Friday, February 19, 2010

Syed Hussain: Man behind Motilal Nehru's 'Independent'

There is an African proverb which says, 'Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunters.' The greatness of history lies in the fact that it gets long forgotten personalities and events back into the collective memories of people. But as the proverb said, what about the history of the lions!
In 1918, a gentleman named Syed Hussain, who had studied in London, was chosen to go to England by Annie Besant in connection with the Home Rule propaganda. Unfortunately, Hussain could not reach England, as the British authorities sent him back from Gibraltar. Thus Hussain with Iqbal Naraya Gurtu (the other person accompanying him to England) had to come back to India.
Syed Hussain, who had a flair for writing, got associated with the legendary B G Horniman who was the editor of Bombay Chronicle, the nationalist newspaper. He also worked for the Congress in Bombay and was active in the Khilafat Movement. In February 1919, Motilal Nehru started a newspaper, Independent, from Allahabad and sought help from Horniman. Syed Hussain had already made a mark for himself and with Horniman's backing was made the first editor of Independent.
Motilal had started Independent as he was not happy with Leader, another leading paper of the period in which he was a shareholder. Leader had begun publication in October 1909 with Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya as the editor. C Y Chintamani, who started as a staff member, had with the passing years rose to become its legendary editor.
Leader commanded immense respect and popularity and Chintamani's stature had grown tremendously. Motilal had a difference of opinion on the Montagu-Chemlsford report with Sir Chintamani who had aligned the paper's editorial policy to match his views and that of other leaders, who didn't agree with the senior Nehru.
Syed Hussain was thus directly pitted against Sir Chintamani and the failure of the paper would have meant the failure of Motilal Nehru. Hussain had a stint at the Bombay Chronicle, and under his fiery leadership Independent made its presence felt.
A S Iyengar, another journalist who worked for both Leader and Independent noted: "There was in those days a glamour about Horniman and an aura about Syed Hussain, a particularly handsome East-Bengal Muslim with an Oxford education. What Horniman did not know about journalism was not worth knowing at all. What Syed Hussain could write was, of course, the best. This was the conception in Ananda Bhavan."
At Independent, Syed Hussain carried forward the style and panache of Bombay Chronicle, which was known for its constant run-in with the British Goverment. Hussain did not care about antagonising the moderates or British officers in his stint at Independent.
Asaf Ali, another freedom fighter and Hussain's friend, wrote an article on the British government's elation at suppressing people's uprising in North India in 1919 for the Independent. Syed Hussain titled it 'Devils dance while Angels weep'. This ruffled feathers not just in the official circles but also among the moderate elements in the Congress who thought it was objectionable.

Another famous tagline coined by Syed Hussain was C M G which meant Chelmsford Must Go. It became quite popular and gave voice to several Indian nationalists who were opposed to the Montagu-Chlemsford reforms.
While Hussain was editing the paper, there were rumours in Allahabad that he was having an affair with Vijayalakshmi, Motilal Nehru’s charming daughter. The Nehrus, it seems, were not very happy with this. The wife of another nationalist George Joseph (who also edited Independent and was elder brother of famous journalist Pothan Joseph), who like Hussain was selected to go to England by Annie Besant in connection with the Home Rule movement, acted as a peace-maker.
With the help of Gandhiji, who had a considerable influence in the Nehru household, the Nehrus got Vijayalaksmi married to Barrister Ranjit Pandit in 1921. After around a year of working for Independent, Hussain resigned. Why and under what circumstances is still not clear. In his book, A S Iyengar notes: “The story of Independent is one of a brief and chequered career. The public know what happened to Syed Hussain a few months later, for he had to leave India.”
Syed Hussain apparently went to America on a lecture tour after he resigned. I have tried to find out what happened to him after that, but have been unsuccessful. It is highly unlikely that Hussain, who worked for Bombay Chronicle and Independent, would lie low during those tumultuous days of freedom struggle.
So, if he continued to be actively involved in the movement what role did he play and where was he based? Alternatively, if he became a recluse and shied away from aligning himself with forces working at driving away the Britishers, what could be the reasons for that? It would be great to know how Hussain's life shaped up, and what kept him busy after Independent.
All that I could gather (courtesy a biography of George Joseph) is that Syed Hussain died in Cairo, and Vijayalaksmi Pandit who became India’s permanent representative at UN would often place flowers on his grave.


  1. As far as I understand Vijaylaxmi had a roaring affair with the affable Syed Hussain. Some critics of Nehru family says they were married. But later was forced to break and Vijaylaxmi was married to Ranjit Pundit. These are not recorded anywhere, but historical gossip insist they were married. He was basically banished from Congress as Motilal was close to Gandhi. He went to USA on lecture tour and was not heard for political activities in India. Incidentally, Syed was from East Bengal, now Bangladesh. His position was later taken by George a Kerala Christian.

    1. They had eloped and got married. The marriage was broken up by Nehru who packed off Syud Hossain as Ambassador to Egypt and Lakshmi as Ambassador to Moscow - just to keep them apart. Nehru arranged a hasty wedding with Pandit. Elopement and marriage papers were left behind with Gandhi. After Gandhi's death they were sent to Nehru upon his instructions. On receiving them Nehru ordered them destroyed. These tidbits are in the book by Mathias, who was Nehru's secretary.

    2. This is the truth - I am the great grand daughter of Syud Hossain and have heard this story directly from my maternal grandfather who was Syud Hossain's nephew (brother's son) as well as from my mother. He did get married to Smt.Vijayalaksmi after a love affair but, this marriage was secretly broken up and he was practically banished from India under the guise of 'India's ambassador to Cairo'... Even his dead body was not allowed to return to India. However, he was given a state funeral in Cairo and, I believe that's where his final resting place is.
      Thank you very much for posting this information! Iffat Hussain - NJ, USA email:

  2. Thank you Dhar sahab for your comment.

  3. As per books at, Syed Hussain used to spell his name "Syud Hossain". Under that spelling, many articles which have his name can be found in the New York Times archives. A September 15, 1948 article names Syud Hossain as the Ambassador from India to Egypt. Brief quote:

    "Cairo - Sept 14- An Arab spokesman disclosed today that Lebanese Premier Riad el Solh had offered Lebanon's services to "explore the possibilities of mediation between Hyderabad and India....Earlier today the Indian and Pakistan Ambassadors to Egypt issued conflicting statements about Arab mediation. The Indian Ambassador, Dr Syud Hossain, declared that there was "not one iota of truth" in the report that the Arab Leage had offered to mediate...."

  4. Thank you for your comment. Click
    to read my another post on Syud Hossain.