When Sir Syed raised stick on his boys

Mohammed Wajihuddin

Lessons learnt in childhood stays with you till the end. It happened with Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) too. Once in his adolescence, Sir Syed’s mother turned him out of the house in Delhi for hitting a servant. He stayed with his aunt (khala) for a couple of days. The aunt brought Syed Ahmed—he was conferred with the hoonour of ‘Sir’ which became part of his name much later in life—home and produced him before his mother. She relented only after he apologised to the servant.

This episode left an indelible mark on Sir Syed’s life. He would not tolerate misbehaviour with servants at the Mohammadan Anglo-Oriental (MAO) College he founded at Aligarh in 1877, which metamorphosed into Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) in 1920.  Professor Iftikhar Alam Khan who has written extensively on Sir Syed and Aligarh Movement cites an interesting episode from life at the MAO College.

It so happened that one student Syed Hussain instructed the hostel servant or bearer to bring his dinner from the dining hall and keep it at his room. When Hussain reached his room in the night, he was furious at not finding his food. The servant claimed he had kept the food but perhaps a clever cat devoured it. An angry Hussain beat up the servant. The hostel warden Maulvi Suleiman complained the student’s misbehaviour to Sir Syed. Enraged, Sir Syed immediately issued a notice, rusticating and ordering the boy to leave the hostel by that evening itself.

Many other students saw it as an arbitrary order and began gathering outside Siddon’s Club (precursor of the present Union Club) president Aziz Mirza’s room at the hostel. They argued that, if students were expelled for misbehaving with servants, the servants would get unruly and student would feel humiliated. The students prepared an appeal and sent it to Sir Syed, requesting him to forgive Syed Hussain and cancel his rustication. Within no time, Sir Syed sent back a trenchant reply:

“Your stubbornness has crossed all the limits. You think everyone is dishonest except yourself and you make allegations against the boarding house’s manager. My decision will not change. Syed Hussain will have to leave the hostel for the breach of the college code and hitting a servant.”

The matter snowballed into a big crisis. The boys assembled outside the hostel near a spot where the architecturally magnificent Jama Masjid stands today. Sir Syed lived at the spacious beautiful bungalow (Sir Syed House) his second son Syed Mahmood had bought for him from a British army officer. Educated at Cambridge and Lincoln’s Inn, Syed Mahmud was one of most successful legal luminaries of his time. He was even made a judge at the Allahabad High Court and earned and spent money like a royal. He bought the most expensive house in Aligarh for his father. He had also bought the famous bungalow at Allahabad before it went to Motilal Nehru and subsequently to Jawaharlal Nehru. Such a fabulous story of Anand Bhavan!

Had he not become “slave” to drinking and destroyed his life, causing immense pain to his father, Syed Mahmood would have gone down in history as a luminous legal mind who knew a lot. Some of his verdicts became a template for judiciary in India.  How drinking has destroyed several geniuses and careers over the ages? I am reminded of a brilliant journalist and editor of our times who, in an alleged drunken stupor, took his slimy hand to the undies of a young reporter in a hotel lift and destroyed his own career. Some say it was a conspiracy. I don’t if it was a trumped-up case or stupidity on the part of the editor, but my heart bleeds for the brilliant writer whose essays in a national magazine amazed and inspired the budding writer in me. Sitting at the old Maulana Mazharul Haque Library on the premises of the historic Sadaquat Ashram and also at the iconic Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Library, both in Patna, in the early 1990s I would devour his essays, frequently consulting my pocket dictionary as I encountered some words I had never seen before. Aye angoor ki beti, zalim sharab, tu ne aur kitni zindagiyan barbad ki?      

Sorry for digression. So, when Sir Syed heard that the students were preparing to leave the hostel in protest, he left his bungalow in the horse-driven carriage and reached the College. Stepping down from the carriage, Sir Syed leapt towards the place where the students had assembled. A student, Ahmed Moazzam, saw him coming and greeted him with “Assalamu Alaikum.” “Dhat tere Assalamu Alaikum ki,” said an angry Sir Syed, charging towards the boys, his stick raised in air. The fear-stricken boys stepped back. Sir Syed began admonishing the boys and telling them to leave the campus immediately. “Nikal jao yahan se,” he kept shouting.

Many teachers and trustees were also horrified at the anger of Sir Syed. One of them tried to calm down Sir Syed, requested him to go home promising that the students would be sent home.

Taking their luggage, the students assembled at the nearby cricket ground. Principal Theodore Beck whom Syed Mahmood had hired from Cambridge and another European teacher asked the students to return to their rooms. They were even threatened of strict action, but they didn’t listen. Around two-third of the students left the hostel. One chronicler says they stayed at a sarai or public transit home outside the city. Another chronicler claims that the striking students were offered shelter by a local zamindar at his big haveli in the city. They were fed pulao and zarda and treated to stage shows by a theatre company. Unke din Eid aur raat shab-e-baraat thi, writes the chronicler.

After a few says, Beck sent a teacher Mir Vilayat Hussain as an emissary to convince the students to end their strike and return. But the students put some conditions before they considered ending the strike. Their conditions were unreasonable and wanted removal of the principal Beck, Boarding House manager Maulvi Suleiman and supervisor of the construction works Munshi Mohammed Saeed Khan. “I can understand your problem with the principal and the warden, but what has Saeed Khan to do with the issues you are raising?” asked Mir Vilayat Hussain. “He is mausi (aunt) of the serpents. He stays near the hostel, eavesdrops on us and informs to Syed Sahab (Sir Syed) who gets angry with us. He must be removed,” replied Imam Ali, leader of the striking students.

Next day, Principal Theodore Beck himself went to the boys and told them to at least return some of the minor students who were misled by the older boys lest the police were informed. The minors were returned. Maulvi Samiullah Khan who had huge influence in the college’s affairs at that time too tried to intervene but the logjam didn’t end despite Samiullah’s best efforts.

Finally, the Principal put a condition that the students would be allowed to return only if they signed a letter seeking pardon, both from him and Syed Sahab. Mir Vilayat Hussain writes that, one by one, the students went to both Beck and Syed Sahab, seeking their pardon. Gradually, almost all the striking students were taken back. No one missed his exam.

Such was the culture the grand old man of Aligarh had created in his college. Rajmohan Gandhi, in his seminal work Understanding the Muslim Mind writes: “In Sayyid Ahmed’s last years, Beck ran the college, giving rise to the saying; “Quam khuda ki, College Sir Syed ka, hukum Beck Bahadur ka (The community is God’s, the College Sir Syed’s, the rule Beck’s). 

Ghazal usne chedi mujhe saaz dena/Zaraa umr-e-rafta ko avaz dena (He unleashed the ghazl, give a tune to it/Beckon the past).

Mohammed Wajihuddin, a senior journalist, is associated with The Times of India, Mumbai. This piece has been picked up from his blog