Sir Syed Bicentennial Birth:
Remembering and Extending Sir Syed’s Vision
Distinguished Guests, Friends, Ladies and Gentlemen:
Thank you Ali for that kind introduction. I appreciate your kind words.
Before I begin, I would like to take this opportunity to express my deep gratitude to Dr. Abdullah for inviting me to give these remarks. He continues to be a constant source of strength for all of us. He provides the broad shoulder upon which we can stand. Let us give him a big round of applause
It is truly an honor and a privilege to be here with all of you – my fellow Aligarians and friends of Aligarh – at this bicentennial event to celebrate what would have been Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s 200th birthday. Truth be told, however, we are here as Sir Syed’s descendents and part of his family not to remember his birth but to remember what he gave birth to.
Recognizing this, I will focus my comments on Sir Syed’s vision – what he saw, what he thought, and the future he envisioned – with a special focus on India. I do this so that all of us will carry on and sustain his vision to the tri-centennial anniversary and forever thereafter. (Pause.)
Sir Syed had a vision not only of peaceful co-existence in a pluralistic society but moreover of collaboration and communal harmony in that society. What a powerful and compelling point of view.
Why did Sir Syed have such vision and foresight? It was partly attributable to the way he saw the world and its inhabitants. He explained his perspective himself.
In a famous speech, he said, “I regard both Hindus and Muslims as my two eyes.” Later, he went even further to say, “Would that I had only one eye.” He used that phrase to indicate that even though he was a devout Muslim, he loved both Hindus and Muslims equally.
Sir Syed felt that there were two pillars for achieving peaceful co-existence, collaboration and communal harmony. They were: education and shared educational experiences.
On the importance of education while many were advocating for and against including Muslims in the National Congress, he declared “I do not agree with those who think that discussion about political matters will help in our national progress. I regard education alone as the means of national progress.”
Sir Syed put his words into action by founding Mahommedan Anglo-Oriental College (MAO) which became Aligarh Muslim University. While it was focused on advancing the educational interests and competencies of Muslims, Sir Syed ensured that from its establishment the College was not the province of any religion.
During the College’s infancy, Sir Syed emphasized that, and I quote him: “Yes, the main purpose of this college is to impart modern education to Muslims who are suffering because of a lack of it but this institution is for all, Hindus and Muslims alike. Both of them need education.”
At this point, I must stress that Sir Syed’s vision was embraced by others. Indeed, in its early years many wealthy Hindus were major benefactors of MAO College. In fact, the first graduate of AMU was a Hindu.
Sir Syed was not alone in his vision for communal peace in India’s pluralistic society. Pandit Malaviya, founder of Banaras Hindu University instructed us, “India is not a country of the Hindus only. It is a country of the Muslims, the Christians, and the Parsees too. The country can gain strength and develop itself only when the people of India live in mutual good will and harmony.”
While there was not a religious bond between Pandit Malaviya and Sir Syed there was undoubtedly a spiritual one. In fact, it might be said they were soul mates who shared a spiritual common ground.
Sir Syed’s vision and the advice of Pandit Malaviya provide the basis for working toward communal peace in India. This can be done not by looking to the heavens and to the gods whom we worship but by looking at the earth and the people and family that we are.
To this point I have focused on the past and Sir Syed, let me shift gears now and move toward the present. The flyer for this singular event had one of my favorite Sir Syed quotes.
It was a quote about the potential of the great college – soon to be a University -which he founded it shows the veracity of his vision. Sir Syed said, “… this College may expand into a University whose sons and daughters shall go forth throughout the length and breadth of the land to preach the gospel of free inquiry of large hearted toleration and pure morality.”
That College did become a university – a great university – AMU. Today, AMU offers more than 250 full-time course in fields like agriculture, medicine, and information technology and draws students from all corners of India and from many country around the world.
More importantly, as Sir Syed predicted, tens of thousands of AMU’s graduates have delivered on Sir Syed’s promise. They have gone throughout the length and breadth of India and around the globe to improve the lot of others.
Over the years, men and women from Aligarh have made contributions in all walks of life. There are currently almost 20,000 Aligarh alumni in 100 countries world-wide. I am one of them. Because of what I have learned at AMU, I understand and practice the concept of a “large hearted toleration”.
Our paths have been different but the common and transcendent bond that has united us has been a belief in and a commitment to equal justice and a shared humanity. A combination of technical expertise and moral fortitude has enabled Aligarh graduates to make their mark in India and the world and to serve as positive role models for others.
In my opinion, the real tribute to Sir Syed is the gift of a sensitive and sensible education that we have received at AMU. We have been enriched, enabled, and empowered by Sir Syed’s educational initiatives. Now it is our responsibility to assist others in securing the benefits of education similar to that we have received at AMU. Now it is our responsibility to make other people succeed. When they succeed, all of us succeed. India succeeds. World succeed.
That is a little about where Sir Syed’s vision took us in the past and where it has brought us in the present. In closing, let me talk briefly about where it should take us in the future.
Near the end of his life, Sir Syed who had lost his eyesight said:
I lost my eyesight but not my vision. My vision never dimmed,
and my determination never failed. I built this institution for you and
I am sure, you will carry the light of this institution far and wide,
darkness will disappear from around the world.
There is still darkness in the world and in India.
Much has been accomplished in India:
- India is the largest democracy in the world
- India is now the world’s fastest growing major economy
- India is quickly emerging as a regional and global power
Still much needs to be done. This is especially true for Muslims and other minorities.
In spite of begrudging progress, too many Muslims in India remain socially, educationally and economically disadvantaged. They share a city but not a community. They share a common dwelling but not in a common effort. They confront hostility and open prejudice which in turn fuels frustration and desperations. The statistics on Muslims in poverty and without education there are stunning. Too many Muslim families are trapped in poverty because of a lack of education. There is a critical need to empower Muslims through education in order for India to achieve its full potential.
To borrow a phrase from Robert Frost, there are still miles for we Aligarians to go to deliver fully on Sir Syed’s vision. But, I am certain that we can go those miles and was greatly encouraged about the prospects of realizing his vision when I read the words of retiring Vice President Hamid Ansari in his final address delivered recently.
In that address, Vice President Ansari quoting Swami Vivekananda said, “We must not only tolerate other religions, but positively embrace them, as truth is the basis of all religion.” He went on to assert, “It has to become an essential national virtue to promote harmony transcending sectional diversities.”
The stage is being set in India for change to work toward Sir Syed’s vision of peaceful coexistence, collaboration and communal harmony. As Aligarians from India here in the United States of America we have a special opportunity and obligation to play a role in bringing about that change.
In playing that role, we should remember that we are the ambassadors of India in the United States and we are the ambassadors of the United States in India. Most importantly the bond that binds us together is that we are Aligarians.
We are Aligarians – descendants of Sir Syed. As such, we have the history, heritage and duty to be difference makers and destroyers of the darkness.
I look forward to being a partner with you in making that difference and to shining a bright light in India to destroy the darkness.
Thank you letting me share my thoughts with you on this special occasion.
May God bless each and every-one of you.