sir syed ahmad khan 2

The political scenario at the end of the 18th century in the Indian subcontinent was drastically different in comparison to that at the beginning of this century. The 19th century began for the people of the Indian subcontinent with the establishment of a colonial power as their ruler and this meant that the upcoming century was going to be a period of even more transformations and changes. It was in these circumstances of transformations, transition and changes, that the Fort William College was established in Calcutta in 1800, which was the very first initiative taken to develop modern style learning centres in Vernacular languages. Learning centres had also been established earlier, for instance, Warren Hastings’ centre for the study of Persian and Arabic at Calcutta in 1781 and another by Jonathan D. Duncan for Sanskrit in 1791 in Banaras. The interest of the colonial regime to establish learning centres in the Indian subcontinent led to a debate regarding the Educational policy and its aims, objectives and methodologies to impart this education. Despite that, in 1813, the Charter Act was passed by British Parliament, which provided for budget of one lakh rupees set aside to cater to the educational demands of the inhabitants of the British colonies in order to create a class of English educated Indians who would be loyal to the colonial regime and would provide a cheaper workforce. The Imperial ideology further changed during this period which led to the adoption of a policy ‘interference in’, and not just ‘understanding of’, the traditions of the subject population. This shift in policy found either resistance or it gave impetus to movements for reform from within the traditional Indian societies.

With the decline of the local empires, the representation of Muslims in the new colonial structure was increasingly decreasing. Consequent to these changes in social position and due to interference of the colonial regime many revolts took place across the Indian subcontinent and were often organised on the lines of a community participation. these included important movements like Tariqah-i-Muhammadiya, the Faraizi movement in Bengal, and the Moplah Uprisings of Malabar. The culmination of all these acts of resistance can perhaps be seen in the Revolt of 1857, also regarded as the First War of independence in the nationalist discourse. It was also in the aftermath of the colonial brutality in the crushing of this movement that the political scenario once again changed for the people in the subcontinent when the Indian colonies directly came under the rule of the British crown – the idea of India had taken a tangible form. In the British eye, however, the Revolt reflected very poorly on the Muslims in the subcontinent and this came as a further disadvantage to the already suffering community.

It was in the trail of this historical burden, that Sir Syed Ahmad Khan raised his voice for a community in the grasp of deprivation and discrimination. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was a man of high educational distinction and was an official in the British administrative structure; and his life is well documented in history, even though often forgotten in popular discourse, as a leader amongst those that spearheaded the social and religious reform movements. Sir Syed has often been criticised by Indian nationalists on the grounds that he was loyal to his British employers, though this seems unjustified when perceived within the nuances of his time; his loyalty did not come from a lack of love or respect for his people or his motherland rather it came perhaps from a sense of professionalism towards his work or from his pragmatist view of life or even from simply the availability of means at disposal to bring a change in society. However, more than any of these speculations, a book that he authored more appropriatelyand symbolically represents that he felt a sense of responsibility towards his people and that he had the conscience to raise a firm voice about it. In 1859, while still in the employment of the British, Sir Syed published his book titled “Asbaab-e-Baghawat-e-Hind” or “The Causes of Indian Revolt”, wherein he showed great courage and fearlessness in highlighting the actions and policies of the British regime as the root cause of the revolt.

He wrote that, “… think it my duty to record my opinion on the subject. That many well-informed, able, and experienced men have written on the causes of the disturbance, I know; but I am not aware that any native of the country has hitherto been among their number. I venture therefore, publicly to express my opinion.”

In the five final causes that he attributed to have resulted in the Revolt, he clearly admonished the British regime for – the misrepresentation of their intentions amongst the people, their interference in the customs and traditions of local communities including both Hindus and Muslims, their neglect of the state of their subject population, ignoring matters of importance to Indian population, and for the subordination of Indians who were employed under them. But conceivably the most important amongst the causes he listed was through highlighting the lack of political representation of Indians in the British structure. He wrote that, “The non-admission of a native as a member into the Legislative Council was the original cause of the out-break.I believe that this Rebellion owes its origin to one great cause to which all others are but secondary Branches so to speak of the parent stem… All I wish to prove here is that such a step is not only advisable, but absolutely necessary, and that the disturbances are due to the neglect of such a measure. ” This expression is perhaps the first voice in favour of the democratic rights of Indian nationals immediately after the mutiny of 1857, and thus, must be accorded its justified place in the narrative and history of the Indian Freedom Struggle.

Though Sir Syed took a position for the rights of the Muslim community or qaum, however, it is imperative to understand that the Muslims were far from being a homogenous community, in fact the Muslim community in the Indian subcontinent differed from region to region either on the basis of language or culture and also caste. Nevertheless, Sir Syed’s appeal came from the fact that more than anything else he was an educationist. He believed that access to education was the key for growth of the Muslim community and it was a lack of this accessibility that was becoming a cause of Muslim deprivation; an idea which despite diversity resonated with Muslims across India. This was, however, in no way an idea that he kept isolated to the Muslims and took further initiative to propagate the same amongst other communities particularly in Punjab.

The other minority communities also began organising themselves in the same pattern in order to secure their position particularly with respect to access to education. These included Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, Jains and Buddhists which were the other minor ethnic groups. The oldest movement other than Muslims was the Sikh movement of Singh Sabha that began in Punjab in the 1870s. The educational activity associated with Sikh community started with the establishment of Khalsa College in 1890 with the support of Britishers. Although Christian presence in India traced back to 52 AD when St. Thomas one of the disciples of Jesus landed in Kerala and started propagation of Christianity; it was the Charter Act of 1813 which opened up the way for Christian Missionaries to come in and implement their religious work. The Parsis as religious minorities were already educated and well versed with English and modern education from the beginning of the 16th Century and had good relationship with the Britishers, therefore no minority claim was ever raised by them during colonial period. The Jains and Buddhist claims were raised as well; however, being miniscule minority, their demands were neither socio-political nor noticed before independence.

During the course of late 1850s and early 1860s Sir Syed realised that there were only 27 colleges that existed across the subcontinent and that Muslim participation both in the form of student enrolments and teaching instructors was nearly non-existent. Thus, beginning his struggle to establish an educational institution. Sir Syed proposed a modern education system based on scientific approach and blended with the study of their own language and religion. As a result of his growing educationist approach, he established schools wherever he was posted namely; Moradabad (1859), Ghazipur (1863) and finally Scientific Society at Aligarh in 1864. Sir Syed did not show any hesitation in spelling out the underlying political aims of the proposed educational institution. He stated that the aim of the college was to form a class of persons of high intellect. The British officials also made no secret of their special interest in the institution and justified their support for it on the policy of encouraging ‘self-help’ and because of the institutions’ All-India character. Finally, in 1875, Sir Syed opened a school at Aligarh which started functioning with students in IXth grade and by the time these students passed the Xth grade in 1877, Sir Syed has persevered in raising its status to a college, then known as the Muhammadan Anglo Oriental College (MAO).

Within the next five years, the college had substantially improved its finances as well as its strength in terms of the enrolment of students. Sir Syed’s advocacy for the development of the Muslim community has often brought him under the more critical lens, however, if we dwell into his actions the picture would seem very different. Sir Syed never implemented any policy of reservations for Muslims in school/college enrolment and recruitment, and the intake of students was based on secular lines which is evident from the fact that within the first five years itself the strength of the Hindu students steadily increased from 12 out of 125 (less than 10%) to 53 out of 245 (22%). Moreover, evidence suggests that he rather gave very little representation to Muslims in the staff as well.

Though Sir Syed was satisfied with the progress of the MAO College, yet he was also aware that this would have a limited impact on the overall Muslim population, who were still under-represented in the administrative structure. He therefore successfully attempted to draw the attention of the Government towards the educational position of the Muslims through reports like the Memorial of the National Muhammadan Association of Calcutta (1882) and Hunter Commission report on Indian Education (1882), and also by taking support of various government officials and Muslim intellectuals like Badruddin Tyabji, Abdul Lateef and others. The leaders of the Muslim community kept fighting for the cause of education not just at the level of a college but also in higher education in order to keep pace with the other communities. Fortunately, Sir Syed and his colleagues convinced the government on the necessity of encouragement to the private efforts in education (especially those of the Muslims), and as a result, Sir Syed obtained the support of Lord Ripon.

The idea of a university originally put forward by Sir Syed seems to have provided stimulus to Britishers, however instead of a modern university they prepared a blueprint of an “Islamic University” in 1884 and forwarded it to the Nizam Salar Jung II for his consideration. To the surprise of the English government, the strongest opposition to this idea came from Sir Syed himself. He argued that the Muslims would not achieve their appropriate position in society if they were denied western modern education and science by focusing only on traditional language and literature.  And though the scheme was approved by the Nizam with the support of the Talukdars of Oudh, fortunately it fizzled out due to Lord Ripon’s departure at that juncture.

Though the MAO College continued to remain only a college during Sir Syed’s life, the idea of a university was the legacy he left behind. The Sir Syed Memorial Fund Committee was formed immediately upon his death in 1898 in his memory and a Memorandum was submitted to the Government in 1912. Finally, the University was incorporated through an act of the then British Parliament in 1920 and incidentally the upcoming year would be the centenary year of the Aligarh Muslim University. And more than a century later, Sir Syed’s dream, for which he had sacrificed his whole life, is now facing a crisis of character instigated by malevolent and concerted attack on its minority tag by the pseudo-nationalists.

It cannot be denied that it was the Britishers who introduced the terms “majority” and “minority” in India. Prof. Iqbal Ansari has observed that, “With the arrival of the British the religious, caste, linguistic and regional ethnic tribal entities that had existed in India for millennia started getting a new attention and configuration. What the British scholars, administrators and census reporters did was to study this vertically, horizontally and diagonally divided heterogeneous Indian human scene.” On these lines, one could easily argue that Sir Syed neither created the term “minority” nor used it when asserting the demands of the Muslim community; then why put forth the argument that he was essentially a pioneer of Minority rights in the politics of the Indian subcontinent? One reason for his lack of use of the term minority is the lack of existence of concept or a law of Minority Rights as we know it today. In which case, this assertion can only be presented by analysing the ideological growth of Sir Syed and the ways in which he perceived the problems and its causes in the context of the conditions of the Muslim community.

The emergence of extremist politics and Hindu religious revivalism in the form of associations like the Gaurakshini Sabha (Cow Protection Society), Prayag Hindu Samaj and Sanatam Dharm Society and the outbreak of communal clashes at Allahabad and other places in the early 1880s and the agitation of the middle classes for more jobs through open competition and election to the local bodies forced Sir Syed to ponder upon the future of the minorities. Sir Syed’s vision of Hindustan always included both Hindus and Muslims co-existing in mutual respect of each other.  However, the fear, that a religious community which holds majority amongst the population would eventually marginalise the numerically smaller communities that might ultimately perish their distinctive culture, practices and identities was a very rational thought. In fact, this apprehension has reverberated across time in modern Indian history and is perhaps even more relevant today.

Therefore, when Lord Ripon  repealed the Vernacular Press Act of 1878 and established Local Self-Government Bill framework in 1882 followed by Ilbert Bill being presented before the Legislative Council in 1883 proposing local people to run the local affairs; Sir Syed opposed it due to his conviction that the introduction of the principle of common election would enable the larger community to totally override the interests of the smaller communities and it might make the differences of community and creed more violent than before. The views and foresightedness of Sir Syed is vindicated at present in the light of complete side-lining of Muslim minority by the present ruling dispensation and the majority community.

Sir Syed essentially saw the gradual deprivation and marginalisation of a community on the basis of their religious identity. Moreover, he tried to find ways to elevate the community through introducing changes. It took 32 years for the government of an independent India to finally engage in an investigation of this deprivation when the Mandal commission was instituted in 1979; and another decade for it to be adopted by them and it still continues to face problems in terms of proper implementation. Sir Syed’s name, efforts and thoughts are often lost (if not overly and unduly critiqued) in the list of names of great men in the making of early modern India, however, in the present scenario as we seek guidance from our collective past to assess our present and make our future, Sir Syed’s voice and the questions he raised about the minorities and their future in the Indian subcontinent can no longer bear to be forgotten amongst the achievements of the so many great men of 19th century India. In retrospective, the discourse of minority rights may have come a long way yet once again we are cornered by the same question – what about the future of the minorities in India?

We, the people of India, have lived through a period of rise of great political consciousness, an unprecedented freedom struggle, and formation of a unique socio-cultural apparatus; yet we came all the way to the end of the 20th century only to realise the potential of the issue that Sir Syed was raising at the end of the 19th century. Nevertheless, one must acknowledge that knowingly or unknowingly the efforts initiated by Sir Syed were consolidated by the framers of our constitution in the form of Fundamental Rights under article 29 (Right to ‘conserve’ ‘distinct language, script or culture’) and article 30 (Right of all Religious and Linguistic Minorities to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice). Furthermore, the Supreme court has also exhibited exemplary maturity on minority issues and interpretation in the form ofGolaknath case 1967, Keshawnandan Bharti case 1973, and Minerva Mills Case 1980, which curtailed the imaginative unlimited powers of the Parliament and made the Fundamental rights unalterable in all practical sense. While the intentions of our founding fathers, our constitution and our judicial apparatus stood as an unpaid tribute to the efforts initiated by a great reformer, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, towards minority rights, today our country once again stands on a forked road on the question of minorities and the onus lies on each and every Indian to decide whether to uphold the idea of peaceful acceptance of each other from the vision of our forefathers or to stagger down a path of withering those with whom we share more than just common history.

Prof. Anwar Khursheed, Professor of Environmental Engineering, AMU, Aligarh



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