India 1817-1898

Both were Sayyids, or Syeds, a designation limited to those who trace their ancestry to the Prophet’s family. Both were inspirational leaders of a bereft community in a century marked by crises. Their lives overlapped briefly. Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-98) was a young man when Sayyid Ahmad Barelvi was killed in battle in 1831.  Their lives intersected obliquely: Syed Ahmad’s mother was a devotee of Shah Aziz, who taught Barelvi, and Syed Ahmad was sufficiently moved by Barelvi’s martyrdom to write an eulogy. But their interpretation of hubbi-i-imami, the way of the Prophet differed.

While Barelvi sought salvation through holy war, Syed Ahmad believed that modern, English education was the only key that could release a community locked in its past. The British Raj, persuaded by the Hunter report, had come to the same conclusion, and expected in the process to earn the loyalty of the Muslims. They chose Syed Ahmad as their interlocutor with the community, honoured him with the Order of the Star of India in 1869 and a knighthood in 1888 (as well as an honorary doctorate from Edinburgh University) and helped him found a college that is today the Aligarh Muslim University.

Barelvi’s  ideological heirs, spurning social, financial or political association with the British, set up their own school, the Deoband Madrasa. Both Aligarh and Deoband had an impact on the future in ways their founder could never have imagined. In a sense, Shah Waliullah’s theory of distance was split between these two fountainheads. While Deoband, rooted in local history, sought Muslim space within a shared Hindu-Muslim India, Aligarh’s ‘modernists’, influenced by a rapidly changing world in which new nations were being created from emerging identities, took the idea, in stages, towards a separate horizon.

In October 1906, a group of Aligarh alumni initiated a chain of events that culminated in the creation of Pakistan, when they helped draft a charter of demands to the viceroy that asked for separate electorates for Muslims, dividing politics along communal lines. In December that year, the annual educational conference established by Sir Syed reconstituted itself as a political party, the All-India Muslim League. Within four decades, the Muslim League converted the politics of distance into a separate nation.

The birth of a son in an upper-class (sharif) Muslim household during Mughal rule was announced with a proud gunshot- to get the child used to the sound of firearms. A maulvi or senior member of the family would then bend down and whisper the azzan in the left ear and the kalimah in the right. Faith and fire were birthrights. Syed Ahmad Khan was born, on 17 October 1817, into such a home in Delhi. His father, Mir Muhammad Muttaqi, was a bureaucrat who served as a personal adviser to Akbar Shah II. The child grew up in a sprawling complex of houses owned by his maternal grandfather, Khwaja Fariduddin Ahmad, who was the vizir, the equivalent of prime minister. Courtesy, consideration, order, education (personally supervised by the family patriarch in the evenings) religious observance, poetry, elegant conversation: such were the elements that constituted the sharif lifestyle. Courtesy was a  prime virtue. His mother, Azis-un-Nisa, banished him from home when he was eleven or twelve because he hit an old family retainer. He had to live with an aunt unil he sought forgiveness from the servant.

His ustad, Maulvi Hamiduddin, taught him the traditional disciplines of Persian, Arabic, Urdu and religion. Others gave him lessons in astronomy, mathematics, unani medicine, classical music, painting, archery and, not least, the serious art of kite flying; he later wrote a treatise on making kites and grinding broken glass into a powder with which the string was treated in order to slash competition in the sky. Syed Ahmad recalled an uncle, with élan, who would take him to the home of a Hindu friend and patron of ghazals, music and professional dancing girls.

The most useful uncle, though, was the one who got him a minor job in the British court after his father’s death in 1838. He was appointed serestedar (responsible for records) in Agra. Within two years he was promoted to munsif. In 1846, he arranged for a transfer to Delhi to be with his mother. He had begun to make a name for himself as a scholar with the publication of Athar Assanadid ( Great Monuments), a well-researched record of Delhi’s  architectural inheritance. In 1854 appeared a commentary on the Bible in which he examined the proximity between Islam and Christianity. In the same year, he became sadr amin at Bijnore, and was a senior Raj official when the uprising of 1857 shook northern India.

The British used war as a necessary means to power, but understood that its costs were substantial and its perils avoidable. Defeat could add up to more than the sum of its parts. Always on a mystique of military invincibility, any dilution of this ‘prestige’ migh induce a cascading downward spiral. The Company annexed Sind in 1884, in what is today the south of Pakistan, at least partly to restore the ‘prestige’ that had been shattered by the Afghanistan disaster in 1841.

The most audacious British annexation, of Awwadh in 1856, was entirely peaceful. Finance became the justification for encroachment, as Calcutta took revenue-bearing territory in lieu of debt. By 1831, Governor-General Lord Bentinck was warning the nawab of Awwadh that he was in danger of becoming a titular pensioner, like the raja of Tanjore. Experienced officers like Colonel W.H. Sleeman, famous for subduing the menace of thugs in central India and now resident in Lucknow, told Calcutta that Muslims would resent the subversion of the most powerful Muslim dynasty of the north, and this would affect the loyalty of the Muslim sepoys in the ‘native ‘ army. Sleeman even warned that they might be provoked into ‘some desperate act’; there were some 40,000 Awwadhi sepoys in the Bengal Army. The high-minded Sleeman wanted the Company to become trustees of Awwadh spending its revenues wisely, on people-oriented projects. But the expansionist Lord Dalhousie (1848-56), who gave India the railways and believed that Indians had never had it so good as under British rule, was impervious. He received London’s approval for the annexation of Awwadh in January 1856.

The process was unceremonious. The British informed the despondent Nawab Wajid Ali Shah through a letter that he had just become an ex-nawab. Wajid Ali Shah knew his fate; he had already ordered palace guns to be dismounted, and guards disarmed. The ex-nawab took the turban off his head, placed it in the hands of the British resident and burst into tears. Three days later, a proclamation was issued declaring Awwadh a British territory. Not a shot  was fired. Awwadh was the last conquest of British India.

The British were to pay a heavy price for destroying a dynasty that had bought, literally, peace with them since the battle of Buxar in 1765. Opinions across the spectrum, from nobility to sepoy, accused the British of the grave sin of injustice. Ghalib, the pre-eminent poet of his age and perhaps the finest in the Urdu language, wrote to a friend in Awwadh on 23 February 1857, ‘Although, I am a stranger to Oudh and its affairs, the destruction of the state depressed me all the more, and I maintain that no Indian who was not devoid of all sense of justice could have felt otherwise’. In his history of 1857, Asbab-i-Baghawat-i-Hind (Causes of the Rebellion in India), Syed Ahmad notes that the Honourable East India Company angered ‘all classes’ by acting ‘in defiance of its treaties, and in contempt of the word which it had pledged.’

There was a strong undercurrent of fear that the British wanted to convert, through missionaries, Hindus and Muslims into Christians. Well-meaning reforms, such as the abolition of sati and legalization of widow remarriage, were treated as evidence. Anger had been building for a while. In 1806, sepoys had rebelled at Vellore, where Tipu Sultan’s sons were imprisoned. Because of a new cockade in the uniform: it was believed that its headwear was made of pig or cow skin, the first offensive to Muslims and the second sacred to Hindus. Moreover, Hindu sepoys (still mainly upper-caste Brahmins and Kshatriyas) were ordered to erase ‘uncivilized’ caste marks on their foreheads, and Muslims told to trim their beards. About a hundred British soldiers and fourteen officers were killed before the order was restored.

But 1857 was on a vastly different scale. The Indian Army had grown from 100,000 in 1790 to 280,000 by 1857, including 45,000 Europeans, making it the largest standing armed force in Asia. There were supplementary grievances, including pay: the Indian sepoy was paid one-third the salary of his British equivalent, and promotion was virtually non-existent. As early as in 1853, William Gomm, commander-in-chief of the Company army had argued that the greased paper cartridge wrap of the new Enfield rifle, which had to be bitten off to ensure ignition, should not be used in India unless it was found acceptable to natives. The original greasing was a mix of vegetable oil and wax. The manufacturers discovered that beef tallow or pig fat were cheaper option and, as good capitalists, changed the formula.

Biting this bullet polluted faith. Of the seventy-four Bengal regiments, fifty-four mutinied. Across north India, every aspect of British presence, including government buildings, churches, residences and tombs, was attacked. Many British officers retained the loyalty of their Indian men, but largely because of personal bonds. A famous case was that of Henry Lawrence, who defended Lucknow with 700 Indians. To the relief of the authorities, the ‘Devil’s Wind’ did not envelop the whole of the country, and the Company got crucial help from some powerful Indian potentates. As Sir Penderel Moon observes,  ‘. . .it is hard to see how the British could have survived and recovered Hindustan without the support of the Sikhs and the Punjab generally. It was only by a hair’s breadth that they pulled through.’ Almost all the Maratha states, barring Holkar, who temporized, stayed out of the war; and Gwalior gave invaluable help to the British, as did Punjabi states of Patiala, Nabha and Jind. The ever-faithful nizam of Hyderabad used artillery in July 1857 to disperse fellow Muslims when they attacked the British residency in Hyderabad. Without the support of its Indian neo-colonies, the British Raj would have ended in 1857, as predicted by some astrologers, rather than in 1947. Queen Victoria recognized this debt in 1858.

The East India Company won the war in India but lost the battle in London; the Crown took over the government of India. On 1 November 1858, a ‘Proclamation by the Queen in Council, to the Princes, Chiefs, and People of India’ from ‘Victoria, By the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and of the Colonies and Dependencies Thereof in Europe, Asia, Africa, America, and Australia, Queen, Defender of the Faith’s declared that the Queen ‘had taken upon Ourselves the said Government’. Victoria made a solemn promise of non-interference to her Indian princes: ‘We desire no extension of Our present territorial Possessions. . .’ the boundaries of direct British rule were frozen. ‘We shall sanction no encroachment on those of others. We shall respect the Rights, Dignity, and Honour of Native Princes as Our Own.’ Her Indian subjects were reassured that while the Queen might be the Defender of the Faith in Great Britain and Ireland, she would not defend the Christian faith as eagerly in India. ‘Firmly relying Ourselves on the truth of Christianity, and acknowledging with gratitude the solace of Religion, We disclaim alike the Right and the Desire to impose our Convictions on any of Our subjects. We declare it to be Our Royal Will and Pleasure that none in any wise favoured, none molested or disquieted, by reason of their Religious Faith or Observances; but that all shall alike enjoy the equal and impartial protection of the Law: and We do strictly charge and enjoin all those who may be in authority under Us, that they abstain from all interference with the Religious Belief or Worship of any of Our Subjects, on pain of Our highest Displeasure.’

The government would not interfere, through legislation or coercion, in the practice of any faith, in the name of reason or civilization. This severely curtailed, even if it did not eliminate, official patronage to the missionary  movement in India.

The year 1857 ended the pretence of Muslim rule in India. The sepoys had formally declared war in the name of the last Mughal, Bahadur Shah Zafar, crowned emperor in 1837, who was neither very bahadur (brave) nor much of a shah (king). Syed Ahmad described him as a ‘mouldering skin stuffed with straw’ to his biographer Altaf Hussain Hali (1837-1914). Zafar was in turns enthusiastic, frightened and self-pitying during the few months of conflict. His famous letter to the princes and people of Hindustan, issued on 20 May 1857, has the merit of identifying the crux of India anger against the British, but it works more as a useful sermon rather than an inspirational call to arms.

He asked for unity in the Defence of Islam and Hinduism: ‘it is now my firm conviction that if these English continue in Hindustan, they will kill everyone in our country, and will utterly overthrow our religions. . . All you Hindus are hereby solemnly adjured by your faith in the Ganges, tulsi and Saligram; and all you Mussulmans, by your belief in God and the Koran, as the English are the common enemy of both, to unite in considering their slaughter extremely expedient, for by this alone will the lives and faith of both be saved.’

The British, inverting logic, convicted the legal emperor of India for ‘treason’ in his own country. Zafar was exiled to Burma. No such lenience was shown to lesser prisoners, who were hanged. Their last illusions brutally exposed, Indian Muslims went into deep depression. They were punished individually and collectively. Their great cities and centres of high culture, Delhi and Lucknow, which Ghalib described as the Baghdad of India, were razed. Syed Ahmad lamented to the Muhammadan Literacy Society of Calcutta in 1863, ‘In our ancient capitals once so well known, so rich, so great and so flourishing, nothing is now to be seen or heard save a few bones strewn amongst the ruins of the human-like cry of the jackal’.

The confidence of the Muslim elite dropped from a heightened sense of superiority to tortured collapse of self-confidence. Numbers, which had seemed irrelevant during the high noon of power, now became the focal point of despair as, having lost in the competition with the British; they began to compete with the Hindus for the benefits of British rule. The ideologue of this new arithmetic was Syed Ahmad Khan. His life was devoted to lifting Indian Muslims out of what he called, in a mordant and brilliant phrase, a ‘fatal shroud of complacent self-esteem’. The way out of the shroud, he argued, was not through confrontation but cooperation with the British.

His credentials for such an enterprise were sound. He had saved vulnerable British civilians in Bijnore during the uprising despite Muslim wrath; he was driven out of the city by Nawab Mahmud Khan’s soldiers. Ironically, his family in Delhi paid a heavy price for being Muslim. The British killed his uncle and cousin, and ransacked their home. His beloved mother fled penniless to Meerut, where she died a few days later. Syed Ahmad Khan recalled that ‘. . .it made an old man out of me. My hair turned white’.

Hindus were permitted to return to Delhi in June 1858; Muslims had to wait till August 1859: it was not till 1900 that the Muslim population of Delhi reached 1857 levels. Insult followed injury. The Jama Masjid was turned into a barracks for Sikh soldiers; most of the Fatehpuri Mosque was sold to a Hindu merchant, and restored to its clergy only in 1877. The Zeenatul Masjid, perhaps the most beautiful in the city, was converted into a bakery till Lord Curzon returned it to the Muslims. Everything within 448 yards of the Red Fort was demolished to provide a clear range for British guns. The homeless were forbidden from pointing on the spot where their homes once stood. Land and property were confiscated from those unable to prove that they had not been insurgents; much Muslim land was transferred to Hindu bankers.

The city’s great libraries, imperial as well as theological, whether they belonged to Nawab Ziauddin Khan of Loharu or Shah Waliullah, were looted. Akbarabadi Masjid whose clerics were descendants of Waliullah, was destroyed, as was the khanqah of Shah Kalimullah. A residential area of the intellectual elite, Kuchah-e-Chilau Mohalla, was emptied when some 1,400 were butchered. The nobility was uprooted from residential areas like Jhajjar, Ballabgarh, Farrucknagar and Bahudargarh. Mughal Delhi could now be found only in the poetry of lament.

Syed Ahmad was so depressed by this destruction that he contemplated settling down in Egypt. But he dismissed exile as cowardice and turned to what became his life’s work: a programme of reform and education for Muslims, urging them to acquire the intellectual merits that had made the British victors, a modern scientific temperament, and fluency in the English language.

He founded a madrasa with a modern curriculum in Muradabad in 1859, but it was only after his transfer to Aligarh in 1864 that he began to concentrate on this commitment. That year, he started the Scientific Society of Aligarh to translate English educational texts into Urdu, written in the Persian script. When some Hindu colleagues sought to extend this scheme to Hindi, written in indigenous Devanagari, he was irritated; he did not want any dilution of focus. This soon developed a side-effect, a conflict between languages. The British, who had nearly been destabilized by the emotional exuberance of unity, had every reason to encourage, albeit discreetly, such disputes.

English replaced Persian as the language of governance in 1834. The decision was not made without debate. The ‘Orientalists’ led by the scholar Sir William Jones (1746-1794), wanted the government to support the study of three classic eastern languages, Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic: famously, he called the structure of Sanskrit more perfect than Greek, more copious than Latin and more refined than either. But Thomas Babbington (Lord) Macaulay (1800-1859), law member of the Executive Council of the Governor-General of India, had the last word, and English became the medium of higher education and official work. Macaulay argued that, ‘The languages of Western Europe civilized Russia. I cannot doubt that that they will do for the Hindoo what they have done for the Tartar.’ In a visionary paragraph he suggested that ‘our subjects . . . having become instructed in European knowledge they may, in some future age, demand European institutions. Whether such a day will ever come, I know not. But never will I attempt to avert or retard it. Whenever it comes, it will be the proudest day in English history.’

Macaulay’s immediate purpose was practical. ‘We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.’ There was no finer Macaulayan Indian in his time than Syed Ahmad Khan. But while English would be supreme, which Indian tongue would become the second language of the courts?

At the popular level, there was sufficient overlap between Hindi and Urdu. Firaq Gorakhpuri, the eminent twentieth-century Urdu poet, a Hindu who taught English Literature at Allahabad University, estimated in an essay written in 1979 for the Uttar Pradesh Hindi Sandthan, that Urdu added about 3,000 Arabic-Persian words to an Indian-Hindi lexicon of about 60,000, and pointed out that Urdu words were in use even among the illiterate. But in governance script mattered. The tension increased after the Bengal government notified that Devanagari could be used in courts and government documents in Bihar and Central Provinces which came under its jurisdiction. Lobbies built up for a similar status for Hindi in Awwadh, geographically equivalent to today’s Uttar Pradesh, which had a Hindu majority but had been Urdu -centric because its Nawabs were Muslims. The tussle went down to syllabus, since education was not an end in itself, but a passport to jobs. According to figures cited by P. Hardy in The Muslims of British India, there were 11,490 boys studying Urdu in government schools in 1860; it rose to 48,229 by 1873 as Muslims insisted on protecting the language they increasingly saw it as their own. In the same period, there were 69,134 and 85,820 Hindi scholars.

Syed Ahmad told his biographer Hali that he first began to feel that Hindus and Muslims would go in different directions only when, in his estimate, the Hindu elite of the North West Frontier Province (the then British name for Awwadh) began to confront Muslims over language in the 1860s. He recalled a conversation with the divisional commissioner in Banaras, a certain Mr Shakespeare, whence the latter remarked that this was the first time Syed Ahmad had referred to Muslims alone rather than Indians in general. Syed Ahmad was prescient, in Hali’s account: ‘I am now convinced that these communities will not join whole heartedly in any endeavour. There is no hostility between the two communities at present, but it will increase immensely in the future – because of the so-called educated people. He who lives will see this.’ The Englishman said that he would be sorry if this were to happen. Syed Ahmad replied, ‘I am also sorry, but I am convinced about the accuracy of this prophecy.’

On 23 April 1870, during a visit to London, Syed Ahmad wrote to his friend Nawab Mohsin-ul-Mulk (1837-1907) that the Urdu-Hindi controversy would make Muslim-Hindu unity impossible. Muslims will never agree to Hindi, and if Hindus also, following the new move, insist on Hindi, they also will not agree to Urdu. The result will be that the Hindus and Muslims will be completely separated.’ Battles over language had resilience. Syed Ahmad did not help promote harmony when he described Urdu as the language of the gentry and Hindi that of the vulgar. Hindus saw the return of Muslim hegemony in the promotion of Urdu. In 1900, consequent to a Hindu deputation, the lieutenant governor of the United Province, Sir Anthony MacDonell, approved the use of Devanagari in provincial courts, in addition to Urdu. This provoked a Muslim agitation led by Nawab Muhsin-ul- Mulk and Nawab Viqar-ul -Mulk Mushtaq Hussain (1841-1917); he would become the first president of the Muslim League in 1906). The slow displacement of Urdu is borne out by statistics in 1891,  there were twenty -four Hindi newspapers with a circulation of about 8,000, by 1911, this had risen to eighty-six newspapers with a circulation of about 77,000.  The figures for Urdu are sixty-eight (circulation, circa 16,000), and 116,  but with a circulation of only around 76,000 in 1887, Muslims had 45 per cent of judicial jobs in the United Provinces( much above their population ratio); this dropped to below 25 percent by 1913. Between 1889 and 1909, the number of Hindu lawyers doubled, while Muslim numbers rose by only one-third. Syed Ahmad had created a forum for support to the British in 1866, the British Indian Association of the North Western Provinces and Oudh. He expected reciprocal support for his dream project, an English-Urdu university. He elaborated his brave vision in an article reproduced in the 5th April 1911 issue of the Aligarh Institute Gazette: ‘I may appear to be dreaming and talking Shaikh Chilli, but we aim to turn this (Mohammadan Anglo-Oriental College) into a university similar to that of Oxford or Cambridge. Like the churches of Oxford and Cambridge, there will be mosques attached to each College . . .’ Prayers five times a day, would be mandatory but students of other faiths would be exempted. ‘They will have food either on tables of European style or on chaukis (stools) in the manner of Arabs. . .’ The squatting Indian style was clearly taboo. ‘At present it is like a daydream. I pray to God that this dream may come true.’

In 1869, six Muslims and four Hindus presented a petition to the authorities for what eventually became the Aligarh Muslim University. Syed Ahmad was keen to project a partnership with Hindus to offset communal controversy. If he often became fanciful in his exaltation of British virtues, the potential reward was worth the rhetorical investment. He suggested possibly with more hope than conviction, that in 1857, Muslim blood should have mingled with Christian blood and those who shrank from such loyalty to the British and sided with the rebels were untrue to their salt, a high crime in the hierarchy of Indian values. He sneered at pre-British India as nothing more than a period of loot, murder, cruelty and rape, and praised th British for ending the tyranny, permitting freedom o worship and ending injustice. He convinced himself that the security of Hindus and Muslims (including from each other) lay to British rule.

He was careful to defend Islam with as much passion as he reserved for the praise of the Briish, but he wanted reform in the static thinking of conventional theologians, as his commentary on the holy book, Tafsir al Quran, indicates. Satirists like th poet Akbar Allahabadi were caustic about a man with the beard of a maulvi and the education of the English, but Syed Ahmad was either impervious or oblivious. He had managed to antagonize the clergy much before, with his independent interpretation of the Quran and he Hadith. He was called a kafir. His English university project did not enthuse them either. A fatwa from Deoband accused Syed Ahmad of apostasy.

Maulana Abdur Razzak of Lucknow’s influential Firangi Mahal had no time for western imperialists who, he was certain, were determined to crush the only Muslim power left standing, the Ottomans. He founded the Majlis Muid uL Islam in 1878 to support the Ottoman Empire in its confrontation with Russia, issued a fatwa for funds and told Muslims that they could atone for their weakness in 1857 by helping an Islamic power against Christian colonizers. His grandson, Maulana Abdul Bari, who wrote his grandfather’s biography, would echo this view in an epic alliance with Mahatma Gandhi between 1919 and 1922. Perhaps the Syed’s formidable beard was intended to reassure the faithful.

He was far ahead of his age in demanding education for girls; he had seen the advances in gender emancipation in the West. In 1869, Syed Ahmad went to England to place his son at Cambridge. Six months into his visit, he wrote a letter to the Scientific Society at Aligarh. He had been, he said, introduced to dukes and lords at dinner, met artisans and common folk as well, and concluded that Indian natives were dirty animals when compared to the handsome British. What impressed him most about England was the extent to which education has become a mass phenomenon. He mentioned a young girl, Elizabeth Matthhews, a maid in the house where he was living. In spite of her poverty, he noted, she would buy a half-penny paper called Echo and would delight in Punch if she chanced upon a copy. Cabmen and coachmen could read, he reported, hugely impressed.

The Muslims have nothing to fear from the adoption of the new education if they simultaneously hold steadfast to their faith, because Islam is not irrational superstition; it is a rational religion which can march hand in hand with the growth human knowledge. Any fear to the contrary betrays lack of faith in the truth of Islam,’ he wrote to his friend, Maulvi Tasadduq. He asked rhetorically, ‘Did the early Muslims not take to Greek learning avidly? Did this in any respect undermine their loyalty to Islam? English was the new Greek.

He stayed for seventeen months in Britain, and came to a salutary conclusion: ‘. . . although I do not absolve the English in India of discourtesy, and of looking upon the native of that country as animals and beneath contempt, I think they do so from not understanding us; and I am afraid I must confess that they are not far wrong in their opinion of us. Without flattering th English, I can truly say that the natives of India, high and low, merchants and petty shopkeepers, educated and illiterate, when contrasted with the English in education, manners and uprightness, are as like them as a dirty animal is to an able and handsome man. The English have reason for believing us in India to be imbecile brutes.’

In England, he developed plans to model his proposed Aligarh institutions, school and college, on Harrow and Cambridge. By the time he returned, the Raj was more receptive. The widely reported trial of the leaders of the ‘Wahabi conspiracy’ in the 1860s, and the assassination of high officials by Wahabis had induced fears of the emergence of a ‘Mussulman Cromwell’ in India. On 8 February 1872, Sher Ali, an Afghan Wahabi prisoner in the isolated Andaman Islands, assassinated the touring viceroy, Lord Mayo. In London, Lord Salisbury linked Indian Muslim conspiracies to activists in Kabul, Constantinople and Cairo; the pan-Islamic ‘conspiracy theory’ was in full cry. In Calcutta, conciliatory voices like that of Sir William Hunter argued that the alternative to permanent war was assimilation through soft power. His report had pointed that there was only seventy-seven Muslims out of418 of India’s judicial officers and recommended larger employment in civil services through an expansion of English education. Hunter was named head of an Education Commission, which included a special chapter on Muslims. This chapter was retained in the annual report of the director of public instruction.

The first census of British India, held in 1872, indicated that Muslims were one-fifth of the population of British India. The census-takers divided Indian society into four ethnic groups: Aborigines (tribes, lower castes, untouchables), Aryans (upper-caste Hindus, primarily Brahmins and Thakurs), Mixed (the common ground between the first two) and Muslims. By the 1881 census, there were over fifty million Muslims’, with twenty million of them in Bengal alone.

It was the right moment for a substantive gesture, and Sir Syed Ahmad was the perfect partner. He had already established the Aligarh Mohammadan Anglo-Oriental School on 24 May 1875. In 1877, the viceroy, Lord Lytton, laid the foundation stone of the Mohammadan Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh, soon nicknamed the ‘Muslim Cambridge’ (it got the status of a college in 1878, and would become a university on 9 September 1920). In 1878, Syed Ahmad Khan became a beneficiary of one of his own proposals, when he was nominated for a five year term to the Imperial Legislative Council.

He wanted positive discrimination for Muslims, but not, at least yet, to the exclusion of the Hindus. His speech in Patna on 27 January 1883 is often quoted: ‘India is the home of both of us (Hindus and Muslims). We both breathe the air of India and take the water of the holy Ganges and the Jamuna. We both consume the products of Indian soil. We are living and dying together. . .My friends, I have repeatedly said and say it again that India is like a bride which has got two lustrous eyes- Hindus and Mussulmans. If they quarrel against each other that beautiful bride will become ugly and if one destroys the other, she will lose one eye.’

He stressed harmony even while he dwelt on the difference: ‘Friends, in India there live two prominent nations which are distinguished by the names of Hindus and Mussulmans. . . To be a Hindu or a Muslim is a matter of internal faith which has nothing to do with mutual relationships and external conditions. . Hence, leave God’s share to God and concern yourself with the share that is yours . . . India is the home of both of us. . .By living so long in India, the blood of both have changed. The colour of both has become similar. The Muslim have acquired hundreds of customs from the Hindus and the Hindus have also learned of things from the Mussulmans. We mixed with each other so much that we produced a new language-Urdu, which was neither our language nor theirs. Thus, if we ignore that aspect of ours which we owe to God, both of us, on the basis of being common inhabitants of India, actually constitute one nation; and the progress of this country and that of both of us is possible through mutual cooperation, sympathy and love. We shall only destroy ourselves by mutual disunity and animosity and ill will to each other.’

Shah Waliullah’s theory of distance had reached, imperceptibly, what might be described as an intermediate stage under the leadership of Sir Syed. He was not hostile to Hindus but he did not believe that it was his responsibility to worry about their welfare. He wanted a Muslim deal with the British. This led him, particularly in the last decade of his active public life, towards imprudent oratorical prejudice. Speaking at Siddons Club in Aligarh in August 1884, he likened Indians to monkeys, adding that if Darwin was right, there was evolutionary hope even for natives. We can be sure that he was not referring to the fair-skinned Muslims of hid north-west environment when he made the comparison; his family traced its  origins to Herat in Afghanistan and Arabia. His attitude towards Hindus lost any shade of sympathy after the winter of 1885, with the birth of the Indian National Congress. From the very beginning he condemned the Congress as a Hindu organization that would make the ‘Muslim nation’ subjects of Hindus rather than  Christians, who were a least of the people of the Book(that is mentioned in the Quran and sharing the same God if not the same Prophet).

The Congress was, oddly, founded by a Scotsman. Alan Octavian Hume, a distinguished ornithologist and unorthodox civil servant, had reason to feel that he had been denied promotion to the highest level of the Indian Civil Service, a membership of the Viceroy’s Council, because of his alleged bias towards ‘natives’. In May 1885, he informed the viceroy, Lord Dufferin that he was, with the help of Indians, helping to launch the Indian National Congress to promote the regeneration of India.

On the morning of 28 December 1885, seventy-two delegates (thirty-nine lawyers, fourteen journalists and one doctor) gathered in Bombay, with Hume in the chair, to ask for Indian representation in the civil service through competitive examinations, and in legislature through elections. The Congress offered a united front for all Indians.

Syed Ahmad boycotted the inaugural gathering for ideological reasons, and prevented any coverage of the event in the Aligarh Institute Gazette. Congress leaders, however, recognized the importance of co-opting him. In the middle of 1886, Surendranath Banerjea wrote to him saying ‘no assembly of national delegates would be complete without your presence.’ Hume tried his persuasive charms, to no effect. Syed Ahmad responded by urging Hindus to boycott the Congress as well, to prove that they were not anti-Muslims, and stepped up efforts for exclusive Muslim projects. In 1886, the Mohammadan Educational Congress (the name was changed to Conference in 1890) was born, and received immediate support from prominent Muslims like Calcutta’s Amir Ali and Abdul Latif. At its Lucknow session, Syed Ahmad lampooned the Bengali ‘Babus’ who were in the forefront of the Congress, as people ‘who at the sight of a table knife would crawl under his chair (uproarious cheers and laughter).’ Congress meant anarchy, he argued; only British  could ensure peace between India’s fractious communities

Since the British, luckily was neither Hindu nor Muslim. He admired the manner in which the British had crafted and grafted their empire; and he reminded the pious that the British were Christians and therefore ‘People of the Book’. In January 1888, within a week of the speech, Syed Ahmad had been knighted.

The instant and vehement rejection of the Congress by Sir Syed suggests a nudge from the authorities. The Congress was in search of Muslims, there were only two Muslims out of seventy-two at the first session, and despite effort, only thirty-three out of 431 at the second session in Calcutta in 1886, none of them well known. The Congress was determined to correct this imbalance, an elected Justice Badruddin Tyabji (1844-1906) a Bombay Muslim, as its third president in 1887. It also invited several students from Sir Syed’s college.

The educationist was furious and said in a public speech on 28 December 1887 that Muslims would court disaster if they supported the Congress. Tyabji wrote to Sir Syed, wondering why he was trying to keep Muslims away from the Congress. Sir Syed repeated his assertion that Hindus and Muslims were two separate nations: he had introduced this theme, and taken the theory of distance a quantum leap forward.

Sir Syed offered to join the Congress if it confined itself to the social issues, but not if it was a political body. His rationale was that the Congress demand for election of Indians to the legislature meant that only Hindus would be represented, since there were more Hindu voters than Muslim. Tyabji was baffled. As he told the Congress in his presidential address at Madras, ‘I, for one, am utterly at a loss to understand why Mussalmans should not work shoulder to shoulder with their fellow-countrymen, of other races and creeds, for the common benefit of all. . .’

In an article for pioneer in April 1888, Sir Syed that the real purpose of the Congress was to subjugate the Muslims in a ‘ring of slavery’ under Hindu rule. This assertion went through its wobbles, and was even abandoned between the crucial years of 1916 to 1922 when Hindus and Muslims united to mount an unprecedented offensive against British rule. But although dormant, it never died, and when it was resurrected in the mid-1930s it had the power to partition India. Pro-partition historians like Ishtiaque Qureshi and S. M. Ikram had good reason to laud Sir Syed as prophet and father of Pakistan.

On 30 November 1888, Viceroy Lord Dufferin used the occasion of his St. Andrews dinner speech in Calcutta to label Congress and it’s founder Hume seditious. Sir Auckland Colvin, lieutenant governor of the North-Western Provinces, stressed, the same evening, that the aims and aspirations of Muslims were different from those of the Congress. The authorities were beginning to divide in order to rule. Hume described Dufferin’s accusation as shameful libel intended to promote a ‘doctrine of discord and disunion.’ Sir Syed had made the same charge in an article in the Aligarh Institute Gazette on 23 November 1886.

The evolution of the ‘Muslim movement’ was burdened by one serious, albeit comprehensible, flaw: it could not fully understand how democracy would function in post-British. India. Nothing illustrates this better than a speech Sir Syed gave on 16 March 1888 ‘at the invitation of the Mussalmans of Meerut’, where he dwelt on his concept of ‘one country, two nations’.

He asserted that the Congress, a creation of ‘the Babus of Bengal’, had ‘made a most unfair and unwarrantable interference in my nation’ by indulging Muslims to join the Congress. He condemned to cheers, those Muslims who had attended Tyabji’s Madras session as ‘nothing more than hired men’. They could not be true representatives of of the Muslim ‘nation’, he continued, because they were not landlords, or nawabs, or  rais (gentry): ‘I should point out to my nation that the few who went to Madras, went by pressure, or from some temptation, or in order to help their profession, or to gain notoriety, or were bought (cheers). No rais from here took part in it.’ the only Muslim there with some credibility, he said, was Badruddin Tyabji, and he had made a mistake.

He mixed pride with provocation in order to woo Muslims towards the British.  ‘. . . The Bengalis have never, at any period, held sway over a particle of land. They were altogether ignorant of the methods a foreign race can employ to maintain its rule over other races . . . Oh, my brother Mussalmans, I again remind you that you have ruled nations, and for centuries held different countries in our grasp. For seven hundred years in India you have had imperial sway. You know what is to rule. Be not unjust to that nation which is using over you, and think also on this: how upright is their rule. . . We ought to unite with that nation with whom we can unite.’

Sir Syed asked a question that would become central to politics of the next decade: who would rule India if the British left? ‘Now suppose that all the English and the whole English army were to leave India, taking with them all their cannon and their splendid weapons and everything, then who would be the rulers of India? Is it possible that under these circumstances two nations- the Mohammadans and the Hindus-could sit on the same throne and remain equal in power? Most certainly not. It is necessary that one of them conquer the other and thrust it down. To hope that both could remain equal is to desire the impossible and the inconceivable.’ He could not quite grasp a future different from the old order. ‘At the same time,’ he thundered, ‘you must remember that although the number of Mohammedans is less than that of the Hindus, and although they contain far fewer people who have received a high English education, yet they must not be thought insignificant or weak . . . Our Mussalman brothers, the Pathans, (could) come out as a swarm of locusts from their mountain valleys, and make rivers of blood to flow from their frontier on the north to the extreme end of Bengal.’ The second rung of Muslim League leaders would delight in similar references in election rallies of 1936-37, occasionally invoking Chingiz Khan.

He laughed away the possibility of a government that represented both Hindus and Muslims. ‘Can you tell of any case in the world’s history in which any foreign nation after conquering another and establishing its empire over it has given representative government to the conquered people? Such a thing has never taken place. It is necessary for those who have conquered us to maintain their Empire on a strong basis. . . The English have conquered India and all of us along with it. And just as we (the Muslims) made the country (India) obedient and our slave, so the English have done with us.’  He asked Muslims to make no demand for jobs in civil service because law of Empire demanded that the English only trust Englishmen in authority.

He invoked Islam, even if he had to tweak a bit: ‘God has said that no people of other religions can be friends of Mohammadans except the Christians . . . now God has made them rulers over us. Therefore we should cultivate friendship with them, and should adopt that method by which their rule may remain permanent and firm in India, and may not pass into the hands of the Bengalis.’

The activist mood spread to his staff and students. In 1889, Theodore Beck, principal of his college, led Aligarh students to the steps of Jama Masjid in Delhi and collected almost 30,000 Muslim signatures for an anti-Congress petition to the British parliament. An outbreak of Hindu-Muslim violence in 1892 over cow slaughter across north India gave Sir Syed an opportunity to raise the ante.

In 1882, Swami Dayanand Saraswati, the Hindu religious leader and reformer, had launched a movement to ban cow slaughter: the resentment was not against British preference for beef, but against the Muslim attachment to it. Muslims would often provoke Hindus by a public sacrifice of cows during the Id of the Haj, when animal sacrifice is obligatory. In December 1893, at Beck’s suggestion, Sir Syed formed the provocatively named Muhammadan Anglo Oriental Defence Association. Since it was a bit over-the-top, it withered by 1895.

Deoband’s reaction to the formation of the Congress was significantly different: it urged cooperation between all Indians against the common colonial enemy. The famous madrasa at Deoband, Dar ul Uloom, began life as a small mosque which doubled as a classroom outside prayer hours, in 1867. Its founders, Maulana Muhammad Qasim Nanotvi, the orator- administrator, and Maulana Rashid Ahmad Gangohi, the Hadith scholar, rejected any association with the British, refusing any form of patronage or financial assistance, depending upon the goodwill of the community for their funds. Their food was donated by the neighbourhood. The institution’s other role was served by a Dar al-Ifta, a department to issue fatwas in response to legal questions sent by any Muslim. This, in effect, became a parallel system of jurisprudence that finessed British courts. Deoband ulema stayed away from politics, until a rapidly changing international situation and the defeat of the Ottomans in the First World War brought the ulema of every denomination out on the Indian street.

Deoband welcomed the birth of the Congress in 1885 through a fatwa from Maulana Rashid Ahmad Gangohi, its sarprasat or guide-superintendent at that time, which, using the Prophet’s alliance with non-Muslims in Medina as a template, judged that it was acceptable for the Muslims to cooperate with Hindus to win concessions from the British. This would be the Deoband Line till and beyond the formation of Pakistan in 1947.

Deoband philosophy could not counter the two-nation theory perpetrated by Sir Syed. Increasingly, Muslims became convinced by his argument that in any form of democracy they would always be outvoted three- to-one, as per population ratio, as if Hindu and Muslim voters were unwavering regiments dictated by a single consideration. No one yet understood that political identity in a democracy is influenced by a series of subsets, including region, language, class, sectarian and even seasonal loyalties. One cannot glibly blame Sir Syed for misreading the complexities of democracy, for nowhere had democracy evolved into its modern liberal maturity.

Democracy arrived in British India on stilts. Legislature was weighted in favour of those communities, like Europeans and Anglo-Indians, who could be depended upon to protect the government’s interests. There was no single-standard correlation between population figures and seats in the legislature, everything was up for negotiation, leading to bitter arguments between leaders in a communal democracy. By the winter of 1945-46, in the last election held under British rule, only about forty one million Indians, or around ten percent of the population were eligible to vote. Women, incidentally, had the vote. The results of this limited franchise poll, in which the Muslim League won 460 of the 533 seats reserved for Muslims, became the moral bedrock upon which Pakistan was formed in 1947.

Muslim political consciousness was jolted sharply by the census data of 1881 and 1891, gathered under the supervision of Hunter, who was appointed India’s first director general of statistics: they lagged far behind Hindus, whether in basic literacy or university degrees. Theodore Beck wanted a census to find out the extent to which ‘respectable’ Muslim families were educating their sons. Sir Syed dreamt of Aligarh as th apex of an all-India network of Muslim colleges.

His last years, however, were a nightmare. Heartbroken by dissent in Aligarh, driven out of home by family problems, he died on 27 March 1898 at the house of his friend Ismail Khan Shervani. Only in his death did Muslims realize what he had achieved. The community adopted his mission, and demanded up gradation of Aligarh from college to an independent university. Badruddin Tyabji sent a cheque for Rs2, 000 to the ‘Sir Syed Memorial Fund.’

The impact of Aligarh was soon felt in national politics. Three alumni of Aligarh-Mahdi Ali, Viqar-uL-Mulk and Sayyid Hussain Bilgrami were the architects of a thirty five member delegation from every province of British India, under the nominal leadership of the imam of the Ismailis, the Aga Khan, which presented a seminal petition to Viceroy Lord Minto at Simla on 1 October 1906. The draft was prepared on the Aligarh campus and contained a not-very subtle warning:  ‘. . .recent events have stirred up feelings, especially among the younger generation of Mohammedans, which might, in certain circumstances and under certain circumstances, easily pass beyond the control of temperate counsel and sober guidance.’  The petition also suggested that if community-specific qualifications were not applied to electoral politics, it was ‘likely among other evils, to place our national interests at the mercy of an unsympathetic majority.’  Muslims were again being described as a nation. Minto, in his reply, offered a ‘hearty welcome’ and praised Aligarh and its students for being ‘strong in the tenets of their own religion, strong in the precepts of loyalty and patriotism’. This meeting won the promise of separate electorates for Muslims.

In November 1906, Nawab Salimullah invited Sir Syed’s Muslim Educational Conference to hold its annual conference in Dhaka. On 30 December 1906, these fifty- eight delegates also became the founding members of the All-India Muslim League. Its first president, Nawab Viqar ul-Mulk Mushtaq Hussain claimed that ‘if at any remote period the British government ceases to exist in India, then the rule of India would pass into the hands of that community which is nearly four times as large as ourselves. . .Then, our life, our property, our honour, and our faith will all be in great danger. When even now that a powerful British administration is protecting its subjects, we the  Mussulmans have to face most serious difficulties in safeguarding our interests from the grasping hands of our neighbours.’

‘We can broadly identify four major responses to the crisis brought on by the loss of Muslim political power and the rise of an alien Christian rule. These are modernism, reformism, traditionalism and Islamist, often called fundamentalism. They were represented respectively by the Aligarh, Deoband, Barelvi and Jamaat-e-Islami movements. The institutions and ideas which they forged during the colonial era continue to profoundly influence Pakistani society and politics, as does their history of confrontation,’ notes Ian Talbot. But these categories were not boxed in iron cases.

The nineteenth century was full of prophets whose apostles shaped the twentieth. The most unlikely of Sir Syed’s apostles was Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who, in 1906, refused to join either the delegation to Lord Minto or the Muslim League and dismissed separate electorates as a calamity that would divide India. Among his good friends in Bombay, an eclectic group that included Parsis, Hindus and Christians, was Badruddin Tyabji, who had invited the contempt of Sir Syed by becoming president of Congress. But in the last two years o his life, Jinnah would convert Sir Syed’s two-nation theory into two nations.

Courtesy of:

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