Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Syud Hossain: India's voice for freedom abroad

I had written about Syed Hussain, who was the first editor of Independent, the Allahabad-based paper started by Motilal Nehru before he left India. However, a very eminent author and historian told me that Hussain did not end his attachment to Indian nationalism and was in fact independent India’s first ambassador to Cairo.

Ever since my earlier post I have been trying to find more on Hussain's life after he left India and I must admit he was one of the most interesting personalities of his time who sadly never made it to history book.

Let me begin by saying that this eminent orator, writer and one of the foremost crusader for India's independence used to write his name as Syud Hossain and not Syed Hussain. During his lifetime he himself noted that his name was often mis-spelt and I guess it continues even after he is no more. Interestingly, Indian embassy in Egypt writes him as D Sayed Hussein.

Syud Hossain was born on June 23, 1888 in Calcutta (according to his passport application to the British Government) in an illustrious and aristocratic family. His father Syud Mohammed was a well-known scholar and the Registrar General of Bengal. His maternal grandfather was Nawab Abdul Latif Khan Bahadur who did pioneering work in the field of education in Bengal.

In 1909, Syud Hossain attended Lincoln's Inn to study law. While in England, Hossain took part in debates and discussions and became popular among the Indian students in London. In 1916, he joined Bombay Chronicle to assist B G Horniman, its legendary editor. He became involved in the Home Rule Movement in Bombay and in 1918 was selected to go to England as secretary of the Home Rule deputation.

In 1919, he joined Independent and made his mark with catchy headlines and fiery editorials. While in Allahabad, Hossain and Vijayalakshmi Pandit fell in love but faced stiff opposition for their marriage. The affair attracted national as well as the international press for several years. The April 27, 1949 issue of the Miami Daily News mentions about their affair and noted 'just a few weeks before her Washington appointment was announced, Syed Hussain was found dead in his corner suite at the famous Shepherd Hotel...His intimates there swear he died of a broken heart'.

Syud Hossain's affair with Vijayalakshmi Pandit should not overshadow his contribution to India's independence. Hossain's intellect and personality made him one of the prominent voices for India's cause across the world.

In 1920, Hossain went to England as part of the Khilafat delegation and stayed there to fight for India's independence. In London, he became the editor of the official publication of the Congress. From the UK he went to USA where he stayed till 1946 except for a brief period in 1937 when he came back to India.

While in America he became a darling of the press and the intelligentsia. His oratory skills and knowledge left the Americans in awe. The Los Angeles Times described him as 'the most distinguished Indian visitor in America since Tagore' while the New York-based Foreign Policy Association said: 'Of the hundreds of speakers who have addressed our conferences during the past five years, none were more brilliant or authoritative than Mr Hossain'.

He became a headache for the Britishers who tried as much as they could to contain him. He addressed hundreds of lectures and took part in debates at Universities, social clubs, international organisations on the need for India's independence. Worried about his influence, the Britishers managed to block Hossain from speaking at the Town Hall of New York. However, Hossain's passion and flair for language ensured he always remained a sought after speaker.

A letter dated May 15, 1930 by Julian Arnold (working for the British govt) in Chicago to the then British consulate general Godfrey Haggard describes Hossain as 'richly endowed with the two essentials of a good speaker, viz his grace in diction and fire in expression'. Describing the debate 'Is British rule in India a failure?' Arnold notes that Hossain's opponent, George Young,went down like a 'house built of cards'. The Britishers were always on the lookout for a 'strong speaker to oppose him' (Hossain).

Hossain also had a deep knowledge of the major religions of the world and his interest in philosophy gave him the power to captivate the cream of the American society. His impeccable manners, aristocratic background and charm made an enormous impact on women. His secretary Mrs Kamla V Nimbkar (who was an American married to an Indian engineer) noted that the American ladies would exclaim that 'if India could produce a man like Syud Hossain it could not be a very backward country'.

Asaf Ali, another freedom fighter who went on to become the Governor of Orissa was Hossain's friend and classmate at Lincoln's Inn. In the book Dr Syud Hossain, A glimpse of his life, speeches and writings, Asaf Ali notes: "He was handsome in appearance and even more handsome in his relationship with his friends and adversaries. His command over English was of outstanding distinction and his general love of literature, Persian and Urdu particularly, was of the nature of a deep passion."

Hossain was a special lecturer on World Affairs at University of Southern California and he was also the editor of the New Orient magazine in New York. In September 1945, Hossain suggested to Jawaharlal Nehru if he could come back to India and work towards Hindu-Muslim harmony and stand for elections. Nehru consulted Asaf Ali and Gandhiji. He then cabled Hossain, '...Gandhiji thinks you can do more important work in America'.

According to M O Mathai, Nehru's personal secretary, in 1945 Hossain and Vijayalakshmi were seen together several times in the US. Gandhiji received letters from Indians in America that Hossain was following Vijayalakshmi everywhere. Mathai believes 'Gandhi's shrewd advice was to prevent the gossip mill from running overtime impairing Pandit's usefulness'.

Hossain had the highest love and respect for Gandhiji. In his several lectures he emphasised on the crucial role played by Gandhiji in India. He even wrote a book, Gandhi: The saint as statesman. After independence he was made India's first ambassador to Egypt where he died on February 25, 1949. He was given a state funeral and a road was named after him in Cairo.

Syud Hossain's contribution has gone largely unnoticed because he was not a mass leader and fought battles for India in intellectual circles abroad. Sadly, even the intellectuals in India seem to have forgotten him.

Also read...

Syed Hussain: Man behind Motilal Nehru's Independent

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Babur Ki Aulad? Who, me?

There is something about identity that excites us. It is far too complex to express in words. Babur Ki Aulad: Hindustan Ki Talaash Mein Ek Play, (Sons of Babur, A Play In Search of India is the English version) the book recently released seeks to trace the Mughal history.

The origin of the book is the five-act play penned by Salman Khurshid. Khurshid has stated that is was the complex questions relating to (his) identity among other things that led to the play.

'Babur Ki Aulad' has for sometime been used to address Muslims in India. It is supposed to associate all Muslims with the Mughal rule and hence with Babur, the founder of the Mughal empire in India.

As I said before, issues relating to identity are very complex. Two months back when I was at the Victoria and Albert Museum I saw a chair commissioned by Nawab Ghaziuddin Haidar of Awadh. It was designed on the lines of the prevalent trend in European countries and not modelled on the thrones used by the Mughal kings and princes. The exhibition 'Indian Maharajas' noted that the Nawabs of Awadh sought to 'establish a new style that marked an ideological separation from Mughal taste and turned to European inspired art and architecture'.

While a South Indian Muslim will almost never associate himself with Babur (he will feel much closer to Tipu Sultan or Nizam of Hyderabad) we should remember that even a Lucknowi is more commonly referred to as Nawab rather than a Mughal.

So who are the sons of Babur? North Indian Muslims? Baburnama, which has kept me busy many a lazy afternoons and the period between dinner and a good night sleep, has helped conclusively prove that I am not Babur's Aulad. Page 387 of the The Baburnama translated and edited by Wheeler M Thackston says 'Dham Deo with four thousand' (troops) along with Rana Sanga fought against the Mughals in the battle of Khanwa (a place near Agra) in 1527.

The Mughals were victorious and the Rajput army was scattered. Dham Deo and his elder brother Kam Deo came down to Ghazipur with their families and followers. According to a book, Evolution and Spatial Organization of Clan Settlement by S H Ansari the Sakharwar Rajputs of Gahmar (one of biggest villages in Asia situated on the bank of river Ganga) emerged from Dham Deo and Bhumihars and Kamsar Pathans emerged from Kam Deo.

Five centuries later all the three clans continue to co-exist in Ghazipur (between Zamania and Gahmar) but not many are aware of their close historical lineage. In the days when farming was still bereft of tractors and fertilisers, these 'brothers' used to share the cattle for ploughing and other agricultural activities.

A school established by a Kamsar Pathan at Dildarnagar, which is the main market town for the villages inhabited by the three clans, is more popularly called 'Rajput'. It took me some time to realise that it reflected the origin of my forefathers. Thus Kamsar Pathans (with the surname Khan) have no qualms in calling their school 'Rajput.'

During a train journey to Ghazipur in 2006, I met an elderly man retired from government service. He was from the Bhumihar clan (closer to me than the Rajputs of Gahmar) and told me that since our 'grandfather' was the elder brother, he gave Dham Deo the more fertile part of the land in a fatherly gesture.

Though I have spent all my life in Mumbai and am now based in London it perhaps makes no difference being a Babur Ki Aulad or progeny of the Rajputs 500 years later. That said I am glad to know the identity of my forefathers.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Haroon Rashid: The man who brought an 'Inquilab'

When Haroon Rashid, editor of Mumbai-based Urdu newspaper Inquilab, passed away on March 4, 2000, there were condolence messages from people from all walks of life. Right from Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the then prime minister, to the not so well-known social workers in the interiors of Maharashtra.

However, there was a letter in Urdu written by a veteran Bollywood actor that really got me interested. And mind you it was not a mere two line condolence, but a proper letter in chaste Urdu. I am not sitting in moral judgment, but I had never thought that the actor in question would prefer or would be comfortable to write a condolence in Urdu.

It was perhaps the charisma of Haroon Rashid, that the actor thought it would be apt to share his thoughts with the family in Urdu. It was the same charisma through which Haroon Rashid had managed to bring about a great awakening among Muslims by making them realise the importance of education. An editor would any day prefer to rub shoulders with the high and mighty, and concentrate on networking rather than focusing his energies on making education popular among his brethren.

His mission: Education

However, Haroon Rashid was a man with a mission. A firm believer in Sir Syed Ahmed's policy of getting Muslims educated, he used to travel the length and breadth of Maharashtra exhorting the virtues of books and pens. He used to place special emphasis on the education of girls and delivered several lectures stressing its importance. He used to give prominent display to news items pertaining to educational achievements of Muslims. His columns and writings were very popular among the masses and he never used to miss a chance to laud the achievements of Indian Muslims in any field.

It is to the credit of Inquilab and Haroon Rashid that Muslims in Maharashtra got drawn to education in a big way. Students from Urdu-medium schools now regularly feature in the merit list and are going for higher education. He used to be in regular touch with school principals, activists and educationists and discuss ways and measures to get more Muslim children into schools.

During SSC (class X) and HSC (class XII) results he used to take the seat numbers of students in the small locality at Charni Road, Mumbai where he stayed. As newspaper offices used to get board results in the morning, he would know how the boys and girls had fared. Later, he used to come with boxes of sweets and personally give them to those who were successful. That was the only time when most of the youngsters would like to come in touch with him, for it was much better to stay away than to answer his queries on school and studies.

The boys, including this blogger, used to be careful to ensure that he doesn't catch them playing or just hanging around indulging in plain teen speak. I remember getting caught once. While I was busy trying to locate the rubber ball (a gully cricket match was on) all my friends had disappeared seeing him entering the compound and I found myself coming face-to-face with him. "Kya Ho raha hain?" (What's happening). "Ji, kuch nahin, padhai ki aaj maine," (Nothing. But I studied today), I answered. "To sab bhaag kyun gaye?" (Why have they all disappeared), he asked before he went away.

As a young boy, I enjoyed reading the columns of M V Kamath and Lajpat Rai in Mid Day, a tabloid based in Mumbai. I used to religiously cut the clippings, as both these writers would try to cut each other through their writings. Once, when I had an opportunity to meet Haroon naana (as I used to address him) I asked him why would M V Kamath and Lajpat Rai write the way they did. He gave a small smile, and after that I was witness to a barrage of opinions and reflections from him over the next few years, as I started meeting him almost every day at his house.

His personality: stylish, smart, sophisticated

Haroon Rashid had a towering personality and did not suffer fools gladly. Widely travelled and well read, he had a passion for collecting watches. He had hundreds of books in his personal library. As a child, I remember trying to locate books through their titles stacked on the bookshelves. They were so many that after every few days I used to forget which part of the bookshelves they were kept on. Sadly, he lost his collection when his house was burned down in the 1993 Mumbai riots.

Haroon Rashid also became immensely popular due to his oratory skills as much as his writings. He was stylish, smart, sophisticated and knew how to keep his reader and audience engaged. Whether you understood Urdu or not, if you listened to him he would leave you spellbound. He was a much sought after speaker and would get the audiences enthralled by his fiery speeches.

He did his schooling from Anjuman Islam High School, Bombay and went to Aligarh Muslim University for further studies. When he came back to Bombay, he preferred to be called Haroon Rashid instead of Haroon Ismail Khan, his birth name. He was inspired by the famous Caliph and also thought Haroon Rashid was trendy. His major break was Urdu Blitz where he used to write on sports and later rose to become its editor. After Blitz, he joined Inquilab, where with his passion for journalism he took it to greater heights.

During the Kargil war, there were all kinds of patriotic songs played everywhere. I had accompanied him to Pune for a family event, and suddenly he decided to fax an editorial to Bombay. "This is not the time to play just any plain patriotic songs. Instead, there are several songs that talk about our strength and military might, which would raise the confidence of our forces and the common man," he announced. He explained to me that it was a time to take on the enemy and hence the songs on the radio should be in sync with the quest for victory. He was a workaholic, and would rush back to office after coming home in the event of major news.

As a young boy his advice was invaluable to me. He told me each person should make his own destiny and there are no shortcuts in life. Just as he had made for himself.

Haroon Rashid was born in district Ghazipur of Uttar Pradesh. At a function to honour him after his death in Mumbai a prominent politician remarked: "Ghazipur is famous for its opium factory. After meeting Haroon Rashid one has the same nasha (intoxication) as opium."

Ten years after he passed away, I am still in a trance.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Homosexuality, AMU and Chughtai

Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras and his suspension by the Aligarh Muslim University has triggered a debate on an individual's right to privacy and moral conduct of a professor on the campus. Siras, who was the chairman of the department of Modern Indian Languages was suspended after he was caught indulging in sex with a rickshaw puller.

While the debate centres around the privacy-morality issue, is there an investigation being done on whether Siras used his influence and took undue advantage of students? There has been no comment or concern from the authorities at AMU regarding this.

Instead, all we hear is that homosexuality is an unacceptable behaviour and hence should be punished. So while a camera crew invaded Siras's house to film him in the act (and succeded), and the University promptly acted in suspending him, what is being done to find out if there are any victims? Was Siras actively looking for partners on campus? Was he taking undue advantage of his position? All these issues have been engulfed by the rants of 'homosexuality is evil'.

More than 60 years back, there was a similar (perhaps bigger) uproar when a celebrated writer touched upon the issue of lesbianism in a fictional story. Ismat Chughtai (pic left), who studied in Aligarh, had to face an obscenity charge in the Lahore high court for her story, Lihaf.

Chughtai received several hate mails directed at her family and even her infant daughter. The issue created a lot of tension within her household.

Lihaf explored the relationship between a woman and her maid and was first published in 1941, and later went on to inspire Deepa Mehta's controversial movie Fire in 1996.

It was in December 1944, that Chughtai, who was living in Bombay, was served court summons from the Lahore high court in connection with the case. Giving her company was Saadat Hasan Manto, who too was served a summon just like her, asking to be present in the court in January 1945. Manto was being charged with obscenity for his short story Bu.

I present a small part from Kaghazi Hai Pairahan by Ismat Chughtai translated in English by Tahira Naqvi and Muhammad Umar Memon. It describes a day at the Lahore high court:

There was a big crowd in the court. Several people had advised us to offer our apologies to the judge, even offering to pay the fines on our behalf. The proceedings had lost some of their verve, the witnesses who were called in to prove that “Lihaf” was obscene were beginning to lose their nerve in the face of our lawyer’s cross-examination. No word capable of inviting condemnation could be found. After a great deal of searching a gentleman said, “The sentence ‘she was collecting ‘ashiqs ’ (lovers) is obscene.”

“Which word is obscene,” the lawyer asked. “‘Collecting,’ or ‘‘ashiqs’?”
“The word ‘‘ashiqs,’” the witness replied, somewhat hesitantly.
“My Lord, the word ‘‘ashiqs’ has been used by the greatest poets and has also been used in na‘ts. This word has been given a sacred place by the devout.”
“But it is highly improper for girls to collect ‘‘ashiqs,’” the witness proclaimed.
“Because … because … this is improper for respectable girls.”
“But not improper for girls who are not respectable?”
“Uh … uh … no.”
“My client has mentioned girls who are perhaps not respectable. And as you say, sir, non-respectable girls may collect ‘ashiqs."
“Yes. It’s not obscene to mention them, but for an educated woman from a respectable family to write about these girls merits condemnation!”
The witness thundered.
“So go right ahead and condemn as much as you like, but does it merit legal action?”

The case crumbled.

While Chughtai and Shahid Dehlavi (the publisher) stayed in Lahore at the home of one M Aslam, a prominent resident of the city, they were constantly asked by him to apologise in court to help close the case. As he insisted, the duo asked him if the city's moral brigade was responsible for the case!

Till the time Chughtai died and even for her obituaries, Lihaf continued to dominate over her other masterful works. I hope it is not the same for AMU, and this scandal does not overshadow the past laurels and the future goals of this university, which is a proud legacy of Sir Syed Ahmed.