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Misreading Sir Syed

He is erroneously believed to be a proponent of the two-nation theory

Written by Faizan Mustafa |
Updated: October 17, 2017 1:10:02 am
Aligarh Muslim University, Syed Ahmad Khan, AMU Founder Syed Ahmad Khan, Sir Syed, Indian Express, Indian Express News Aligarh Muslim University (File)

“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 (MAO College which in 1920 was converted into Aligarh Muslim University) 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 200th birth anniversary of this great educationist and social reformer, particularly in the context of the current wave of aggressive nationalism, an effort should be made to understand his vision of India. Was Sir Syed indeed the father of the two-nation theory or was he merely advocating modern ideas of multiculturalism and differentiated citizenship?

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. “Nationalism” as a consciously-held idea was a 20th century phenomenon even in Europe, from where it was imported to India. Eminent historian Anil Seal 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.”

Sir Syed’s 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 1884, in Gurdaspur, 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.”

Till 1898, when Sir Syed breathed his last, there was nothing like an Indian “nation”, nor did the founding fathers of the Indian National Congress make such a claim. Sir Octavian Hume, the founder of the Congress, talked of “a congeries of communities”, not a nation. Badruddin Tyabji, the (third) President of the Congress (Madras, 1887), affirmed “the existence of numerous communities or nations which had peculiar problems of their own to solve”; Surendranath Banerjee had titled his autobiography as A Nation in the Making.

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Sir Syed believed in a multiculturalism under which all cultural communities must be entitled to equal status under state. The view that people must be incorporated not merely as citizens but also members of distinct communities possessing multiple identities is one of the most cherished norms of liberal democratic traditions. This means rejection of “melting pot” and acceptance of “salad bowl” theory where integration rather than assimilation is the preferred choice. Thus, under Article 29 of the Indian Constitution, distinct cultural communities are entitled to preservation of their distinct language, script and culture.

Explaining the rationale of establishing MAO College, Sir Syed 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…was the wretched dependence of the Muslims…. 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.” 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. Most of the gold medals at AMU convocations are bagged by the Hindu students and prestigious professional courses have more than 40 per cent are non-Muslims students.

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 had 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 J.C. 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 similarly one Amba Prasad. Legendary cricketer Lala Amarnath too studied there.


UGC audit team, thus, was wrong in recommending the deletion of the word “Muslim” from the Aligarh Muslim University. The university has rightly been described by Hamilton Gibbs as the first modernist organisation of Islam. The third President of India, Zakir Husain, called it the laboratory of Indian pluralism. Let it flourish as a minority institution as it is the best manifestation of our multiculturalism
and secularism.

The author is the vice-chancellor, NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad

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First published on: 17-10-2017 at 01:10:01 am
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