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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 13 New Delhi March 17, 2018

Reflecting on Sir Syed

Sunday 18 March 2018, by Anil Nauriya


The following is the text of the author’s Sir Syed Memorial Lecture delivered on October 17, 2007. It was organised under the auspices of the Sir Syed Foundatin, New Delhi at the Jamia Millia Islamia. It is being published now as its relevance has not in the least diminished even after a gap of more 

than ten years since it was delivered; rather it has grown in the present circumstances.

Sir Syed never lived to see the twentieth century. He saw most of the 19th. How should an Indian in the 21st Century look upon him?

As a curiosity to be examined in an intellectual laboratory or a living being through whose life we could obtain a glimpse of the 19th Century? To gain an idea of the chronological distance at which we stand from Sir Syed, consider the fact that Maulana Azad was only 10 or 11 years of age, when Sir Syed passed away. And it is now going to be 50 years since the precocious Maulana Azad, after living a full and revolutionary life, himself passed away.

The historian’s task is often seen as cherry-picking, and choosing what the historian wishes to project.

In fact historians are often politicians in disguise as they carry on politics by other means.

All of us have a politics. When I write and speak as an Indian, I would have a strong tendency to look in Sir Syed for those things which reinforce my own perception of Indianness. If I were an officially oriented historian in, say, Pakistan, I might perhaps look for the things which emphasised the separate interests of communities. And if in addition I were a bad historian, I would do so to the exclusion of all else.

Fortunately for me, Sir Syed was a normal human being. And like all normal human beings he had his contradictions.

But I’m going to cherry-pick in a different way. Unlike the historian, I will cherry-pick not facts but themes. For today’s lecture I shall try, to some extent, to look also somewhat beyond the three aspects of Sir Syed’s life and thought relating to nation, class and gender. Much has been written and can be written and said on Sir Syed in relation to these matters.

Is there a Sir Syed beyond these issues? A man is not a prisoner of a few themes. One way of dealing with this question is to ask: in what capacity do I approach him today?

As a so-called non-Muslim trying to under-stand the so-called Muslim mind? As simply a curious student of recent history? As a resident of Delhi trying to learn about one of its distinguished past citizens? As a lawyer reading the history of one who was a judicial officer, the Munsif of Delhi? As a conservationist interested in Delhi’s monuments, reading about the work of a pioneering scholar in the field? As an admirer of the many eminent figures directly associated with Aligarh—among them, to name only a few, Shibli Numani, the Ali brothers, Yusuf Dadoo, who was a student at Aligarh in the 1920s and later made his mark in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, and Prof Mohammad Habib, the legendary historian and political scientist?

Or on a personal note, as one who has received the hospitality of that great university, having been more than once a guest lecturer at Aligarh, learning about the founder of that institution which would soon be completing 130 years since the start of teaching at the College there? Or do I approach him in my capacity as one with roots in Bijnor, trying to learn about one of that district’s legendary administrators?

So I come to this subject with all these relations and identities entwined together in my mind.

An interesting aspect of Sir Syed’s life is that it encompasses completely the life-span of Karl Marx. Sir Syed was born in 1817, a year before Marx. And he passed away in 1898, fifteen years after Marx.

Sir Syed as an Observer of Delhi

It is of more than passing interest therefore that Delhi became the subject of the writings of both Marx and Sir Syed. Marx focussed on Delhi because he was writing on the events of 1857. Sir Syed did so because it was not only his home, but because the task suggested itself to him while holding judicial office in Delhi. A few of you may be aware that there is a road in Delhi named after Sir Syed. And for good reason. For as an early and keen observer of Delhi he had trod, in his concern for its archaeological history, the ground of this city as few had before him. It is from Sir Syed’s book that I had learnt that the slanting walls of Tughlakabad Fort were of the Egyptian style rarely seen elsewhere in India.

His biographer, Altaf Husain Hali, has told us in Hayat-I-Javed (first published in Urdu in 1901) how Asar Us Sanadid came to be written. Making use of his holidays, the Munsif Syed would systematically study the old monuments around Delhi, drawing up maps and diagrams and working typically in the heat and dust. Hali writes: “Sir Sayyid found that some of the inscriptions on the Qutb Minar were too high to read. Therefore, in order to obtain an exact copy, he would sit in a basket, which had been suspended between two scaffolds parallel to the inscription.” (Hali, p. 35) If today’s judges and administrators were to take as much interest in their surroundings, life, for Delhi’s citizens, would be quite different.

As an Administrator in Bijnor

Sir Syed in fact represented the hoary and disappearing tradition of Indian administration in which the administrators went out to do things themselves.

When he was transferred to Bijnor, he prepared a history of Bijnor.

Finding himself there in the midst of the events of 1857, he went on to produce Sarkashi Zila Bijnor.

Some of the things that he has to say here, even if from the standpoint of an insider of the Company Raj, may in some respects be categorised in tenor, if not in stridency, with Edmund Burke’s, albeit more overt, indictment of Warren Hastings in the 18th Century. As a judicial officer in Chandpur, Bijnor he was at the face of the coal fire in 1857. Sarkashi Zila Bijnor was the result of that first-hand experience. It is of historical importance, though, of course, it was written primarily from the British point of view. However, Sir Syed notes that orders were issued by the rebels that temples should not be damaged and that before these events there were no religious conflicts between Hindus and Muslims of the district. We also know from him that in the rebel army weavers enrolled themselves in very large numbers.

The Events of 1857

The coordinates between Sir Syed and Karl Marx in relation to 1857 are not entirely unconnected.

Both saw, from different perspectives, that one age had come to an end and another had begun.

When Marx’s attention was drawn to some atrocities from the Indian side, he remarked that this was only the embodiment in a concentrated form of the record of British conduct in India. 

History is a tricky thing. This year we are celebrating the completion of 150 years since the struggle of 1857. A few days ago we celebrated the memory of Maulvi Baqar, Delhi’s and India’s first editor-martyr in the struggle of 1857. And we are remembering also Sir Syed at more or less the same time. We honour the Indian freedom fighters and we honour also Sir Syed who participated in these events from another side in Bijnor where he had exhibited considerable personal courage. We are able to do this, to some extent, because time places us above the din of the battle. But that is not the only reason.

If one reads Sir Syed’s work , Asbab Baghavat -i-Hind or Causes of Indian Rebellion, 1857 (of which an English translation by Jaweed Ashraf, perhaps the first after 1873, has only recently been published) there is much that Sir Syed says to the British literally between the lines. Within the framework of his general support for them, he is able to tell the colonial rulers some hometruths.

Let me give some examples. He outlines one principal overall cause for the events. He tells them that non-participation by the people in representative institutions was the real reason for the rebellion. He argued that while the involvement of the people of India in the British Parliament may be unrealistic, “there was no reason not to permit intervention in the Legislative Council”. [Causes of Indian Rebellion, Asha Jyoti Book Sellers and Publishers and Mainframe Publishers, Delhi, 2007, p. 116]

He then identifies some individual causes.

One of these was that once the East India Company took over any place, there tended to be attempts at interference in the religion of the people and to undermine their languages. He mentions Sanskrit and Arabic in this connection. During the famine of 1837, he said, there were attempts to convert orphans to Christianity and this was resented by the people. Govern-ment administrators in the country behaved like missionaries.

In discussing another cause, he indicts the district administration as being ignorant of the conditions of the people: “Out of fear all would say appeasing things and our government functioned on the basis of personalised rule.” (Causes, p. 143)

Another cause he mentioned was unemploy-ment especially among the Muslims. (Causes, p. 145)

But the greatest indictment he made, and it is remarkable that he did so considering the position he occupied, was that he suggested that the administration lacked feelings of love and unity with the Indians:

“Our Government till date has kept itself so separate and unaligned from Indians as fire and dry grass.” ( Causes, p. 152) The distance between them was increasing. The government instead “should have been with the subjects of India as the rock bearing mica that, in spite of being (of) two different colours, is one. In the white color streaks of black look very beautiful and in black background white manifests its own beauty”. (Causes, p. 152) He referred to the “(h)arshness and ill-tempered behaviour of the District Administration”. (Causes, p. 154)

Interestingly, he had a notion of progress and observed that the “progress” achieved during the period of Lord Bentinck had not been sustained. (Causes, pp 157-158)

Sir Syed is also of significance in his aspect as a religious thinker in 19th Century India. Shibli Numani (1857-1914) can be understood as being partly in a contemporary and partly in a posthumous dialogue with him. And in a way Maulana Azad (1888-1958) too is in a posthumous and indirect dialogue with him inasmuch as Azad writes on the same theme.

Sir Syed tried to advance the idea that one should either be able to refute modern science or show that it is in conformity with Islam. For, he argued, the word of God (the Quran Sharif) could not be opposed to the work of God (nature). Sir Syed’s theological doctrines have not had many takers. One scholar of very considerable understanding and excellence, writing three decades ago, observed that even in Karachi University, Sir Syed’s Tafsir had never been duplicated and perhaps not consulted. (See Mrs Mehr Afroz Murad’s, Intellectual Modernism of Shibli Nu’mani : An Exposition of His Religious and Socio-Political Ideas, Institute of Islamic Culture, Lahore, 1976, p.117) Yet, to fully understand the scientific and rational approach of Shibli, it is necessary also to understand the work of Sir Syed. For Shibli tries to resolve the same problem by distinguishing between science and philosophy.

The effort to resolve the tension between rationality and religion is bound to continue.

 Sir Syed as an Educationist

This may be seen as part of a continuing dialogue on Indian education. He is part of a line that includes Badruddin Tyabji (1844-1906), the founder of the Servants of India Society in the Bombay Presidency, Abbas Tyabji (1852-1936) and Amina Tyabji (d. 1940) in Baroda, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) and Maulvi Abdul Karim (1863-1939?) in East India and also the DAV movement and Madan Mohan Malaviya (1861-1946) elsewhere in North India.

Badruddin Tyabji was associated with the Anjuman-i-Islam in Bombay. By 1880 it had set up an educational institution. A school for Muslim girls came up also in Baroda.

While Aligarh was finding its feet in north India, the Jadavpur Technical College was also being established as part of the movements in Bengal. And in the South, in the first decade of the 20th Century, there emerged figures like Apu Nedungadi who established an institution for girls’ education. 

In his work, TheIndian Muslims, Prof Mujeeb makes a comparison between Sir Syed’s contribution to education with that of Maulvi Abdul Karim in Bengal. (The Indian Muslims, George Allen & Unwin, London, 1967, p. 546)

These educational developments were part of the increasing post-1857 concern to come to terms with the challenges posed by the new era and did not necessarily speak in the same language or idiom.

Maulana Azad did not agree with Sir Syed’s political line, holding that “the wrong lead he gave in politics has been responsible for many of the evils from which we have suffered”. 1 (Convocation Address at Aligarh, February 20, 1949 in Speeches of Maulana Azad 1947-1955, The Publications Division, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, Delhi, 1956, p. 76) But even he was otherwise of the view that, as reformists, a comparison between Sir Syed and Raja Rammohan Roy (1772-1833) to “a large extent” was “valid” (Speeches, p. 77). Azad declared that “(w)hat Raja Rammohan Roy did for Bengal was done by Sir Syed Ahmed, 40 years later, for Northern India and especially for the Muslims of the country”. (idem) Azad added a caveat to this comparison by saying that Raja Rammohan Roy’s contribution was mainly in the social field while Sir Syed’s was in the educational. Jamia’s birth and continued existence is part of that continuing dialogue with Sir Syed. It was an acceptance of the challenge that Aligarh and the new times had thrown up.

Hali tells us how the Aligarh buildings were constructed under Sir Syed’s personal super-vision. His biographer tells us: “For many years, without fail, however harsh the weather, he would spend afternoons and even whole days assisting with the work and giving instructions to the masons and builders. In spite of his bulky stature, he would hurry hither and thither in the sun and hot wind supervising the lay-out of the garden, ordering wells to be dug, having fields ploughed and setting out the garden-paths.” (Hali, p. 162)

It is when one understands what lay behind this great commitment that one may understand the hold that Sir Syed’s memory still has today.

Part of a Dialogue on the Emerging Civil Society 

Sir Syed may be seen as part of a dialogue on the emerging Indian civil society. Like a Governor General could act only in Council, Sir Syed is relevant when studied “ in Council”, as it were, with his contemporaries like Badruddin Tyabji and Lala Lajpat Rai (1865-1928). His well-known exchanges with Badruddin Tyabji in 1888 are part of the dialogue of the making of the Indian nation. The exchange concludes with Badruddin Tyabji’s prophetic observations in his letter dated September 22, 1888 to Sir Syed: “I would therefore beg you, in coming to a conclusion, to bear in mind that ‘united we stand, divided we fall’ and that therefore we ought to make common cause with our fellow countrymen of other races and creeds in matters in which religion is not in any way concerned.” (A.G. Noorani, Badruddin Tyabji, Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broad-casting, New Delhi, 1969, p. 185)

That was not to be at least for some time.

Yet it is significant that when Lala Lajpat Rai wrote his public letters to Sir Syed in the following three months, he appealed to Sir Syed’s own earlier writings and speeches and particularly to Sir Syed’s observations, in Causes of the Indian Rebellion, relating to the need for the Indian voice to be heard in legislative institutions. (See Lala Lajpat Rai: The Man in His Own Words, The Maharashtra State Lajpatrai Centenary Committee, Bombay, 1965, p. 4)

The Grand Old Man of India, Dadabhai Naoroji (1825-1917), was, for much of Sir Syed’s life, a contemporary of the latter. It appears Naoroji had read a biography of Sir Syed, probably G.F.I. Graham’s, which became available in 1885, but quite possibly also Hali’s if any part of it was available in English by then. Naoroji had met Sir Syed on the latter’s first visit to England. He refers generously to Sir Syed in his Presidential address to the Calcutta Congress in 1906 in the following terms: “Sir Syed Ahmed was a nationalist to the backbone. ... In various ways, I knew that his heart was in the welfare of all India as one nation. He was a large and liberal-minded patriot. When I read his life some time ago, I was inspired with respect and admiration for him.” He quoted a presumably earlier statement of Sir Syed’s in which the latter had said : “In the word ‘nation’ I include both Hindus and Mahomedans, because that is the only meaning I can attach to it.” Naoroji recalled also Sir Syed’s earlier statement on Hindus and Muslims as the two eyes of India and declared that “our emancipation depends upon the thorough union of all the people of India without any obstruction”. (Dadabhai Naoroji’s Speeches and Writings, G. A Natesan & Co, 2nd Edn, Madras, 1917, pp 94-95) We must assume that, given the pre-eminent position he occupied in the Congress, Naoroji was fully posted with the later correspondence that passed between Badruddin Tyabji and Sir Syed.

In 1869, when Gandhi was born in Porbandar on the west coast of India, the north Indian Sir Syed was on a visit to England. In the course of this visit to London, Sir Syed met the Queen, for whom Gandhi too was to have a kindly regard. In due course, half-a-century later, Maulana Mohamed Ali and Gandhi would call upon the Aligarh College to break its connection with the British Government. That heralded the birth of the Jamia Millia.

Yet Gandhi referred to Sir Syed several times, always in positive terms—in 1915, 1917, 1920, 1929, 1931, and 1947. [See, for example, Gandhi’s speech at reception soon after arrival in India, January 1915, CW, Vol. 13, p. 10n; speech at Aligarh in November 1917, Vol 14, p. 98n; speech in February 1931 at meeting of the Council of the All-India Muslim League, Delhi, Vol 45, pp. 216-217; and speech in March 1947, Vol 87, p. 152] On most of these occasions he mentioned Sir Syed’s oft-quoted remark about Hindus and Muslims being “the two eyes of the motherland”. There seemed to be an under-standing among Indian nationalists that Sir Syed had been motivated by his desire to provide for the education of his community.

Another past President of the Indian National Congress, Surendranath Banerjea (1848-1925), too touched on Sir Syed’s role. His references to Sir Syed were also respectful. Referring to the earlier controversies, he simply said: “We lost his championship and the great weight of his personal influence and authority in the controversies that had gathered round the Congress movement.....But let bygones be bygones. Let us not forget the debt of gratitude that Hindus and Mahomedans alike owe to the honoured memory of Sir Syed Ahmed. For the seeds that he sowed are bearing fruit; and today the Aligarh College, now raised to the status of a university, is the centre of culture and enlightenment which has made Islam in India instinct with the modern spirit, and aglow with that patriotic enthusiasm which argues well for future solidarity of Hindus and Muslims” [A Nation in the Making, (first published, 1925); Paschimbanga Bangla Akademi Edition, Calcutta, 1998, pp 45-46]

One common feature of the attitude taken by Naoroji, Surendranath Banerjea, Gandhi and Maulana Azad was that they did not wish the past controversies to impede the task of nation-building. Their respectful disagreement with the politics of Sir Syed was expressed not rhetorically but through the assertion of the Indian nationalism entailed in their own political practice. And this disagreement was tempered with full and generous recognition of Sir Syed’s educational and other contributions.

Jawaharlal Nehru in his autobiography gives us a more detailed analysis but there too, amid criticism of Sir Syed’s elitism, there is the recognition that “Sir Syed was unhappy about the backward condition of his community...” and that the decision to concentrate on Western education was the right one. [AnAutobiography, (first published, 1936); Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund Reprint (with OUP), New Delhi, 1984, p. 460 and p. 462] Nehru concludes with the observation on Sir Syed that : “It is possible that had he lived a generation later, he would himself have given another orientation to that message.” (Ibid., p. 464).

In this we cannot but agree.

Even so, Sir Syed had lived long enough to outspan Marx. We cannot hold against Sir Syed the fact that he was not alive in 1919 to witness the Jallianwala Bagh. massacre of an unarmed crowd and therefore did not, unlike Tagore, have occasion to re-evaluate the knighthood that had been conferred upon him.

There is much to be learnt from Sir Syed’s application and industry. Sir Syed was nothing if he was not thorough. Prof Mujeeb reminds us that when Sir Syed wished to prepare a commentary on the Bible, hoping to show that there was no conflict between it and the Quran Sharif, “he learnt Hebrew, set up a printing press, with Hebrew, English and Urdu types, and engaged an Englishman to translate his Urdu commentary into English”. (See M. Mujeeb, The Indian Muslims, p. 447)

Further Development of Sir Syed’s Ideas

It was Sir Syed’s view that hubb-i-imani, love of faith, can live side by side with hubb-i-insani, love of humanity. (See M. Mujeeb, op. cit., p. 451) It was left to Shibli Numani and Maulana Azad in later years to give political content to this philosophical aperture in the thought of Sir Syed. New times and new compulsions led to Shibli Numani’s famous article “Musalmanon ki Political Karwat” (1912) and in the same year Maulana Azad brought out Al Hilal. That in doing so, they were moving far beyond the political thought of Sir Syed is no reflection on the latter.

It is worth remembering that the strength of Marx’s contribution too had rested on his method, not on the essentiality of each individual conclusion.

Sir Syed needs further evaluation and re-evaluation. There are elements of his thought which can be developed in the current context to give new content to other elements of his thought. For instance, his emphatic opposition to slavery must now be seen to transcend barriers of class and gender. (For Sir Syed’s views against slavery, see M. Mujeeb, op. cit., pp. 450-451)

I may conclude with a story from Hali. When once Sir Syed had an opportunity for personal revenge against a person who had on one occasion injured him, his mother prevented him from carrying it out, saying that revenge belonged to the Almighty. This, his biographer tells us, had a great moral impact on him. (Hali, p. 14) Such an attitude must certainly have added to the quality of his public life.


  • “From the beginning of my political life,” Maulana Azad told the convocation at Aligarh in February 1949, “I was convinced that the Indian Muslims must participate in the movement for emancipation and work towards that end through the National Congress. It was inevitable that I should criticise the political lead which the late Sir Syed Ahmed had given and which represented the policy of the Aligarh party.” (Speeches,op. cit., p. 75)

Anil Nauriya studied Economics, qualified for the Bar and since the early eighties, has been counsel at the Supreme Court of India and the High Court of Delhi. He has written on contemporary history and politics in India and has contributed to various books and journals, the latter including the Economic and Political Weekly (Mumbai), Mainstream (New Delhi), Monthly Review (New York) and Natalia (Pietermaritzburg). He was a Senior Fellow (2013-2015) at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi. His writings include The African Element in Gandhi, (2006), English Anti-Imperialism and the Varied Lights of Willie Pearson (2014) and Non-violent Action and Socialist Radicalism: Narendra Deva in India’s freedom movement (2015).

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