Geoffrey Langlands was on born October 21, 1917. He is a retired British Major, and a retired teacher and educator living in Pakistan since the partition of the British Indian Empire in 1947. He also served the British Indian Army and Pakistani Army as part of his service tenure.
Langlands was born 21 October 1917, in Hull, England, to a father employed in an Anglo-American company and a mother who was a classical folk dance instructor. His father died 27 October 1918, due to the 1918 flu pandemic that killed millions worldwide. After the death of her husband, Mrs. Langlands moved with the children to her parents’ home in Bristol.
In July 1935, Langlands completed his A Level education and began his teaching career in London, the following year at the age of 18. In September 1936, he had been a mathematics and science teacher to second grade students in a school in Croydon. When World War II began in 1939, Langlands joined the British Army as an enlisted soldier. In 1942, Langlands became a commando and took part in the Dieppe Raid
In January 1944, Langlands arrived in British India as an army volunteer on a troop carrier and worked three years as part of the selection board for officers training in Bangalore. Rising to the acting rank of troop sergeant major, he received an emergency commission in the British Indian Army as a second lieutenant on 3 September 1944. During partition of the sub-continent in 1947 when India and Pakistan became independent nations, Langlands decided to move to Pakistan and was transferred to Rawalpindi where he joined Pakistan Army.
The most striking part of his life however, is his decade long stay in a region of Pakistan that even its own citizens shy away from. From April, 1979 to September, 1989, Major Langlands spent his life in North Waziristan, the north-eastern part of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan. The newly established Cadet College Razmak at the time was looking for a principal after its first one left. “No one sensible was ready to take charge especially after the first principal described the area as a horrible place,” says Langlands. But a letter from a former student and the education secretary of the province convinced the educationist in him. “The letter read, ‘Please leave your comfortable job at Aitchison and come to a difficult job in the tribal area’ and I simply couldn’t refuse a challenge,” he says.
The Cadet College was shifted to Nowshera earlier this year due to growing security concerns in the area. For Major Langlands, the institution he once headed at Razmak was not just any college. “I told the locals I will treat it as a special college where good, talented students would be taught.” Besides students from the area, a quota was also set for students from other parts of the country, who would be admitted to the college on the basis of merit. “I admired those parents who were prepared to send their sons to a school in the tribal areas,” he explains.
Issues and conflicts appeared simpler in Major Langlands world. “North Waziristan was very tribal as they [locals] didn’t like anyone from outside the tribal area to come in,” he recalls. And those who did were often kidnapped for ransom. With his speck of silver hair and piercing blue eyes, he attracted all the more attention but claims he never had any issues with the locals, other than his kidnapping in 1988.
Caught in the midst of a political clash between two different groups in North Waziristan over representation in the National Assembly, he was kidnapped by one of the groups who wanted their demands to be met by General Ziaul Haq in exchange of his release. After being held hostage for six days and transferred to a no-go area within North Waziristan, he finally told his captors that he had travelled enough. “They were not used to a kidnapped person standing up for himself,” he says with a smile. The next day, he recalls, they served him tea and boiled eggs for breakfast. Soon senior tribal leaders got involved and he was released on the condition that the kidnappers would not be apprehended. “The leaders said, ‘You simply can’t kidnap the principal!’”
After serving as a principal in the tumultuous terrain of North Waziristan for a decade, the next challenge was in the serene mountains of Chitral where he set up the Langlands School and College and headed it for the next 24 years. The institution lived up to its motto ‘There is always room for improvement’ and empowered hundreds of young boys and girls over the years. Having started with merely 80 students, it now educates as many as 1,000 students each year. While the people of Chitral are deeply grateful to this Britisher for bringing a new world to their children, Langlands attributes all the credit to the people. “The people loved the institution, they wanted education for their children and they worked to materialise their desire,” he says.
Langlands never married and his twin brother has only visited him a handful of times in Pakistan. The vacuum of family in his life seems to have been consumed by a love far greater than a desire for personal fulfillment. “Right from the age of 12, all the decisions in my life have been taken by me. I am not sure if that’s a good thing but that is something I did. I decided that I have to do good to people in the world simply because people have been good to me.” And that is precisely what he did.
The Langlands School and College has found a new English principal in Carey Schofields, a writer and journalist who has covered everything from Mick Jagger to the Pakistan Army. But it might be impossible for Pakistan to find a replacement for the crisp Englishman who not only devoted his life to a country that did not bind him by blood or birth but has also chosen it as his final resting place.