Monday, February 7, 2011

Ilyas Burney, a man lost in translation

Abdur Rahman Khan, who was the principal of 'Osmania College University' in 20s, wrote an interesting book 'My Life and Experiences'. The book details the struggle and the passion of the people behind the Osmania University. It gives an amazing account of the functioning of the institute and how the management dealt with getting the right faculty. However, as the medium of instruction was supposed to be Urdu, a Translation Bureau was established. This Bureau had the mammoth task of translating all books in Economics, Medicince, History, Philosophy and other subjects in Urdu.

Principal Khan's book is gripping for anybody interested to draw a picture of the working of an educational institute in those days. However, I was a bit disappointed as he did not write much about Ilyas Burney, who was heading the department of Economics at Osmania University. A graduate from Aligarh University, Burney was born in Bulandshahr. He had a brilliant record as a student and at Aligarh University won the Strachey Gold Medal.

He had studied LLB and was offered the position of a judge in the Nizam administered Hyderabad around 1915. However, as he was academically inclined he decided to get himself involved with the Translation Bureau. According to another version he was offered to join the Translation Bureau that got Burney to Hyderabad. Whatever be the reason Burney made Hyderabad his home for good and spent his working life enriching the social and intellectual circles of the city.

Burney's services were later utilised by the Osmania University where he joined the Economics department and also worked as the Registrar of the University. His book on Economics in the Urdu language was praised by none other than Allama Iqbal. A multi-faceted personality, Burney did not restrict himself only to Economics. He wrote dozens of books on several subjects and a travelogue that established his identity as a towering intellectual. He was well versed in English, Persian, Arabic and Urdu.

He worked closely with Baba-e-Urdu Maulvi Abdul Haq at the Translation Bureau. In 1934, he was appointed curator of the Translation Bureau. He had replaced the competent and versatile Maulvi Inayatullah. He wrote a book comparing the Urdu and Hindi scripts that earned him praise from several quarters. His book on the Ahmaddiya sect got a huge response. Titled 'Qadiani Mazhab' it was also translated in Arabic and is considered a masterpiece on the subject.

His immense knowledge and ability to get along with youngsters made him very popular. The Nizam appointed him to tutor the young princes. He was also President of the Football Club at Osmania University. He once spoke for two hours to the students at Osmania advising them ‘how to live a wholesome happy life’.

Burney's brilliance got the attention of Jinnah who wanted him, along with scholars from other fields, to work for the planning commission in Pakistan. I do not know the reasons, but he did not go to Pakistan and remained in India. The street where he had his house in Hyderabad is now named Ilyas Burney Avenue. S M H Burney, a civil servant in Independent India, who went on to become the Governor of Haryana and Manipur is related to him. Ilyas Burney died in 1959.


  1. Burney is an uncommon name. One Burney, or Barani, is ibn Tughlaq's minister. Another is the Pakistan editor IH Burney.
    One aspect of the creation of Pakistan that is relatively unexplored is the opportunity it allowed Muslims as a new state was created. Opportunities in employment and trade.
    Another man whose family says he declined Jinnah's invitation to go to Pakistan is Abdul-Hamid Ansari, founder of Inquilab.
    I am interested to know what Burney wrote about the Qadianis, and when. Did he follow the Iqbal line or the Nehru one?

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  4. Thanks for the comment Aakar. I do not know which line did Burney follow on Qadianis. It is equally interesting to explore the lives of those who chose to go to Pakistan. J A Rahim, ICS is one name that comes to mind.

  5. JA Rahim was a very interesting man. I read in a memoir, either by Bhutto's finance minister Mubashir Hasan, or by Rafi Raza, that Rahil was the most well-read person in the cabinet and could speak on many subjects knowledgeably.
    Bhutto had Rahim beaten up at home after they fell out. That is also referred to in that book.
    One of the most prominent officers to go was AIR's head ZA Bokhari, brother of famous writer Patras, apparently after being pushed by Patel. Among non-Muslims, one who went and returned was Jinnah's Dawn editor Pothan Joseph, though I think he returned before Partition.

  6. Professor Ilyas Burney was against Qadianism and wrote several books in English and Urdu covering the falseness of this group.

  7. yes i also read a book of ilyas sab, he is great writer, for all kind of translation, urdu, english, chinese, italian, japanese, etc
    urdu translation

  8. I am the eldest grandson of Professor Mohammed Elias Burney Sahab. I don't know exactly who wrote this article about my grandfather because not only it is a poorly written piece with incorrect spelling of his name (It should be spelled Elias and not Ilyas) and man did not even have the decency to address him as "Burney Sahab". And it is obvious that this man did not know very much about my grandfather. One of the most important item that was missed was that Baba was also a religious advisor to the Nizam of Hyderabad. He was offered two different Khitabs (Title) of Elias Yar Jung and Elias Nawaz Jung by HEH Mir Osman Ali Khan (7th Nizam) which he respectfully declined.