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Sir Syed Ahmad Khan: A Search for Social Cohesion outside the Political Arena

By Rizwan Qaiser

Every occasion of remembrance of a historical figure emerges as yet another opportunity to pay tribute; recall services rendered by the person to the community institutions etc. uncritically and ask questions as regards relevance of the person in the contemporary times. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan would perhaps be no exception to this exercise when individuals and institutions are readying themselves to commemorate/celebrate bi-centenary of his birth.

However, for any student of history, such occasions should render an opportunity to revisit the times, which made the person what he was and became in the course of his evolutionary journey in the post-1857 period. It should also be utilized to discover new facts and give fresh interpretations to the existing ones in order to develop a better appreciation of the man and the times that he lived in as it had happened about ten years ago when 150 years of the great Rebellion of 1857 was commemorated/celebrated, an exercise that helped bring out many hidden/unknown rebel leaders such as Begum Hazrat Mahal, Bakht Khan, Khan Bahadur Khan, Jhalkari Bai, and Azizan.

In this regard, it is important to point out that Sir Syed has been a victim of historiographical misrepresentation as he has been perceived to be someone who formulated the ideology of communalism and worked towards its propagation. Such formulations gain salience in view of the fact that he did not think it advisable for Muslims to join the Indian National Congress as he visualized the future of the Muslims of India in seeking a framework of re-conciliation with the British. This was borne out of fear that he had started harbouring in his heart and mind soon after the rebellion of 1857, when he had written Asbab-e-Baghawat-e-Hind, in which he laid the blame on all others including Muslims of the plebian classes. Though his references remained largely the elite or what were then described as Raees, even thirty years after the episode he was articulating similar fears and apprehensions as regards the future of the Muslim community and considered it no less injurious for the Muslims to join the Congress since it was ‘Political Congress’.  He stated:

They (Muslims) will suffer greater misfortune from doing so than the Hindus and the Bengalee. What took place in the Mutiny? The Hindus began it; the Mohammadans with their eager disposition rushed into it. The Hindus having bathed in the Ganges became as they were before. But the Mohammadan and all their noble families were ruined. Thus is the result which will befall Mohammadans from taking part in political agitation.

Sir Syed’s attempts to absolve Muslims were apparent thirty years ago when he had written Asbab and he remained alive to the same realization even in 1888, while he was responding to the call of Badruddin Tayyabji to join the Congress since it had emerged as the national political body. Sir Syed contested the national character of Congress for many reasons but the fear of Muslims compromising with their future was writ large. Moreover, while responding to the presence of some Muslim delegates, Sir Syed questions their credential as truly elected delegates in view of the fact of non-participation by the Muslim elite in the exercise.

While exhorting Muslims to keep away from the ‘political’ Congress, he was conscious of the urge for social cohesion between the two nations, namely the Hindus and Muslims. Given how layered nation as a construct is, historians have asked repeatedly if Sir Syed had already formulated the ‘two-nation’ theory. As a matter of fact, Sir Syed implied that there existed two communities of Hindus and Muslims and it was imperative on their part to live in harmony with each other. He added:

…we are both desirous that peace should reign in the country, that we two nations should live in brotherly manner, that we should help and sympathise with one another, that we should bring pressure to bear, each on his own people, to prevent the arising of the religious quarrel, that we should improve our social condition, and that we should try to remove the animosity which is everyday increasing between ‘the two communities’. (emphasis added)

It is interesting that Sir Syed was using ‘nation’ and ‘community’ as mutually substitutable categories. New categories were emerging and coming into currency during that phase; however, choice of such categories was not as sharply delineated as is the case today, especially in relation to the word, ‘nation’. On several occasions, these were used only to denote a community or social group such as Rajputs and others. Therefore, one would suspect that much meaning has been attached to Sir Syed’s frequent use of the term nation to denote a community.

This is further amplified in view of several of his statements in this regard, where he leaves no one in doubt as to what he meant while using the term, ‘community’. While addressing a meeting at Gurdaspur on 27 January 1884, he said, ‘By the grace of God, two nations live in India at the moment and they are so placed that the house of one adjoins the other. The shadow of one’s wall falls on the house of the other. They share the same climate, take water from the same river or well. In death and life as also in joys and grief of others every one is a participant. One cannot live without the cooperation of the other.’  In this description of communities as qaums, there is no acrimony. Instead, it seems to suggest harmony between and among communities. However, he specifically clarified:

You might have seen and heard that in the old history books and we see it today also that the word nation (Qaum) is applied to the people who live in the same country. …… Oh Hindus and Musalmans, do you inhabit any other country other than India? Do you not both live here on the same land and are you not buried in this land or cremated on the ghats of this land? You live here and die here. Therefore, remember that Hindu and Musalman are words of religious significance. Hindus, Musalmans and Christians who live in this country constitute one nation. When all these groups are called one nation then they should be one in the service of the country, which is the country of all.

Sir Syed left no one in doubt that his quam was not a nation in the political sense of the term as it was understood in Europe but only a reference to any social group. However, historians have been quite harsh to Sir Syed on this issue.

He was keen on building social concord between the Hindus and Muslims but not a political one as he was not only fearful but averse to it. He stated, ‘The questions on which we can agree are purely social. If the Congress had been made for these objects, then I would myself have been its President, and relieved my friend from the troubles which he incurred. But the Congress is a political congress and there is no one of its fundamental principles, and especially that one for which it was in reality founded, to which Mohammadans are not opposed.’

Was he taking this position only in response to Badruddin Tayyabji’s invite to join the Congress? Perhaps not, as Sir Syed was against Muslims getting into any politics of resistance. That said, he was not opposed to the Hindus and Muslims enjoying a relationship of concord where there was an element of mutual respectability. That each community must show respect to sensitivities of the other was an element of conviction in his case.

It was with conviction in the Hindu-Muslim unity that way back in 1887 he had written an essay in the Aligarh Institute Gazette advising Muslims to give up slaughtering/sacrificing cow since it was not an essential component of their faith. However, what merits our attention is that by their consent to give it up was likely to produce better relationship with the Hindus, a far more important and desirable objective.

Keeping Muslims away from the Congress was a matter of political conviction with Sir Syed. Similarly, his social conviction remained undiluted as late as 1897, a few months before he passed away. In June 1897, he wrote an essay in the Aligarh Institute Gazette  by the title, “Hindu Aur Musalmanon Mein Artabat” (Cooperation between Hindus and Muslims), where he once again reiterated that if by ‘abandoning cow-slaughter more Hindu and Muslim cooperation is achieved, it is thousand times better than sticking to the practice.’

Irrespective of the circumstances he was not seeking conflicting relations between Hindus and Muslims even on as sensitive a matter as cow slaughter, a matter that had started gaining traction in the late nineteenth century and, more importantly, impacting social relations especially between Hindus and Muslims.

Sir Syed took it upon himself for advising the community of Muslims to keep away from any political undertaking which involved opposition to the British Raj. To him, any such act was against the interest of the Muslims. Therefore, he suggested that maintaining distance from the Congress was the best course to be followed. Sir Syed categorically maintained that this distance would significantly benefit the community in ways more than one. Yet, equally categorically he held that none of this could be at the cost of Hindu-Muslim unity. The occasion such as the bi-centenary of Syed Ahmad Khan should render an opportunity to revisit the man’s views on communities and relations between them.


Rizwan Qaiser is Professor of Modern Indian History at the Department History and Culture, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He published a book, Resisting Colonialism and Communal politics: Maulana Azad and the Making of the Indian Nation. He has written extensively on many aspects of modern Indian society, culture, and polity. He was the Director of Centre for the Study of Comparative Religions and Civilizations, Jamia Millia Islamia (2012-14). Currently, he is the Head, Department of History and Culture (2014-2017).


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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