Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the founder of the Muhammadan Anglo Oriental College (now, The Aligarh Muslim University), was the pioneer of the ‘two-nation theory’ in India. As the theory gained momentum, it boasted towering leaders like Muhammad Ali Jinnah. It eventually resulted in the partitioning of India in 1947 into two countries based on religion and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan was formed.
Sir Syed, a descendant of Prophet Muhammad, was a member of the upper class Muslim nobility in India. During the time leading up to the First War of Independence in 1857, Sir Syed had established himself as a man of repute, both within and outside the Muslim community of India. He was known as a scholarly Muslim with great understanding in many fields, including Sufism, mathematics, and astronomy. He wrote articles, and books. He traveled across India and gave numerous speeches. It is in these writings and speeches his views on wide range of topics found expression.
Views on British Rule
In his speeches and in writings, Sir Syed seems very charitable to the British and its empire. He believed that the rule of India was given to the British by the will of the God and it shouldn’t be interfered with. During his speeches, he often used high honorifics, such as ‘Honorable’, for the East India Company. He was also not shy about his loyalty towards the British government and often mentioned it as ‘our’ government. He, at many a, times played the cheerleader for the British Empire. To quote him,
“If it were my fortune to be Viceroy; I speak from my heart when I say I would not be equally, but more, anxious to see the rule of the Queen placed on a firm basis”
He didn’t seem too sympathetic with the Indian National Congress’ (Congress) demand for more say in the day-to-day administration of India. He was okay with some concessions on domestic matters, it seems. However, he held the belief that the British government should be allowed to run its own foreign and military policies unhindered and Indians should not interfere in matters of foreign policy and boarder security.
“If the Government fight Afghanistan or conquer Burma, it is no business of ours to criticise its policy. Our interests will not suffer from these matters being left in the hands of Government”
Sir Syed seemed at times in awe of the British administration and it’s workings. He belonged to the group of leaders who were quite happy asking for a few concessions here and there. He also believed that Muslims should unite with the British “Christians” as they too were the “People of the Book”. No Muslim who has read the Koran and believes in it, could deny that “God has said that no people of other religions can be friends of Mahomedan except the Christians”, he said.
Social Hierarchy and caste
Sir Syed was extremely aware the social hierarchies of his contemporary society. Upward mobility of some of the lower caste people seemed to have bothered him. He was of the belief that only people of higher social class should occupy positions of importance in the government. People of lower strata, despite their educational background, etc., were not worthy of seats in assembly, according to him.
“Would our aristocracy like that a man of low caste or insignificant origin, though he be a B.A. or M.A., and have the requisite ability, should be in a position of authority above them and have power in making laws that affect their lives and property? Never! Nobody would like it.”
Only people of “good breeding” were worthy of Viceroy’s trust and hospitality, he believed. Therefore, the British Government should not be blamed for appointing the representatives of the noble families to the Council. Sir Syed was very much against a person from lower cast to be nominated to the Council of the Viceroy. Just as “men of good family would never like to trust their lives and property to people of low rank”, the Viceroy would not trust people from lower castes. The Council seat was too important to be trusted with people of lower origin, he believed.
“None but a man of good breeding can the Viceroy take as his colleague, treat as his brother, and invite to entertainments at which he may have to dine with Dukes and Earls.”
Further, talking about Viceroy’s Council, Sir Syed expresses his astonishment at Congress’ demand for universal suffrage (“chamars and all that”) for electing a section of Council.
Contempt for the Bengalis
Sir Syed considered Bengalis as a separate nation, not part of either Indian or Hindu identity. In addition, his contempt for the Bengalis was remarkable. He didn’t like the Bengalis opposing the British rule and he ridiculed and trash-talked Bengalis almost at the drop of a hat.
“I believe that the Bengalis have never at any period held sway over a particle of land. They are altogether ignorant of the method by which a foreign race can maintain its rule over other races.”
According to Syed, the Indian National Congress was found by the Bengalis. He would claim that he did not have any ill will against the Bengalis. However, he said that the Bengalis have made “a most unfair and unwarrantable interference with my nation”. He considered it his duty to show the Muslim community clearly how the Bengalis have been interfering in matters pertaining to the Muslim community.
“It is incumbent on me to show what evils would befall my nation from joining in the opinions of the Bengalis: I have no other purpose in view.”
He often poked fun at the Bengalis saying that a Bengali would “crawl under his chair” at the sight of a knife. Hence, warriors like Muslims and Rajputs should not accept the superiority of the Bengalis.
The ‘Two Nation’ Theory
Sir Syed did not consider the Indian nation as one entity. His seemed to view India as a country “peopled with different nations.” (In most places in his speeches and in his writings, we are told, where the translation says “nation”, the Urdu word actually used is “qaum,” or “community.”)
He did not think that the Hindus of Awadh, the Bengalis, the Marathas formed one nation. In doing so, he seemed either willfully ignorant or totally disrespectful of India’s grand narrative of a civilizational nation. He also believed that based on their numerical strength, Muslims will not be able to guard their interest in a Hindu majority India. “It would be like a game of dice in which one man had four dice, and the other only one”, he said.
Sir Syed seemed to relish in the ‘glorious’ past of the Muslim rule. “We are those who ruled India for six or seven hundred years”, he says in one of his speeches. He also seemed unapologetic about the carnage and destruction caused by the Islamic invasion of India.
“Oh! my brother Musalmans! I again remind you that you have ruled nations, and have for centuries held different countries in your grasp. For seven hundred years in India you have had Imperial sway. You know what it is to rule.”
“Our nation is of the blood of those who made not only Arabia, but Asia and Europe, to tremble. It is our nation which conquered with its sword the whole of India, although its peoples were all of one religion.”
In one of the speeches, Sir Syed warns the Hindus that their wellbeing is safeguarded only “by friendship and agreement”. He believed that under the circumstances Hindus and Muslims couldn’t live together, or be equal and share power together. One needs to conquer the other in order to live peacefully. The relationship between Hindus and Muslims was destined to be of the ruler and the ruled, he believed. Since Muslims were not in a position to rulenumerically, he recommended befriending the British so that they can stop Hindus from becoming rulers.
“Is it possible that under these circumstances two nations — the Mahomedans and the Hindus — could sit on the same throne and remain equal in power? Most certainly not. It is necessary that one of them should conquer the other and thrust it down. To hope that both could remain equal is to desire the impossible and the inconceivable. “
“This thing — who, after the departure of the English, would be conquerors — would rest on the will of God. But until one nation had conquered the other and made it obedient, peace could not reign in the land. This conclusion is based on proofs so absolute that no one can deny it.”
Muslims, despite being fewer in number, must not be considered insignificant or weak, he warns. They are capable enough to manage any eventuality on their own. However, just in case the situation demands, they were ready for bloodbath.
“Then our Musalman brothers, the Pathans, would come out as a swarm of locusts from their mountain valleys, and make rivers of blood to flow from their frontier in the north to the extreme end of Bengal”
Sir Syed nursed a deep distrust for Hindus. He believed the Hindus could “ruin” the Muslims “in an hour”. He wanted Muslims to be educated and get into export business. “Let the trade which is with the Hindus remain with them. But try to snatch from their hands the trade in the produce of the county which the English now enjoy and draw profit from”, he called.
He also believed Hindus and Muslims didn’t have identical goals. They were two separate nations who agreed only on some small points. On the basis of such beliefs, he did not think that Congress should be called ‘National’ as it did not represent identical people with identical goals. “We may be right or we may be wrong; but there is no Mahomedan, from the shoemaker to the Rais, who would like that the ring of slavery should be put on us by that other nation with whom we live”, he wrote.
1. "The Causes of the Indian Revolt," by Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, 1858
2. Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan's Speech at Meerut, 16 March 1888.
3. “An exchange of letters between Sir Sayyid and Badruddin Tyabji about the Congress”,
4. Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan's Speech at Lucknow, 28 September 1887