Some people invent new ideas; a few founds school of thought and very few lay the basis of a new epoch. Sir Syed belongs to the last category of great personalities. Ideas may be dismissed; schools can become outmoded but an epoch keeps influencing the future. The epoch began by Sir Syed is rightly marked with ‘modernity’.
While we are commemorating the bicentennial of Sir Syed (1817-1897), it seems appropriate to re-appraise his concept of modernity and its significance in the postcolonial perspective.
Understanding clearly, interpreting keenly and then aligning vehemently with the newly-emerged reality were the central planks of his concept of modernity. Chalo Tum Udhar ko Hawa ho Jidhar ki (head towards the direction of wind) was conceived as the basic tenant of modernity that he struggled to achieve through education, journalism, miscellaneous writings, educational addresses and through founding societies and associations. He remained adamantly passionate to all these till his death. He didn’t believe in resisting against the winds of time or struggling to change their direction. He was of the view that ‘clear road’ to modernising Hindustan can only be found by marching along the direction the ‘modern, Anglicist winds’ had taken. In simple terms, he had a firm belief in faithfully following the same path that was taken by the modern, European world.
This does not mean there was no room for resistance in his notion of modernity. He rigorously resisted against the endeavours for a revival of the glorious past. He admitted there was an illustrious period in the history of Muslims which might be taken as a proof that our forefathers had answered to the call of their own age, but he saw no sense in initiating any attempt to bring that period back. Discontinuity with the past and yet going on with contemporariness was another hallmark of his notion of modernity.
Sir Syed knew that discontinuity originates a crisis by creating a sort of vacuum in historical consciousness. However, he had arrived at a solution — living in the present could fill that vacuum. He seems to be suggesting that crisis of historical consciousness can be overcome by confining all imaginative and intellectual powers to learning present-day useful knowledge. Sense of usefulness of the Present can defeat the haunting memories of the glorious Past. Achieving usefulness was meant to fully living in the present. He seems to propose that one can’t live fully in the present unless they do not become ‘civilized’ by getting modern, European education; embracing government jobs and attaining the freedom of thinking and expressing his ideas. He wrote in his essay titled Civilization Yani Shaistagi aur Tahzeeb per (On Civilization and Culture):
شا[Civilization can’t be achieved until man doesn’t enjoy freedom of expressing his thoughts and acting upon them accordingly]
In the same essay Syed says that “it must be admitted that there exists nothing that could delimit the expanse of civilization and human intellect”. We must admit that this was the true concept of modernity that has been proffered by all great minds irrespective of their race, nationality and age. It was almost the same idea that was illustrated by Ghalib: Hae Kahan Tamman ka Doosra Qadam Yarab/Ham Nay Dasht e Imkan ko aik Naqsh e Pa Paya. But soon Sir Syed realises that there exists something that demarcates the limit of creating and expressing ideas. On the next page of the above quoted essay, he seems impelled to mention the limits of freedom:
پ[So it is evident that advancement of civilization is linked to the proportion of freedom allowed by the governments to her subjects.]
It made his notion of modernity complicated. Subservience to authority became an integral feature of his modernity. Some people are of the view that Syed’s incessant stress on unconditional loyalty to colonial government emanates from his pragmatic approach. They argue that this was the only way to rid Muslim Ashraaf of North India of the wretchedness they suffered in the aftermath of 1857 War of Independence.
While re-evaluating Syed’s concept of modernity, we should draw a distinction between the pragmatic approach adopted to solve the real social and educational issues and the idealistic perception of political authority which was internalised and made a quintessential part of all of his writings.
This writer is of the view that his pragmatic approach was ‘transitory’ while his idealistic perception of authority which was ingrained in his notion of modernity acquired a sort of permanence and still continues to influence the minds of South Asian Muslims. We all know that a single leap of mind surpasses many steps of the body. So the question is: can modernity survive the incessant assaults of authority made from within? Theoretically, modernity and authority, i.e., freedom to create and express ideas and subservience to political or any other kind of authority, cannot go hand in hand. Sir Syed’s idea of modernity seems to remind us of Michel Foucault’s concept of governmentality which is a combination of government and rationality. It refers to the active willingness of people to govern themselves, and this is attained through their own rationality rather than sovereign power exercised by state.
The paradoxical nature of Sir Syed’s idea of modernity came under harsh criticism in his life. Lala Lajpat Rai (1865-1928) wrote some open letters to Sir Syed in response to his criticism on National Congress. In his second letter written in 1888, Rai says: “Remember that we are the product of that education which you so strongly recommended and which you have never been known to condemn. Our English education… [Not] prodigies of your Oriental language’’. Rai simply meant that it was the modernity achieved through English education that encouraged them to question the steps taken by the colonial authority. Sir Syed wished Indians to become modern through English, liberal education, but raising question on the rationale or policies of colonial authority was termed by him as an ‘uncivilized’ manner. Therefore Rai didn’t hesitate to say: “Sir your fall seems to remind me of the fall of Adam’’.
Akbar Allahabadi (1845-1922) mocked Sir Syed’s project of modernity by declaring it a sort of ‘official’ intellect:[The intellect which is learnt (through modern education) is merely ‘official’.]
The self-centered ‘official intellect’ cannot allow it to see or count the other side of picture. One side of picture of colonialism was bright; it was marked with railway, telegraph, new irrigation system, English educational institutes and general enlightenment. But the other side was drastically dark. Sir Syed’s modernity with unconditional loyalty to authority had no room to see the dark side of the picture. One thing is quite clear: freedom from authority and freedom to question authority is a first and foremost step towards modernity. Freedom from authority cannot be achieved without first asserting the authority of rationality. There were some Hindustanis even in the 19th century — almost one and half century before Shashi Tharoor’s An Era of Darkness — who had achieved true modernity and who had the courage to fearlessly describe the dark side of ‘colonial modernity’. Amrita Lal Roy was one among them. He wrote an article on English Rule in India which appeared in The North American Review in April 1886. These lines from this eye-opening article need to be read by all those who are prone to see just bright side of colonialism:
“India has given to England wealth and fame; England has brought upon India penury and shame. Instead of being a means of civilization, English rule in India is almost an excuse to keep up barbarism in the nineteenth century…The fiction of “England’s mission” and “India’s progress” is kept up by the agents of three interested industries — the military, mercantile, and missionary — aided by the co-operative journalism, in behalf of privilege and power, in which the modern Muse prostitutes herself.”[Italics are mine.]
The last line of the quotation seems to forcefully testify the validity of the position that has been taken in this essay. That the modernity Sir Syed wished the Indians to embrace was ‘colonial modernity’, a kind of modernity that cherishes to grow under the blessings of official authority, restricting itself from challenging and questioning the legality or moral grounds of authority, dedicated to restricting the growth and expanse of intellect within the confines of pragmatic needs of the times.