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Casteist or Progressive? Pondering Over Syed Ahmad Khan’s Legacy

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I have received a few private emails and messages requesting me to explain my position on Syed Ahmad Khan, the 19th century advocate of education and science, after I joined cause with a social media post that critiqued one of Syed Ahmad Khan’s racist quote. First, I want to point out that I will not be using ‘Sir’ while referring to Syed Ahmad Khan because I have utter disdain for the British Monarchy and their titles – these parasites (the monarchy and its family) have held on to the wealth they plundered through Asia, Africa and the Americas even as I write, and they refuse to return or give away this plundered wealth even today. Second, my knowledge of Syed Ahmad Khan is limited – I don’t form my opinion based on Wikipedia entries, online blogs and even books that have not undergone reliable scrutiny or peer-review. But I am interested in learning, hence I often request admirers, as well as critiques of Syed Ahmad Khan to provide me sources (or citation) of information that they post online.

Syed Ahmad Khan was a product of his time. He was from a semi-aristocratic or bourgeoisie family. While all sections of the population in South Asia became victims of British imperialism in some form or the other, the impact of imperialism on the elites was limited. The real victims of imperialism were peasants and textile workers (the Muslim Jolahas and their Hindu counterparts, the Tantis, considered as scheduled castes in many parts of India) and the Adivasis that lost access to and control over their common property or forests. In other words, Syed Ahmad Khan’s world view was also a product of his class position and his personal experiences that were very different from those of the peasantry, the tribal groups, the industrial working class and small owners of means of production that made up the textile industry.

Syed Ahmad Khan entered the service of the East India Company in 1838 – back then, many educated youths across religious divides in South Asia chose this as a career option. After all, colonized people have few options, work is related to livelihood and one must work to survive. In other words, I have no reason to protest Syed Ahmad Khan’s work or effort to survive. He remained a loyal subject of the British Empire through Hindustan’s first war of independence in 1857. He was witness to the disaster and violence that unfolded in the aftermath of the British victory and Hindustan’s defeat in the war – as punishment, freedom fighters were hung to death from trees in and around Delhi. But more importantly, Syed Ahmad Khan was witness to the development of the British divide and rule policy and the targeted persecution of Muslims that were now seen as far too rebellious with the aspiration of reinstating Mughal (or somewhat similar) rule across Hindustan. There is need for contextualizing the nature of divide and rule policy of British India, and a couple of paragraphs that follow does exactly that while deviating from this essay’s focus on Syed Ahmad Khan.

The caste system, that for centuries reproduced a parasitic mode of production, is internal to Sanatan Dharma. The idea of a religious category called Hinduism whose followers could be classified as Hindus is a modern political invention. Rig Veda, a key scripture for the followers of Sanatan Dharma, postulates the theory of the creation of human life; Purusha (spirit) created Brahmins from his mouth, Kshatriya from his arms, Vaishyas from his thighs, and Shudras from his feet. Brahmins (priestly caste), Kshatriyas (warrior caste), Vaishyas (trader caste) and Shudras (farming or artisan caste) in Hindustan have historically been part of a religiously sanctioned social relations that allowed the upper castes, namely the Brahmins, the Kshatriyas and the Vaishyas to usurp and live off the wealth created by the lower castes that have historically been India’s working class.

Within the caste system, the status of lower caste is assigned to the Shudras or the laboring class (farmers and artisans) – according to the 1931 census, more than 50% of India’s population consist of Shudras. Additionally, approximately 17% of India’s population are historically/culturally classified as untouchables (henceforth referred to as Dalits) and outside the caste system altogether. Dalits too are working class people. They were classified as untouchables merely because of their inherited/hereditary professions (that individuals were born into) which included janitorial work, scavenging, shoe making and weaving amongst several others. Dalits have been denied access to Sanatan Dharma and their gods and goddesses, temples and scriptures for centuries. Similarly, approximately 8.5% of the India’s population consists of tribal groups that were also considered outside the Sanatan fold.

The evil caste system in Hindustan did not remain confined to the followers of Sanatan Dharma. The concept and practices of social hierarchy seeped into the Muslim community and their everyday practices. Hence, the more recently generations of migrants that had origins in Persia, Arabia, Turkey and Central Asia became upper caste Muslims in Hindustan. Additionally, the upper caste converts to Islam continued as upper caste Muslims. These ‘upper’ caste Muslims assumed the title or came to be called Ashrafs. The lower caste converts to Islam became Ajlafs. Despite the division, the divide between Ashrafs and Ajlafs was never as stringent, demeaning, humiliating and exploitative as amongst the followers of Sanatan Dharma from whom the practice had originally been plagiarized.  There have never been restrictions on Ajlafs from becoming Maulvi (Muslim scholars of religion), leading religious congregations, or standing shoulder to shoulder with Ashrafs in a Mosque. On the other hand, priesthood for a Dalit within the Sanatan Dharma, even today, remains elusive.

In any case, the sudden inclusion of Shudras, Dalits and tribal population as Hindus in the national census of British India was a political trickery. It was done by the British to divide Hindustan’s population into two large blocks – Hindus and Muslims. The British colonialists faced an existential threat in India for the first time in the year 1857 – uniting across religious lines, people in many parts of South Asia confronted the British militarily.  In other words, Indians waged the first war of independence against the British while cutting across the Hindu-Muslim divide. In fact, the anti-colonialists accepted a Muslim, Bahadur Shah Zafar, as their symbolic leader with plans of installing him as the king of free Hindustan. The British could, however, crush the first war of Indian independence successfully. But more importantly, the imperial masters realized that to continue their presence in India, they had to divide South Asians along religious lines and create animosity amongst them. Hence, in 1871, for the first time, the British collated population data based on religion.

The British created this homogenous category of Hindu that now, suddenly, subsumed all the caste differences and erased a history of violence and exploitation that had been perpetrated on the lower castes for millenniums that were not even seen fit to follow the Sanatan Dharma or be touched by the three upper caste groups. Subsequently, education policies crafted by the British to ‘civilize’ the natives and produce bureaucrats for the empire were also geared at accentuating religious differences. British Historiography of India played a key role in consolidating a Hindu identity based on fear and hatred of Muslims that were represented as religious fanatics, lustful, violent and barbaric. And the only force that could protect the Hindus from the Muslims was the British Empire. 

Most importantly, Syed Ahmad Khan was witness to the meteoric rise of Brahmins in the British administration in Hindustan and the simultaneous neglect and marginalization of Muslims (melted out as a form of punishment, but also out of fear that they hold on to the aspiration of ridding Hindustan of British rule and reinstating the Mughal rule). The divide and rule policy manifested in the form of Brahmins becoming key benefactors of the British Crown’s good grace. Brahmins in bureaucracy, positions of power, became a norm in the colonial cities across Hindustan – Calcutta, Madras, Bombay, Delhi witnessed the phenomenal rise of upper castes as the head servants of the British Empire — this, in my view, was fundamental to Syed Ahmad Khan’s post 1857 consciousness. He was of the view that a politicized Muslim body was disadvantageous, or rather catastrophic for Muslims in the long run.

Syed Ahmad Khan was a rationalist, he wanted the growth of scientific temperament amongst Muslims. But he realized that advancement of Muslims was not possible with a hostile British administration. It was under this context that he advised Muslims to focus on science rather than on politics. In a speech delivered in Meerut in 1888, Syed Ahmad Khan proposed:

“The method we ought to adopt is this: that we should hold ourselves aloof from this political uproar, and reflect on our condition — that we are behindhand in education and are deficient in wealth. Then we should try to improve the education of our nation. Now our condition is this: that the Hindus, if they wish, can ruin us in an hour. The internal trade is entirely in their hands. The external trade is in possession of the English. Let the trade which is with the Hindus remain with them. But try to snatch from their hands the trade in the produce of the county which the English now enjoy and draw profit from. Tell them: “Take no further trouble. We will ourselves take the leather of our country to England and sell it there. Leave off picking up the bones of our country’s animals. We will ourselves collect them and take them to America. Do not fill ships with the corn and cotton of our country. We will fill our own ships and will take it ourselves to Europe!” Never imagine that Government will put difficulties in your way in trade. But the acquisition of all these things depends on education. When you shall have fully acquired education, and true education shall have made its home in your hearts, then you will know what rights you can legitimately demand of the British Government.”

Syed Ahmad Khan wanted to distance the Muslims elites (just like the Brahmins had) from the war of 1857. Hence, he pushed the ‘The Causes of the Indian Revolt’ vis-a-vis the Muslim subaltern particularly the weavers or jolahas, while simultaneously trying to endear the upper caste Muslims to the British government. Additionally, I have come across quotations of Syed Ahmad Khan that are downright casteist or racist, express comradery with the Ashrafs and neglect the Ajlafs. In a speech delivered in Lucknow in 1887, Syed Ahmad Khan proclaimed:

O brothers! I have fought Government in the harshest language about these points. The time is, however, coming when my brothers, Pathans, Syeds, Hashimi, and Koreishi, whose blood smells of the blood of Abraham, will appear in glittering uniform as Colonels and Majors in the army. But we must wait for that time. Government will most certainly attend to it; provided you do not give rise to suspicions of disloyalty. O brothers! Government, too, is under some difficulties as regards this last charge I have brought against her. Until she can trust us as she can her white soldiers, she cannot do it. But we ought to give proof that whatever we were in former days, that time has gone; and that now we are as well-disposed to her as the Highlanders of Scotland. And then we should claim this from Government.

In the very same speech, he had also argued:

Think for a moment what would be the result if all appointments were given by competitive examination. Over all races, not only over Mahomedans but over Rajas of high position and the brave Rajputs who have not forgotten the swords of their ancestors, would be placed as ruler, a Bengali who at sight of a table knife would crawl under his chair.

 Hence the question arises, how should history judge Syed Ahmad Khan? After all, his speeches are downright casteist and racist.

There can be no denying of the fact that Syed Ahmad Khan has had a profound influence on the Muslims of South Asia. The Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) is a wonderful reminder of the scientific temper and modern education that he wanted to promote. He never discriminated in begging for donations to build the educational institution of his dream – AMU. The extent to which he was willing to be humbled and even humiliated, simply to develop what now stands as AMU, is legendary. I have lived in Aligarh and availed the facilities at AMU for a short period and been witness to the benefits of Syed Ahmad Khan’s passion for science and modern education. In fact, AMU has had a profound impact on the lives of the so called Ajlafs, including the so called jolahas – this university, with a scientific temperament, institutionally ensures social equality, challenges the evils of casteism, intellectually as well as in practice.

I did come across a few students at AMU during my time there, that held onto the logic of Ashrafs and Ajlafs. But I guess that by the time they graduated from the university, their nonsensical ideas would get dented, if not completely erased. And casteism amongst Muslims, even though in a milder form, is a disease that shows up in contemporary Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh. A racial imagination and corresponding practices also continue amongst certain tribal groups in Pakistan. But racism and caste discrimination, within the Muslim community, is not as relevant in contemporary South Asia as it was in Syed Ahmad Khan’s time. Arranged Muslim marriages across the Ashraf-Ajlaf divide, even in Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh, have become common. One could attribute these positive changes to the education spread by AMU over several decades.

But this does not really answer the question: Was Syed Ahmad Khan discriminatory, racist and casteist? This is truly a complicated question for me to answer because of my limited knowledge about how raising money for and instituting, building the Anglo-Oriental College, transformed Syed Ahmad Khan’s worldviews. The question is like asking if Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was a racist bigot that believed in the supremacy of the upper caste and looked down upon Muslim. After all, we know for a fact that a young Mohandas Gandhi was anti-Black/African. The young Gandhi was certainly casteist and Islamophobic. But it is problematic to judge a person or a historical character based on what she or he was, rather than what he or she became. After all, Gandhi was assassinated because he had saved Muslim lives and was advocating Hindu-Muslim unity. Gandhi did not advocate the abolition of the caste system, but he was not a godman that could wish caste to go away and expect everyone to follow suit. As a social reformer and a freedom fighter, he championed the labor of those that were classified as Dalits and he joined them in performing work that were seen as polluting. In other words, he demonstrated that all work had dignity and the nature of work does not make a Dalit (he preferred the term Harijan or God’s children) inferior.

I am not a fan of this strategy of Gandhi, but I cannot deny that this act of Gandhi was revolutionary and highly effective in challenging the casteist beliefs that associated hard work or menial labor with indignity. In similar vein, Syed Ahmad Khan’s life needs to be assessed with focus on his becoming rather than some kind of stasis or being. This requires a temporal analysis of this legendary advocate of science and rationality. If Syed Ahmad Khan lived his entire life with casteist and racial prejudice, he needs to be called out for it and critiqued. Not only is casteism and racism morally bankrupt, but also anti-Islamic – and Syed Ahmad Khan always presented himself as a believing and practicing Muslim. But just like Mohandas Gandhi, if Syed Ahmad Khan could overcome his bigoted worldviews in the process of building and championing the cause of one of the finest educational institutions of South Asia then we need to acknowledge his transformation as the true triumph of knowledge over ignorance. To conclude, irrespective of Syed Ahmad Khan’s views on caste and race, his legacy in the form of Aligarh Muslim University continues to shine as a threat to ignorance, bigotry, hate, casteism and racism.

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