Book Review: The Aligarh Movement and the Making of the Indian Muslim Mind 1957-2002

BOOK REVIEW: The sad tale of Aligarh —By Khaled Ahmed

The Aligarh Movement and the Making of the Indian Muslim Mind 1957-2002
by Tariq Hasan; Publisher: Rupa & Co, New Delhi; Pp292;

Pakistan celebrates him reactively because of AMU’s conversion to Jinnah’s politics in the 1940s, but without referring to his embarrassingly secular-rational approach to Islam. Sir Syed, like many sensible Hindu, Muslim, Parsi and Ismaili ‘transitionists’, wanted the Raj extended as dominion rather than removed

Tariq Hasan is a veteran Indian journalist who has covered Aligarh University’s years of terminal misfortunes after the rise of Hindutva in India. His journalistic intimacy with the affairs of the institution has brought to the theme a dimension not found in most academic studies. His own attitude as a Muslim is full of ambivalence and indecision, which gives us a more rounded account than most earlier ones where the bad and the good are ideologically defined beyond doubt.

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) was greatly put off by the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and defended the local Company officer when the mobs came to get him at Bijnor because he despised the ‘revolutionaries’ who also vented their communal hatreds against each other on the side, something that author Hasan ignores because that would spoil his ‘nationalist’ narrative. Bur Sir Syed became obsessed with the post-1857 plight of the Muslims when they were targeted for revenge by the British. His contemporary Mirza Ghalib’s letters confirm the rise of the Hindu community and the intellectual retreat of the Muslims in the face of a rollback of their civilisation.

Urdu was removed from Bengal and Bihar as official court language in 1871, and there was a pro-Hindi movement for a similar removal in the UP. Sir Syed defended Urdu as a synthesis of Sanskrit and Persian, which was a part of the Indian culture. His pluralist message was confused with communalism by Hindus understandably aroused at the prospect of majoritarian representation after centuries of rule by a Muslim minority. The Aligarh Movement was born in the 1860s as an effort to keep the Hindu-Muslim solidarity intact; it turned inward in the 1890s when it began to focus on the Muslim community more. A similar fate met Syed Ameer Ali who also founded a non-communal Mohammedan Association in Bengal in 1877, only to see it ‘educationally’ communalised in the 1890s.

What cut more ways than Sir Syed would have liked was his ‘concordance’ of Islam with Christianity and the rationalisation of the Quranic edicts somewhat in the same way as the rationalists of medieval Baghdad did when influenced by Greek learning. As Sir Syed reduced the Quranic miracles to rational adaptations and rejected tribalisms like ‘diyat’ and ‘riba’, he was opposed by the ulema of Deoband who approached the highly tribalised Wahhabi Islam in Saudi Arabia to get a fatwa of apostatisation against him, much the same way as the Deobandi seminaries of Pakistan issued fatwas of apostatisation against the Shia on the call of Saudi ulema in 1986.

Sir Syed’s reinterpretation of Islam did not sit well with any of his followers, not even after he had founded the Aligarh College and was able to run it with the help of people like Mohsinul Mulk and Viqarul Mulk. What appealed was his advocacy of modern learning — what was called ‘useful knowledge’ by Muhammad Hussain Azad in Lahore in 1874 — but not the modernisation of the laws of Islam. The Muslim boys of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) were never really exposed to this side of his genius and were won over easily to the Khilafat Movement in 1919 when Deoband ruled Indian Muslim passions in tandem with Gandhi.

Along with rationalisation of Islam, was also rejected Sir Syed’s secularism, which lay behind the appeal of his Scientific Society to the Hindus who joined Aligarh MAO College (founded 1877) and dominated its rolls and academic honours in the early years. However, when the Hindu-Muslim ‘struggle’ against the British Raj promised to become the new nationalism of India, Sir Syed tended to stay away from it. The author doesn’t like it, but it was the right thing to do, as in the case of Congress leader Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya’s Hindu revivalist Benaras University, which refused to come together under the banner of Gandhi’s Khilafat Movement, partly because, like Aligarh, it received government funding (p.157).

The author also tends to associate MAO College principal Theodore Beck with the conspiracy to keep the College protected against the Hindu-dominated Congress spearheading the struggle for freedom. But the book is not black-and-white about 25-year-old Beck and praises him for his loyalty to the cause of Aligarh movement. Sir Syed himself was worried about the ‘radical’ Bengalis bent upon rocking the boat that Sir Syed was steering under the tutelage of the Raj to promote Muslims in material life. He needed the money that came from the viceroy. Malviya was much better funded in Benaras. While MAO College in 1865 had only 57 Muslims out of a total of 1578 attending, Benaras was totally Hindu.

Sir Syed is rescued in post-1947 history of India by Jawaharlal Nehru’s positive assessment of him in his book. Lala Lajpat Rai was critical of Sir Syed dubbing him a champion of Muslim privilege that the coming representative system in India would have destroyed, but Rai ignored the first-rate secular education imparted by MAO College during the 1880s when Sir Syed ran it. Many ‘nationalists’ saw the seeds of Muslim separatism in Sir Syed; indeed Pakistan celebrates him reactively because of AMU’s conversion to Jinnah’s politics in the 1940s, but without referring to his embarrassingly secular-rational approach to Islam. Sir Syed, like many sensible Hindu, Muslim, Parsi and Ismaili ‘transitionists’, wanted the Raj extended as dominion rather than removed.

By 1888, Sir Syed was opposed to Congress politics and began to say so. Condemned by the fundamentalist Muslims and Congress nationalists, Sir Syed presided over his College, resisting the two Mulks (Mohsinul and Viqarul) on the subject of his pro-Raj leanings. This meant that he would rule without the support of the college Board of Trustees responding more readily to the political winds blowing in India. He was obsessed with turning the college into a university and didn’t much believe in the politics of freedom. He perhaps knew that the use of religion by Gandhi in his campaign against the Raj will arouse Muslim particularism in India and lead to communalism.

Out of the Khilafat Movement came communalism, and AMU woke up to it much after Sir Syed had died in 1898 a pauper after his alcoholic son Mahmud refused to give him shelter. After disenchantment with the Congress governments in the 1930s, Muslims turned to Jinnah’s Muslim League. AMU too took Jinnah to heart believing that his movement after 1940 will yield two Pakistans joined with a corridor running through India, which will include Aligarh and AMU inside this imaginary ‘belt’ of territory (p.240). Needless to say, after1947, AMU fell on bad days, victim of the mercurial temperament of its students, who routinely beat up their principals, and Hindu prejudice surrounding it. Jinnah’s bequest of money after his death of course never got to it because of the Indo-Pak wars.

The book ends with a dirge on the sad demise of AMU as its students fought running battles with Hindu rioters incensed by misreporting local English and Hindi newspapers. Volatile ‘non-studying’ residential students — a tradition still alive in Pakistan — fought anyone who came along, including the local milk vendors, defying their vice-chancellors including the likes of Zakir Hussain and Prof MA Khusro, and more often than not subjecting them to violence. In 1990-91, Hindu fanatics ensconced in local Indian journalism and political parties joined up to kill and maim innocent students at the university. The end came when terrorist groups like the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) lodged themselves inside AMU and made the place look like an average university of Pakistan. *


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