The 19th century began for the people of India with transformations, transition and changes. With the decline of the local empires, the representation of Muslims started decreasing in the new colonial structure. It was in the trail of this historical burden, that Sir Syed Ahmad Khan raised his voice for a community in the grasp of deprivation and discrimination.
“The non-admission of a native as a member into the Legislative Council was the original cause of the out-break (of 1857 revolt).”Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Asbaab-e-Baghawat-e-Hind, 1859
Sir Syed was a British officer of high educational distinction. Yet, he authored a book titled Asbaab-e-Baghawat-e-Hind (The Causes of Indian Revolt) in 1859, wherein he showed great courage and fearlessness in highlighting the actions and policies of the British regime as the root cause of the revolt.
In the five final causes he attributed for the Revolt, he clearly admonished the British regime. But the most important amongst them was the lack of political representation of Indians in the Council. He wrote, “The non-admission of a native as a member into the Legislative Council was the original cause of the out-break. I believe that this Rebellion owes its origin to one great cause to which all others are but secondary Branches so to speak of the parent stem….”
This expression is perhaps the first voice in favour of the democratic rights of Indian nationals immediately after the mutiny of 1857, and thus, must be accorded its justified place in the narrative and history of the Indian Freedom Struggle.
Road to Empowerment Through Education
During the course of late 1850s and early 1860s, Sir Syed realised that Muslim participation was nearly non-existent in the 27 colleges that existed at that time. Thus, he established schools in Moradabad (1859), Ghazipur (1863) and Scientific Society at Aligarh in 1864.
Finally, in 1875, Sir Syed opened a school at Aligarh which in 1877 raised to the status of Muhammadan Anglo Oriental College. The intake of students and recruitment was based on secular lines in the college, which is evident from the fact that within the first five years itself the strength of the Hindu students steadily increased from less than 10% to 22%. The other minority communities also began organising themselves in the same pattern in order to secure their position particularly with respect to access to education. The oldest movement other than Muslims was the Sikh movement of Singh Sabha in Punjab in the 1870s.
Though the MAO College continued to remain only a college during the life of Sir Syed, the idea of a university was the legacy he left behind. Finally, the University was incorporated through an act of British Parliament in 1920 and incidentally the upcoming year would be the centenary year of the Aligarh Muslim University.
Unfortunately, Sir Syed’s dream, for which he had sacrificed his whole life, is now facing a crisis of character instigated by malevolent and concerted attack on its minority tag by the pseudo-nationalists.
Minority Rights Advocacy & Rejection of Common Elections
It cannot be denied that it was the Britishers who introduced the terms “majority" and “minority" in India. Prof. Iqbal Ansari has observed that, "With the arrival of the British the religious, caste, linguistic and regional ethnic tribal entities that had existed in India for millennia started getting a new attention and configuration.” On these lines, one could easily argue that Sir Syed neither created the term “minority” nor used it when asserting the demands of the Muslim community because of lack of existence of concept or a law of Minority Rights as we know it today.
The views and foresightedness of Sir Syed is vindicated at present in the light of complete side-lining of Muslim minority by the present ruling dispensation.
The emergence of extremist politics and Hindu religious revivalism in the form of associations like the Gaurakshini Sabha, Prayag Hindu Samaj and Sanatam Dharm Society and the outbreak of communal clashes and election to the local bodies forced Sir Syed to ponder upon the future of the minorities.
Therefore, when Lord Ripon established Local Self-Government Bill framework in 1882 and then Ilbert Bill was brought before the Legislative Council in 1883; Sir Syed opposed it due to his conviction that the introduction of the principle of common election would enable the larger community to totally override the interests of the smaller communities. The views and foresightedness of Sir Syed is vindicated at present in the light of complete side-lining of Muslim minority by the present ruling dispensation.
Indian Constitution Borrows from Sir Syed’s Ideas
Sir Syed’s name, efforts and thoughts are often lost (if not overly and unduly critiqued) in the list of names of great men in the making of early modern India. One must acknowledge that the efforts initiated by Sir Syed were consolidated, knowingly or unknowingly, by the framers of our constitution in the form of Fundamental Rights under article 29 (Right to 'conserve' 'distinct language, script or culture') and article 30 (Right of all Religious and Linguistic Minorities to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice).
Furthermore, the Supreme court has also exhibited exemplary maturity on minority issues and interpretation in the form of Golaknath case 1967, Keshawnandan Bharti case 1973, and Minerva Mills Case 1980, which curtailed the imaginative unlimited powers of the Parliament and made the Fundamental Rights unalterable in all practical sense.
The intentions of our founding fathers, our constitution and our judicial apparatus stood as an unpaid tribute to the efforts initiated by great reformer Sir Syed Ahmad Khan towards minority rights. Today our country, once again, stands on a forked road on the question of minorities and the onus lies on each and every Indian to decide whether to uphold the idea of peaceful acceptance of each other or to stagger down a path of withering those with whom we share more than just common history.
(Prof. Anwar Khursheed is Professor of Environmental Engineering in AMU, Aligarh. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)