*Open Letters to Sir Syed Ahmed Khan* (1888) by Lala Lajpat Rai


Would you  excuse me if I encroach upon your valuable time for a short while? Before I address you on the subject matter of discussion I think it advisable to state for your information that I have been a constant reader and admirer of your writings. From childhood, I was taught to respect the opinions and the teachings of the white-bearded Syed of Aligarh. Your Social Reformer [the Urdu journal Tahzib ul-Ikhlaq] was constantly read to me by my fond father, who looked upon you as no less than a prophet of the nineteenth century. Your writings in the [English-language journal] Aligarh Institute Gazette and your speeches in Council and other public meetings, were constantly studied by me and preserved as a sacred trust by my revered parent.

It was thus that I came to know that you once approved of the contents of John Stuart Mill's book on "Liberty," and it was thus that I came to know (if my memory does not deceive me) that the present Chief Justice of Hyderabad [Mehdi Hasan Khan], a staunch opponent of the National Movement, once translated Jeremy Bentham's book on "Utility" for the readers of your Social Reformer. Is it strange then that I have been astonished to read what you now speak and write about the "National Congress"?

Any person, in my circumstances, would shout out. Times have changed; and with them, convictions! Flattery and official cajoleries have blinded the eyes of the most far-seeing; cowardice has depressed the souls of the foremost of seekers after truth, and high-sounding titles and the favours of worldly governors have extinguished the fire of truth burning in many a noble heart. Is it not a sad spectacle to [see] the men whose days are numbered, whose feet are almost in the grave, trying to root out all the trees planted with their own hands!

Under these circumstances, Syed Sahib, it is, surely, not strange if I ask what has been true cause of this lamentable change in you. Old age and exhaustion of faculties may, perhaps, have some share in causing you to forget what you once wrote and spoke. Has your memory lost its retentiveness, or is it the blindness of dotage which has permitted you to stray into your present unhappy position? If the former, I from amongst your old admirers will take upon myself the duty of reminding you of what, in moments of wisdom, was recorded and published by your pen and tongue, and this duty, I promise, I will fulfil with the utmost pleasure and with feelings of the highest satisfaction.

I will begin with your book on the "Causes of the Indian Revolt," which was written in 1858, though only translated and published in English in the year 1873. It may be worth while to note here that the translators of this were no others than Sir Auckland Colvin, the present Lieutenant-Governor of the North-West Provinces, and Lieutenant-Colonel Graham, the writer of your biography [The Life and Works of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, 1885]. In this book, after having tried to prove that the Mutiny of 1857 was no "religious war," nor the result of a preconcerted conspiracy, you say that "most men, I believe, agree in thinking that it is highly conducive to the welfare and prosperity of Government -- indeed, that it is essential to its stability -- that the people should have a voice in its Councils. It is from the voice of the people that Government can learn whether its projects are likely to be well received. The voice of the people can alone check errors in the bud, and warn us of dangers before they burst upon and destroy us."

To make the matter more clear you go on saying that "this voice, however, can never be heard, and this security never acquired, unless the people are allowed a share in the consultations of Government. The security of a government, it will be remembered, is founded on its knowledge of the character of the governed as well as on its careful observance of their rights and privileges." These are noble words, nobly spoken; words of sterling honesty and independence of spirit. Can they bear any other meaning than that which attaches to that resolution of the National Congress which prays for the introduction of a representative element into the constitution of our Legislative Councils? Pray, tell me how can the people have a voice in the Councils of a Government if not by representation? How can the people of a country have their voice constantly heard if not through representatives?

But, to leave no doubt on the subject, I will go on giving quotations in proof of my assertion that you have yourself in former times strongly advocated the introduction of a representative element into the Legislative Councils of India. After laying much stress upon the necessity of a Government respecting the opinions of the people it governs, you say: "The evils which resulted to India from the non-admission of natives into the Legislative Councils of India were various.... It (i.e. the Government) could never hear, as it ought to have heard, the voice of the people on the laws and regulations which it passed." Again you say: "But the greatest mischief lay in this, that the people misunderstood the views and the intentions of the Government. They misapprehended every act." After this you proceed to say that "if Hindustanis had been in the Legislative Councils, they would have explained everything to their countrymen, and thus these evils which have happened to us would have been averted."

In your opinion, as expressed there, this non-representation of the voice of the governed in the Legislative Council of the realm was "the one great cause" and the "origin of all smaller causes of dissatisfaction," Nay, further, not to leave any doubts in the matter, and to prove that in your book you even go to the length of saying that your countrymen should be selected to form an assembly like the English Parliament (which demand, at the time you advanced it, was certainly more premature than it now is, though the National Congress, with all the advantages that the country has had in the way of education and enlightenment since that miserable year of 1858, only advocates the partial introduction of a representative element in the Legislative Councils), I shall give some more extracts from the same work.

There you say: "I do not wish to enter here into the question asto how the ignorant and uneducated natives of Hindustan could be allowed a share in the deliberations of the Legislative Council, or as to how they should be selected to form an assembly like the English Parliament. These are knotty points. All I wish to prove is that such a step is not only advisable but absolutely necessary, and that the disturbances are due to the neglect of such a measure."

Could clearer words be used than what have been quoted above? Is there any doubt as to their meaning? Because if so, I shall be obliged to quote the exact Hindustani words used by you to express the ideas propounded in the above lines. But no, I do not suppose you can feel any doubt on that point, because the English rendering was undertaken by no others than Sir Auckland Colvin and Lieutenant-Colonel Graham, the former of whom, at least, is. now being proclaimed (whether rightly or wrongly, God knows) as an opponent of the National Congress.

Sir Syed, does it not sound strange that the writer of the words above quoted should put himself forward as the leader of the anti­Congress movement? Is it not one more proof of India's misfortune, that the writer of the above words should impute bad motives to the supporters of the National Congress, mainly because they advocate the introduction of some sort of representation in the Legislative Councils of India? Is not your charge of sedition against the promoters of the Congress, in the face of these, a mere mockery, a contradiction in terms?

Thirty years ago, you advocated the institution of a Parliament, and yet you chide us saying that we want an Indian Parliament, notwithstanding that we protest that for the present, and for a long time to come, we do not claim any such thing? Mark the difference. India is no longer what it was thirty years ago. In the course of this period it has made a marked advance towards a higher civilization. The natives of India are no longer, with very few exceptions, ignorant or uneducated. The rays of education are penetrating and shedding their wholesome light inside most Indian homes; hundreds of thousands of Indians are as well educated as any average English gentleman, and we see scores of our countrymen every year crossing the "black waters" to witness. with their own eyes the proceedings of the great British Parliament, and personally familiarize themselves with the political institutions of the English nation.

Can you in face of these facts still call us "seditious"? According to your writings, we are the most loyal subjects of the Government, and if, notwithstanding what you have written, you still deserve to be called "the ablest of our loyal Mahomedan gentlemen," why do we not deserve to be styled as "the ablest of the most loyal subjects of the English Government"?

To give a still more clear idea of what you thought about the fitness of India for this sort of Government, I give one more extract to the point, and then I will have done with your old writings for the present. After giving many arguments in proof of your position that the law which allowed the sales of land for "arrears of Government revenue" was also a cause of the outbreak of disturbances in 1858, you say: "A landed estate in Hindustan is very like a kingdom. It has always been the practice to elect one man as the head over all. By him matters requiring discussion are 'brought forward' (mind, not decided --LLR), and every shareholder, in proportion to his holding, has the power of speaking out his mind on the point."

You are wrong when you say "in proportion to his holding." However, let it remain as it is. You proceed and say: "The cultivators and the choudhries of the villages attend on such an occasion and say whatever they have to say. You have here, in great perfection, a miniature kingdom and parliament." How is it that now you have changed your mind, and have come to opine that these kingdoms, as you called them, should have no voice in the making of laws which materially affect the person, the property, and the reputation of the people?

Some persons insinuate that these writings which I have quoted came from an honest, uncorrupted mind, at a time when the writer had no prospect of being raised to the Legislative Council by mere favour. No, Sir Syed, no! I, on my own part, do not want to make such an insinuation against the fearless writer of those noble words which have been quoted above. Then the problem to be solved remains the same, viz., why this change, why this inconsistency"?

I pause for a reply, with a promise of more in my next; and in the meanwhile beg to be allowed to subscribe myself,

The Son of an old Follower of Yours

27th October 1888

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