SIR SYED AHMAD KHAN: HIS MASTER’S REBELLIOUS VOICE by Syed Abu Ahmad Akif

The death centenary of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan is a very appropriate occasion to begin an earnest study - both at collective and personal levels - of this man whose stature is as great as has been a lack of his proper appreciation. This omission is more significant in view of the fact that an immense treasure of Sir Syed’s own writings as well as works on him exist. Thus it is all the more unfortunate that few men of learning have been able to do justice with this towering figure of Muslim India. But, to be fair to our scholars, so extraordinary was Sir Syed’s personality that it requires men of no small calibre to fathom the depths of his intellect, vision, and revolutionary spirit. This perhaps is tribute enough to Sir Syed: In his own times, Sir Syed had the misfortune of having being doubly misunderstood both by the ultra-conservative religious Indian Muslims and the equally narrow-minded British rulers. Those were days when middle of the road intellectualism was virtually absent. More unfortunately, the intellectual response to Sir Syed’s life and works has been far less than adequate even in the century that has followed. Thus, Sir Syed was not only misunderstood in his own times, but continues to be a person, the full spectrum of whose life has not really been studied nor one whose genius has been recognised in its entirety. A major reason for this has been the intellectual laziness of our scholars. As a people we can hardly be called good readers or honest writers. Living by clichés and false generalizations, even the best efforts of our self-proclaimed researchers often leave a lot to be desired. For the most part we work to prove previously held misconceptions rather than strive with open minds to accept facts and opinions that may run contrary to our points of view. .While Sir Syed finds honourable mention in every book of Indian Muslim history, this is more of a stereotypic and less than full-to-life portrayal. Even though the large majority considers Sir Syed to be the first of the three greatest benefactors of modern Muslim India, there is nonetheless a significant group (consisting mostly of anti-Western die-hards) which labels him as an agent, if not co-conspirator - of the British and a loyal servant of Her Majesty’s Government. Indeed, Sir Syed was accused of many a crime against his religion and people, which even included that of being a heretic - the most cardinal amongst sins in the eyes of Muslims. The main reason for this is, of course, the fact that Sir Syed served the British establishment for a long time and in the aftermath of the “Indian Mutiny” apparently seemed to be apologetic towards the alien rulers. To add to this was his vision of a new Muslim nation equipped with the best traditions of their faith and intellectual prowess of the ascendant Western civilization. This was more than his Muslim compatriots of the time, seething with limitless bitterness towards the infidel Europeans could swallow. Fortunately, then as now, people with analytic capabilities and maturity of thought did not agree with such an extreme point of view. In view of Sir Syed’s family

traditions, learning and other qualities, they have always been sure about his love for his community, which Sir Syed changed into a nation. The aim of this article is show that Sir Syed was far from being a toady of the British. He was certainly not a “realist” in the sense the word is used in our own times - a sycophant, a hypocrite, or a man of the world with few or no scruples - in fact he was quite the opposite: a courageous critic of his paymasters - A rebel within the ranks of the British officialdom. Syed was a rebel with a cause. At no point in his life did his employment with the colonial establishment bear upon his fierce independence of thought and action. Indeed, working for the establishment was part of his grand design - to serve as a role model for drawing millions of his Muslim brethren towards the future state of affairs which was becoming obvious with every passing day. Unlike many of his coreligionists of the time who were waiting helplessly for Messiah to bring forth a new birth of Muslim regal power, Sir Syed was not a dreamer of the romantic school. He brought together that rare combination of an idealist who had his feet firmly planted on the ground. Political acumen and breadth of vision was a part of Sir Syed’s family legacy. When Ranjit Singh invited Sir Syed’s maternal grandfather, Khwaja Fareeduddin to take up the position of his prime minister, Sir Syed’s mother asked him to decline the offer, in view of the Sikhs’ long ad traditional anti-Muslim stance. Sir Syed’s father was a member of the Mughal Court albeit one who seldom attended the very hollow ceremonies of pomp and show. On important occasions - specially religious festivals like Eid, Sir Syed also visited the Court with his father Very early on, Sir Syed had realized that the days of the Mughals were over. Indeed, even from before his birth in 1817, a common saying of Shah Alam’s period (1759-1806)t was that the extent of Mughal Empire was from Delhi to Palam (then a suburb, now site of Delhi’s airport). Sultanat-e-Shah Alam - Az Dehli ta Palam As a young man, Syed Ahmad did not need to seek paid employment; and so he helped out in the newspaper business of his brother. When Sir Syed’s father passed away in 1838, the monthly stipends to the family were stopped with the exception to the one received by his mother. While the young man could have attempted to seek membership of the Mughal Court, he chose to take up employment in order to avoid the deep rooted conspiracies at the Red Fort. Sir Syed’s maternal uncle (mother’s brother-in-law) Moulvi Khaleelullah was Sadr Amin (a sub-judge) at Dehli. Sir Syed began his legal apprenticeship with him. Moulvi Khaleelullah got him appointed as a Sareshtidar (court clerk) in his court. During this period Mr. Robert Hamilton came to Delhi as a judge. Owing to the prominence of Syed’s family, Mr. Hamilton and Sir Syed came into contact and the young man was offered a chance to join the more prestigious criminal judicature as a Court Clerk. Owing to his belief that he would be unable to fulfil the requirements of that position, he declined the offer. After some time Mr. Hamilton became the Commissioner of Agra. He once again called Sir Syed and offered the position of naib munshi which was accepted. Syed Ahmad re-organized the Commissioner’s Office and developed an efficient working system. It was during this period, that the young Syed who aspired to rise to

the position of a civil judge, took up the study of law. This soon led to the writing of a small book on the subject of civil laws as relating to the post of a civil judge, or munsif. Mr. Hamilton presented the book to the Government and recommended Syed’s appointment as a munsif. wherever such a vacant post became available. Such was the standard of his book that the Governor also endorsed the recommendation for his appointment as a munsif. But, before he could be appointed, new rules put into place a qualifying examination for such appointments. Accordingly, his mentor, the Commissioner, asked him to appear for the examination. Given Syed’s desire that Muslims should come forward to join the British Service, he not only appeared himself but also persuaded his elder brother Syed Muhammad and cousin Hatim Ali Khan to sit with him. Sir Syed and his cousin passed the examination. and entered the service of the British East India Company. This was some time after the death of his father in 1838; the young Syed Ahmad was just over 20. On 24th Dec. 1841, Sir Syed took up the position of munsif at Manpuri. Less then a month later (10th January. 1842) he was transferred to Fatehpur Sikri, the city Akbar had built in the vicinity of Agra for his patron saint. Here in this historical town, it was no coincidence that Sir Syed’s sleeping quarters were the same as those of the former Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great. It was certainly by design that the British rulers had instituted this practice to demonstrate to all and sundry that Mughal rule had been eclipsed in all but name. Syed was deeply stirred by this fact, the painful symbolism of which was a constant reminder of the changed times.. By his own statements, he was to pass many a sleepless night pondering over the great past of Muslim India and its present state of deterioration and decline. Syed Ahmad was to live in Akbar’s former regal quarters for the next four years. During this period his legal treatise became very popular and many Muslims succeeded in passing the munsifi examination with the help of the book. More than half a century later when the Anjuman-Islamia at Lahore was to present an address to Sir Syed, this treatise was mentioned as one of the great favours of Syed towards the Muslims of India. During this period Sir Syed wrote three books including a biography of the Holy Prophet, peace be upon him. As a consequence, in 1842 the Mughal Court which was still holding on to its; largely fictitious glory under British tutelage, bestowed upon Syed Ahmad the titles Jawadud Daula (the Bestower of the State) and Arif Jung (Scholar Eminent). Incidentally his father had only enjoyed the first of these titles. On 18th February, 1846, Sir Syed was transferred to Delhi on his request as his brother had passed away suddenly. Here he was to stay until 1854, the year when he also became a permanent sub-judge. During his stay at Dehli, Sir Syed completed his hitherto incomplete education in Islamic jurisprudence, Hadith and Arabic literature. After a stay of about nine years at Dehli, on January 30, 1855, Sir Syed was transferred to Bijnore as permanent Sadr Amin. It was during his stay here that the Indian Revolt (as Sir Syed himself referred to it unlike his Indian comrades who called it the War of Independence) began. Sir Syed saved the life of Mr. Shakespeare the

Collector of Bijnore, his family and many other Englishmen by personally staying awake at night to guard the house. After the British had regained power, they wanted to bestow upon Syed a jagir (landed estate) exceeding in value Rs. 100,000 per year. But this was a period of great hardship for the Indian Muslims who having been the former rulers were considered by the British to be real leaders of the rebellion and consequently treated far more harshly than the Hindus. Giving vent to the feelings of his fellow Muslims, Syed Ahmad said, “I consider that no one would be more mean than myself if I were to accept this imperial grant at the cost of the misery of Muslims.” Indeed, this period in which he was so disillusioned with the events at home, that he seriously considered leaving the service and even contemplated immigration to Egypt. In April 1858 Sir Syed moved to nearby Muradabad, taking up the post of Sadrus Sudoor (Senior Judge). Just after reaching Muradabad, Sir Syed began to write what was to become the highly acclaimed Risala-i-Asbab-i-Baghawat-i-Hind (Treatise on the Causes of the Indian Revolt). In this book he referred to the East India Company as “Our Dear Government” which in the context of the arguments presented therein was clearly a satirical reference, but unfortunately not so understood by Indians. Syed Ahmad stated that mismanagement of resources and ill-treatment of the people was the main cause of the revolt. He wrote that the people considered the government as a “sweet knife” (a seemingly benign but nonetheless sharp cutting implement). Sir Syed went on to prove the innocence of the Indians in general and Muslims in particular. While superficially seen to be appeasing the alien rulers, he skilfully presented all the many opinions of the Indians with regard to the Revolt. In very plain words, he drew the conclusion that the British were themselves responsible for the Indian’s revolt as the Company’s haughty and unjust officers neither understood nor made any attempt to understand the Indians viewpoint. Indirectly he also pointed the finger of accusation at the European clergy who took unfair advantage of the Indians’ destitution and poverty - especially in times of famine and civil unrest - to convert the hungry and sick to Christianity. In 1859, 500 copies of this book were published by Sir Syed who decided to send its copies to the Government without an accompanying translation - a clearly symbolic gesture. This was indeed a very sensitive time: Martial Law had been imposed and the word of the military officers meant summary execution by hanging from the nearest available tree. Sir Syed’s confidante Rai Krishan Das specially dissuaded him from sending copies to the British. But Sir Syed was no ordinary man. He was firm believer in the correctness of his actions. Keeping a few copies with himself, Sir Syed immediately dispatched the rest to England. None were distributed in India. In England, several translations of the book were undertaken by the India Office and individual members of the parliament. In India, the Government had it translated separately. The publicly available translation was to be undertaken by Sir Syed’s friend and later biographer Mr. Graham in 1873. Lord Canning, the then Governor General was of the opinion that the book had been written in the Government’s interest. But on the contrary the Secretary of State for India Mr. Beaden opined that the work was a mutinous one which called for

obtaining an explanation from the author, which if found unacceptable should lead to his punishment. Seen in present day context, it would bound on insanity for a civil servant to even attempt such a work When Sir Syed met Mr. Beaden, the Secretary attacked him bitterly saying that he was not loyal to the government. In reply he said that he had only a few copies with him in India which had not even been shown to British officers in India and almost all had been sent to England. This was because, given the present state British agitation and heightened tension, he did not expect the British to understand the opinions expressed in the book in their proper perspective. He challenged the Secretary to obtain a single copy of the book from the possession of an Indian individual; for this he would give him a thousand rupees per copy. During his service, Sir Syed was a member of the Viceroy’s Legislative Council. Sir Syed always presented his very honest and candid opinions about Indian affairs. It was during a debate about the future of Indian politics that he presented the idea that democratic elections would not solve the Indian problem leading to home government as there was a “permanent majority and a permanent minority in India.” This was later to be called the “Two Nations Theory” Sir Syed wanted the British to stay in India until the time that the rights of Indian Muslims could be safeguarded from being usurped by the far more numerous Hindu nation. From 1867 onwards when Hindus began opposing the Muslims even in symbolic areas like the use of Urdu as an official language in courts and offices (by calling it a “foreign language”) the feeling of separate nationhoods started becoming obvious. This was in spite of the fact that both the communities shared the spoken form of the language equally and also that there was no concept of quotas for the Muslims and the Hindus. The role the British bureaucracy was also quite biased against the Muslims and not unsurprisingly so: Having been the losers in the power struggle, the British still suspected them of being less loyal than the Hindus and less likely allies in any future political dispensation. While the former had lost even symbolic vestiges of power the Hindus had perhaps gained by getting what they considered to be more benign if not outrightly beneficial foreign rulers. Textbooks, especially history books, taught in government schools - which formed the great majority of educational institutions - were clearly biased against Muslims. The Muslims rulers were presented as intolerant tyrants who had been unkind towards Hindu subjects. Fictitious details were presented in support of these untruths. As early as the 1870’s Hali wrote, “The erstwhile spirit of friendship which had existed between the Hindus and Muslims no longer exists and the fact can be felt throughout India.” In 1867 the Hindus began the now well known Urdu-Hindi controversy from the city of Benaras. About this period, Sir Syed says, “One day I was talking to Mr. Shakespeare, Commissioner of Benaras, about the education of Muslims when he looked towards me in astonishment and said ‘Syed this is the first time that you talk about the welfare of Muslims alone. You had always talked of the Indians as a whole.’ In reply I said that I am sure that from now on Hindus and Muslims will not participate as one in any effort with sincerity.”

Syed went on to say that with the passage of time this difference will widen because of the relative differences in the numbers of educated people in the two communities. The Hindus who did not have any ideological animosity towards Western learning had taken up officially supported education very early on. By this time, they enjoyed a clear edge over the more hostile Muslims, who still held on to a false hope, an almost romantic dream, of a magical reversal of fortunes. “Whoever lives will see the truth of my words.” In reply, Mr. Shakespeare said, ”If your prophecy is correct, I would be very sorry.” Syed replied, “I have more pain in my heart, but I am sure about my prophecy.” During this controversial period, Mr. Anthony McDonald, Governor of Bihar and Bengal, played a mischievous role by declaring Urdu a “foreign language” (probably in view of its Arabic script). Indeed, he went on so far as declaring as illegal the use of any language written in the Arabic script for official purposes. In areas later to constitute UP, Lt. Governor Strachey was more favourable and there Urdu continued to be used as a court and official language. Sir Syed’s struggle for the cause of Urdu continued almost until his death. Indeed, the last article Sir Syed ever wrote was in defence of this language. This was nine days before his death when he was confined to his bed almost in a state of semiconsciousness. On another occasion dating from the same period, Sir Syed played a singularly courageous role: this was the darbar being held as part of the Agra Exhibition of 1867. The Collector of Agra had arranged the darbar in a open field which had a natural grade-separation of a slightly higher and lower areas. Over the high ground was a covered tentage while the lower area had uncovered seating. As soon as this arrangement emerged, some Indians expressed their apprehension of impending discrimination between the seating of the rulers and the ruled to Sir Syed, who was a member of the Managing Committee. One evening before the darbar a respectable member of the Indian gentry walked over to the site and sat down on one of the seats placed in the tent on the higher ground. A babu (orderly) came and asked him not to sit there as this area was reserved for the British. The gentleman came and narrated the story to Sir Syed. To verify the complaint, Sir Syed reached the darbar ground and took one of the chairs in the same raised enclosure. He too was summarily asked to vacate the chair. Sir Syed immediately went to Sir James Simpson, a senior British officer and expressed his displeasure at this discrimination. Sir Simpson asked Sir Syed to communicate his complaint to the Collector. While Sir Syed was narrating his story to the Collector, another senior British officer supervising the darbar arrangements Mr. Thornhill was also present. He immediately began to shout at Sir Syed, “What mischief you Indians did not perpetrate on us in the Mutiny. Now you wish to sit side by side with our women.” Very bitterly, Sir Syed replied, “This haughty attitude of yours was the cause of the Revolt. You have always been insulting the Indians and continue to hold this attitude. Upon this Mr. Thonrhill became even noisier. Sir Syed returned to his quarters.

When the Lt. Governor came to know about the controversial arrangements, he too expressed his displeasure at the very obvious segregation and ordered that all the British officers should sit next to their Indian counterparts and members of the local gentry while the ladies could occupy the higher stand. Thus Sir Syed’s stand was vindicated. But no soon had the news of the controversy became common knowledge that all the British officers began showing extreme anger against Sir Syed. Coming to meet him, individually and collectively, they vilified him over his raising of the issue. Thus, even though the Governor had intervened in support Sir Syed’s stand, the rank and file did not accept the spirit of equality. With his frustration rising, Sir Syed left Agra for Aligarh on the same night (the one before the darbar) without seeking permission to do so. This was naturally construed to be a boycott - especially in view of the fact that Sir Syed was to be decorated with a medal in the darbar. Owing to his sudden absence this could not be bestowed upon him. Accordingly the Lt. Governor entrusted the medal to the Commissioner Meerut for delivery to Sir Syed enroute to his station. The tow men met on the railway platform at Aligarh. The Commissioner said, “You know I have not the least desire to present you this medal and would not have done so were it not for the orders.” In reply Sir Syed said, “I too have no wish to receive it from you; I am as equally constrained in this action as you are.” After a few days the Secretary Local Government wrote to Sir Syed seeking an explanation for his absence. While Sir Syed defended his position ( in view of the hostility demonstrated by the British officers), he did submit an apology for leaving the station without permission. At about the time that Sir Syed took his action at the Agra darbar, the Government was in the process of considering an increase in the salaries of the Indian judges. But such was the anger of the administration at what it considered to be the insolent attitude of a native, that the decision was delayed for many years to come - as a direct consequence. Apart from his personal courage in the face of official unfairness Sir Syed expressed very harsh comments against the brutal and unjust actions of British officials in his periodicals Tehzibul Akhlaq and Akhbar Scientific Society, constantly and continuously. Of course, it is worth noting that the British Imperial Government was large hearted enough to allow government officials to express their views even through the publication of their own periodicals, a facility which our post independence democratic-era public officials no longer enjoy. A British officer, Mr., Fuller, killed one of his Indian domestic servants. Although justice was not expected, nor forthcoming, the Governor General Lord Lytton did issue a warning to his British officers (as part of the proceedings of the trial) to be just and show tolerance towards the Indians. But this warning did not have much of an impact. And so on 15th Sept. 1876 Sir Syed wrote in Akhbar Scientific Society, “Ever since Lord Lytton issued his warning in the Fuller case, instead of experiencing a decline in the number of Indians killed at the hand of Europeans, we have been receiving news of further killings of natives by foreigners. This is quite akin to the

manner in which we are told of the exploits of hunters during the season: one deer killed here, another animal shot there …In support of his argument Sir Syed gave the list of six incidents over a short period in which all the victims were poor Indians and all the killers British sahibs. He wrote that it was not clear what action had been taken in these cases. In the last paragraph of the editorial, Sir Syed wrote that if the Government did not act quickly, then the young British officers who had just arrived in Indian would no doubt emulate the actions of their seniors and become equally merciless in their murders of Indians. The result will be against all hopes of good governance. In the same issue of the Akhbar, Sir Syed drew the attention of readers to a case in the Western town of Pune. There a European had bought a suit against the Municipal Committee for payment of Rs. 40,000 (a princely sum in those days considering that a salary of Rs. 10 per month was considered good) as compensation against a broken foot. As reported the injury had taken place when the sahib’s horse carriage overturned as a result of going over some gravel that was lying on a roadside. The gentlemen had managed to collect Rs. 16,000. Syed argued that by the logic of this case, in future well placed persons would collect large sums of money even from the heirs of a person who were run over by the carriages of Europeans merely because the poor people happened to be walking of the road on which Europeans’ carriages were also plying. In today’s popular legal parlance, Sir Syed committed contempt of court by writing that he had been shocked to learn as to how the judge had even heard the case: If there had been any case, then the defendant should have been the sahib’s own eyes who failed to see the heap of gravel. If the eyes should submit the plea that they were under command of the man’s brain, then the grey matter could also be joined as coaccused. He also wrote that if the Municipality was to avoid any accumulation of construction material on roadsides they it would be totally unable to carry out its work. A few months earlier, a very junior judicial officer of an Allahabad court had made an Indian pleader put his shoes on his head (as punishment for the court which was in session). Sir Syed wrote that all those who have any sense of justice and national pride as well as the future destiny of the nation, would be very sad to hear this news. But for those who have no such good sense, this may be a minor incident. The court officer who did so is not a supporter of the British justice system and could not be included among the more wise British officers. Perhaps the gentleman considered his court to be the highest in the land as it was not against etiquette for lawyers and others to have their shoes on while appearing before the High Court. Ending his editorial., Sir Syed stated that while he was a great admirer of the justice which the honourable High Court provided to the poor subjects, it was the duty of the High Court to not only provide justice directly but also indirectly by maintaining a check on the lower courts within its jurisdiction. Sir Syed had a very refined and sharp sense of satire. In the May 1876 issue of the Akhbar he commented on the very brutal murder of a new born illegitimate child born out of a Parsi woman’s liaison with a European officer. After birth the baby was butchered by the cook of the mother at her behest. Caustically referring to the European’s claim of natural superiority over the blacks and other races, Sir Syed commented ”We think if he would have lived long this child would naturally have

possessed a great mind and intellect. It is a matter of sorrow that not only a human should was lost, but unfortunately a child of a European. If the child had lived, he could have been named shaistigi - “well bred gentleness”. What a pity that such a well bred symbol of cross-cultural interaction was lost in such an ill manner.” These observations of Sir Syed are now a part of history which have, unfortunately, not been preserved in formal history books. These speak volumes about the attitude of the British rulers and an extraordinarily brave Indian’s courageous response - in times that were certainly very difficult.. But Sir Syed was no ordinary mortal. He was a giant among men - both in the literal and metaphorical senses. As a famous English writer said “Rarely, if ever, has it so happened that a person who such great physical proportions has also been equally well endowed with an immense intellect.” Sir Syed’s genius had been recognized within his own lifetime even by Britishers like his biographer Mr. Graham. While history should not generally be burdened with “if and but” statements, but one such expression would certainly be, “If there had been no Sir Syed, there would have been no Iqbal or Jinnah - and certainly not Indian independence at the time when it did become a reality.”

Syed Ahmad was also deeply interested in archaeology and began about this time to write Asarus Sanadeed, a book about the historical monuments of Delhi. Many of the past glories of Delhi were turning to ruin and even their plaques on which the names of their builders had been engraved had become obliterated. In order to recover the names of these architects Sir Syed went to research from at least 125 historical works. The extent of his immense involvement in this task was that he - a fairly large man - would be hauled up to the great height of Qutub Minar by a lifting contraption in order to copy the inlay of arabesque designs on the tower’s top. Below his associate would pray for his safe return. This effort was only a reflection of his lofty desires for the future of Indian Muslims: In the words of an Arabic poet “He climbs with such immense that it seems that he has some work in the sky. The first edition of the book was published in 1847. Mr. Roberts, the Collector of Shahjahanabad took a copy of the book to London and presented it to the Royal Asiatic Society. Garcon de Tasi translated it into French in 1861. On the basis of this translation Sir Syed was made a Fellow of the Society. Later the University of Edinburgh conferred an honourary degree of LLD for the same work.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful