Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) is one of the architects of modern India. He contributed many of the essential elements to the development of modern Indian society and paved the way for the growth of a healthy scientific attitude of mind which is a sine qua non for advancement, both material and intellectual. Through his dynamism, he extricated the Muslims from the meshes of medieval traditionalism. He was a man of cosmopolitan views and his movement for social reform and educational advancement was not narrow or sectional in spirit. That he mainly worked among the Muslims was due to the fact that he found them more backward educationally and economically, than the other Indian communities. Throughout his life he worked in collaboration with Hindus and set the highest traditions of goodwill and cooperation between various communities and culture-groups of India.
National integration is an ideal with us; it was a reality of life with Sir Syed. He did not have to strive, for, it was in his blood. His thought had been nurtured in traditions of love and amity with all people irrespective of their caste, colour or creed. When his maternal grandfather Nawab Fariduddin Khan divided his property among his sons, he gave an equal share to his diwan, Lala Muluk Chand, whom he treated as one of his family members. When Sir Syed celebrated the Bismillah ceremony of his grandson Ross Masood—a ceremony of semi-religious character—he placed his grandson in the lap of his friend Raja Jai Kishan Das. When he established a madrasah at Ghazipur, he invited both Raja Dev Narayan Singh and Maulana Muhammad Fasih to lay its foundation stone— a remarkable expression of his anxiety to promote cordial relations between the Hindus and the Muslims. Between these three incidents one can read the life story of a man who for more than half a century cherished the ideal of ‘national unity’ and adopted communal harmony as an active principle of life.
Sir Syed was born in a family which was singularly free from all feelings of exclusivism and bigotry. In fact, his ancestors were known for their broad and tolerant attitude, deep humanism and cosmopolitan approach. Khwaja Najibuddin, a brother of his grandfather, had made a thorough study of the works of ‘Ibn Arabi’ whose pantheistic ideas echo the teachings of the Upanishads. His grandfather was invited by Maharaja Ranjit Singh to manage the finances of his principality. The saints of Delhi with whom the ancestors of Sir Syed had spiritual affiliation were embodiments of humanism and catholicity. By declaring the Vedas as a revealed book, a distinguished spiritual mentor of his ancestors, Mirza Mazhar Jan-i-Jan, had opened the gates of social intercourse and emotional integration with the Hindus.
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Sir Syed never forgot this family background and tradition of good relations with the Hindus. His early life was spent in the company of the Delhi gentry which comprised both Hindus and Muslims. His biographer Hali informs us that he freely participated in the celebration of festivals like Phul Walon Ki Sair, Holi and Basant. When he joined the government service he gave evidence of his broad-mindedness, catholicity of views in the performance of his duties. As in-charge of relief work at Moradabad during the terrible famine of 1860, he looked after all people irrespective of their religion with such paternal concern that Raja Jai Kishan Das who first met him at that time was struck by the sympathy and affection “with which he behaved with men of all religions and all castes.” The Raja found in him a noble soul and became his life-long companion. Reacting sharply to the activities of the Christian missionaries who wanted to take advantage of the famine conditions, he thought of founding a joint orphanage for the Hindu and the Muslim boys.
In 1864, Sir Syed established a madrasah at Ghazipur and elected Raja Dev Narayan Singh as the patron of the school. Sanskrit was one of the five languages which were taught at the school.
On his way to England in 1869, Sir Syed stopped at Aden and was delighted to find that Hindus were living there with honour and security. When a Hindu merchant of Aden informed him that there were three Hindu temples in Aden, he was delighted to know this. Whether Hindu or Muslim he wanted to see Indians occupy a respectable position in other countries. He wrote to Raja Jai Kishan Das from England.
O well-wishers of Hindustan! Do not place your dependence on any one. Spread abroad, relying on yourselves.
In a letter addressed to Mohsin-ul-Mulk from England (dated April 29, 1870) he says: “My own temperament is such that I want the welfare of all inhabitants of India, whether Hindu or Muslim”. His whole approach was conditioned by this cosmopolitanism. There was hardly any programme of social or educational advancement in which he did not take the interests of all Indians into consideration.
The establishment of the Scientific Society was, as the author of Sir Syed’s life in the Natesan Series observes, “an honest attempt on the part of Sir Syed to bring Hindus and Muslims on one common non-controversial platform.” The appeal issued by him at that time was addressed to “all people of India”. Many Hindus joined the Society and took active interest in its affairs. The extent to which Sir Syed wanted this Society to flourish in a non-communal and secular atmosphere may be gauged from the fact that it was laid down in the constitution of the Society that it would have nothing to do with religious books.
In 1873 when Sir Syed was collecting funds for the college, John Murray Kennedy wrote to him that if he desired to collect subscriptions from England, he could issue a short circular in which “the difficulties of the Hindus joining with the Muhammadans owing to the religious rites of the former may be touched upon.” Sir Syed turned down the suggestion as it ran counter to the very spirit of his movement. When he founded the M. A. O. College, he kept its doors open to the Hindus. He not only admitted Hindu boys and recruited Hindu staff, but made arrangements for the teaching of Sanskrit and appointed one Pandit Kedar Nath for this purpose. How the institution he had established was looked upon by the general Hindu public may be estimated from the fact that when he went on his Punjab tour, a village school teacher of Kartarpur, Ram Chandra, presented to him a purse of Rs. 8.9 which he had collected from the school boys. In 1898, when Syed Ahmad breathed his last, there were 285 Muslim and 64 Hindu students reading in different classes.
From 1875 to 1898 i.e. during the time of Sir Syed’s Secretary-ship one comes across at least seven distinguished Hindu members of the staff. There can be no greater compliment to the catholicity of his movement that the fact that the first •graduate of the M.A.O. College was a Hindu. Sir William Hunter, President of the Education Commission, was constrained to remark about the atmosphere of this institution;
The Mohammedan founders of this strictly Mohammedan institution have thrown open their doors to the youth of all races and creeds. Among the 259 students, I find 57 Hindus, or nearly a fourth of the whole. Christian and Parsi Lads have also received a liberal education within its walls. This liberality of mind pervades not only its rules and its teaching, but the whole life of this place.
This was all due to Sir Syed who saw to it that real national integration was practised at Aligarh. In 1882 when some Muslims of Amritsar offered a gold medal to be awarded to a Muslim student who passed the B. A. examination in the first division, Sir Syed immediately wrote to H. Siddons, the Principal of the College:
I offer a gold medal from my pocket to the Hindu student who may pass the next B. A. examination in the first division.
In order to maintain an atmosphere of real unity among the students he banned cow slaughter on the campus.
In 1878, Sir Syed was nominated as a member of the Viceroy’s Council. His work there was characterized by a deep and genuine concern for the welfare of all Indians, irrespective of caste, colour or creed. Presenting an address of welcome to him in 1884, Dayal Singh the President of the Indian Association of Lahore, said:
Your highly useful career in the Legislative Council of India can only be touched upon here. Your impartial care for all classes, your manly and faithful representation of national views and your vigilant regard for national interests, while acting in acknowledgements from us and our countrymen.
A man who had actually practised national integration had the right to preach it also. Sir Syed’s exhortations in this regard show how deeply he was concerned about harmony, love and co-operation between various communities and how he sought to bring about emotional and social integration so as to pave the way for the development of a national outlook. Perhaps his views about Indian nation were more sincere and forthright than any of his contemporaries. Addressing the Indian Association of Lahore, he said.
By the word nation, I mean both Hindus and Muslims. This is the way in which I define the word nation. In my opinion it matters not whatever be their religious belief, because we cannot see anything of it; but what we see is that all of us, whether Hindus or Muslims, live on one soil…have the same sources of our advantage and equally share the hardships of a famine. These are the various grounds on which I designate both the communities that inhabit India by the expression Hindu nation.
No definition of ‘Indian Nation’ could go farther than this and no Indian—belonging to any community—had the courage to speak out his views so candidly. From Lahore to Calcutta and from Delhi to Hyderabad Sir Syed went about preaching these views. On January 2, 1883, he said at Patna:
Friends; just as the high caste Hindus came and settled down in this land once, forgot where their earlier home was, considered India to be their own country, the Muslims also did exactly the same things—they also left their climes hundred of years ago and they also regard this land as their very own… Both my Hindu brethren and my Muslim co-religionists breathe the same air, drink the water of the sacred Ganga and the Jamuna, eat the products of the earth which God has given to this country, live and die together. Both of us have shed off our former dress and habits, and while Muslims have adopted numerous customs belonging to the Hindus, the Hindus have been vastly influenced by Muslim manners and customs. I say with conviction that if we were to disregard for a moment our conception of Godhead then in all matters of every day life the Hindus and Muslims really belong to one nation.
Addressing the people of Gurdaspur on January 27, 1884, he said:
We (Hindus & Muslims) should try to become one heart and soul and act in unison; if united we can support each other. If not, the effect of one against the other would tend to the destruction and downfall of both….Hindu and Muslim brethren! Do you people any country other than Hindustan? Do you not inhabit the same land? Are you not burned and buried on the same soil? Do you not tread the same ground and live upon the same soil? Remember that the words Hindu and Muslim are only meant for religious distinction—otherwise all persons, whether Hindu or Muslim, even the Christians who reside in this country, are all in this particular respect one and the same nation. Then all these different sects can be described as one nation, they must each and all unite for the good of the country which is common to all.
Paying an eloquent tribute to Sir Syed’s deep concern for all, Indian Association of Lahore said:
Not the least remarkable feature of your public career has been the breadth of your views and your liberal attitude towards sections of the community other than your own co-religionists. Your conduct throughout has been stainless of bias or bigotry. The benefits of the noble educational institution you have established at Aligarh are open alike to Hindus as well as Muslims…Long may you be spared to inculcate knowledge among Muslims and Hindus alike, and by eradicating prejudice and bigotry from their minds, to unite them in the firm bonds of fraternal union.
Sir Syed is no more but his message of love, amity, and brotherhood between various communities still goes on echoing down the corridors of time. It is for the present generation of Aligarh to carry his message further.
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*Prof. Khaliq Ahmad Nizami was associated with Department of History, AMU, Aligarh. He established Sir Syed Academy at Aligarh. This article was published in The Aligarh Magazine in 1986-87. In this divisive socio-political aura of India, article bears utmost importance. Awaam India acknowledges Naved Ashrafi for arranging this article.