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


Well may we apply the opening sentence of Dickens' Tale of Two Cities to the present times in India. Well may we say that it is "the best of times" as well as "the worst of times." Best as the country is on the point of having a nation, worst as a particular section of the community wants to check the progress of the country; and unfortunately is headed, or at least is said to be headed, by a man who has been a frequent advocate of representative Government in India. It is "the age of wisdom" as the country has risen from its deep lethargy and made up its mind to assist the Government by wise counsels. It is "the age of foolishness" as a particular party has the audacity to believe that their opposition will cause the national movement to die in its infancy. It is "the epoch of belief" because the different sectional interests have begun to believe in each other's sincerity; it is "the epoch of incredulity" because you, Sir, are said to be nowadays against the introduction of a representative element into the Legislative Councils of India. It is the "spring of hope" when we see eminent English statesmen advocating the rights of the dumb millions of India. It is the "winter of despair" when we see her own sons deserting the cause of awakened India.

Sir Syed, I must remind you that it is the same India for the welfare of whose sons you established "The Siddor's Union Club" at Aligarh. Do you remember, Sir, that in that Club the alumni of the Mahomedan College were trained in the art of discussing public matters in public councils? I ask you, Sir, why you established that Club? Why did you formulate those rules of discussion which predict the establishment of representative institutions in the country? Oh, if we had only known that it was to end in this! I feel that I have gone astray, and must look to those extracts from your writings and sayings so dear to me, which foretold the establishment of representative Councils in India.

Will you please turn to page 49 of your Biography by Lieutenant-Colonel Graham, where you are described as saying: "The people were isolated, they had no champion to stand up for their rights and to see justice done them, and they were constrained to weep in silence." Can you in the face of these words still say that the people never needed such champions, and that the Government has been doing and will go on doing, without demand, what it has thought and what it will think necessary for the welfare of the people? That it never needed the voice of such champions for the redress of grievances and the attainment of rights?

Having pointed out what the Government ought to have done to make itself popular (quotations as to which have been given in letters Nos. I and II), you said in the end of the same book, "The Causes of Indian Revolt," that "it was necessary for the Government to win the friendship and the good feeling of its subjects." Further on you said: "As yet, truth compels me to state, Government has not cultivated the friendship of its people as was its duty to do: the father loves his child before the
child loves him. If a man of low degree tries to win the esteem of one in high position he is liable to be styled a flatterer and not a friend. It was, therefore, for Government to try and win the friendship of its subjects, not for the subjects to try and win that of the Government. If Government say that what I say is untrue -- that they have tried to cultivate friendship and have only been repaid with enmity -- I can only say that if it had gone the right way to work, its subjects would most undoubtedly have been its friends and supporters instead of, as in many instances, rising up in arms against it. Now, friendship is a feeling which springs from the heart and which cannot be kindled by 'admonitions'. Government has hitherto kept itself as isolated from the people of India as if it had been the fire and they the dry grass -- as if it thought that, were the two brought in contact the latter would be burnt up."

I have given this large quotation to recall to your mind some of the reasons upon which you formed the opinions which I have already quoted in my letters Nos. I and II. These reasons may also go to prove that the prayers of the National Congress as to the concession of volunteering to be allowed to the native subjects of Her Majesty, are nothing but reasonable and consistent with the noble principles involved in the above lines. Now I have done with your book on "The Causes of Indian Revolt" so far as it concerned that resolution of the National Congress which prays for the introduction of a representative element in the Legislative Councils of India. Most of these extracts, except one or two here and there, were abstract, and perhaps you may, with your usual calmness, have the boldness to say that there is nothing in these quotations which goes to prove that you ever meant to say that these representatives to the Council of India should be elected by the subjects.

Very good, I will search out quotations which will leave nothing doubtful. You may not have forgotten that months after the opening of your Scientific Society you delivered "a vigorous speech" at the laying of the foundation stone of the New Ghahipore, now the Victoria College. In the course of that address you said: "Bear in mind, gentlemen, that Her Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria has had proclaimed in this country that her servants and subjects, European and native, are to be considered as being on an equal footing; and this assurance, gentlemen, is not a mere matter of form, but a reality." The italics are mine. Now, Sir Syed Ahmed, will you still laugh at us because we believe this -- this very proclamation -- to be our Magna Carta?

Further on in the course of the same address you said: "The appointment of Natives to the Supreme Council was a memorable incident in the History of India. The day is not far distant, I trust, and when it does come you will remember my words, when that Council will be composed of representatives from every division or district, and that thus the Laws which it will pass will be laws enacted by the feelings of the entire country."

"You will see that this cannot come to pass unless we strive to educate ourselves thoroughly. I once had a conversation with one in high authority on this very subject, and he said that Government would be only too glad if a scheme such as I have­sketched above were practicable, but he felt doubtful; if it were stated that there were qualified men in every District, Government would gladly avail itself of their knowledge and give them seats in Council. I knew this only too well, and felt ashamed that such was the case. What I have above stated is only to inculcate on your minds the great fact that Her Most Gracious Majesty wishes all her subjects to be treated alike; and let their religion, tribe, or colour be what it may, the only way to avail ourselves of the many roads to fame and usefulness is to cultivate our intellects and to conform ourselves to the age."

Sir Syed, have the happiness to know that the day which you in 1864 said was not far distant, is coming nearer, and that you need no longer feel so much ashamed of your countrymen for not conforming to the age. Your prophecy is not fulfilled yet, but we are certain that sometime or other it is sure to be fulfilled, and then you will have the satisfaction of feeling that you did not prophesy in vain. Sir Syed, do you wish to withdraw this prophesy of yours, and if so why? Please explain -­ I and others like me are waiting in suspense. Only say that with the return of sobriety and the calmness of old age you have come to know your own errors, and we will no more trouble you with these prophecies. Sir Syed, would you please point out what else could be the meaning of the above sentence except that -- that India would some (in 1864, not far distant) day be governned by Councils composed of members elected by the people themselves? If not this, how can the laws be said to be "enacted by the feelings of the entire country"?

Two months before you spoke the words quoted above, you, on the 9th January 1864, started a Translation Society now known as the Scientific Society of Aligarh; and in the course of a speech then delivered, pointing out the ignorance of your countrymen, you said: "From their ignorance of the events of the past, and also of the events of the present; from their not being acquainted with the manner and means by which infant nations have grown into powerful and flourishing ones, and by which the present most advanced ones have beaten their competitors in the race for position among the magnates of the world -- they are unable to take lessons and profit by their experience." Sir, we took your advice, and your countrymen have learnt the means and the manner by which they can advance the growth of their "infant nation" to the position of a "powerful" and a "flourishing" one.

How is it that this growth which you so much desired in 1864 is an eyesore to you now? How is it that now at this period you cannot feel any pleasure in seeing a combination of all the different races and sects towards the accomplishment of the great end for which you have been until recently struggling so hard? How is it that you are going to prove that you did not deserve the distinctions so deservedly, as we thought, bestowed upon you? By your present attitude, by your present utterances, you mean to prove that all that you once said, all that you once did, for which you were rightly honoured both by the Government and the people, and for which you were said to be deserving of being "awarded a conspicuous place on the list of benefactors" of India, was, after all, but utter nonsense -- because that is the phrase you now apply to the repetition of those same principles -- which you once so strenuously advocated -- by the supporters of the National Congress.

On the 10th of May, 1886, you addressed a large and influential meeting of the European and native residents of Aligarh on the necessity of Indian affairs being more prominently brought before Parliament, and of forming an association for this purpose (at .least so says your biographer on pp. 88 and 89). In the course of this speech you compared the British rule with that of the "former emperors and Rajas" of India. You said "it" (i.e. the rule of the latter) "was based upon nothing but tyranny and oppression; the law of might was that of right; the voice of the people was not listened to; the strong and the turbulent oppressed the feeble and the poor, and usurped all their privileges with impunity for their own selfish ends. It is only therefore by such usurpers and turbulent spirits that a despotism such as flourished in Hindustan for many long centuries, is at all to be desired."

Know, sir, that the National Congress wants nothing but that [the] voice of the people be listened to, and that "the strong and turbulent" may not oppress "the feeble and the poor." The National Congress wants to achieve these ends by peaceful means, and in fact by prayers; while it can only be the usurpers and the turbulent who desire to threaten, as you now do, the use of arms. It can only be the self-assumed "strong" who can threaten "the poor" with the use of the arms by "the followers of the prophet." Further on you regretted the indifference with which the affairs of India were treated in the Parliament, and laid the blame of it to a great extent upon the shoulders of your own countrymen. You said: "India, with that slowness to avail herself of that which would benefit her so characteristic of Eastern nations, has hitherto looked on Parliament with a dreamy apathetic eye, content to have her affairs, in the shape of her Budget, brought before it in an annual and generally inaudible speech by Her Majesty's Secretary of State for India."

You entreated your countrymen to discontinue this apathy, and you asked them to exert themselves towards securing the proper representation of their interest in the governing body of the British Nation. You appealed to the "entire native community" to "co-operate" with the London Association established for the purpose. To your countrymen you continued to say: "You will have only yourselves to reproach when in after years you see the European section of the community enjoying their well-earned concessions, whilst your wants remain still unmet." Sir Syed, the country then responded to your call, though imperfectly, and it is now that the country has felt the value of your words and begun to throw away the deep indifference which you so forcibly lamented.

Pray will you tell me whether, prior to the movement of National Congress, there was no agitation for the redress of the grievances of the Indians in India? If so what was all this which you were doing? Why did you establish and support all these: associations? Why did you call upon the entire country to "co­operate" with these associations, if the Government had of its own accord been doing all that was needed for the welfare of India? In your criticism upon the Lucknow speech of the Hon'ble pandit Ajudhia Nath of Allahabad you meant to ask (if I did not err in understanding and reproducing it from memory) the Congress-wallahs if any of their agitations had been existing when the Government granted all the boons which we enjoy. I have quoted largely from your own writings to show that such an agitation did exist, and that you yourself were one of the most prominent agitators.

You even went to the length of saying that no fear need be entertained of your (i.e., of those who meant to take part in such associations, &c.) being called discontented by the Government. To quote your own words, you said: "I am afraid that a feeling of fear -- fear that the Government or the district authorities would esteem you factious and discontented, were you to inaugurate a measure like this -- deters you from coming forward for your country's good.... Believe me that this moral cowardice is wrong -- the apprehension unfounded; and that there: is not an Englishman of a liberal turn of mind in India who would regard with feelings other than those of pleasure and hope, such a healthy sign of increased civilization on the part of its inhabitants. The natives have at present little or no voice in the management of the affairs of their country, and should any measure of Government prove obnoxious to them, they brood over it, appearing outwardly satisfied and happy while discontent is rankling in their mind."

Further on you said that the natives were in the habit of inveighing against such measures in their homes, but to the Europeans they represented that they were satisfied with the justice and wisdom of these very measures. You loudly proclaimed "that such a state of affairs is inimical to the welfare of the country. Far better would it be for India were her people openly and honestly to express their opinions as to the justice or otherwise of the acts of Government." Would you pray tell me, Sir, why we are sedition-mongers; is it because we speak "honestly" as to the justice or otherwise of the acts of the Government; is it because we have overcome the moral cowardice with which you charged us? Are we seditious because we do not want to keep "discontent rankling" within our hearts? Are we disloyal because we, according to your own teachings, have come forward to speak up for our country's good?

If we deserve all these epithets on account of all these I must say, Sir, that you are the father of all this. You taught us to do exactly what we have begun doing now. You not only taught but encouraged us by your own example. Why do you now deprecate "this healthy sign of civilization," as you once called it, on the part of Indians? If we, the followers of your old principles, have exceeded the proper dimension -- which, I humbly maintain, we have not -- it is surely not advisable to root out these instincts from within us, but rather to point out the place and the occasion where we have exceeded. How have you come to oppose the principles themselves, the principles so lovingly promulgated by you?

Say that the principles are not to be discarded, but the men abusing these principles are to be despised. We will then know how to love the principles and not the men. We loved you because you held these principles, because we thought you loved your country above everything, because we considered you to be one of the fathers of the present India; and if we have erred, we must say we think that you should have pointed out our error in time. Truly has a poet said: Khwab tha, jo kuchh kih dekha tha; afsanah tha, jo kuchh kih suna tha; i.e., "What I saw was but a dream; what I heard, an idle tale." Ah! human delusions are then destined to delude the human eye for ever!

Again with a pause, with a promise of more in my next.

I am yours, &c.,

The Son of an old Follower of Yours

22nd November 1888

-- "Open Letters" index page -- Glossary -- FWP's main page --