Celebrating Sir Syed’s bi-centenary, ignoring 1857

The Ottomans lost later in the Arab heartland because of the great betrayal by Arabs, who were led by the Sharif of Mecca, Husain bin Ali, a British stooge.

The Last Mughal

-Soroor Ahmed

On April 25 every year ANZAC Day is observed by Australia and New Zealand as well as their allies. Actually ANZAC stands for Australia and New Zealand Army Corps. Along with the British, French and British Indian forces, thousands of Australians and New Zealanders took part in attack on Gallipoli, the Turkish port. The objective was to capture the Ottoman capital Constantinople (Istanbul) and open another front against the latter’s ally, Germany.

But after eight months of stiff resistance the allied army had to retreat after suffering a loss of about 50,000 soldiers.

Thousands of people from Australia and New Zealand––besides of other western countries––gather at Gallipoli on this day every year though the whole military campaign ended up in disastrous defeat.

The interesting message of the ANZAC Day is that the West remembers even the day of their defeat. Young students and researchers assemble at Gallipoli to know as to what actually led to their defeat at the hands of Ottomans, who otherwise appeared to be tottering and had very few allies.

The year 2007 marked the 150th year of the fall of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar. Though the Mughal rule was not an Islamic rule, and was more a product of common Hindu-Muslim culture yet it was a fact that the Kings were Muslims.

Curiously, hardly any Muslim organization in India––or may be in this sub-continent–– had organized any discussion, seminar or any other meeting on the occasion of the 150th year of what is now called the First War of Independence.

Remembering 1857 as a glorification of the Mughal rule would amount to stupidity. The 150th year should have been remembered by all Indians–not just Muslims–to highlight how the world has changed during this period. For Muslims it was all too necessary to understand as to how one empire was replaced by the other and then 90 years later, that is in 1947, India got independent, but it was no more a single entity.

The year 2007 was the occasion to examine whether Muslims, in particular, have learnt the art to adjust in what is called democracy–or era of elected government. The days of monarchy are no more and democracy functions in an entirely different manner.

The countrymen in general, and Muslims in particular, failed to understand the importance of 2007 (150th year of mutiny), though a Scottish writer William Dalrymple came out with his book, The Last Mughal, on the eve of 150th year of 1857.

This book tends to explode many myths about the so-called educational backwardness of Muslims woven by several social reformers of the community itself.

He quoted Major General Sir William Sleeman about 19th century Muslims of the sub-continent.

“Perhaps there are few communities in the world among whom education is more generally diffused than among Mohammadans in India.”

Sleeman went on further: “He who holds an office worth twenty rupees a month commonly gives his son an education equal to that of a prime minister. They learn, through the medium of Arabic and Persian languages, what young men in our colleges learn through those of Greek and Latin––that is grammar, rhetoric, and logic. After his seven years of study, the young Muhammadan binds his turban upon ahead almost as well filled with the things which appertain to these branches of knowledge as the young man raw from Oxford–he will talk as fluently about Socrates and Aristotle, Plato and Hippocrite, Galan and Avicenna; and, what is much to his advantage in India, the languages in which he has learnt what he knows are those which he most requires through life.”

Sleeman, a leading critic of the administration of the Indian courts, wrote his book, Rambles and Recollections of an Indian Official in  1852, just five years before 1857. In contrast our own social reformers attributed the defeat of Mughals to the educational and scientific backwardness of Muslims.

He admitted that the madrasa education given in Delhi was something quite remarkable.

There is no dearth of Muslims, with defeatist mindset, who lack any sense of history, who would dub pre-1857 Muslims as the most illiterate and the backward lot on the surface of the earth. The truth is that from William Sleeman to William Dalrymple there are many historians who are of the view that Delhi was one of the greatest seats of learning on the planet even when the Mughal power was declining. At the time of the arrival of the British in India the literacy rate of Muslims was 97 per cent, but when they left in 1947 it was just 11 per cent. When Ranjit Singh captured Lahore the literacy rate of Muslims was 82 per cent. There was no dearth of poets, writers, journalists, doctors, hakims, scholars on different scientific subjects etc at that time. The Mughal capital alone had 130 reputed Hakims and nine different types of newspapers used to come out from there. The Delhi College (now called Zakir Husain College), whose foundation preceded Sir Syed’s Aligarh College by about two centuries (1692), used to publish six journals and there was innumerable printing press in that city. Muslims were quite open to the western learning and many relatives of the Emperor were well versed in English. Bahadur Shah Zafar himself was master of at least five languages.

Ironically, no one discussed all these aspects during the 150th year of 1857. On the other hand 10 years later crores of rupees were spent across the world to celebrate the 200th year of the birthday of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, the founder of Mohammadan Anglo-Oriental (MAO) College, which 22 years after his death in 1898, became Aligarh Muslim University.

Apparently there is no wrong in recalling the contributions of anyone. But how can the community completely forget 1857, whose by-product Sir Syed was? He wrote extensively on that Revolt. But instead of analyzing that great upheaval in the new light today the Aligarhians lavishly spent millions to highlight the same old interpretation of 1857 made by the founder of MAO College. They have no idea that an interpretation of the Revolt made long back has little meaning in democratic independent India.

These champions of scientific education need to be told that the then Soviet Union got dismembered in early 1990s not because it ignored science and technology. It collapsed because the people of the Soviet Union lost faith in their own system, the slogan of Communism was no more attractive, and the country became directionless. There was no motivating factor to inspire the people. The country which fought heroically with Germans during World War-II and lost 1.25 crore people had to retreat from Afghanistan after fighting with the rag-tag army of Mujahideen in 1980s.

These factors hold true for the fall of all the great powers. Similarly, the British and French lost their colonies not because they abandoned education and science.

The Mughals lost not because the Muslims, the community to which they belonged, ignored education or science, but because they became corrupt, pleasure-loving and relaxed. Initially they under-rated the British designs. They lost because of betrayal, mistrust, back-stabbing etc. The last nail in the coffin was driven in 1857.

This had happened in spite of the fact that Tipu Sultan’s army used rockets against the relatively less advanced British army and Mughals in 1857 fired projectiles on the English army. Mind it one of the promises made by Bahadur Shah Zafar to the people of the country was that he would lay a network of rail track once he beats back the British. It never happened.

Muslims hardly discuss all these issues as they are yet to come out of the myopic Aligarh mindset, which never allows free thinking and objective debate. That is why more importance is given to 1817, the year of the birth of an individual, and not to 1857––the year when the remnants of the Mughal Empire were buried deep in history.

The above example of defeat of the massive Allied powers at Gallipoli at the hands of Turkish forces was not possible with swords, bows and arrows––as many with defeatist mindset would like us to believe. The Ottoman army was almost as modern as its rivals. The Hejaz Railway, which extended to Medina, was built in 1908.

The Ottomans lost later in the Arab heartland because of the great betrayal by Arabs, who were led by the Sharif of Mecca, Husain bin Ali, a British stooge.

(Soroor Ahmed is a senior journalist based in Patna. He writes for different prominent Indian dailies.)

Liked it? Take a second to support Soroor Ahmed on Patreon!