By Muhammed Shafeeque
“We (Hindus and Muslims) eat the same crop, drink water from the same rivers and breathe the same air. As a matter of fact Hindus and Muslims are the two eyes of the beautiful bride that is Hindustan. Weakness of any one of them will spoil the beauty of the bride (Dulhan)” – Sir Syed Ahmad Khan
Education, especially moral education, is the bedrock of a peaceful nation. Recently, the Indian government passed a new educational policy that expunges its Muslim past from textbooks and presents India as a Hindu nation. The Aligarh Movement, a progressive educational movement in twentieth century led by Sir Syed, had played a prominent role in educational renaissance of India and of Muslims in particular. The secular education and social awareness that Sir Syed promoted through this movement need to be analysed to understand its current relevance.
How did the progressive education promoted by Sir Syed develop democratic values and patriotism among Indians? How do we reconcile his ideas of secular education and his alleged support for ‘two-nation theory’? How would Sir Syed’s ideas of moral and democratic values help the present policy makers to have a progressive educational system in India?
The role of progressive education and Sir Syed
Historians have reiterated that the progressive educational and reform movements in the twentieth century led to a democratic and moral revolution in the world. Such movements encouraged citizens for civic engagements in a democratic society. John Dewey (1859-1952) was the most influential figure in the field of progressive education. In his long career, Dewey had written over 1,000 books and articles on topics ranging from art and aesthetics to political activism. In all his academic eclecticism, we can see his primary interest in education, as his works propounded the central relationship between democratic life and education. In the Indian context, it is important to note the contributions of Sir Syed to progressive education.
Born in 1817 in Delhi, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was a multifaceted and resourceful personality. Apart from being an educationist, he was also a social reformer, journalist, political ideologue, writer, historian, archaeologist, and humanist. Sir Syed’s vision of education was tied to the notion of good society, which denoted the role of education in furthering good in larger society. His ideas of education as the motor of a good society was tied to his views on nationalism, social reform, and brotherhood.
For Sir Syed, nationalism meant respect for one’s native culture and tradition, instead of usually understood hatred for other countries. In 1859, he published one of his most famous works, Asbab-e-Baghawat-e-Hind (The Causes of the Indian Revolt) in which he explored how the British East India Company aggressively exploited Indian resources without any concern for Indian culture and tradition. Sir Syed’s view of national autonomy inspired many AMU alumni such as Maulana Muhammad Ali, Shaukat Ali, and Ghaffer Khan to join the Indian freedom struggle.
As a social reformer, Sir Syed’s personality was a combination of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Tipu Sultan, and Syed Ahmad Shaheed, fostering a blend of social reform, humanitarian work, and Sufi thinking. While he has been accused of promoting patriarchy as his vision of education seemed to be centred on men, he was also vocal about women’s rights, especially those of widows, whose remarriage he supported. As Sir Syed said, “the woman needed gentle treatment from man because of her subtle nature and especially the widow deserves the sympathy from all sects.”
Among his students in Aligarh, Sir Syed promoted brotherhood beyond religious and territorial boundaries. In a short pamphlet titled, “College Life or New Life” for residential students, he writes, “All the students, lying as they are on the lap of this Alma Mater, no matter whether they hail from Hindustan or the Punjab are your brothers, first and last.” This view of brotherhood is in tune with notions of progressive education. It was Sir Syed’s intention to inculcate good customs and traditions in students. He showed keen interest in the cultural activities and literary gatherings of the city. He had strictly forbidden the use of abusive words inside the campus.
Secularism and two nation theory
As Sir Syed refrained from nationalist politics of the Congress, some historians have tended to see him through a prejudiced communal lens and dubbed him a proponent of ‘two-nation theory’. In reality, he never differentiated between Muslim and non-Muslim in Aligarh. He described both Hindus and Muslims as two eyes of a beautiful bride. Our first prime minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru referred to him in his book, Discovery of India, as a secular democrat. Nehru writes, “He was in no way communally separatist. Repeatedly he emphasized that religious differences should have no political and national significance.” Famous historian, Tara Chand has also written that it will be a travesty of truth to denote Sir Syed as the brain behind ‘two-nation theory’.
Sir Syed saw the terms ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ as simple markers of religious distinction for two communities, who reside in India and are “the same nation”. Many of the buildings at AMU were built by non-Muslims, for example, Raja Ghanshyam Singh and Choudhary Sher Singh. Their names still adorn the old buildings of AMU. And the first alumni of the institute was Mr. Ishwari Prasad, a Hindu. He often said, “All the Hindus, Muslims and Christians who live in this country are one nation.”
Aligarh movement and progressive education
Mohammedan Anglo Oriental (MAO) College was established by Sir Syed in 1877 in order to propagate progressive education among people. Later, it was renamed as Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), which was open to people from all religions. The first students’ union in India was set up at AMU to inculcate values of democracy. The union resembled the Oxford debating club and he offered special awards to the best speakers. This reinforces his commitment to education, which must hone democratic values in students. Maulana Azad befittingly called Sir Syed the morning star of an intellectual revolution in Asia, which later came to be known as the Aligarh movement. In short, the educational activities of Sir Syed through the Aligarh Movement were completely focused on social welfare and democratic values. However, Sir Syed’s contribution to Indian democratic spirit is not acknowledged very often.
Muhammed Shafeeque is a freeelance writer pursuing BA in economics from the University of Calicut, Kerala, India. Email: email@example.com
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