At a time when illiteracy among Indian Muslims is a ‘fact of life’ and educational institutions run by the community amply illustrate the state of its education secular or religious, any talk of academic excellence sounds like a pipe- dream. Even in the South and West of the country a vast majority of Muslim institutions carry a load of mediocrity behind the façade of impressive buildings and fairly impressive physical infrastructure. It is difficult to imagine in this scenario that almost eight decades ago an individual managed to elevate a minority educational institution to the very top within a short while. That individual was Sir Syed Ross Masood (1889-1937). It will be instructive to refresh public memory about his life and attainments. That he was not allowed to continue in peace and the excellence so miraculously brought out by him did not survive his tenure is of course beyond the scope of this biographical sketch.
Born in Delhi in 1889, Masud had the best possible pedigree. He was the grandson of Sir Syed about whom any explanation will be wasting space and time. His maverick father, Syed Mahmud had the unique distinction of being the fist Muslim to graduate from the Cambridge University (1871) and whose elevation to the judgeship of the Allahabad High Court at the age of thirty-two (1882) made him the youngest ever appointee to the post. It may only be added that Mahmud is now regarded as among the brightest jurists to hold judicial offices and some of his rulings are legal classics which retain their force till date – that the jealousy of his white peers and his own lack of temperance in personal life led to his resignation in 1891 and his early demise in 1902 is a matter to be regretfully placed on record. Masud lost his grand-father while aged nine, the titular guardianship of a progressively declining father too disappeared four year later. A young Masud was practically under the guardianship of the Collector of Aligarh on behalf of the Government of the United Provinces. He had his early education at the MAO Collegiate School Aligarh followed by a series of Government Schools in UP till in 1906-07 it was decided to send him to England for further education. After obtaining M.A Degree in English Literature of the University of Cambridge (Christ College) he secured an appointment in the prestigious Indian Education Service in 1913. He held the positions of Headmaster Ravenshaw Collegiate School, Cuttack and then Professor of the Patna College. In 1916 he joined the Government of the Nizam as the Director of Public Instruction in Hyderabad and was later promoted as Secretary Education Department of the same government, a position that he retained till 1928 when he took over as Vice Chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University.
Before moving over to his Aligarh days – the main concern of this short biographical sketch - it may be noted in passing that in Hyderabad he was among the ‘founding fathers’ of the Osmania University. Despite his reservations about Urdu becoming the medium of instruction in that University, he did much of the early spadework in its establishment. He was instrumental in recruiting the faculty and (even more important) in locating and recruiting a galaxy of translators who formed the core of the team to translate course material for the University and which now forms the very basis of .
His appointment as the Vice Chancellor of the AMU was at a time when the eight year old University was in the news for very unfortunate reasons. A Committee had exposed the grave administrative irregularities and academic deficiencies in the functioning of the institution. Students were leaving the University in large numbers, its degrees were at a discount and a large number of teachers were under-qualified. The Pro Vice Chancellor Dr Ziauddin was held accountable for the sorry state and made to leave the University. Ross Masud’s appointment was natural not only as he was the grandson of the founder of the College that had blossomed into a University but also because of his proven track record in Hyderabad. Masood was unique in another way; He was virtually the first academic to be appointed Vice Chancellor of any Indian University. (Almost all Vice Chancellors of Indian Universities were hitherto sitting High Court Judges many of whom without University Education as it till the early twentieth century it was possible to take the ‘Bar Examination’ after completion of schooling – even a legendary Vice Chancellor like Sir Ashutosh Mukerji held the position by virtue of being a judge of the Calcutta High Court although he was an eminent Mathematician in his own right).
Masud knew Aligarh and what ailed the Institution. He set about the task of putting it back on the rails and to put it on a high pedestal without delay. To recount these steps in detail is not possible within the confines of this write-up. It will be possible to only summarize the following in the ‘bullets format’:
He recruited some of the finest available talent to academic positions to give a fillip to Postgraduate teaching and research particularly in the Sciences. Chief among them were: Samuel, the noted Physicist who had fled the pogrom of Jews in Germany and was recommended for the position by Einstein and C.V Raman the Nobel laureate; the doyen of Molecular Spectroscopy, Ragho Krishna Asundi; Hunter, R.D Desai and Salimuzzaman Siddiqui in Chemistry; Ibadur Rehman in Geography; and Andre Weil and D.D Kosambi in Mathematics. In a short while Aligarh bustled with some of the sharpest scientific minds of the age.
He obtained grants from the Government of Hyderabad and the Imperial Government and establishment of a ‘Science College’ and completed the construction and installation of equipment in record time.
The first M.A programme in Geography on the Asian Continent was introduced (1929).
Researches carried out by Asundi (Physics) Siddiqui and Desai (Chemistry) and Sharif Khan, Qadri and M.A Basir (Zoology) at Aligarh were widely regarded as valuable addition to the knowledge then existing.
For the first time, Aligarh students started qualifying in the ICS and IP examinations attesting to the high quality of its Under Graduate education.
Standardized protocols were laid down for conduct of residential life in Halls of residence leading to considerable improvements in discipline.
Teachers were encouraged to obtain PhD degrees of foreign Universities.
Political leaders of various persuasions were regularly invited to speak on subjects of topical interest to broaden the horizons of the University community.
The Vice Chancellor used his personal contacts managed to put the University on a sound financial footing.
He managed to obtain ‘equivalence’ of Aligarh degrees with degrees of other Universities - the unprecedented provision of the AMU Act declaring Aligarh degrees to be at par with other Universities had hitherto been a dead letter.
Female education received a fillip with the University undertaking the responsibility of conducting High School examination of the Girls’ School and by permitting girls to take University examinations.
The Vice Chancellor with his oratorical abilities and charming manners was much in demand in other academic institutions which contributed to Aligarh emerging as a respectable academic institution at par with the best in the country.
The results were abundantly in evidence. Not only did the enrollment picked up but for most of the courses the number of applicants exceeded available seats. The trend of brighter students migrating to other Universities and Colleges was reversed. In fact for disciplines like Physics, Chemistry and Geography etc AMU became the most favoured destination of students from across the country irrespective of their communal or linguistic labels. Similarly, presence of so many bright young people at one place also made the platform of its Students’ Union a coveted forum of political leaders and intellectuals of various persuasions. In short, within a few years the corporate life of the University was enriched and the All India character of the communities of students and teachers was restored to what it was till a major erosion was caused by the Khilafat and non – Cooperation movements.
Aligarh became the first University in the country to start enrolling students in PhD programme – in other Universities this facility was then confined to teachers. Current Science in one of its issues of 1933 carried a report identifying Aligarh the best place for research in Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics and Zoology. Newspapers (English and Urdu) carried frequent reports indicating the developments of the campus. A number of old families taking note of the promotion of advancement of knowledge in Aligarh donated the old manuscripts, farmans and records which laid the foundation of Historical research of the medieval period which later blossomed into the Aligarh school of Historical research. For the first time ever an exclusive Department of Urdu was established anywhere in the world. What is most so remarkable about these developments is often missed - AMU was then essentially a private University it had to meet most of its recurring expenditure from its own resources with government grants barely amounting to twenty percent of the requirements. As other Universities were not involved in regular research Aligarh had no ‘need’ to do so as a matter of ‘competitiveness’.
As we are not tracing the history of the University politics we need not deal with the circumstances in which he had to resign the office of Vice Chancellor in 1933. Suffice it to say, local vested interests and disgruntled under-qualified teachers brought about a situation where Masud who had sacrificed his health burning the proverbial midnight oil for the good of the institution founded by his grandfather was left with no option. He accepted the offer of his old friend Nawab Hamidullah Khan the ruler of Bhopal to be the Education Minister of his State. Ross Masud spent rest of his life in Riaz Manzil, Bhopal which is immortalized in the annals of literature as it is here that his admirer, the poet Mohammed Iqbal composed his magnum opus “Javednama” while enjoying his honoured friend’s hospitality. Masud died a premature death at fort-eight following cardiac complications caused no doubt by his unremitting love of labour at Aligarh. Whether he died a man satisfied at having done his best to take a family legacy to hitherto unexpected heights or a man disappointed with an ungrateful community is something we will never know for the answer went with him to his grave next to his legendary grandfather and genius father in the precincts of the University mosque at Aligarh.
A man of strong convictions and unswerving commitment to excellence and integrity, Masud does not appear to have left any regular publication. His philosophy of life is however enshrined in the by-words which he chose for his stationary – al mulko wa sidqo waddeen (the country, the truth, the faith). He was a remarkably articulate man both in writing and speeches. His letters addressed to friends and admires like “Maulana” Mahommed Ali “Jauhar”, Poet Mohammed Iqbal and Jawaharlal Nehru deserve to be published; the same holds good for his speeches which lie scattered. One can only hope that the Aligarh Muslim University will wake up to redeem a long forgotten enormous debt of gratitude to one of its real founders. One can part with this piece by pointing out the irony that while Nawab Masood Jung Bahadur Sir Syed Ross Masud has been and well and truly forgotten, aficionados of English literature are vaguely familiar with his name as the one to whom his good friend E.M Foster had dedicated his work A Passage to India .
 Besides, Iqbal’s elegy, Masood Marhoom in Armughan-i-Hijaz affords him a degree of ‘preservation’
*Mr. Naved Masood is an AMU Alum and a senior Civil Servant in Govt. of India and he is based in New Delhi. He can be reached at email@example.com