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


It is more than two weeks now since my first letter was published, and I think I have waited long enough for the reply which, it seems, you have no mind to send. However, in fulfilment of my promise, I am bound to go on giving quotation after quotation, bringing home to you your own former political teachings, and I hope I shall be able clearly to prove that you once believed in all the principles upon which the different Resolutions of the National Congress are based. This will leave you no alternative but either an open and unreserved confession of your apostasy, or an unreserved retreat from politics.

Do not think, Sir Syed, that I shall rest satisfied with the publication of these letters in India. No, they will be duly published and distributed in free England, side by side with the pamphlets of your own pet [United Indian Patriotic] Association of yesterday [August 1888]. In the book already so often referred to, i.e. "The Causes of the Indian Revolt," you say: "Government were but slightly acquainted with the unhappy state of the people. How could it well be otherwise? There was no real communication between the Government and the governed, no living together or near one another, as has always been the custom of Mahomedans in countries which they subjected to their rule. Government and its officials have never adopted the course without which no real knowledge of the people can be gained." Further on you say that "this cannot be expected from the English, as they almost all look forward to retirement in their land, and seldom settle for good amongst the natives of India."

Now I take the liberty of asking, has there been any improvement of late in this direction? Have the majority, or even one per cent, of the retired English officers, permanently settled in India? On the contrary, we find that they are birds-of-passage just as much now as, or perhaps more than, they were when the above sentences were written. Then, have the Englishmen and the natives taken to living together, or near one another? Do you ever see Englishmen living in the Mahallas [=neighborhoods] of your towns, however large the towns or however respectable the Mahallas may be? None of the Englishmen have ever been seen doing that. In fact, their mode of living is so peculiar that they cannot.

Or, do you think that the point has been gained by a few Anglicised natives like yourself having taken to living in bungalows? If that is what you argue, I assure you you are sadly mistaken. Your living in Europeanized houses cannot be said to be a gain to native society. It is rather, if I may be allowed to say so, a very severe and deplorable loss. In the sentence quoted above, you admit that living together or near one another enhances our sympathies and gives us more occasions of seeing, mixing with, and obtaining a more intimate knowledge of, each other. It is thus clear that Europeans can only really know us if they see us in our native homes, in our small thatched huts full of misery and sickness. How poor and miserable India is, they can feel only if they live amongst or near the houses of our agriculturists, and there see with their own eyes respectable native families sleeping in rooms into which an English beggar would scorn to step.

Why is this? Is it because we Indians do not know how to live? Now, if you say that, go to those Indian residences which are occupied by our few rich or even well-to-do countrymen, and there you will find that our mode of living is quite on a par with that of Europeans. Does anyone then ask how it is that I say that repectable natives live, everywhere, in buildings which can only properly be called hovels? The answer is, because they are miserably poor and cannot afford to build comfortable houses. Taxation is so high that they never feel themselves secure of their respectability. In fact, that is always in danger. The poor fellows are daily and nightly engaged in making the two ends meet.

What I mean to say is that the fact of you or a few other natives having to live in bungalows and imitating the English customs of eating and drinking and dressing cannot do any good either to India or to England. In fact, this will never help the English to realize the unhappy state of the people. Then the question is, how can the Government know the wants and wishes of its subjects? They cannot know them through official reports, because these reports are almost all prepared by persons who seldom see the real state of the people whom the reports concern. You yourself said: "But even these officials themselves were ignorant of the real thoughts and opinions of the people, because they had no means of getting at them" (vide your Biography by Colonel Graham, p. 49.)

Then, can the Government get this knowledge through the petitions of their subjects? I say, as you said, no. You said that these petitions "were," and I say they are, "seldom if ever attended to and sometimes never heard" (vide the same page of your Biography). I add to this that even if they are ever attended to, enquiry into the aIlegations made in them is often entrusted to the same officials whose conduct forms the subject of complaint. Their reports are taken to be gospel truth and the petitions are thrown out.

Then, can the Government know the real opinion of the people through the Native press? No, because the Government officials have always been hostile to it, and have even asserted that these papers represented nobody but themselves.

Public meetings even are not effectual, because these are invariably declared to be the work of professional agitators, stump orators and wire-pullers.

The question then is that, admitting as you do that it is essential for the purpose of good adminstration that the people should have a voice in the consultations of the Government, how should that voice reach the Council Chambers, and how should the people be consulted before laws are passed? You once said that "laws affecting the subjects should be made after consultation with the representatives of the people" (videSocial Reformer of the 15th Shawwal 1290, Hijri, equivalent to the 6th December, 1873, p. 163), and there cannot be any other answer to this question. Further on you said: "I am very sorry that this is not being done in India, and in not doing so Government is in error to a certain degree, but in a larger measure it is owing to the incompetency of the subjects, but I am confident that after a certain period sufficient education will remove both" (vide the same Journal, same page).

It is fifteen years now, Sir, since the above lines were written, and it is surely time to ask, or at least to consider, whether that period, or chand roz [=some days], to speak in your own words, has not expired yet. I am ready to concede, though it may be for argument's sake only, that the period has not expired, but are we now making steady progress towards the desired end? Your objections, unfortunately, are not based upon considerations of time, but are put forward as matters of principle.

Then admitting, as you do, that this voice can only reach the Council Chamber through the representatives of the people, the only question to be solved is -- who should be those representatives, or in other words, how should they acquire that position? Can men like Raja Shiva Prashad and yourself, be properly considered as representatives of the people, and can the method of selection by which you were sent to the Council Chamber, be accepted as of any value? I think no reasonable man would contend that it would have been possible, if Raja Shiva Prashad had been an elected representative of the people of India, for him to have libelled the whole Indian nation, as he did in his notorious speech on the Ilbert Bill [1882]. Could Raja Peary Mohan Mukerjee and other native members have consented to the raising of the Salt tax [1886], if they had thought that their seats depended on the voices of the people, whose throats were, so to speak, to be cut by that abnoxious and inhumane measure?

Then the correct solution is this and no other, that the people must be represented by delegates elected by themselves; and subject of course to the restrictions to be imposed by the Government. Co-sharers in the business of governing or legislating, these representatives must be such as to be totally independent of official favour or disfavour. If the selection of members for the Legislative Council is to be entrusted to officials, I say it is a downright farce, and there can be no representation.

The majority of the quotations given above come from a book which was written about thirty years ago, and you may find an excuse by saying that the state of people has since then undergone a mighty change, and that in consequence of this, the remedies then suggested are no longer suitable. My dear Sir, this reply cannot stand a moment's examination. I am going to show that in 1881, which is only seven years ago, you held the same views and felt rather proud of them. When it was proposed to raise the old Punjab University College to the status of a University, you were one of the foremost opponents of the proposal. You, [and] your admirers and followers, should not have forgotten that you wrote certain articles under the heading "Our Vernacular," and got them published and circulated in a pamphlet form. These articles were published in almost all the leading vernacular papers of Northern India, and the educated community of the Punjab, who were strongly opposed to the establishment of a University on the [traditionalist] lines suggested by Dr. Leitner, obtained effective support from these writings of "the ablest of the loyal Mahomedan gentlemen."

In one of them (paper 2nd perhaps), which was published in your Social Reformer for 1297-98 Hijri (equivalent to 1881), at p.135, you say: "National progress and National Government are both sisters born of the same mother. When a nation loses its independence, its progress only depends upon its learning the language and sciences of the conquerors and thus taking a part in the Government of the country. By way of flattery whatever may be said, and as a matter of policy whatever may be stated, the fact is that in reality the relations of Hindustanis to their rulers are no better than those of slaves to their master." The italics are mine. I have tried to give a faithful translation of your Urdu sentences. If I have erred, I hope to be excused, and that my mistake may be pointed out.

However, to satisfy the scruples of sceptical readers, I prefer to give the last portion of the sentence in Roman characters and leave them to judge for themselves whether the rendering is correct or not. The original words are: Khushamad ki baten jo chahe kah le, aur 'political' tariq men jo kuchh bayan karna ho, kiya jawe, magar Hindostaniyon ka hal apni fatahmand qaum ke sath gulami ke halat se kuchh ziyada nahin hai. In the same article, further on, you said that the "University College was being raised to the status of a University with the object of throwing obstacles in the way of our National advancement, and that the result of the clamour after Oriental studies could be nothing but that of keeping ourselves in the state of serfdom."

Sir Syed, would you still call us "seditious"? 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, the study of eminent European minds and European sciences -- alas! that you cannot feel this -- has expanded our souls, and we can no longer be selfish "Sat Bachnia" prodigies of your Oriental language. Sir, your fall seems to remind me of the fall of Adam. Just as Satan is said to be the cause of the fall of that progenitor of our race, this seeking after worldly honours seems to be real explanation of your decline. It is nothing to you, because your term in this world must at no very distant period expire; but to us, who are yet, we hope, to live long and to fight out the bloodless battle of liberty, it is destined to remain a permanent disgrace. The line of argument against us would be that the races which produce such inconsistent philosphers are not fit to receive the boon of Local Self­Government.

Sir Syed, if you have changed your political opinions, the sooner you announce it the better it will be, both for yourself and for us. It is simply childish to persist in your claim to consistency in the face of the above quotations. Better announce this change, and explain why and how this took place. Again pausing. for a reply, with a promise of more in my next, I beg to subscribe myself,

The Son of an old Follower of Yours

15th November 1888

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