By Shehzad Poonawalla
17 Oct 2015
Photo: Sir Syed Ahmed Khan
Born on October 17th, 1817 Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, founder of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) was not just an ordinary educationist, historian, author and jurist but an extra-ordinary reformer, secular nationalist and one of the most important architects of modern India. Sir Syed was a prolific writer who wrote on varied subjects ranging from monuments in Delhi to a commentary on the Holy Bible. It was the true nationalist in Sir Syed, who in 1859 had the courage of conviction to publish one of his most famous works Asbab-e-Baghawat-e-Hind (The Causes of the Indian Revolt) in which he exposed the aggressive expansionist policies of the British East India Company and their lack of understanding about Indian culture as the primary causes of the 1857 revolt.
A progressive leader, Sir Syed opposed superstitions and evil customs. He stressed on not just Indian Muslims but all Indians attaining education and scientific knowledge to ensure their progress and advocated modernism and pragmatism. "Get rid of old and useless rituals. These rituals hinder human progress" was his roaring message. And he followed that message up with concrete action, these were not empty words. In 1862, in Ghazipur, Sir Syed formed a society which used to translate the scientific works of English and other European languages into Urdu and Hindi and this was later christened as the Scientific Society of Aligarh.
The society sought to promote liberal, modern education and scientific knowledge in India. His close aide Jai Kishan Das was its secretary from till 1874. Many of the essays he wrote during this time were on topics like the solar system, plant and animal life, human evolution, etc. In many ways Sir Syed tried to bridge the gap between religion and science. "Religion is the word of God and our surroundings are the work of God. An explanation of the existence of work of God is science. Hence, no contradiction is possible between science and religion as the word of God cannot be in opposition of work of God" he rationalized.
While championing modern value systems Sir Syed never showed any remorse for our own composite cultural heritage. He celebrated and nurtured it more than anybody else who claims to be the "thekedar" of Indian culture or even Islam. His scholarly works in Urdu, which he regarded as the language of both Hindus and Muslims, contrary to the propaganda on the internet that says he regarded it as the "lingua franca" of Muslims, is a standing testimony to this claim.
Unfortunately, some vested interests and biased authors have viewed him through a communal lens and have tried to paint him as a "Muslim only" figure. The reality is very different. No less than our first PM, Jawaharlal Nehru said this about the great soul " Sir Syed was an ardent reformer and he wanted to reconcile modern scientific thought with religion by rationalistic interpretations and not by attacking basic belief. He was anxious to push new education. He was in no way communally separatist. Repeatedly he emphasized that religious differences should have no political and national significance. " And let me quote to you Sir Syed's most famous analysis of Hindu-Muslim relations in India.
"We (Hindus and Muslims) eat the same crop, drink water from the same rivers and breath the same air. As a matter of fact Hindus and Muslims are the two eyes of the beautiful bride that is Hindustan. Weakness of any one of them will spoil the beauty of the bride (dulhan)". Those right wing intellectuals, who selectively read his works and conveniently label him as the propounder of the "Two Nation Theory", while ignoring the far more radical views on "Two Nation Theory" by likes of Savarkar and other ideologues, have clearly missed Sir Syed's most definitive assertion on this matter - "Remember that the words Hindu and Muslim are only meant for religious distinction: otherwise all persons who reside in this country belong to one and the same nation."
The irony is that some orthodox Muslims opposed him for his progressive, liberal and nationalistic views and labeled him a Kafir on one hand and on the other hand right wing ideologues boxed him into the category of a "Muslim only figure" which he wasn't. He was far more than that. As the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi rightly pointed out Sir Syed was "a Prophet of education." Much like the Mahatma, he showed courage to stand up to fanatics on being attacked by them. Notwithstanding the attacks by conservatives he brought out the journal 'Tehzibul Akhlaq' (Social Reform) to encourage the spread and acquisition of modern education.
Sir Syed's most ardent and notable contribution was in the field of education. After his visit to England in 1869-70, the visionary Sir Syed conceptualized great institutions for education in India. In just five years, he founded a school in Aligarh and from 1876 onwards he dedicated himself to pattern the Mohammedan Anglo Oriental (MAO) College, established by him, on the lines of Oxford and Cambridge universities. This subsequently developed into Aligarh Muslim University in 1920. And before you hypocritically object to the presence of "Muslim" or "Mohammedan" without batting an eye lid over Benaras "Hindu" University (BHU), let this fact be taken on record.
The most important first contributions to Sir Syed for the construction of building came from Hindus like Choudhary Sher Singh, Kunwar Lekhraj Singh, Raja Shiv Narain Singh, Raja Ghanshyam Singh, Raja Uday Pratap Singh, Lala Phul Chand, Lala Vasudeo Sahai and others and their names continue to adorn the old Buildings of AMU. And what better tribute could have been paid to Sir Syed's idea of Hindu-Muslim unity and the idea of a cosmopolitan, modern India he championed than this- the first student to pass out of MAO college (AMU) was Mr. Ishwari Prasad was not a Muslim but a Hindu. AMU produced a number of personalities who went on to play an instrumental role in India's freedom struggle. Mahatma Gandhi visited AMU in 1920 and was made the first Honorary Life Member of the Students' Union.
Today, AMU much like its glorious past, continues to symbolize modernity, pluralism and nationalism. Offering more than 250 full-time courses in fields like agriculture, biotechnology, medicine, engineering, management, commerce, arts, information technology, mass communication, and unani medicine, it draws students from all corners of the country as well as from foreign countries and from all communities. From writer Javed Akhtar and film-maker Anubhav Sinha to Supreme Court Judge Justice Ram Prakash Sethi, from heads to state to scientists, the AMU alumni list sparkles with talent. Behind the success of every AMU student is the ideology and philosophy of Sir Syed.
Many of us, including the Indian Government under PM Modi will be paying rich tributes to our Late President Dr Kalam on his birthday on 15th October. Rightly so. But pause for a minute and do think about this. Would Dr Kalam's story be possible had it not been for Sir Syed and his immense contributions to take not just the Muslims but entire India towards the path of progress and modern education? Dr. Kalam was a proud Muslim and a scientist. Without the rationalization provided by Sir Syed would it have been possible for him or members of any other community to break free from the shackles of religious conservatives and pursue both simultaneously?
Today, the teachings, philosophy and ideology of Sir Syed are gaining relevance again not just for Indian Muslims but the entire nation. Much like Sir Syed, we as a nation, committed to the idea of pluralism and modernity have to resist the forces of communalism and sectarianism that are trying to unleash a regressive, conservative agenda upon us, through various bans and stifling of fundamental freedoms. And the tool for that can only be education. Indeed, the true emancipation of over 170million Indian Muslims and the entire country will lie in equipping themselves with knowledge that broadens our horizons not hatred and bigotry that narrows our perspectives.
It would be fitting then that the Government of India which has been actively celebrating the legacy of many icons like Swami Vivekanand, Tagore, Nehru and others, recognizes the contributions of this great son of India and as we approach Sir Syed Ahmed Khan's 200th birth anniversary in 2017, it should consider designating October 17th as "Sir Syed Day" and promote his thoughts and works across institutions of educations through published literature. The most significant step would be for the Government of India, as a tribute to Sir Syed, to increase the funding to AMU, which is a Central University and remove all financial and other bottle necks being created in expanding the AMU network across India, so that Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs, Christians and Muslims can avail of quality higher education. The Government must show the same commitment to the idea of opening up new AMUs just like it has shown for opening up AIIMS, IITs, IIMs, etc.
I hope the PMO can treat this as a sentiment endorsed not just by 170 million Muslims but by 1.2 billion Indians and declare 17th October as #SirSyedDay .
(Shehzad Poonawalla is a lawyer and civil rights activist. He is the founder member of the think tank PolicySamvad. His twitter handle is @Shehzad_Ind)