Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was one of the most outstanding gems India produced in the 19th century. The rationalist, moralist and humanist dynamic force who devoted his life in promoting modern scientific education, particularly among Muslims, is often forgotten about his pluralistic vision. On his 203rd birth anniversary on October 17, it is time to remember that Sir Syed was a bridge builder between Hindus and Muslims as well
Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) is generally misunderstood as a rabid communalist or, at best, a parochial activist who promoted Western education among his co-religionists by founding in 1877 Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College which grew into Aligarh Muslim University in 1920. He was a social reformer who sought to improve morale, education and infuse critical thinking and scientific spirit among his country people. Several articles in his Urdu periodical, The Aligarh Institute Gazette, are illustrative of his concern for social reform and enlightenment among the Hindus of the day.
In his following piece with a telling title, “Hindus too should visit England” (Aligarh Institute Gazette, 27 April 1866), against the backdrop of their reservations about sea voyage, he advises: “We recommend all Indians, particularly the competent lawyers, to undertake a visit to England. We should make it a point to sponsor the visit of talented, sincere persons of integrity to England. They will learn there the norms of governance. Their interaction with the British public figures will be of immense benefit to India and Indians.”
Equally sagacious is his following advice to Hindu brethren, published in Aligarh Institute Gazette, October 29, 1868: “Your plight is owing to your low morale while you keep blaming others. Would you like to remain in the same mess forever? We believe that if Hindus persist in their superstitions, other communities in the country will outpace them and assume honour and power. Hindus will only then regret, full of remorse. We are confident that their giving up superstitions will accrue to them very rich dividends.”
Against the backdrop of the British policy of “divide and rule” by creating discord among Hindu and Muslims, he instructed them to live in harmony. “India is inhabited by the adherents of many religions. Hostility on the grounds of their religious diversity mars their relationship. They have turned more antagonistic to one another by the day. As citizens of the same country let us have cordial relations, good conduct and treat one another well as fellow countrymen. We cannot have a single religion for the whole country. However, this should not give rise to intolerance and bigotry…We Indians are afflicted with such sectarian hostility that we have turned into foes, forgetting all of our common ties. Those guilty of it are utterly foolish. This foolishness will disgrace us and our country.”
Female infanticide, remarriage of widows as a taboo, and child marriage vitiated the then Hindu society. Far from demonising Hindus and placing the blame at the door of Hinduism, Sir Syed exhorted them to reflect on these issues and act in a logical, humane way: “Our fellow countrymen oppose the remarriage of widows. So doing, they violate the laws of nature. This prohibition is against the will of the creator of this world.”
On receiving reports about cordial inter-caste programmes in Punjab, he delightfully remarked: “We are proud of those gentlemen in Punjab who have eliminated inter-caste segregation and forged a bond among all. Let our other Hindu brethren emulate this practice. This will bring about real progress and happiness in our country.”
He spoke highly of those Bhargavas, Thakurs, Vaishyas, Chaturvedi’s, Chaubeys, Jats and Brahmins who had set up educational institutions in Agra, Bareilly, and western UP: “Out Hindu brethren have excelled us, while we sit idly. They have paid special attention to promoting education.”
Equally gratified he was to note Rajputs having meals together with members of other castes, as mentioned in Aligarh Institute Gazette, January 3, 1873: “In Jaipur, food was served. All of them sitting on the same table took it.
Rajputs joined, without any reservation.”
Being an educationist, he realised the importance of interaction and academic excellence which could take the country to greater heights. He urged: “Let all patriots note that if you have a sincere love of your country, you should encourage overseas education. This will sensitize our youths to the latest happenings in the world, boost their morale and reinforce their confidence.”
Sir Syed had cordial relations, notwithstanding occasional ideological differences, with the leading reformers of the day. He paid glowing tributes in his writings and speeches to Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1774-1823), Dadabhai Naoroji (1825-1917), Sir Surender Nath Banerji (1848-1925), Keshab Chandra Sen (1834-1884), Swami Dayanand Saraswati (1824-1883) Lala Lajpat Rai (1865-1928), Raja Shiv Prasad (1824-1985) and Bhartendu Babu Harish Chandra (1850-1885).
Sir Syed brought out for years an Urdu periodical aptly titled Tahzeebul Akhlaq (Social Reformer) which upheld the ideals of pluralism, peaceful coexistence, critical thinking civic sense and self-respect. In the words of noted historian Professor Mushirul Haque, “As a Muslim, he considered it his duty to help the Muslims; as an Indian, he made it a point to work for the good of the whole country. There was no ambiguity in his concept of nation.”
(The writer is a Professor of English. Presently, he is Director at UGC Human Resource Development Centre, Aligarh Muslim University)