Myths Busted: It’s A Fact That Sir Syed Ahmad Khan Supported Reservation For Muslims

Myths Busted: It’s A Fact That Sir Syed Ahmad Khan Supported Reservation For MuslimsSir Syed Ahmed Khan (Wikimedia Commons)
  • It was Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, and not Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who coined the two-nation theory and it was the AMU, where the seeds of the Pakistan movement were sown.

Pro-Vice Chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Brigadier (retd) Syed Ahmad Ali ,is under attack these days and the one who attacked him happens to be his own co-religionist – a well-meaning Muslim, Tufail Ahmad. The reason is that Syed Ahmad Ali vouched for reservation for Muslims.

"Muslims are extremely backward in the field of education for which it is necessary to give them reservation in educational institutions," he said while speaking at a seminar on “The Inclusion of Article 341 in the Indian Constitution and the Muslim Reservation” (Roznama Sahafat, 28 January). The seminar was held in the AMU.

It was this statement of his that didn’t go down well with Tufail Ahmad, author and former BBC journalist. In fact, he wrote an article, titled “Is Aligarh Muslim University, once again, leading a campaign for partition of India?”

Criticising the AMU Pro-Vice Chancellor, Tufail Ahmad, inter-alia said: “What is worrying is that during a 35-year military career, Brigadier Ali did not learn anything about merit and the need for a questioning mind, scientific temper and liberal outlook as necessary for the progress of Muslims. These were the basic reasons Sir Syed (Ahmad Khan) established the Aligarh Muslim University and launched the Urdu magazine Tahzibul Akhlaq with the singular purpose to inculcate scientific temper among Muslim students. It does not appear that Brigadier Ali has learnt anything from Sir Syed”. (Sir Syed Ahmad Khan didn’t establish AMU; he founded Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental School in 1875 which was raised to the status of Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College in 1877).

Tufail Ahmad’s critique sought to create an impression that Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was opposed to the very idea of reservation to the Muslims and that he believed in secular ethos, which was not the case.

Sir Syed’s tenets may be an elixir to life as far as the Muslims are concerned. But they certainly cannot be seen as the ideal solution to the problems besetting the nation as a whole. Any impartial investigator would agree that all through his life Sir Syed extended unflinching support to the British invaders against those struggling for the reestablishment of indigenous rule and he strove to the hilt to convert “the Mussalmans of India into worthy and useful subjects of the British Crown” (Aligarh Institute Gazette, Supplement, Jan 12, 1877).

Yet, at the same time, he paid scant regard to the “holy covenant, which binds subjects to their rulers” – the covenant that he used in 1872 to counter the suggestion of WW Hunter that the Muslims should not “hold aloof from the British Government” (WW Hunter, The Indian Musslmans, p. 11) . Sir Syed, in fact, wrote that “it was not the religious duty of the Muslims to render help to the invader. If they did so, they would be regarded as sinners against their faith…” (Syed Ahmad Khan, “Review on Dr WW Hunter’s Indian Mussalmans, P. 87).

It cannot be denied that Sir Syed used his tongue and pen to create a wedge between the Muslims and the Hindus and wean the former away from the essentially moderate Congress, which was led at that time by educated and liberal-minded Muslims like Badruddin Tyabji (President of the 1887 Madras Congress Session) and Rehmatullah Sayani (president of the 1896 Calcutta Congress Session). Sir Syed’s writings and speeches were nothing but part of a full-scale campaign to further the British policy of “divide and rule”. He tried to inculcate in the minds of the Muslims the felling that they constituted a distinct nation and that the “parliamentary form of government was unsuited to India containing two or more nations tending to oppress the numerically weaker” (The Pioneer, 2 and 3 November, 1887).

To “rescue” the Muslims from their “pitiable condition” through Western education constituted just one part of the Aligarh Movement, started in 1875. Its other aims were to prove that 1857 was entirely a movement of the Hindus and the only fault of the Muslims was that they joined it; to establish that the Muslims were not “disloyal” to the (British) government; to make the Muslims support all official measures; and to counter the influence of those seeking to replace British rule with native rule (WC Smith, Modern Islam in India, p. 50)

How else can one explain Sir Syed’s bitter opposition to the Congress, which simply wanted the setting up of a few parliamentary institutions and some paltry concessions like the introduction of an election system in India; the right to discuss the budget and ask questions and supplementary questions; the appointment of a few Indians to the Viceroy’s Executive Council and to the Secretary of State for India’s Council; arrangements for simultaneous Civil Service Examination; extension of permanent land settlement to those areas where such a system did not exist and so on.

There was absolutely nothing in these demands which could in any way jeopardise the political and economic interests of the Muslim community. But Sir Syed left no stone unturned to prejudice the minds of the Muslims against the Congress and denounced it as a “seditious” movement; a “Bengali” movement, a “civil war without arms” and a “Hindu movement” (Syed Ahmad Khan, “On the present state of Indian politics”, pp. 27-28).

In Lucknow on 28 December 1887, when the Congress was holding its third session at Madras, he said: “If you (Muslims) accept that the country should groan under the yoke of Bengali rule and its people lick the Bengali shoes, then, in the name of God, jump into the train, sit down, and be off to Madras, be off to Madras” (Syed Ahmad Khan, “On the present state of Indian politics, pp. 11-12). The immediate cause of provocation was the information that the number of Muslim delegates to the Congress had increased from 2 in 1885 to 33 in 1886 to 83 in 1887 despite his passionate pleas.

Sir Syed opposed the Congress for three specific reasons. First, according to him, the Congress was a Hindu organisation, whose ultimate aim was to establish Hindu rule in India. Second, he felt that since the Bengalis were the most educated community, “they would thus dominate the less educated Muslims in competitive examinations”. And, thirdly, electoral politics in India would crush the rights of the minority Muslims because the “Hindus members of the elected bodies would be four times that of the Muslims as their population was four times more”. In other words, the Muslims would always remain a “hapless minority,” he said (Ibid., p. 12).

The view that Sir Syed was vehemently opposed to the idea of entering the arena of “political struggle” is not tenable. Sir Syed was very much active in politics. In fact, he had his own political organisation, the Indian Patriotic Association. It was founded in April 1888 for the specific purpose of “counteracting the impression created in England that the whole of the people of India were with the Congress” (The Pioneer, 5 April 1888). Sir Syed gave utmost cooperation to the British to secure as many concessions for the Muslims as possible and he opposed the Congress to wrest from it a categorical commitment that the Muslims would have parity with the Hindus in the future administrative structure.

In one of his articles, he suggested that “if the Congress agreed to the proposal as contained in (his friend) Haji Mohammad Ismail Khan’s letter to the president of the Congress, Rahmatullah Sayani, then only could the Muslims join the Congress. Otherwise, it was doubtful whether the Indian subjects have any right to foment such political agitations as the Hindu Congress” (The Moslem Chronicle, Jan 9, 1897). Haji Mohammad Ismail Khan had asked Rehmatullah Sayani to a “pass a resolution” to the effect that the “Muslims should have an equal number of seats in the legislative councils, districts boards and municipalities” (Report of the Indian National Congress1896, Presidential address, p. 22).

All this should put the record straight and establish that Sir Syed fought for reservation to the Muslims. The truth, in fact, is that it was Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, and not Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who coined the two-nation theory and it was the AMU, which contributed was one of the main factors that led to the communal Partition of India – a fact candidly acknowledged by Tufail Ahmad.

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Hari Om Mahajan is former Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Jammu.

Latest Articles

    Artboard 4Created with Sketch.