Thursday, September 10, 2015

Mansur Ali Khan: A railway man and social reformer

Khan Bahadur Mansur Ali Khan 1873-1934
Social reforms in India originating in the 20th century have followed various trajectories. Some initiatives metamorphosed to tackle the more pressing challenges while some continue to be as relevant as they were when initiated. This post is about the endeavour to fight dowry and minimise wasteful expenditure in weddings that began at the turn of the 20th century in a cluster of villages (called Kamsaar-O-Bar) in Ghazipur district. The prime mover, a century ago, was Khan Bahadur Mansur Ali Khan, who was an employee of the Oudh and Rohilkhand Railway. I realised that while people in the region do remember him, there is no clarity about his career, postings and other related details.

It was to fill this lacunae that I turned to the archives in London expecting to gather some information about Mansur Ali Khan. He gained prominence in the area as he was the first in the 'biradaari' to have secured a well paying, established job, certainly by virtue of good education. But as mentioned earlier, it was his efforts to awaken his brethren of the need to do away with wasteful and unnecessary customs during weddings that he is best remembered for. These customs and traditions would worsen the financial condition of households but such was the apathy and hold of ignorance that nobody was interested in taking any initiative. Here, I attempt to provide a glimpse to his farsightedness and love for the community.

According to official records, Mansur Ali Khan was born on September 18, 1873 and belonged to village Godsara. While not much is known about his education (it's not clear whether he finished graduation) he joined the Oudh and Rohilkhand Railway as goods clerk. The Oudh and Rohilkhand railway was established in 1872 and in 1888 it was taken over by the British government. It is my understanding that being in a transferable job, he must have spend considerable time in bigger cities and towns like Moradabad, Allahabad, Barabanki, Hardoi, Lucknow, Meerut. This must have made him realise the backwardness in Kamsaar. Being in government service, he was aware of the importance of education and its linkage with social reform. But the situation in Kamsaar was far from satisfactory. Most of the people were engaged in agriculture or found employment in Bengal police or the army.    

Convincing village elders turned out to be much more difficult than he had thought. His major aim was to get their assent to do away with dowry and focus on education. To do this he would visit the adjoining villages and conduct meetings. The response was not promising. To discard old customs was easier said than done. But Mansur Ali Khan persisted. He kept on the meetings at regular intervals and finally in 1910 a body named Anjuman Islah Kamsar-o-Bar was established. This created an environment of awakening and people saw virtue in Mansur Ali Khan's arguments. But sadly, the area continues to be beset with the same problems, although education and migration has increased the general well-being. After Mansur Ali Khan, there were some notable individuals who carried on the good work, but had limited success and the problem persists. Farms are mortgaged/sold and loans are taken out to meet the wedding expenses.     

After joining as goods clerk (possibly in the 1890s), he continued to progress in his career. He became traffic inspector after few years and in 1913 he was promoted as traffic superintendent. As a superintendent, his duties and responsibilities increased and much of his time was spent in Lucknow which was the headquarters of the Oudh and Rohilkhand Railway. By 1921, he had already become District Traffic Superintendent (claims) and appeared before few important railway committees, including the famous Railway Committee headed by William Acworth whose aim was to reorganise the railway system in India. 

In Jan-Feb 1921, Mansur Ali Khan was asked pointed questions about station masters and clerks receiving payments/commissions for the allotment of wagons. He replied that this had become a 'custom' across the country and that both, the railway staff and public, were to be blamed for this. Those were the days of restrictions on goods and commodities in the post-war period. Sugar and grains could command stupendous prices for the merchants provided they reached their destinations on time. And this was dependent on the availability of wagons. Then there was the question of goods being undervalued to escape higher charges. Mansur Ali Khan told the committee members how he ordered the deduction of Rs 10 per month from the salary of a station master for one year. This station master was found to be undervaluing the merchandise being transported.     

One of the committee member was the Bombay industrialist Purshottamdas Thakurdas who seemed to take umbrage on the casting of aspersions on the merchant community by Mansur Ali Khan. Despite intense questioning, Mansur Ali Khan continued to hold fort and made his points unambiguously. He died in 1934, and I haven't been able to find out whether he was promoted any further. But one thing is clear it must have taken a giant effort on his part to straddle both his professional and personal commitments. By one account it was after more than five years of regular meetings that the Anjuman Islah Kamsar-o-Bar was formed consisting of members from the villages around Dildarnagar. His third son Mahmood Ali Khan too took interest in empowering people through education. He started one of the earliest English-medium primary school in Dildarnagar and also stood for Assembly elections in independent India but was unsuccessful.  

An Islah committee is still in existence but it can be only through increased participation and co-operation that dowry and wasteful expenditure can be stopped. Only Allah knows how long will this movement, started by Mansur Ali Khan a century ago, continue as it seems to be a very slow work-in-progress.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Saiyid Hamid's death is huge blow to Indian Muslims

"But for the media, people like me do not represent Muslims because we are too progressive; we don't have beards nor do we wear the peculiar white caps. The Muslim stereotypes do not fit us. If a Muslim demonstrates backwardness it is news; if he exhibits progressiveness, it is not news." These words written by the late Rafiq Zakaria comes to mind in the wake of the passing away of Saiyid Hamid, former vice-chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and retired IAS officer. Except few cursory comments and platitudinous condolence messages, the national media seems to have largely ignored his death.

Born in 1920, Saiyid Hamid completed BA and then MA in English followed by another MA in Persian at the Aligarh Muslim University. He got selected to the United Provinces provincial civil services and worked in the districts of Uttar Pradesh and in 1949 graduated to the IAS. After being in service for more than 30 years, he then became the vice-chancellor of AMU. This was the start of his second innings and his stint at Aligarh turned out to be full of challenges. After leaving his mark as an able administrator, Saiyid Hamid plunged into ameliorating the educational backwardness of Muslims. He focused on increasing the number of Muslims in civil services and worked tirelessly towards it. With the passage of time, the tumultuous Aligarh days were behind him, and he emerged as a towering personality and a kind of father figure for Muslim social activists.

He kept away from politics but continued to be at the forefront of Muslim issues till his last days. His moderate approach, high integrity and clear thinking added to his forceful personality which was embellished by his love for literature. His association with Jamia Hamdard as the vice chancellor brought immense laurels and respect, but it was the establishment of the Hamdard Study Circle that earned him the gratitude of the community. The study circle conducted coaching classes for Muslim students aspiring to get into the civil services. (It seems this was a passion that Saiyid Hamid had for long. Here is a piece by senior IAS officer Naved Masood that throws more light on his personality.) 

In 2010, Shah Faesal topped the UPSC exams and brought into limelight the works of Saiyid Hamid and Hamdard Study Circle, where he received coaching. The fact that Shah Faesal was from Kashmir made the achievement more noteworthy. Saiyid Hamid told "We are also proud of the fact that this has happened in respect of a candidate from Jammu and Kashmir where condition has not been favourable for serious study and yet the young man has proved that despite of all difficulties in the way one can be successful and eminently successful." It was perhaps such work at the ground level that gave immense satisfaction to Saiyid Hamid.

Another project close to his heart was the magazine 'Nation and the World' which unfortunately did not do well. There would hardly be a major Muslim educationist or activist who must have not benefited from his advice and guidance. His stature was such that he was beyond seeking any publicity or laurels for himself. He was a man of principle who never shied from putting across his views even at the risk of going against popular notions.

At the height of the Babri Masjid episode, Saiyid Hamid sought to engage the community to discuss the statement of L K Advani. In August 1990, Advani had said that if Muslims agreed to a respectful removal of the mosque to a site close by, Hindus may be persuaded to withdraw their claim to other disputed places of worship. He got support from Badruddin Tyabji and Col Bashir Hussain Zaidi but to their "disappointment and surprise" their stance did not get much support. He wrote: "It seems that on all religio-political issues it is extremism along that gets credibility. Moderation and even exploratory attempts at mediation are spurned. No one can afford to essay a rapprochement, not even a leader of of Mr Advani's stature, for fear of losing ground with his followers.The folly of this writer's response to an offer that never was has been doubly established."     

The driving force behind this endeavour was the belief that Hindu-Muslim relationships would stand transformed and would give breathing space for "social and educational reconstruction". But such thorny issues were always beyond the honest approach of people like Saiyid Hamid. Yet it was an earnest desire to work towards the larger good of the community that lay at his heart.

At 94 years of age, Saiyid Hamid lived an extraordinary life. He saw the British rule, witnessed the Partition, immersed himself in the difficult task of Muslim empowerment and as Afzal Usmani writes managed to build a "sound academic record at a moment in India's history when Muslims were afflicted with uncertainty." His work will be remembered by generations to come. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Prof Robinson on 'Separatism Among Indian Muslims..'

Pic: The Express Tribune 
Prof Francis Robinson needs no introduction to scholars and research students engaged in the study of South Asia. In the last few decades he has written several books that take a close look at Islam/Muslims in South Asia. Forty years ago his first book, Separatism Among Indian Muslims: The politics of the United Provinces’ Muslims 1860-1923 was published which continues to be an important entry point for anybody interested in the Muslim politics of British India. Though I have been in touch with Prof Robinson through email, I first met him at the SOAS Muslim South Asia Graduate Research Conference (MUSA) in Oct 2013. I was one of the presenters and Prof Robinson gave the key-note address.

As a lay reader, it was the exhaustive notes in the book that got me glued.  And the biographical notes at the end of the book introduce us to the professional, religious and agrarian links and divisions between the leading Muslim families and individuals. I learnt about a Mohammed Ali of Dharavi (apart from the more famous Mohammed Ali of the Ali brothers), the romance that bloomed between the affable journalist Syud Hossain and Vijayalakshmi Pandit, and the politics involved in the elections of the district boards.

I requested Prof Robinson for an interview and he was kind enough to answer few questions:

1. What made you research the Muslims of North India?
I originally set out to do research on politics and society in medieval Italy. But in the mid-1960s could find no one suitable to supervise my research in Cambridge – one did not think of moving universities in those days as readily as one might do today. So my Director of Studies at the time, Anil Seal, said what about India?  

As it happens I had some acquaintance vicariously with India.  I had been brought up in the village of Willingdon just outside Eastbourne.  In those days it was full of old India hands.  The house I was brought up in was built by one – used to find rupees in the garden. Lady Willingdon used to open the Church fete. The Church organist had been organist of Calcutta Cathedral. My first Headmaster was a former Lt Col of the 8th Gurkha Rifles. An early girl friend was the granddaughter of Sir Norman Smith, the last DiB in India etc… etc…  So Anil’s suggestion was not such an odd one. It meant of course engaging with Indian history from scratch.  In terms of where I might focus my research Anil said ‘you will look at northern India in the nationalist period’. 

I very quickly discovered that Muslims were important people in northern India, and amongst the Muslims the ulama were people to be reckoned with, and in this case in particular the ulama of Farangi Mahall.  So this is how Separatism came to be about political change in northern India with special reference to the Muslims.  The response to Separatism led me to focus on Islam in northern India as much as on the Muslims.  Here I benefited greatly from the ulama of Farangi Mahall who made their records open to me.  Everything I have written since then has been influenced by this research.  I am currently writing the biography of Maulana Jamal Mian, the last many fully-formed in the Farangi Mahall tradition.

2. Any lingering memories of the days when you were researching and meeting people in North India?
My constant memory is of the kindness and helpfulness of all those whom I met in northern India. But this is not a lingering memory, it is one constantly reinforced as daily I am in contact with my Indian and Pakistani friends. One central figure in supporting my research in Lucknow has been Ram Advani, India’s best-known bookseller. Members of the Farangi Mahall family, in particular Abdul Bari’s grandchildren are in contact all the time. I see them now in Pakistan and the UK rather than in India. Indeed, one was in contact today.

3. It's been 40 years since the publication of Separatism. Any issue/strand on which you have had a re-think?
The book is very much of its time. The book is sub-Namierite in its approach and does not give much weight to ideas. I would change following things: (1) some language – I might use the term zeal rather than fanaticism; I would not described ulama as ‘priests’ as I do on occasion. Etc… (2)  I would give greater weight to ideas and ‘belief’.  You can see me moving in this direction in my debate with Paul Brass.  (3) the book would display generally greater cultural sensitivity. It is very much a young man’s book, largely written when I was 24/25. If I wrote the book now it would be infused with a much stronger cultural understanding.

4. Do you think more needs to be done to uncover and explore the role of the landlords, professionals, ulemas who figure in Separatism as the focus primarily has been on Jinnah/Liaqat Ali/Khaliquzzaman?     
There is certainly much more to be done on the second-level people involved in Muslim separatism, or in Muslim politics in general.  We are now getting down to that as PhDs are being produced of studies at the qasbah level.  I think of Riasur Rahman’s thesis on the politics of four UP qasbahs: Amroha, Budaun, Bilgram and Rudauli and my Oxford student Megan Robb’s thesis on the world of the Medina of Bijnor.  Study of local newspapers and of the huge output of the literati of the qasbahs is one of the ways forward.

5.  Your research triggered an interesting debate with Paul Brass. What are your thoughts on it? 
 My debate with Paul Brass was all about the role of ideas in human action.  As I told you, it came at a time when I was exploring the importance of ideas and belief in human action. I no longer accepted my earlier position of treating ideas as instrumental, as Paul continued to wish to do.  So in that debate I was feeling my way to a new position and testing it out on him. I would continue to go with the position I reached in Islam and Muslim Separatism, but wish that I had never touched the term ‘primordial’.  It has led to much misconstruing of my position.  Paul I think put instrumental and primordial at two ends of a pole.  My final position was, and is, that I give greater room in explanation for culture and belief than he does.