This man (Sir Syed) is erring and causes people to err. He is rather an agent of the devil and wants to mislead Muslims. It is a sin to support the college. May God damn the founder! And if this college has been founded, it must be demolished and its founder and his supporters thrown out of the fold of Islam,” declared the Imam of Mecca in his fatwa against Sir Syed Ahmad Khan.

On the 189th (195th) birth anniversary of this great educationist and social reformer and in an age of “clash of civilisations” and rabid communalism, an effort needs to be made to understand his vision of India. Was Sir Syed indeed the father of the two-nation theory? Did he believe in pluralism? Why was he denounced by the Muslims and disowned by the Hindus? Are his ideas and ideology relevant today? These are some of the pertinent questions which need to be examined afresh, particularly in the present context.

“From the seed we sow today there may spring up a mighty tree, whose branches, like those of the banyan of the soil, shall in their turn strike firm roots into the earth and themselves send forth new and vigorous saplings; that this college may expand into a university, whose sons shall go forth throughout the length and breadth of the land to preach the gospel of free inquiry, of large-hearted toleration and of pure morality”, said Sir Syed at the time of the foundation laying ceremony of the Mohammadan Anglo-Oriental (MAO) College on 8 January 1877.

It is erroneously believed by some historians that the Hindu-Muslim divide in India was the by-product of the two-nation theory which supposedly had its origin in Sir Syed’s ideology. We should never forget that “nationalism” as a consciously held idea was a 20th century phenomenon even in Europe from where it was imported to India. The spirit of 19th century India was far away from it. During this period, both Hindus and Muslims lived side by side in equal subjugation under the oppressive British rule and were devoid of any national feeling or national identity. Eminent political scientist Prof Anil Seel has rightly pointed out that during Sir Syed’s times, “there were no two nations, there was not even one nation, there was no nation at all.”

Even though the concept of nation as we understand it today did not exist during Sir Syed’s time, his concept of nation was inextricably woven with secular ideals. He rightly said in a lecture at Patna in 1883: “My friends! This India of ours is populated by two famous communities, the Hindus and the Muslims. These two communities stand in the same relation to India in which the head and the heart stand in relation to the human body.”

In Gurdaspur in 1884, he remarked: “O Hindus and Muslims! Do you belong to a country other than India? Do not you live on this soil and are not buried under it or cremated on its ghats? If you live and die on this land, then, bear in mind, that… all the Hindus, Muslims and Christians who live in this country are one nation.”

Noted historian Tara Chand has written that it is a travesty of truth to regard Sir Syed as an author of the theory that Hindus and Muslims were two separate nations.

The prophetic words of the founder have come true as the Aligarh Muslim University today has 90 departments, 12 faculties, 27,000 students and has several icons as its proud alumni. The university has rightly been recognised as an institution of national importance by the Indian Constitution.

Sir Syed was indeed a great nationalist. Expressing his opinion on the issue of Hindu-Muslim relations, he said that by living so long in India, the blood of both has changed. The colour of both has become similar. The faces of both, having changed, have become similar. The Muslims have acquired hundred of customs from the Hindus and the Hindus have also learned hundreds of things from the Muslims. We mixed with each other so much that we produced a new language – Urdu, which was neither our language nor theirs.

The language he had used against the dangers posed by communalism can not only help us in dealing with this evil but also clarify some of the doubts of even people like Praveen Togadia and Narendra Modi. He said: “We shall only destroy ourselves by mutual disunity and animosity and ill-will to each other. It is pitiable to see those who do not understand this point and create feelings of disunity among these two nations and fail to see that they themselves will be the victims of such a situation. My friends, I have repeatedly said and say it again that India is like a bride, which has got two beautiful, and lustrous eyes ~ Hindus and Mussulmans. If they quarrel against each other that beautiful bride will become ugly and if one destroys the other, she will lose one eye. Therefore, people of Hindustan, you have now the right to make this bride either squint-eyed or one-eyed.”

As to the rationale of establishing MAO College, he said: “I shall feel sorry if anybody thinks that this college has been established so as to show discrimination between Hindus and Muslims. The main reason behind the establishment of this institution, as I am sure all of you know, was the wretched dependence of the Muslims, which had been debating their position day after day. Their religious fanaticism did not let them avail the educational facilities provided by the government schools and colleges. It was, therefore, deemed necessary to make some special arrangement for their education.”

He went on to say: “Suppose, for example, there are two brothers, one of them is quite hale and hearty but the other is diseased. His health is on the decline. Thus it is the duty of all brothers to take care of their ailing brother and bear the hands in his trouble. This was the very idea which goaded me to establish the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College. But I am pleased to say that both the brothers get the same education in this college. All rights of the college appertaining to those who call themselves Muslims are equally related to those who call themselves Hindus without any reservations. There is no distinction whatsoever between Hindus and Muslims.”

It is a matter of great satisfaction that Aligarh Muslim University has consistently adhered to the vision of its founder and does not discriminate between Hindus and Muslims. This vision of the founder is in consonance with the minority character of the university. Article 30 of Indian Constitution does permit minorities to have educational institutions of their own. But these institutions cannot be exclusive institutions. They should have some students from the other communities as well. In fact, the Supreme Court has consistently held that there shall be “sprinkling of outsiders” in a minority institution.

Very few people know that while Sir Syed was opposed tooth and nail by many Muslims, the Hindu community extended all possible help to him and that is the only difference between him and Raja Rammohun Roy. The difference between the two men lies in the response each received from his community. While the Hindus by and large welcomed Rammohun, Sir Syed had only a few takers. As many as five fatwas declaring him kafir were issued. Strangely enough these fatwas have not yet been withdrawn.

In a speech at Muzaffarnagar on 7 February, 1884, he explicitly acknowledged help rendered by the Hindus when he said: “I cannot forget the debt of gratitude that I owe to my brother Hindus who, realising the fallen position of their Muslim brethren, have contributed thousands of rupees for the building up of MAO College. They have really performed a human act of charity. The walls of the college on which their names are inscribed bear testimony to their kindness and non-communal attitude”.

This generosity of the majority community also does not change the character of the institution. The Supreme Court has consistently held that other communities may also contribute in the establishment of a minority institution.

The Scientific Society, which was founded by Sir Syed in 1863, was really national in its complexion and character. Apart from the British members, it comprised 82 Hindu and 107 Muslim members. Even the managing committee of MAO College which comprised 22 members, had six Hindu members on it. The first second master of the school was Sri Baijnath who was No. 2 in the administrative hierarchy. The famous mathematician, JC Chakravarty joined as professor in 1888 and subsequently was elevated to the coveted post of registrar. The first graduate of the university was Ishwari Prasad; the first MA was one Amba Prasad.

While Sir Syed’s ideals of nationalism, secularism and scientific temper are clearly evident in every nook and corner of AMU, yet his goal of educational advancement of Muslims of India has not yet been achieved. Sachar Committee findings are indeed revealing and shocking. Only 4 per cent Muslims get education up to Class X. Only 2.94 per cent are able to complete graduation. There are less than 1 per cent Muslim women graduates in the country. Not surprisingly the share of Muslims in public services is dismal. Less than 2 per cent Muslims make it to the Indian Administrative Services every year.

Among the 467 directors of the nationalised banks, there were only 4 Muslims. More than 50 per cent Muslims are living below the poverty line.

It seems the Muslim community has not adequately responded to Sir Syed’s call when he said: “Call me an infidel, an atheist or a nechari or whatever you like, I will not seek your recommendations before God. I would not like you to plead for my salvation. Whatever I say, I say for the good of your children. Take pity on them. Do something for their future, lest you should have to repent over it.”

Are Muslims of 21st century India listening?

1) Article appeared in [link broken]5 years ago. The data might have changed now.
2) Article was written by Mr. Faizan Mustafa, then Professor of Law and Registrar, Aligarh Muslim University