Syed Mahmud as a dissenter to the Raj

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Syed Mahmud as a dissenter to the Raj

It would surely surprise all those, who regard Sir Syed Ahmed Khan to be too British, that towards the fag of his life he was considered ‘not too friendly’ by the British along with his son, Justice Syed Mahmud. True, the feelings also keep on changing.

There were reasons for this ‘rupture’ in Sir Syed’s otherwise life-long pro-British stand. He became grossly peevish when Syed Mahmud had to resign from the judgeship of Allahabad High Court on the plea that the Chief Justice was ‘too white’ to consider Indians as the legatees of a glorious past which had surprised all European travellers of the mediaeval times.

We ought to be grateful that one-time Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India and a former vice-president of that country Justice Hidayatullah, has left behind a monograph on Justice Syed Mahmud. Read with the archival material of Aligarh University, this monograph is an eye-opener for all those who think that friendship and animosities couldn’t be subject to changes. Justice Syed Mahmud was an eminent jurist besides being an educationist and scholar of Arabic and English. His impromptu translations of Ghalib - some of them published - had forced many Englishmen to accept that India, too, had a number of great poets. His grandfather, Mir Hadi, was a famous Urdu poet, a Sahib-i-Diwan and contemporary of Mir and Dard. It is strange that even Sir Syed has not thrown light on this aspect. Syed Mahmud did a lot of spade work in disseminating the ‘gems’ of poetry among the high government functionaries of his times. It would be wrong that Justice Syed Mahmud played an important role in making Ghalib an important Indian poet in the Gymkhanas of northern India. His son, Sir Ross Masud continued the family tradition and did a lot to turn Ghalib into an ‘icon’ for every educated person. Ghalib is being more fervently read in Devnagri script in India today than in Pakistan. What a contrast?

Coming back to Justice Syed Mahmud, the Aligarh archives help us recast Syed Mahmud as well as Sir Syed’s image quite differently.

Syed Mahmud’s resignation from the judgeship of Allahabad High Court was a much talked about event in India. He was the first Muslim to be elevated to that office. Well versed in English literature, classics, Arabic and Persian, he was a luminary in his own right. He fell out with the Chief Justice on some points of law. Justice Mahmud was a fierce nationalist and was not in favour of allowing government control on educational institutions. It was this distrust of government control on educational institutions which went a long way in creating some doubts about his loyalty to the British. Some high officials thought him to be a person too independent for the position he was holding.

Born on 24th May 1850, Syed Mahmud was brought up as a prince in a family which had been close to the Royal Family from the day of its migration to India from Herat, Afghanistan. Sir Syed’s maternal grandfather was the Prime Minister of Emperor Akbar Shah II.

Drawing upon this rich background, Syed Mehmud was educated at Queen’s College, Benaras and went to England alongwith Sir Syed in 1869. He got admission to Christ Church College of Cambridge and completed his education in Law in 1873 with flying colours.

Enjoying his father’s complete confidence, it was Syed Mahmud who selected Theodore Beck with the help of Arthur Strachey in 1883 for the principalship of the M A O College. Married in 1886 in Sir Syed’s maternal grandfather’s family, he didn’t live long and died in 1903 in Sitapur. He was buried in Mehmood Manzil, Aligarh near his inclustrus father.

Syed Mahmud will be remembered for his pioneering role in educating Muslims. He drew up a blue-print for the Muslim University in 1872-73 at the age of 22 which created a furore against him. He didn’t want any government intervention in the affairs of the university and thought it to be a grave impediment in the formation of the students and faculty alike. Sir Syed was on the side of his son — a fact which turned many loyalists against him.

Syed Mahmud wrote several articles on education and his monograph history of Western Education in India (1793-1893) was presented at the Mohammedan Educational Conference. Alas! this monograph is still a rare document.

To cut along story short, much against the common belief, Sir Syed had felt that the British principals of the M.A.O. College didn’t want their Muslim students to go beyond Arabic and Persian in their Master’s programme of studies. He, with the help of justice Syed Mahmud, worked for the statutes, which could ensure that Aligarh could never be turned into a college of oriental languages. Thus, Sir Syed disbanded the oriental studies section of Aligarh in 1885, keeping the departments of Persian and Arabic intact in the general programes of the college. Well, this was an important step which even the advocates of Sir Syed don’t dwell upon. Obviously, Sir Syed’s opposition grew by leaps and bounds. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, through this measure, secured English-medium modern education centre in time to come. The Law of Trustees (1889), ensuring college’s independence, was passed unanimously. How strange it is that the general impression still holds the ground that Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was unduly supportive of the British principles and faculty. In fact he was opposing tooth and nail all attempts to convert M A O College into a mere Oriental College - an idea which even Theodore Beck also appeared to support at one time.

The tussle, however, took another shape and the Aligarh Archives abundantly prove that Sir Syed was on the side of giving Trustees and the Secretary so much power that even the government was not to be in a position to cripple its independence. The tussle between Nawab Mohsin-ul-Mulk and Antony Macbonnel proved this point. Nawab Hamid Ali Khan, Nawab of Rampur, who was asked by the U P government to take some of the powers of the Trustee failed and Nawab Mohsin-ul-Mulk succeeded in thwarting the attempt.

In fact according to Justice Hidayatullah’s monograph of Justice Syed Mahmud, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan wanted to keep M A O College to steer clear of the government influence - a policy which his son believed to be covered and the opponents of Sir Syed - Maulvi Samiullah Khan and Khwaja Muhammad Yousuf were favouring the government lobby.

Even Hali, in his Hayat-i-Jawaid, couldn’t grasp this point and was wrong in misreading Sir Syed’s intention in supporting Syed Mahmud’s candidature from the secretaryship.

Thanks to Justice Hidayatullah and a work on Aligarh archives that we know a little about Syed Mahmud and Sir Syed.

Sir Syed Bi-Centenary


Hamiduddin Farahi


Masarrat Ali