AS THE birth bicentenary of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) — a realist-pragmatist of 19th century India, a distinguished reformer, and founder of the MAO College (now the Aligarh Muslim University) — is being celebrated, one finds the interpretations of his words and deeds caught between the two extremes of deification, and disproportionate blaming, particularly on the issues of caste, gender and nationalism.
The need of the hour is to remember the limitations of the age in which the individual — said to have been extraordinary — operated.
The regeneration of the 19th century was a precursor to modernity in India. Sir Syed owns a fare share of credit for it.
Till 1859, Sir Syed was hardly concerned with reformism.
His intellectual pursuits were confined to studying India’s past with adequate scientific rigour, and also to intra-Islamic sectarian debates. Yet, he preferred to edit (1855), among other works, the Ain-e-Akbari, rather than something on Aurangzeb, a monarch much maligned by various groups as a bigoted ruler.
In the pre-1857 period, Sir Syed did not seem to have believed as firmly in the permanence of the British rule. So much so that when he went to the poet Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869), asking him to write a foreword (taqriz) for Abul Fazl’s Ain-e-Akbari, which he had edited, Ghalib reprimanded him.
Ghalib asked him to look up to the West and its accomplishments instead of wasting his time and talent on dead things of the past. The suggestion, at that time, was unpleasant for Sir Syed, who did not include the versified foreword that Ghalib wrote admiring the West’s material and intellectual advancements.
However, from 1859 onwards, Sir Syed’s sole concern was to regain the lost (and safeguard the existing) share of his Qaum in the evolving structures and processes of power.
Historically, subordinated groups were not in Sir Syed’s scheme of things.
While analysing the causes of the 1857 uprising, he not only tried to absolve the upper strata of Muslims, but also tried to put some blame on the historically oppressed communities among the Muslims.
His prejudices against such groups would re-appear in 1887, when he would oppose democracy, espoused by the Indian National Congress. In his diagnosis, fulfilment of such an objective needed educational uplift.
He was absolutely clear headed about this, and the only consistent thing in his words and deeds was this.
To actualise this, Sir Syed kept changing his strategies as frequently as was needed because of colonial education and employment policies.
His diluted stridency on interpreting the Quran, just to avoid the attacks of the clergy; his advocating Anglo-Muslim rapprochment and dissuading the Qaum from joining anti-establishment politics were all geared towards it.
Through his very extensive study of the Indian past — ancient and medieval — he concluded that foreign rulers (the Mughals, the Lodis, the sultans, Indo-Greek dynasties, and the Aryans) had come to India only to settle down.
He, therefore, believed in the permanence of British rule in India and persuaded his Qaum to come to terms with it and negotiate with it (not only politically, but also culturally), rather than confronting it to get crushed by the technologically, intellectually and materially superior West.
Sir Syed had some inkling of the times to come, evident by the fact that while choosing a job, he preferred to join the Company administration in 1837-1838, instead of the Mughals (despite his family’s ties with the latter).
But his reformism — obtaining education for employment — was unconcerned by class distinctions.
This can be evaluated by the fact that when he started a school in Moradabad in 1859 he asked the relevant class of Hindus and Muslims to discontinue the practice of domiciliary education and take recourse to public schools. This — asking all to sit together in a school classroom — was a big step for the age.
Similarly, when he debated a report on Muslim education (1872), he strongly disagreed with those who talked of excluding the ‘low born’ from the proposed college. He made an elaborate argument that the rule of law and notion of justice disapproved such social exclusion.
He argued that if the elites and masses could all travel together in a lower class rail bogey to economise travel expenses why then should they practice social exclusion in government-aided educational institutions?
He may not have spoken against casteism practised in Islam, but he did not prohibit enrolment of the ‘low born’ to his MAO College. Instead, the proportion of the ‘under-class’ enrolments kept rising.
Sir Syed insisted on instituting fellowship endowments to educate the poor. Syed Mahmud’s Dar-ul-Ulum (independent university) scheme talked of such charitable endowments.
Today, politically it is quite valid and useful to raise questions against Sir Syed’s evident elitism.
However, it would be equally valid and useful to understand that given the ethos of the 19th century, Sir Syed’s efforts to mobilise funds for his educational enterprise would have crumbled had he raised issues of, what we now call, social justice.
He was already battling the clergy, which was hell bent on keeping Muslims away from modern education.
On the question of ‘nationalism’, Sir Syed’s opposition to the Congress is used to indict him. His advice to shun politics and concentrate on modern education was for both Muslims and Hindus.
Between 1862 and 1885, his words and deeds were strongly for Hindu-Muslim unity.
But his advocacy of vernacular (Urdu) education met with strong resistance from the votaries of the Nagri script (considered the predecessor of the Devnagiri script), in the late 1860s. These men included his friends like Raja Shiv Prasad (a prominent historian).
Those were the decades of growing communalisation with evident colonial prodding to the Nagri protagonists, mainly by Simon Matthew Edwin Kempson, who was the director of public instruction for the North Western Provinces (including what is now Uttar Pradesh), and by Lieutenant Governor George Campbell in Bihar.
This embittered Sir Syed.
Yet, communally divisive utterances were not there. What remained were particularistic concerns for one’s own community. This communitarian particularism was not the differentia specifica of Sir Syed alone. It was there with all 19th century reformers.
Sir Syed’s pragmatic approach made consistency impossible to achieve.
Between 1862 and 1882, his views showed pro-Indian sentiments.
Between 1882 and 1884, he professed to speak for both Hindus and Muslims fundamentally in accordance with the principles upon which the INC was founded in 1885.
The Pan Islamism of Jamaluddin Afghani (1838-97) advocated that the Ummah (Muslims across the globe) should stand united to oppose British imperialism, and it also appreciated the caliphate in Turkey.
Sir Syed opposed it; he believed that extra-territorial, supra-national, loyalty with the caliphate in Turkey was untenable.
He gave premium to the Qaum for whom he had undertaken an extensive programme of educational, cultural and political reform.
To him, the Qaum or nationality did not mean India’s Muslims alone; it referred also to Hindus.
In his Gurudaspur speech (in the 1880s) he said, ‘I have used the word “nation” several times… By this I do not mean Muslims only. In my opinion, all men are one, and I do not like religion, community or group to be identified with a nation’.
British diplomat Sir Denis Wright underscored this, ‘Attachment to the Khilafat (movement, an agitation by Indian Muslims to pressure the British government to not abolish the Caliphate after World War I) precluded Hindu-Muslim cooperation and the development of true nationalism among Indian Muslims.’
‘Syed Ahmad’s determined stand on this point would appear to be directed at opening the way for Hindu-Muslim cooperation, as much as to weaken the hold of the conservative Muslim leaders on the Muslim community.’
Between 1885 and 1888, Sir Syed spoke as a Muslim leader of north India and as an opponent of the Congress.
But then, between 1889 and 1898, he left the public political arena, and focussed on persuading his Qaum to shun politics and concentrate on modern education. His drive to raise funds for his MAO College became more strident.
When the Imperial Legislative Council (the legislature for British India) came into being, three Indians were inducted into the first council. They were all Hindus: Maharaja of Patiala Narendra Singh, Raja Sir Deo Narayan Singh of Benaras, and Dinkar Rao. Sir Syed welcomed this without complaining that there was no Muslim on the council.
Notwithstanding his loyalty to the British, both he and his son protested the racial arrogance of the British. More than once.
Even Jawaharlal Nehru noted in his Discovery of India that Sir Syed opposed the Congress for its radicalism, and he advised Hindus also to stay away from it.
It was Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s biographer Hector Bolitho, and the United States-based Pakistani academic Hafeez Malik who — in desperation to find antiquity for the exclusionary nationalism of Pakistan — traced the roots of India’s Partition to Sir Syed.
And it later gained currency among Hindu communalists.
Sections of nationalist historiographers — despite Nehru’s adequate explanation — only reinforced such misleading attributes.
Even a scholar of nationalism like Partha Chatterjee, discussing the first phase of evolving nationalism in India (‘the moment of departure’), appreciated Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (1838-1894), despite his pro-British and anti-Muslim story line in Anandmath (1882). He credited Bankim with contributing to the rise of nationalism through his articulation of India’s superiority/autonomy in the spiritual domain.
The same yardstick is not applied to the Muslim ‘fragment’ of the Indian nation. Sir Syed and his companions created far more progressive and voluminous literature in Urdu, which decisively went on to serve as intellectual resources against the British colonial hegemony.
With the turn of the century, the MAO College also became a nerve-centre of anti-British agitations. The campus, just as the rest of society, bustled with all political trends: Nationalists, leftists and separatists.
The first graduate and postgraduate of the college were Hindus; the first three principals were British Christians; and the first chancellor of the university was a woman.
Beef remained banned in the hostel, and scholarships specifically for Hindu students were also there.
Syed is also blamed for opposing women education.
In one of his speeches he was indeed harsh on this. He said India may have to wait for hundreds of years when it would be able to afford opening women’s colleges.
He later argued that he should not be misunderstood on the issue. His pragmatism about letting the agenda wait till more resources and more receptive and enabling environment come about, is often glossed over by scholars and commentators.
His articles in the Aligarh Institute Gazette (AIG) and his travelogue of London wouldn’t satisfy today’s ‘feminists’, but these are not to be ignored completely.
The travelogue records Sir Syed’s admiration for Naseeban of Kanpur, a maid servant who could speak English, on board the ship for his 21st trip to Europe. He showered laurels upon the maid servants of London who unfailingly took time out to read newspapers every day. He wished India should reach this stage soon.
He editorialised his praises in the AIG for scholar-reformer Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922), whose efforts resulted in significant progress in medical education and training for women; Kadambini Ganguly (1861-1923), the first medical graduate to have gone abroad for education; and Anandi Gopal Joshi (1865-1887), the first female physician.
To sum up, the reforming intelligentsia of 19th century colonial India had its many limitations; it is politically useful to talk about those.
Fanatic ways of admiring or denigrating/belittling such contributions serve absolutely no purpose.
(Professor Mohammad Sajjad is with the Centre of Advanced Study in History of Aligarh Muslim University.)