run on family lines and she treated the boarders like sisters and served them like mothers. It is said she washed the feet of girls with warm water when needed. She also gave head baths to the young girls and washed their clothes also.
Boarders did not want to go to their homes even during vacation. According to Bibi Harnam Kaur, founder of the school, the aim of the school was that an educated girl should prove of the greatest use to her house, she should be religious and chaste, devoted to the service of her husband and children, a perfect mother and a virtuous wife. Simplicity is a virtue she should love. She should be a useful member ofthe society. Religious education and singing of sacred hymns with the help of musical instruments was a daily feature of the school. Needle work and embroidery were also included in the school syllabus. In 1909 this school stood first in the all India exhibition of embroidery held at Lahore.
Due to the devotion and sincere efforts of the couple, the school progressed by leaps and bounds. The earliest authentic report about the progress of the school was written by the following: two well-known personalities of the state. In 1915 the Lt. Governor of Punjab visited the school and remarked "I'm happy to note that the school has also a department for training the lady teachers. I congratulate the founders of this institution and the Sikh community on the wonderful and unique success of the institution." In the same year, S. Sardul Singh Caveesher, a prominent Sikh leader, visited the school and wrote "It was indeed very unfortunate that I did not come earlier to this place. I was at my wit's and to decide whom to admire most, the worker or the work" According to him, the strength of the school at that time was 312 and 210 of them were boarders. The school was successfully preparing the students for High and Proficiency in Punjabi classes of the Punjab University.
There was a competent staff of 45 persons belonging to both the sexes. The property of the institution was worth about two hundred thousand rupees. The school started publishing a monthly magazine, Punjabi Bahen (Sister) to propagate the female education. The school had a good library which was started as early as 1901 in memory of Bhai Dita Singh. Bibi Harnam Kaur had also started, Istri Satsang, a women's religious society, which held meetings every Wednesday.
It was really a wonderful development if we keep in view the period, about 100 years ago, when people did not like to send girls outside their homes. In those days education for girls was mostly carried out at home and it was described as domestic education. At some places priests in Gurdwaras taught only to read and write in Gurmukhi. Mostly girls were assigned the job of making dung cakes, cooking, spinning, cleaning utensils, plastering walls, taking food to the fields and picking cotton pods. Early marriage was prevalent. This was all possible due to the untiring efforts of Bibi Harnam Kaur whose only ambition in life was to serve the people to the best of her ability.
Motto of the couple was:- The food should not fall short The guest should not turn back. The wealth should not amass. The business should not slack. She was an ordinary woman of middle height and very simply dressed. The only sign of superiority lay in her firm gait, and in her ambition to raise the status of women. Her main stay was her faith in God and her sole aim was to work honestly for female education, and she enjoyed this noble work. She was dedicated to the Goddess of education. She was all humility, courtesy, painstaking, preserving, and selfless. She possessed a deep insight in the character of girls. Her face was expressive of energy and determination. She was a personification of motherly love and service, and a model of simplicity.
A true incident from her life: some village folk entrusted to her a baby girl. She had at that time a child of her own on the breast. On the arrival of the starved baby, the kind Bibi brought it up on her own milk and trusted her own baby to the milk from the market. S. Sardul Singh Caveeshar met this girl who stood weeping before the photo of the Bibi. She(the girl) told him her life story. Bibi Harnam Kaur passed away in the prime of the life in 1907. Her solid and unprecedented work of far reaching consequences was continued by her life partner and co-founder of the institution Bhai Takht Singh who remarried Bibi Agya Kaur . She was also devoted to the cause of female education. Bhai Takhat Singh on whom the community conferred the title of 'Living Martyr' also left this world in 1937, but the institution is still one of the best private schools in the state. His daughter Mrs. G. Parmpal Singh, a student of this school, headed the Punjab Education Department and retired about thirty year ago. Although Bibi Harnam Kaur did not live her full life. she left a permanent monument in the shape of Chief Sikh Girls School, Ferozepur City, due to which she will be remembered for ever. She helped to raise the status of women and tried to emancipate them from the old shackles and prejudices. She really tried to make our homes a heaven. She and her husband deserve to be called the architect of our community. They proved how devoted persons can work wonders with meager resources and unfavorable circumstances. It is due to her efforts that the Sikhs are ranking high among the Indian communities as far as the percentage among them of the educated women is concerned.