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Home > 2021 > Bharat Ratna for Sir Syed: Critical Analysis | Badre Alam Khan

Mainstream, VOL LIX No 49, New Delhi, November 20, 2021

Bharat Ratna for Sir Syed: Critical Analysis | Badre Alam Khan

Friday 19 November 2021, by Badre Alam Khan


To celebrate birth anniversary of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1998), the Aligarh Muslim University’s alumni who are living in different parts of country including in abroad used to organize a host of academic and literary programmes on 17th October every year to express their tribute. This time while celebrating 204th birth anniversary of Sir Syed (a great educationist, historian and social reformer of 19th century colonial India), the retired Director General of Police(DGP) of Chhattisgarh, W.M. Ansari ( also a former student of Aligarh) has spoken to the Halate-E-Bengal and demanded that the government consider giving him the highest civilian award, Bharat-Ratna. This demand has also been earlier raised by the AligsBiradri and other secular minded scholars including the film director Mahesh Bhatt. Having said that let me first discuss the views of our nationalist thinkers on Sir Syed.

 To appreciate the works of Sir Syed, Mahatma Gandhi said that he was the “Prophet of education”. In a similar vein, Maulana Azad opined that it was Sir Syed who had spread the modern education among the Muslim community. More importantly, Jawaharlal Nehru had also appreciated his progressive thinking and said that, “Sir Syed was an ardent reformer and he wanted to reconcile modern scientific thought with religion by rationalistic interpretation and not by attacking basic belief. He was in no way communally separatist”. However, a section of the Hindu nationalist forces often blamed that it was Sir Syed who originally championed the idea of two nation theory even before Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

Contrary to communal interpretations, a section of historians (especially belong to the Aligarh school) have said that Sir Syed was committed and stood for the Hindu-Muslim unity and communal harmony. For him, the Hindus and the Muslims are two eyes in one bride (it refers metaphorically ek dulhan ki do aakh hai). While debunking the arguments of the Hindu nationalists’ views about Sir Syed, a renowned late historian like Mushirul Hasan and others have pointed out that he was a social reformer, educationist, and a public intellectual like Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833) of 19th century. Hence, for Hasan and other historians, Sir Syed led Aligarh movement was communitarian (especially focused on educational empowerment of Muslims) in nature rather than having a communal outlook. However, the fact cannot be denied that unlike other Muslim freedom fighters such as Syed Jamaluddin Afghani (who fought vehemently against colonial masters and considered as founder of “Islamic modernism”), Sir Syed was not passionately against colonialism and imperialism. Yet, his commitment towards the Hindu-Muslim unity and secular thinking are reflected in his several historical writings especially in the Asar-us-Sanadid, (in which he documented the historical monuments and buildings of both the Hindus and Muslims in 1847).It should be noted that in the Muhammadan Anglo Oriental College (established by Sir Syed in 1875), first student who enrolled was not Muslim but belong to the Hindu community, as recently said by a historian like Prof. Ali Nadeem Rezavi of the AMU on the occasion 17th October Sir Syed Day celebration.

To note that it was Sir Syed who had critiqued orthodox and conservative trends within the Muslim community. In doing so, he had reconciled to the large extend if not entirely, the tensions between the modernity and Islam by interpreting Islamic theology and writing the Tafsir (interpretations) of the Quran (ilmul Kalam) in the light of reason and rationality, the points has also been underlined by Hasan and other historians (See M. Hasan, “Muslim Intellectuals, Institutions and the Post-Colonial Predicament”, Economic & Political Weekly, 1995). In other words, his structure of thinking was based on science, reason, rationality and morality rather than superstition and religious dogmas. Therefore, it will be an anachronism (it refers to reading history from today’s political context), to argue that Sir Syed was an exponent of the two nation theory and hence, responsible for the Partition of India, as still put forward by a section of the Hindu nationalist forces. The fact that Sir Syed died in 1898; so how one could say that he had originally propounded the idea of two nation theory. Historians of modern India have argued that the idea of two nation theory actually came into existence after the 1930s and championed by both V.D.Savarkar and Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

 After 1857 revolt (Muslim community was ruined badly and became fragile), Sir Syed had realized that modern education in the English language and social reform (on lines of progressive values) are two important steps for the advancement and building the confidence among the Muslim community. He also believed that it is not prudent to have antagonistic relations towards the British State. Rather, it is time for “self-introspection” of the community (especially after the decline of the Mughal State) and needs to adopt a “reconciliatory” approach with the British State. For that purpose, Sir Syed had interpreted the Islamic theology in the light of the Western ideas (such as renaissance and enlightenment philosophy) and emphasized that there is no fundamental clash between Islam and the West, as hardcore orientalists/colonial intellectuals used to put forward in the intellectual circles. His progressive ideas had been reflected in themonthly magazine like Tehzeeb-ul-Akhlaq (published between 1871 and 1897). Given the huge plight of the Muslim masses at that time (especially after 1857 revolt), Sir Syed approach was that it is now time to concentrate more on education and social reform rather than joining active politics. That was the reason why the Aligarhmovement led by him had maintained a certain distance from the politics of that time (especially from the Indian National Congress, dominated by the upper-caste Hindu elites). In short, this was the historical necessity and strategy adopted by him in a given historical context to address the educational backwardness of the Muslim Community.

 It should be noted that Sir Syed had established the ‘scientific society’ in Ghazipur (Uttar Pradesh) in 1864. The purpose of establishing the scientific society was, to promote rational thinking among the Muslim masses through the translation of the western literatures and modern ideas into the vernacular languages especially in Urdu and Hindi; so that the Muslim community would be able to get acquainted with the intellectual developments of the Western world without compromising with the essential teachings of Islam. And secondly, the task of scientific society was also to interpret the Quran on the lines of rationalist school of thought (as the Mu’tazilites did earlier in the Islamic history) and according to the needs of the temporal world. However, a section of Ulama (religious scholars who used to teach students in the Islamic seminaries like Deoband) had not agreed with Sir Syed’s views on Islam and his interpretations of the Quran. It was the reason why a section of Ulama had passed “fatwas” against him and even called Sir Syed, a kafir (deviated from the basic tenants of Islam). Yet, a section of Ulama and Muslim theologians hold the views that his contributions in the field of education and history, philosophy including community empowerment should be recognized at length not forgotten; however, for them his understanding and interpretations of Islam and Shariah (in the context of 19th century of colonial India) should not be entirely accepted.

 In a similar vein, however, on the plank of social justice, a section of the lower caste Muslims (Pasmandas) are reluctant to accept Sir Syed’s views on social reform and educational movement simply because for them, Aligarh movement had in fact severed the interests of minuscule elites (Zamindars and Nawabs who belong to the Ashraf Muslims). Secondly, Sir Syed’s prejudicial understanding (in his booklet like Asbab-e-Baghawat-e-Hind, 1859) about the lower caste Muslims (especially on the role of Ansaris- pejoratively called as jolha- in 1857 revolt) is problematic not based on historical facts. Besides, he passed several casteist remarks (Badzat jolha) against the lower caste Muslims These points have been highlighted by the scholar like Masood Alam Falahi in his meticulously researched book, Hindustan MeiZat Pat Aur Muslman, 2007.

 That is why, a section of the lower caste Muslims are reluctant to accept that Sir Syed was a committed public intellectual (like Dr.Ambedkar, Phule, and Periya). And hence, they (Pasmandas) have not so far seriously thought of demanding the Bharat Ratana for Sir Syed. There are still debates going on in the Muslim community to search for an icon like Dr. Ambedkar. Some have tentatively argued that Kabir (14th century poet, belonging to the Bhakti traditions) can be considered as an icon of the lower caste Muslims rather than Sir Syed. However, it is a fact that most of the Aligarians (barring a section of lower caste Muslims) revered Sir Syed deeply with much compassion and recognized his commitments towards the community in particular and the nation in general. But for Pasmanda activists, Sir Syed cannot be equated with Babsaheb Ambedkar because his educational movement had benefited the upper caste Muslims (Ashraf Muslims) rather than the subaltern Muslims. Nonetheless, it is an academically relevant exercise to contextualize Sir Syed’s contributions in the historical and intellectual context rather than reading his works in an “anachronistic” (employing the current category and perspectives) manner and out of historical context.

 The purpose of this essay is not to unnecessarily involve in the theological disputes and questions raised by the lower caste Muslims rather an attempt has been made to highlight Sir Syed’s contributions in the field of education, literature, social reform and community empowerment and communal harmony. Keeping in mind the responsibility of public intellectuals (who must play a constructive role in society and work for “social change”, as a noted literary scholar like Edward Said has underlined in his works), Sir Syed had played a constructive role on the said issues (especially at a time when community was facing challenge to survive after the decline of the Mughal State and 1857 revolt).

Today, it is an empirical fact that the Muslim community is lagging behind as compared to other socio-religious groups in the field of education, politics and economic sectors, as shown by the Sachar Committee report in 2006 and Mishra Commission report in 2007. Given these pathetic conditions of Indian Muslims, Sir Syed’s thinking and mission is still relevant and needs to be cherished in times to come.

 While agreeing with W.M. Ansari and others, I also think that given wide range of intellectual works of Sir Syed and his commitment towards the communal harmony and the Hindu-Muslim unity,etc., needs to be recognized and thus, he should be considered for the Bharat Ratna posthumously. Merely demanding the government sponsored award for any public intellectual is not going to overcome the problems and current predicaments faced by the Muslim community (especially subaltern Muslims) but it will certainly boost the confidence of the community if Sir Syed will be conferred Bharat Ratna. However, the most pertinent question before the Muslim leaders including secular minded people is that they should unitedly do something concrete to improve the social and educational problems witnessed by underprivileged Muslim masses in particular and larger Indian people in general. In doing so, we would be able to pay a real tribute to the public intellectual like Sir Syed Ahmad khan in days to come.

(The author is a research scholar Department of Political Science, at University of Delhi)

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