Guest-Editorial – Sir Syed Ahmad Khan: A plea for de-instutionalised remembrance
By Irfanullah Farooqi
Why do we remember? What does remembrance do to a great personality or event? Is a remembered personality or event any different from their pre-remembrance versions? In other words, is the remembered a more trimmed or filtered version? Why does remembrance, more often than not, accentuate a specific aspect of the remembered? On the occasion of the Bicentenary of a figure as iconic and renowned as Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, we must meaningfully engage with some of these important questions around the act of remembrance, its location and politics.
Institutions, more often than not, breed a certain culture of remembrance. We are no stranger to the ways in which they celebrate the birth anniversary of their founders. While there is a legitimate reason to mark the occasion in a spirited manner, it is important to be mindful of how these celebrations invariably flatten the remembered personalities. An informed awareness around this one-sided accentuation of great figures and their ideas cannot be denied its due.
The life and thought of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan have been majorly subjected to this one-sided accentuation. Institutionalised remembrance – both in the sense of patterned and collective – has restricted his essence to quick and easy references. Sir Syed lived no ordinary life. After a certain point in his life, every day marked something new. He was always on the move, experimenting, debating, hesitating, writing, silencing, expressing, concealing, and so on. There could be many more added to this list, acts that are otherwise not in sync with each. Sir Syed brilliantly held these contradictions pretty much during his entire intellectual career. His silence was no less insightful than his articulation, hesitation no less meaningful than his assertion. His failings were as informative as his successes. Needless to say, in the course of remembering him, any attempt at clinically doing away with his silences and failings is to willingly undermine the true potential of the man and his engagement with his times. To deprive him of his failings and weaknesses is to deny his accomplishments their due. Institutionalised remembrance promotes a disconcertingly linear and procedural understanding of life where achievements are mostly articulated as events and not processes. Remembrance of this nature restricts the possibility of multiple readings and promotes an upsettingly homogenised opinion on his greatness.
Perhaps Sir Syed’s Bicentenary can be an occasion to revisit the very idea of greatness itself and, in doing so, highlight the inadequacies of institutionalised remembrance. At a time when almost the entire world endorses the logic of output, we must pitch an understanding of greatness that has pursuit at its centre. It is in pursuit of something that greatness is truly experienced. The audience reckons with the accomplishment but the doer senses greatness in the middle of the act. The engagement does not remain that intense once the act is over. It is one thing to refer to what all Sir Syed did and something completely different to earnestly understand his experiences. As he attended to his experiences, Sir Syed was scaling newer heights of greatness. It will be brutal on our part to deny these accomplishments their trajectorial nature. An event-centric or output-driven engagement vis-à-vis greatness will also be inappropriate beyond doubt because it will deprive us of understanding how great personalities endow their failings with an enchanting uniqueness.
This special issue of Cafe Dissensus is a sincere attempt at doing away with the institutionalised remembrance of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. The essays produced herein exhibit the desired variety. Given the expanse of Sir Syed’s thought and contribution, it goes without saying that this collection does not attend to each and every aspect of his. Nevertheless, what cannot be denied is that each of these pieces promisingly makes a case for new ways of remembering Sir Syed. While some of the pieces open up new avenues of inquiry, others bring in new perspectives to themes and aspects that are associated with Sir Syed in a routinised fashion. In all earnestness, the promise of the contributions lies in the fact that at some level they question the ease with which we remember Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. As a body, it tries to release Sir Syed from the grips of the calendar so that reflections on his contribution do not become just another annual ritual. Verily, Sir Syed is more than a date marked in our calendars.
This special issue is an earnest inquiry in the making. It is not as much an achievement as an attempt at achieving. The idea is to present before the readers multiple ways of engaging with Sir Syed so that the “exactness” of his greatness – something relentlessly pursued by institutionalised remembrance – could be questioned. In questioning the “exactness” around Sir Syed, we are hopeful of creating space for a remembrance that is perhaps more unsettling and somewhat troubling.
Photo: The Educationist
Irfanullah Farooqi teaches at the Department of Sociology, Aligarh Muslim University.
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