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


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  4. Nice article! i happen to come across the below link that will download a pdf. It has reference to Syud hussain and his championing of the turkish cause. (khilafat?)