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


The fourth meeting of the Indian National Congress is soon to be held at Allahabad, and so I think I must hasten to give some more of the most important quotations in this letter of mine. The less important ones I leave for some future occasion.

When this letter reaches you, you will be, possibly, smiling over [Lord Dufferin] the ex-Viceroy's [anti-Congress] speech delivered at the St. Andrew's Dinner, Calcutta. If you will only take the trouble of reading that speech with your eyes open, you will find that your uproar against the introduction of some representative element in the Legislative Councils of India is not liked even by those whom you have undertaken to flatter, and whose national traditions you try to belie. Sir Syed, for God's sake, reconsider your position, and do not disappoint us just when the morning of hope has begun to dawn over us and our mother-land.

Now to proceed with your old writings and sayings; please turn to pages 207 and 208 of your Social Reformer for 1298 Hijri, equivalent to the year 1881 A.D. There, while giving an account of your voyage to London, you said that on the way you happened to see Mr. D. Fitzpatrick, the former Deputy Commissioner of Delhi, with whom you talked about "goodness or badness of the Punjab administration." Therein you profess to have said that the Government of the Punjab was a despotic one, though a thousand times better than that of the Sikhs. Further on you say "the people of the Punjab may be happy and perhaps may like it because they have been just taken out of fire and made to sit in the sun. But we cannot like it. The goodness or badness of the Punjab Government, i.e. of the Government of the non-Regulation Provinces, should be asked of the inhabitants of Delhi, Panipat, Rohtak, Hissar, and Sirsa districts, which once used to belong to Regulation Provinces and have now been subjected to a non-Regulation (or beqanuni) Punjab Administration. As far as I know, people think that of many other punishments which had been awarded to the inhabitants of Delhi and its adjacent districts in the Mutiny, this was also one: that they were made over to the Government of the Punjab and thus made the subjects of non-Regulation Provinces."

These lines were written at a time when the North-Western Provinces did not enjoy the blessing of having a Provincial Legislature of its own, and so the only superiority in the administration of the N.W.P. over that of the Punjab then, was the existence of a High Court instead of the Chief Court in the Punjab, and the constitution of a Board of Revenue instead of a Financial Commissionership here. The word "despotic" is your own, and is used in your Urdu style, and thus you cannot say that the word has been unwittingly thrust upon you by the translator. Even at the risk of unidiomatic English I have tried to give a literal translation of your Urdu sentences. If you think that this translation is incorrect, I trust you will not, for the sake of your own reputation, fail to publish a true translation of the sentences quoted.

Now, will you please explain on what principles you designated the Government of the Punjab as despotic, and how you distinguished it in that respect from the Government of India or that of N.W.P.? I can venture to say that the Government of the Punjab was never more despotic than the Governments of other sister Provinces. No doubt the merit of each Government to a considerable degree depends upon the personal character of its head. The Governments of Montgomery, Aitchison, and even that of Sir James Lyall cannot be said to be more despotic than that of any of the Governors of other Provinces. Can you, Sir, in the face of this broad accusation of yours, still designate us as reckless accusers of Government and its policy?

Further on in the same article you go on saying: "In fact the present time is not one in which people may like a despotic Government, nor are those virtues (which in ancient times used to be mixed with a thousand vices) of a despotic Government, and by which the influence of the former were an antidote for the latter, to be found in these days. Nowadays it is not possible for those virtues to exist in any despotic Government, and the people who think that in India a despotic Government, such as it used to be in bygone times, would be more appropriate and useful than the constitutional form of Government, are greatly mistaken. They are just like one who judges a garden by its state in the autumn, without caring to think what it will be in the spring." The word "despotic" throughout this quotation is your own, Sir.

At another place, on page 132 of the same journal for the same year, under the heading of "The Eastern Arts and Sciences," you exhort us not to devote ourselves to them but to the study of Western ones. You ask us even "to forget our mother-tongue" (an impossibility in itself), because you said our national advancement only "depended upon the spread of Western Sciences." You said, "Let us by all means remain loyal to the Government, let us always regard it to be our patron and well-wisher, and let us at the same time try to extricate ourselves from that servile and savage state in which we are." Nobly and truly did you say that thus, and thus only, should be the subject of a generous kind-hearted Government who rules over a nation for the good of the latter, or, say, for the good of the human race.

In the course of the same article on the same page of your Tahzib ul-Ikhlaq you say, "No nation can ever advance in parallel lines, all travelling from one point to another. Nations always advance in the shape of a triangle, whose one corner projects in advance of the others. To think that we may be divided in different sects is to pray that we may not be enlightened by the light of Western ideas." In contrast to this, please reconsider your Meerut speech [of 1888], in which in fact you wanted to express that the whole nation must remain in the background because you think that the Mahomedan community has not sufficiently advanced to fully reap the benefits to be enjoyed by the granting of the boons prayed for by the National Congress. (I do not admit that the Mahomedan community is not sufficiently advanced.)

On page 136 of the same Journal you say, "I sincerely believe and wish to assure the Government that the same discontented educated critics" (meaning those educated gentlemen who severely criticize the Government measures and who are blamed for it) "yield to none in their appreciation of the British rule; hence it is not just to effect the ruin of our education on account of any apprehension of such criticism." These are the words which you addressed to those politicians who advocate the closing of Government Colleges and schools, and who are of opinion that education in Western ideas and sciences has made the Indians disloyal.

You would, I suppose, like to re-read those words also, by which you encourage your own educated countrymen to fight out the battle of their national advancement bravely and without fear. You say, "Without doubt, there are many difficulties in the way of our doing so" (i.e., promulgating those blessings of education, instruction and enlightenment which we acquire in those civilized countries to which we go on completing our education). "On one side we are to contend against the prejudices and ignorance of our own countrymen, and on the other side we are to bear the opposition of those narrow-minded men of the conquering nice to whom our social and political advancement is an eyesore, and who dislike us because we have adopted English life, English politics, and the manners of an English gentleman; and change of dress even infuriates them to such a degree that they look at us with angry eyes as a pious man looks at a great criminal. But we should keep the good of our nation at heart, and should bear all the difficulties and troubles which beset our way with the greatest possible forbearance and perseverance. I do not wish to conceal that Time, the Great Reformer, will let all these things be, and no opposition or discontent will be able to keep them back. But still there is no doubt that this narrow-mindedness is kindling the feelings of discontent ,and is surely calculated to cause all sympathy and love between the governors and the governed to be banished."

Sir Syed, have the happiness to learn that your countrymen took you to be a true prophet, that they are going to stick to every word which you wrote -- are not to be daunted or baffled by any opposition, no, not even by yours. How is it that you preached to us to persevere, and yourself could not do this? We have persevered, but the old man has fallen: what a pitiable spectacle of human weakness!

Next I will give an extract upon the great question of native volunteers with which one of the Resolutions of the National Congress deals. On page 332 of your Biography, says your Biographer, that in March, 1883, when Mr. A. O. Hume (the beloved General Secretary of the National Congress) advocated the cause of native volunteers in India, and stated that in the Mutiny he had a brigade of infantry, cavalry, and artillery in the Etawah yeomanry levy -- all Volunteers -- he (i.e. Lieutenant-Colonel Graham) addressed a letter to the Editor of the Pioneer in which he tried to rebut many of the arguments advanced by Mr. Hume, which letter he says brought you (Sir Syed Ahmed) down upon him in a letter which you wrote to him. He gives an extract from that letter on page 334, which runs thus: "I have perused your reply to Mr. Hume's letter advocating the volunteering of the Natives of India. In not allowing the natives to become Volunteers, the Government mean to say that they do not trust the Natives of India. Its consequences should be judged from the saying: 'If you want us to trust you, you should also trust us.' There yet exists a wide gulf between the Europeans and the Natives of India, and unless it be filled up nothing can secure and improve the prosperity of the country." The italics are mine.

This you wrote in the middle of 1883, and now in 1887 and 1888 you say Indians do not want anything. On the same page Lieutenant-Colonel Graham wntes as follows: "What I would advocate would be the selection by the local authorities in all large stations in India of a certain number of picked Native Volunteers -- men of good family and weIl­known for their loyalty -- to be placed under the command of the officer commanding the European Volunteers. I would let them select their own company officers, and once started I would also permit them to select their own recruits as vacancies occurred."
I say "give us this much and we will be satisfied for a long time to come."

A few important extracts more and I will have done with your old writings and sayings for the present. Contrast the meanings attached to the words "Nation" and "National" by you in your Meerut speech with those promulgated by yourself at Gurdaspur on the 27th of January, 1884. At Gurdaspur you said that "we (i.e., the
Hindus and Mahomedans) should try to become one heart and soul and act in unison; if united we can support each other. If not, the effect of one against the other would tend to the destruction and downfall of both. In old historical books and traditions you will have read and heard, and we see it even now, that all the people inhabiting one country are designated by the term one nation. The different tribes of Afghanistan are termed as one nation, and so are the miscellaneous hordes peopling Iran distinguished by the term. Europeans, though abounding in variety of thoughts and religions, are still known as members of one nation, though people of other countries also do come and settle with them, but being mixed together they are called members of one and the same nation. So that from the oldest times the word Nation is applied to the inhabitants of one country, though they differ in some peculiarities which are characteristics of their own. Hindu and Mahomedan brethren, do you people any country other than Hindustan? do you not inhabit the same land? are you not burned and buried on the same soil? do you not tread the same ground and live upon the same soil? Remember that the words Hindu and Mahomedan are only meant for religious distinction -- otherwise all persons,
whether Hindu or Mahomedan, even the Christians who reside in this country, are all in this particular respect belonging to one and the same nation. Then all these different sects can only be described as one nation; they must each and all unite for the good of the country which is common to all."

Again in your Lahore speech, which was delivered in reply to the address of the Indian Association of Lahore, you, on the 3rd of February, 1884, said as follows: "Even granting that the majority of those composing this Association are Hindus, still I say that this light has been diffused by the same whom I call by the epithet of Bengalees. I assure you that Bengalees are the only people in our country whom we can properly be proud of; and it is only due to them that knowledge, liberty and patriotism have progressed in our country. I can truly say that really they are the head and crown of all the different communities of Hindustan. I myself was fully cognizant of all those difficulties which obstructed my way, but notwithstanding these I heartily wished to serve my country and my nation faithfully. In the word Nation I include both Hindus and Mahomedans, because that is the only meaning which I can attach to it (i.e. Nation or qaum)." Here in the end, the word nation is originally used by yourself. (See the account of your trip to the Punjab by Maulvi Iqbal Ali, p.167, line 18th).

To resume: "With me it is not so much worth considering what is their religious faith, because we do not see anything of it. What we do see is that we inhabit the same land, are subject to the rule of the same Governors; the fountains of benefits for all are the same, and the pangs of famine also we suffer equally. These are the different grounds upon which I call both those races which inhabit India by one word, i.e. Hindu, meaning to say that they are the inhabitants of Hindustan. While in the Legislative Council, I was always anxious for the prosperity of this nation." This letter of mine has already exceeded its proper dimensions, and therefore I think I must not give more extracts, and must leave the rest to be commented upon by abler hands than mine.

Anybody reading these extracts will be once for all convinced of the former loftiness and present lowness of your position. Foreigners reading these extracts will not believe that your now famous Meerut and Lucknow speeches were in reality delivered by the same Sir Syed Ahmed Khan who was once proud (whether rightly or wrongly, God knows) of his broadmindedness. This much seems certain: either you were not the author of those ideas reproduced in the above quotations, or your recent utterances were inspired by some mind other than your own./*/ Poor Sir Syed, you must feel sorry for all this inconsistency, though you may not have the boldness to say so.

Sir, I assure you that you should not despair; a small sacrifice at the altar of your country, a renewed profession of the faith that was once in you, will suffice to regain for you the confidence of your countrymen. If you are not prepared to do so, I must think myself justified in impeaching you in the name of consistency, in the name of honesty and fair play, in the name of the great Mahomed whose descendant and follower you profess to be, in the name of Mahdi Ali, your old devoted friend who once felt proud of showing to the world that the original Mahomedan rule was based upon democratic principles (see your Social Reformer for 1290 Hijri, p.136, lines 8 to 23); and lastly in the name of the pupils of your own Mahomedan Anglo-Oriental College, Aligarh, whom you trained in the principles which you now affect to detest.

It is a year since you actually engaged yourself in creating and keeping up an opposition to the National Congress, but up to this time your countrymen have not been clearly enlightened as to what it is that you object to in the proceedings of the National Congress. You say we are not fit for a republic, and so do we say. You say we are not yet fit for a Parliament, and so do we say.

If you say that the introduction of some representative element even into the Government would be injurious to our community, we ask why and how, and pray when did you receive that revelation -- because up to 1884 you yourself acknowledged the necessity of these Legislative Councils being reconstituted upon some representative basis. Then, again, when were you inspired with the idea that the Hindu and the Mahomedan interests are sure to clash at least in this respect? Because up to 1884 you believed in the doctrine of Hindus and Mahomedans having one and the same political interests, and being members of one and the same nation.

To your friends Maulvis Mahdi Ali and Mahdi Hussain, whose tergiversation is not less amazing than your own, I have only a few words to say. To the former, that he had better now suppress his lecture published in the Social Reformer for 1290 Hijri on pp.136, and those preceding and following it. To the latter, that he should now publicly recant the views set forth in his article under the heading of "Liberty" published in your Social Reformer for 1298 Hijri, 1881, from pp.23l to 341. Until they do this I will ask them to abstain, if they desire any human being to credit them with common honesty, from abusing us and denouncing our principles; and to my other countrymen as well as to our rulers, I have only to say further --

 "I know a maiden fair to see,
     Take care,
 She can both false and friendly be,
     Beware! Beware!
 Trust her not,
     She is fooling thee.
 She has two eyes so soft and brown,
     Take care.
 She gives a side-glance and looks down,
     Beware! Beware!
 Trust her not
     She is fooling thee!
 And she has hair of a golden hue,
     Take care!
 And what she says is not true,
     Beware! Beware!
 Trust her not,
     She is fooling thee,
 She has a bosom as white as snow,
     Take care!
 She knows how much it is best to show.
     Beware! Beware!
 Trust her not,
     She is fooling thee."
 With a promise to begin afresh in the year 1889,
I beg to subscribe myself, Sir,
 Yours, &c., &c.,

The Son of an Old Follower of Yours

20th December 1888

 N.B.-The extracts from your Social Reformer and the account of your trip to the Punjab by Maulvi Iqbal Ali have been translated into English for the purposes of these letters by myself. --L.R.

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/*/ Can it be that your once massive, manly intellect has succumbed to the feeble, schoolgirl-like sophistries of your shallow-pated employer? That Merlin-like, the great heart that once beat true for India is now pulseless, and that you lie bound, inextricably, by the treacherous spells of a modern Vivien, even more despicable than his female prototype?

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