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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 31, New Delhi, July 17, 2021

An Ambassador India Doesn’t Remember | M R Narayan Swamy

Friday 16 July 2021, by M R Narayan Swamy


A Forgotten Ambassador in Cairo:

The Life and Times of Syud Hossain

by N.S. Vinodh

Simon & Schuster India
(December 29, 2020) | ISBN13: 9788194752028
Pages: 378; Price: Rs 799

He was an outstanding journalist whose writings and mesmerizing oratory the Raj detested; he went into self-imposed life in the West after eloping with a sister of Jawaharlal Nehru who later became Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit; he kept the torch of Indian nationalism flying in England and the US; he was India’s first Ambassador to Egypt where he died and was buried — and quickly forgotten by a country for which he did so much. Meet Syud Hossain, a dashing and secular Muslim and Indian to the core.

Born in Calcutta on January 23, 1888 into an aristocratic family whose fortunes later dipped, Hossain published his first book, Echoes from Old Dacca, in 1909. He had started contributing to India’s English newspapers. Disenchanted with government job, he quit as Sub-Deputy Collector in Rajshahi and went to England in 1910 to become a barrister-at-law.

But journalism remained his passion and London’s Fleet Street his regular haunt. With his impeccable English, his articles appeared in New Statesman, Contemporary Review, Pall Mall Gazette, Asiatic Quarterly, New Age and Foreign Affairs. In London Hossain met Gandhi for the first time and became his life-long admirer.

After seven years when he returned to India, Hossain joined the Bombay Chronicle as deputy to Editor B.G. Horniman in early 1917. Hossain’s trenchant editorials against the British regime were widely read by people like Gandhi and Motilal Nehru. He joined the Congress and Annie Besant’s Home Rule League. He acquired such fame within two years that Motilal invited him to Allahabad to take charge of his new daily, Independent. Within three months, Hossain could claim it had the largest circulation among all dailies in northern India despite facing the government’s wrath.

Hossain’s good innings ended when he, while staying at Anand Bhavan in Allahabad, fell in love with Sarup Kumari, a pretty 19-year-old daughter of Motilal Nehru. Hossain was 12 years older to her. When they married quietly according to Muslim custom, Motilal was horrified. So was Jawaharlal Nehru. Motilal and Gandhi pulled up Hossain, forcing him to annul the wedding. Sarup Kumari later married Ranjit Pandit, becoming Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit.

According to the fascinating and scholarly book by author N.S. Vinodh, Hossain left the Independent and went to England as part of a delegation on the Khilafat movement. While the others returned to India, Hossain stayed on in London. He became associated with India, an organ of the British Committee of the Indian National Congress. His joint editorship brought greater depth to the analysis and writings attacking Britain. He lasted only four months due to internal bickering.

Hossain reached the US in 1921 and started life anew with a splash. In New York, he gave a speech blaming British rule for the widespread suffering in India. He went on to address meetings across the US, mesmerizing Americans and Indians with his eloquent use of English language. His appeal for moderation had an appeal for Indians dejected with the extremist worldview of the Gadar movement. By mid-1925, Hossain covered 22 American states and became such a successful speaker that he could easily finance his flamboyant lifestyle — the one arena where he did not follow Gandhi.

Hossain also wrote for the American media, including the New York Times. From May 1924 he edited The New Orient, a magazine originally founded by Hari Govind Govil. Hossain increased the magazine’s authorial diversity, roping in Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, C.F. Andrews, Kahlil Gibran, Bertrand Russell, H.G. Wells and Sarojini Naidu. He steered it into taking a stridently anti-imperialist and pro-India line, upsetting the Raj. His editorship ended when Govil returned to helm the magazine after three years.

When the British went on the offensive on the propaganda front in the US, Hossain took on everyone who spoke for the British — and demolished them with his solid grasp of facts and speaking style. Godfrey Haggard, a senior British diplomat in the US, complained: “Hossain is doing us a lot of harm here.” When Hossain spoke at the Institute of Politics in Northwest Massachusetts, he received the most applause ever given to any speaker in the institute’s history.

Just as Hossain’s lecture invitations declined, the audiences diminished and his revenues shrank, the University of Southern California (USC) made him a lecturer. He moved to Los Angeles and remained there for eight years until 1942, ending his countrywide wanderings. In 1937, he published Gandhi — The Saint as Statesman. Even as communalism engulfed India, he saw no conflict in being both a Muslim and a nationalist.

After a quick visit to India, Hossain travelled to Burma, China, Singapore and Japan. Back in the US, he was again in great demand as an authority on the Orient. In August 1942, the US War Department appointed him as a lecturer and advisor at the School for Special Service in Fort Meade, Maryland. After two decades of unceasing work for the cause of India and Gandhi, he was the “Dean” of Indian activists in the US, “the most expressive, the most scholarly, and the most esteemed of them all”, says this study of a forgotten page in Indian history.

Friends persuaded Hossain to quit USC and move to Washington as Chairman of the new National Committee for India’s Freedom, which launched a magazine, Voice of India, for which Hossain wrote. It became the most influential magazine of Indian nationalists. Its last issue was in May 1947, just before India’s independence. When Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit (a widow by then) toured the US on Gandhi’s urging to enlighten Americans about India, Hossain played a key role in making her trip a huge success.

Hossain left the US for India in March 1946 after 24 long years. Amid the communal frenzy, some 500 armed Muslims tried to attack him in Amritsar for opposing Pakistan’s creation. Hossain turned bitterly against Mohammed Ali Jinnah. He denounced all communal killings in equal measure. Once Gandhi was assassinated, Hossain broke from within; he suddenly aged, his jaunty walk became slower and his dependence on liquor became acute.

Nehru’s government named Hossain India’s first ambassador to Egypt: he was a Muslim, a scholar of Islamic history and a connoisseur of Persian poetry. He was also appointed the First Minister of India to Transjordan and Lebanon. Hossain established a trusted relationship both with the Egyptian monarchy and the Arab League to smoothen India’s fledgling diplomatic forays in the region. On February 25, 1949, he had a heart attack and died. The Egyptian government gave him a state funeral and named a road after him. He was buried in Cairo.

Despite his weakness for liquor and, at times, women, all of Hossain’s life acquisitions were in one briefcase and two suitcases. As the author laments, the Indian embassy in Cairo has forgotten his grave. Not a street is named after him in India. “In death he was abandoned; loved by a few, despised by many, and forgotten by all.”

(Courtesy: Telangana Today)

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