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History through letters

Three laureates of immense calibre locked in a conversation with each other

History through letters

Ironically, the academic tale of the history of Muslims in India from 1857 to 1947 conflates with the narrative woven around a few individuals, all from the minority provinces, with the exception of Iqbal. These individuals, generally speaking, tagged along with the main body of the Muslim League. Anyone not having acquiesced to the proclaimed ideals of the League has been squeezed out of the state-driven discourse of the history of the freedom movement. The seminality of the league stalwarts is played out in a scenario of hopelessness and despair.

The notion generally spawned through textbook history of the post-mutiny period shows Muslims lagging substantially behind their Hindu counterparts in acquiring western education. No wonder their share of government jobs diminished as a result. That dooms-day situation surrounding Indian Muslims has become almost a cliché. However, if Francis Robinson is to be believed, the Muslims of North India were better placed in comparison to the Hindus. Through the three-some criteria of education, public service and urbanisation, worked out by Robinson, the lot of the Muslims particularly in UP, was relatively better that the Hindus. One may surmise that such institutions as the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College, Aligarh, which later championed the Muslim cause, might have been critically important in this process.

The impact of this institution was significant, reaching all of India. MAO College, like Delhi College before it, fostered and nurtured many personalities of great and varied talent, such as Shibli, Hali, the Jauhar Brothers, Maulvi Abdul Haq and Mehfooz Ali Badayuni. While talking about these laureate figures, skipping the mention of Jamia-i-Usmaniya, Hyderabad Deccan would be a travesty. MAO’s contribution in honing the intellectual maturity of people like Zafar Ali Khan is also very significant.

Despite the fact that these individuals hailed from different areas and backgrounds, one thing that bound them together was the peculiar context in which they lived. The time reeked of pathos caused by the Muslim political decline which shaped their sensibility and trajectory of thought.

One such person was Zafar Ali Khan (1873-1956) who was a classmate of Maulvi Abdul Haq and Mehfooz Ali Badayuni at Aligarh. He was blessed with many talents, but mostly known for his journalistic career as editor of Zamindar, and as a Nazm-go poet. His panache for oratory, with the expertise of an effective prose writer, his organisational skills and skill as a translator remained shrouded from the scholarly gaze. This was probably because he, like the others mentioned above, had a kind of roller-coaster relationship with politics.

Detailed accounts of these figures might throw up alternative histories which could puncture the statist narrative woven around our ‘national’ heroes. Politically mercurial and indecisive as Zafar Ali Khan was, a history written with him as a principal protagonist would have given an entirely novel trajectory to the national discourse, which has a stable personality as M.A. Jinnah as its central figure.

The point to emphasise here is the unravelling of such a figure as Zafar Ali Khan, howsoever quirky his role in history may seem. He was immensely talented, probably the biggest journalistic star of 20th century firmament. Ghulam Hussain Zulfiqar’s detailed account Maulana Zafar Ali Khan: Hayat-Khidmat wa Asaar worked to make amends for the portrayal of our protagonist’s partial fulfillment of the promise of his talents.

But even before Zulfiqar’s exhaustive account, Zahid Munir Amir, in his younger days, embarked on the course of exploring Zafar Ali Khan’s unique talent as that of a letter-writer, producing Makateeb-i-Zafar Ali Khan. It should be kept in mind that letter-writing has always been considered a vital source of history. Therefore the compilation of Zahid Munir has a lot to do with both the students of history as well as literature. In 2012, he compiled another book Khatoot o Khayut: Zafar Ali Khan, published by the Punjab University.

However, before subjecting that book to our scrutiny, a brief introduction of the author seems warranted. Trained as a laureate, with Urdu literature as his specialisation, Zahid Munir excels in Arabic, Persian and English literary traditions. Until recently, he held the Zafar Ali Khan Chair at the department of Media Studies in the Punjab University. Furthermore, Zahid Munir had a special fondness for social history. Not only has he written the last volume of the History of the Punjab University, but also the first complete history of Aitchison College Lahore (Char Mausam).

Thus one can make a guarded observation that in Prof. Zahid Munir Amir, literature and history is in the process of forging a bond which will be good for both disciplines. It is particularly felicitous because this is an era of multidisciplinary engagement of various subjects.Tahir Kamran

In the book under discussion, one may find it fascinating that three laureates (Zafar Ali Khan, Maulvi Abdul Haq and Mehfooz Ali Badayuni) of immense calibre and recognition are locked in a conversation with each other. Thus, instead of following a straight and linear path, it undergoes a certain convolution which adds to the spice of the material furnished in the book. Since letters are written in a frank and informal style, they afford the reader a a peek into the social life of North India.

Not only Maulvi Abdul Haq, whom we recall as Baba-i-Urdu, and his long-standing association with Anjuman-i-Tarraqi-i-Urdu (established in 1924) get scholarly attention also but the bond of friendship between Zafar Ali Khan and Abdul Haq, which opens up new paths for scholars of history which otherwise might well remain obscured. The same can be said of the letters from Zafar Ali Khan to his wife, revealing the emotional side of the personality of our protagonist.

By adding the material in the form of Khatoot o Khayut to the existing body of knowledge, Zahid Munir Amir needs to be commended.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

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