Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan's
History of the *Bijnor* Rebellion (1858)
by Hafeez Malik

Sir Sayyid was born on October 17, 1817, in Delhi, and died in Aligarh in 1898. He was to witness the destruction of the power of the Marathas and the Pindaris by the British, who would assure the first unitary rule of India in almost a century. Sir Sayyid's years of growth and maximum vigor and service -- both to the Raj and to the Muslims -- would perforce be related to the main thrust of his age, the political process that would remove the Moghuls from Delhi, and the proclamation of Queen Victoria as Empress of India on January 1, 1858.

This major theme can be identified in the earliest days of Sir Sayyid's life as a child born into "a Muslim family of high nobility."/1/ In his case, the earliest personal influences may have been decisive for his entire career. Besides his impressive mother, there was his grandfather Khwaja Farid-ud-Din who died when Sir Sayyid was still under 10, but whose influence was so profound that Sir Sayyid returned to it for the subject of his final book in 1896. Khwaja Farid-ud-Din, his maternal grandfather, served the British in several important assignments: as superintendent in 1791 of the Calcutta Madrassa, then after 1799 as attache with British diplomatic missions in Iran and, finally, from 1815 to his death in 1826, as Prime Minister in the Court of the Moghul Emperor, Akbar Shah II. He was responsible for the revenues of the two nearby districts of Delhi and Hissar, which the British had given the Emperor as his private domain.

Sir Sayyid was to learn much of importance at the residence of his maternal grandfather. There he saw as a constant visitor and family confidant the Boston­born Major-General David Ochterlony, the conqueror of Nepal and British Resident in Delhi. Sir Sayyid's final book, in fact, gives us a picture of himself as a young child sitting on Ochterlony's knee and asking questions about the gold buttons on the Major-General's full-dress uniform./2/ By any analysis, the combination of his mother, his grandfather, and Ochterlony formed a set of positive personal influences that would affect Sir Sayyid's political thought in later years. The net result might perhaps be stated as conditioning him to accept the reality of British power and to make the best of it.

Although generally overlooked, Mir Muttaqi, Sir Sayyid's father, also contributed much to his growing son. On this side, however, the effect was to balance the pro-British bias of the maternal side. The paternal influences provided Sir Sayyid with his all-important social link as a Sayyid with the Prophet Muhammad and Arabia, his personal access to the Court as the son of the Emperor's close friend, and his spiritual conditioning as the son of an intensely religious father who was the disciple of Shah Ghulam Ali of Delhi, the founder of a Sufi brotherhood. It was thus not in jest that Sir Sayyid once answered a question about his religion from an English official by saying, "I am a Wahabi."/3/ We can, in fact, view Sir Sayyid's achievements as the creative result of the contrary tensions that he was able to master and put to work for his own good and that of the Muslims.

Sir Sayyid's sympathy for the militant anti-British reform movements of his day is most strikingly seen in his great work on the monuments of Delhi, the Asar al-Sanadid. It was first published in 1847 after he had entered the services of the British East India Company as a minor judicial functionary. This book was to make Sir Sayyid famous abroad, and to secure his election in 1864 as an honorary Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of London.

This fame came to Sir Sayyid by way of Paris. Garcin de Tassy, a French scholar of Urdu, learned of the book and favorably reviewed it in the Journal Asiatique (Nov.-Dec., 1856). De Tassy thought so much of the book by the "eminent Muslim author" that he translated it for serial publication. Its appearance in the post-Mutiny years of 1860-1861 coincided with de Tassy's distress over the news that the British re-conquest of Delhi had virtually destroyed the city. Nevertheless, the book was unusual for what it omitted as well as for what it contained.

De Tassy made his translation from the second edition of 1854, and was ignorant of the series of biographical sketches of famous persons who had once lived in Delhi that had appeared in the first edition of 1847 as its fourth chapter or section. (This missing section now appears in the recent editions of Asar-at­Sanadid published in India and Pakistan.) The explanation for Sir Sayyid's dropping this chapter appears to lie in its impolitic eulogy on the life of Sayyid Ahmad Shahid, the reformer who died in 1831 fighting the rule of the Sikhs. Sir Sayyid described the great martyr as a man of superhuman capacity in bravery, in popular appeal, and in his command of spiritual power. The biographical sketch concluded, moreover, with a sharp thrust at Shahid's Afghan allies who betrayed him on the battlefield for the price of Sikh gold. This aversion to the Afghans, or Pathans as they are called in India, became a critical feature of Sir Sayyid's experience in Bijnor during the Revolt.

Much in the general content of Asar-al-Sanadid is also important to the general subject of Sir Sayyid and the Revolt. The reserve and rational spirit that mark Sir Sayyid's treatment of the different monuments of Delhi are particularly noteworthy. They appear close indeed to the "Protestant" reformist spirit which Sir Sayyid, long after the Revolt, saw as a hallmark of the so-called Wahabi Movement itself./4/ The monuments are described in simple statements that are free of hyperbole, while disputed questions are objectively solved by reference to sources or by actual on-the-spot investigation. Very candidly Sir Sayyid asserted that a reknowned mosque in Delhi was built from the ruins of a Hindu temple, or that the high quality of its mosaics proved that a "clever Italian" must have been employed among the artisans who built the royal bath at the Red Fort.

The puritan rational (or shall we say "Wahabi") streak is, on the other hand, quite clearly evident. Sir Sayyid was thus sorry that the courts of law had not yet banned a popular "mela" where the accent on pleasure offended him. Equally evident is his practical sense of how to get on in the world. Here and there in the work one finds, for example, exaggerated praise for British cleanup campaigns in Delhi and the "extraordinary" railway bridge which they built over a nearby river.

There is, finally, the relation between Sir Sayyid's choice of language and his basic intellectual sympathies with the Islamic reform movements of his day. Sayyid Ahmad Shahid and Mawlana Isma'il Shahid, leaders of the religious reforms, had already chosen Urdu over Persian to reach to wider audience, and Sir Sayyid likely chose to write Athar-al-Sanadid in Urdu instead of Persian for the same reason. An established writer in Persian, Sir Sayyid may also have been influenced to write in Urdu by Mirza Ghalib, India's leading poet in Persian and Urdu and Sir Sayyid's intimate in Delhi. In the years before the Mutiny, Ghalib had shifted from Persian to a greater use of Urdu, particularly in his famous letters in colloquial style. In any event, Shibli Nomani, a decisive figure in Muslim historiography in India, has argued that Sir Sayyid was the direct beneficiary of Ghalib's extension of the Urdu prose style./5/

Sir Sayyid's use of Urdu in his historical and religious works in turn played a major role in projecting Urdu out of the subject matter of love and courtship and into the arena of political, educational, moral, and historical discourse and struggle. His Tarikh Sarkashiy-i Dhilla Bijnor (History of the Revolt in Bijnor), which is the focus of this introduction, was actually the first report of a contemporary event ever published in Urdu./6/

A review of the local social and historical background of the Revolt in Bijnor appears necessary in order to present the broader canvas against which Sir Sayyid's intensely detailed history was written. Bijnor, just 40 miles from Meerut, formed part of the Rohilkhand Division of six districts and the native state of Rampur. The chief city in this division was Bareilly (the native city of Sayyid Ahmad Shahid), the center of disaffection in the Revolt for the entire Division. The leading social group in Rohilkhand at the time were the descendants of the Pathans, who had ruled Rohilkhand in the first half of the 18th Century before their conquest by the combination of Oudh, the Marathas, and the British. In 1801 the British East India Company took over the entire Division to incorporate Rohilkhand into their territories. The Pathans remained restive, however, and their resentment and instability were described by Bishop Heber, who visited Rohilkhand in the mid-1820's. He recorded his impression that "the people appear by no means to have forgotten or forgiven their first injuries. The Mussulman chiefs, who are numerous, are very angry at being without employment under Government or hope of rising in the State or army and are continually breaking out into acts of insubordination and violence"./7/ Bishop Heber was a good reporter, for serious disturbances did break out in 1837 and 1842. Within three weeks of the Revolt in 1857 every regiment in the Rohilkhand Division had rebelled, many Europeans had been murdered, and Khan Bahadur Khan, a descendant of the national hero of the Rohillas, had proclaimed himself Nawab or Viceroy in Bareilly of the Mughal King of Delhi.

Rohilkhand was the only region in Northern India where the British were routed during the Revolt. Again, while reading Sir Sayyid's pleas for help, one should recall that the British had postponed their assault on Rohilkhand purely for tactical reasons. To concentrate their strength advantageously, they were obliged to give priority attention to the outbreaks in Oudh and in Delhi itself. The campaign to retake Rohilkhand, when it came in April 1858, was easy. The British district officials returned to Bijnor for a triumphal entry with the Hindu chiefs who had continued their struggle against the Pathan rebels. The spectacle of this joint Anglo-Rajput return to Bijnor was a detail which Sir Sayyid could not bring himself to record in his own book./8/

Certain other aspects of the social situation also merit attention. First, Rohilkhand and particularly Bijnor were highly urban. In 1847 when the British conducted the first census, the total population of the district was 620,552, and the average density was 325 per square mile. There were 415,570 Hindus and 204,982 Muslims [[in Bijnor]], about half of the total population of the district. Of the inhabited towns and villages, all but 72 contained less than a thousand persons. Only 11 of those remaining had populations exceeding 5,000; these towns were Nagina, Chandpur and Sherkot (whose combined population exceeded 10,000), Bijnor, Seohara, Dhampur, Nihtaur, Kiratpur, Mandawar, Jhalu, and Sahaspur. Their population was 99,275, or 16% of the total of Bijnor district.

The dominant community in these towns, moreover, was Muslim, particularly of the Shikh, Sayyid, and Pathan classes. The countryside, however, was dominated by zamindari holdings under the leadership of the great Hindu landlords of Sherkot, Tajpur, and Haldaur. Numerically, however, the largest single group was the Chamars, landless agricultural laborers and leather workers. They played no part in the Revolt itself and were generally written off in contemporary accounts as "deeply in debt and very he1p1ess."/9/ Certain other groups whose early response to the news of the revolt was aggressive and whose influence in Indian politics was important included the agricultural tribes, generally identified at the Jats, and the pastoral Gujars (Ahirs)./10/ The Ahir center in Bijnor at Mandawar is mentioned as an important center as far back as the travel accounts of the Chinese pilgrims to India. Apparently, for Sir Sayyid, the essential problem of district government concerned the domination and use of the Jats and Gujars by the British Government and its landlord and aristocratic allies.

In writing about the impact of the Revolt on Sir Sayyid, Hafeez Malik described him as being "traumatized" into a "staunch Muslim Nationalist."/11/ Much in the record supports this judgment. Altaf Husain Hali, for example, described Sir Sayyid as being so remorseful over the plight of the fallen Muslims that he actually planned to leave the country. He reconsidered, however, when he decided that to run away at such a critical hour would be cowardly. Sir Sayyid went to Moradabad, another district of Rohilkhand, in April, 1858, with a promotion as Principal Sadr Amin. In Moradabad, he served as member of a special commission appointed to investigate the disposition of properties seized from persons accused of disloyalty during the Revolt. It was in Moradabad, too, that Sir Sayyid began to publish his books and pamphlets on the Revolt and to take his first steps as an educational and social reformer. Perhaps in this activity Sir Sayyid found release from the personal tragedies that had wiped out his home in Delhi and "turned him overnight into an old man with whitened hair." This appearance of age, however, was deceptive, for Sir Sayyid had forty very active years yet ahead of him.

Sir Sayyid's basic view of the Revolt was expressed in a memorandum written in Urdu, Asbab-i Baghawat-i Hind (The Causes of the Indian Revolt), and privately printed in 1858. Sir Sayyid sent almost the entire printing of 500 copies to the Home Government in London, save for a few copies he kept for himself and a single copy sent to the Government of India in Calcutta. (For the English text of this memorandum see [[*the 1873 translation*]]) As summarized by Hali his general position was that the Revolt had not been a national movement, nor had it resulted from any plot. It had rather come about from the disobedience of soldiers who had acted primarily out of ignorance or religious presuppositions and without any determination to mutiny against the Government./12/

Despite evidence to the contrary (which eventually even British scholars accepted) Sir Sayyid retained his views without modification. A decade after the end of the Revolt Sir Sayyid visited Britain, where Sir John Kay asked him to assess once again "the extent to which the Mutiny of 1857 grew into a popular rebellion in the N.W. Provinces." Sir Sayyid simply reiterated his previous view that "even the use of the expression 'Military Mutiny' conveys an idea of something more than the real fact." (For the full text of this letter, see *Appendix C*.)

The remedy which Sir Sayyid recommended for India was the admission of native Indians into the Legislative Council. Graham, his English biographer, quoted Sir Sayyid's suggestion as follows: "I do not wish to enter into the question as to 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 here is that such a step is not only advisable but absolutely necessary, and that the disturbances were due to the neglect of such a measure."/13/

In Moradabad, meanwhile, events were again pushing Sir Sayyid out of the courtroom into the public limelight. On July 28, 1859, he was the principal speaker at a large thanksgiving ceremony offerred by the Muslims of Moradabad to Queen Victoria for her generous proclamation of November 1, 1858. His speech was so straightforward and effective that Hali records his own assessment that the degradation and losses suffered by the Muslims as the result of the Revolt had planted such deep concern in Sir Sayyid that he could not allow himself even a moment's respite. It may be worthwhile to sample here this concern of Sir Sayyid as he thanked God in public for having induced the British to be merciful. "Oh, God!" Sir Sayyid declared, "the times just passed away have been very eventful to Thy creatures. Neither man nor dumb cattle, the beasts of the fields, nor the fowls of the air, nay, nor even the inanimate trees and rocks that cover the face of the earth, have enjoyed peace and quiet. No man was assured of life, property, or his honor. The late disturbances tossed heaven and earth into confusion. In Thy merciful kindness Thou has put away from us, Oh God, the evils and calamities of the revolt. Oh, God! Thou hast renewed Thy mercy toward Thy helpless servants and hast restored to us the peace and comfort Thy servants enjoyed through Thy grace in the days preceding the disastrous disturbance." (For the full text of this prayer see *Appendix B*.)

Clearly, Sir Sayyid was speaking the same thoughts in the public prayer that he had used to conclude the book he was then publishing on the Revolt.

Sir Sayyid also took a step forward in educational reform in Moradabad. He organized a committee to manage a small Persian-language school, which later was merged into the larger tehsil school established by John Strachey, who came to Moradabad at this time as its new Collector. Small as the venture may have been, Sir Sayyid had something of broad significance in mind. With the blessing and encouragement of the British officials, he strove to encourage the "wealthy and respectable" of both Hindu and Muslim communities to send their sons to a public school. To underscore his case, Sir Sayyid placed his own son (Sayyid Mahmud) in the school, and paid for the costs of two of the four scholarships being offered. At the public examination on January 1, 1860, Sir Sayyid asked the town elite to "think of the Hindee patshalas of a former age, and read the history of the Muhammadans, and you will find that high dignitaries regarded the education of their youth in large public schools as a great honor; assuredly it is so, for all the eminent pundits and moulvees who have lived before us or who are now living, and whom all you great men hold in high esteem and respect, all received their education, and acquired their profound learning, at public schools, and not at their own homes."/14/

Sir Sayyid continued his active and public interest in education. He published, for example, an objection against the proposed expansion of Government vernacular schools. Sir Sayyid had apparently not forgotten in Moradabad the advantage Pandit Radha Kishan enjoyed over him during the Revolt because of his facility in English. His boldest ventures in educational reform, however, took place after his transfer to Ghazipur in 1862. Here he established the Translation Society that was later to evolve into the Scientific Society of Aligarh, certainly a clear stage on the way to events too far from the Revolt to be covered here. Instead, we shall close with a review of an important speech in Persian which Sir Sayyid delivered at a meeting of the Muhammadan Literary Society in Calcutta on October 6, 1863.

Sir Sayyid was very much under the impact of the Revolt as he appealed to this Calcutta Muslim audience to support his scheme for a curriculum that would join together English and modern sciences with Arabic and Islamic studies. He reminded them that they were the only audience of Muslim leaders left to whom he could appeal, for "in our ancient capitals once so well known, so rich, so great and so flourishing, nothing is now to be seen or heard save a few bones strewn amongst the ruins or the human-like cry of the jackal." More important perhaps than this striking appeal to sentiment is that Sir Sayyid had by this time developed an approach to politics that contained the core ideas of Muslim nationalism. Nevertheless, his tone was mild: "Our great Prophet has enjoined upon us as a sacred duty that we should wish and act for the good of our co-religionists; therefore, if we disregard this injunction we are guilty indeed."/15/

We have left Sir Sayyid well on the way to becoming a national figure and the founder of the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental college at Aligarh. Let us step back to summarize the lessons from the Revolt that Sir Sayyid carried with him as he assumed this leadership role. They include: (a) a theory of politics, that is, that British power was indispensable in India and could not be dislodged. The British, in fact, were the only organized force that could rule the sub­continent and at the same time preserve law and order. If the British should for any reason depart, power would gravitate toward the traditional leaders, and the population would split into hostile communal groups that would slaughter each other; (b) a theory of national power, that is, that power depends primarily on the capacity to organize and the possession of theoretical and practical knowledge, and not on numerical strength nor the possession of material resources; (c) a theory of society in which leadership was regarded as resulting primarily from inherited status or wealth. One of the greatest evils of a time of widespread public disorder was the consequent disruption of the inherited structure of society; (d) and, finally, a strategy of Muslim politics whose essential aim would be reconciliation with the British, and the delaying of political reforms in India until the Muslims were sufficiently educated to compete with the more advanced Hindus, especially the Bengali Hindus.

These ideas very largely underlined the movement of Muslim nationalism in India as it developed after Sayyid's death in 1898.


/1/  J. M. S. Baljon, The Reforms and Religious Ideas of Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (Lahore: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf 1964: Third Edition) p. 3.
/2/ Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, Sirat Fariddiya (Karachi, PadAkademi, 1964), p. 113.
/3/ Baljon, op. cit., p. 31.
/4/ Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, Hunter par Hunter (Lahore: Iqbal Akademi, 1949), p. 16.
/5/ Shibli Nomani, Maqalat-e-Shibli, (Azamgarh: Der-ul-musanafeen, 1964; Fifth Edition), Vol. 2, p. 60.
/6/ A. M. S. Habiullah, "Historical Writing in Urdu" in Historians of India, Pakistan and Ceylon, edited by C. H. Philips, London, 1961.
/7/ Reginald Heber, A Narrative of a Journey Through the Upper Provinces of India from Calcutta to Bombay 1824-1825 (London: 1844) Volume 1, p. 236.
/8/ G. B. Malleson, History of the Indian Mutiny (London: 1880), Volume 3, p. 418.
/9/ Imperial Gazetteer of India, Volume 2, article on "Bijnor" (1885 edition).
/10/ Ibid.
/11/ Hafeez Malik, "Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan's Doctrines of Muslim Nationalism and National Progress", Modern Asian Studies, London, II, 3 C/968), p. 222; see also his "Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan's Contribution to the Development of Muslim Nationalism in India", Modern Asian Studies, London, 4, 2 (1970), pp. 129-147; "Religious Liberalism of Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan", The Muslim World, Hartford, Conn.
/12/ Altaf Husain Hali, Hayat-i Jawid (Lahore: 1957), p. 139.
/13/ Ibid., pp. 139-140.
/14/ G. F. I. Graham, The Life and Work of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, New Ed. (London: 1909), p. 28.
/15/ Sayyid Ahmad, A Speech in Persian with Translation into English on Patriotism and Necessity of Promoting Knowledge in India, delivered at a meeting of the Mahomedan Literacy Society in Calcutta held at the house of the Hon. Moulvi Abdool Lateef Khan Bhadoor on the 6th October 1863. Published for the above Society. Ghazeepore. Printed at Sayyid Ahmad's Private Press, 1863, p. 5-6.

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