Syed Mahmud – A Great Nationalist

Mohammad Sajjad

Syed Mahmud ( 1889-1971 ) was one of the greatest nationalist politicians of Bihar. Inspite of his political stature,   the publication division of the Govt of India has not published his biography and the department of history, AMU has ignored its alumnus in undertaking research on his life and times.

He was born in the village Syedpur Bhitari, Ghazipur (UP). His father’s name was Md Umar and grandfather’s name was Qazi Farzand Ali. His ancestors had come to Bihar during the Lodis. His political life started in Aligarh where he received his education during 1901-08. Here he was among those few students, who were trying to make Muslims join the ongoing anti colonial nationalist struggle led by the Indian National Congress. He, along with his friends, participated in the annual session of the Congress in 1905 at Benaras, presided over by G.K. Gokhale, the political guru of both Gandhi and Jinnah. It was in this session that the resolution of free compulsory primary education was adopted.

It was the time when the MAO College (later AMU), Aligarh was undergoing a great churning; students had started expressing their anti colonial proclivities. In February 1907, he led a strike against the British manned management of the college. It started with disciplinary action against a sharp student, Raja Ghulam Husain, who had some confrontation with a constable in the annual exhibition (numaish). Violating the assurance given by the European Principal to Mohsinul Mulk, six students including Syed Mahmud were punished. This administrative high handedness led to student unrest and the college was closed down till 2nd April 1907. The enquiry committee submitted its report subsequently only to invite many controversies, notes of dissent; and the anti colonial assertion of the students was major concern of the European staff.  Growing proximity of the students with the Congress was their great worry. They had formed a secret anti British ‘society’ in 1903 where matters and strategies to expel out the British from India were deliberated. All this earned them epithets like ‘Qaum’ for S. Mahmud and ‘Agitator’ for A.R. Bijnori. During those days the hostel rooms of the students were decorated with the portraits of the Sultan of Turkey, The German Kaiser and of Gokhale. They were the anti British symbols.

On 5th February 1907, few days before the agitation, a large number of students had assembled at the Aligarh Railway Station to welcome Gokhale, who delivered a mesmerizing speech on education. Syed Mahmud had then got elated and said, ‘Now I can die happily; seeing these Muslim students, I am assured of the freedom of my country’. Later this anti British group of students was joined by others like Saifuddin Kitchlew. They remained opposed to the Muslim League leaders like Syed Ameer Ali and Nawab Salimullah, who displayed loyalty towards the British. In 1908 when Aligarh was the venue of the annual session of the Muslim League, Syed Mahmud strongly condemned and agitated against those resolutions which demonstrated pro-British feelings.

Having been expelled out of Aligarh, he went to the Lincoln’s Inn of London to become a barrister. Later, wrote a thesis on “Mughal Politics and Administration” from the Cambridge. He also got influenced with Pan Islamism under the influence of W.S. Blunt and E.G. Brown. Here also he organized some students and developed ideological conflicts with Ameer Ali (d.1928), who was running the London branch of the Muslim League. In 1909, in London he came in contact with Mahatma Gandhi and J.L. Nehru. In 1912, he obtained Ph.D from Germany and came back to India, and from 1913 he started his legal profession in Patna under the able guidance of Mazharul Haq. In 1915, he married Mazharul Haq’s niece. Throughout his career he insisted on communal harmony, played significant role in the Congress- League Pact of Lucknow in 1916. Served with the Home Rule League, AICC and gave up his legal practice to participate in the Khilafat Movement. He also authored, The Khilafat & England. In 1922, he was imprisoned. In 1923, he was elected Deputy General Secretary of the AICC. In 1929, with M.A. Ansari, he formed ‘Muslim Nationalist Party’ within the Congress, and became the General Secretary of the Congress, and served in this capacity till 1936. In 1930, along with M.l. Nehru and J.L. Nehru he was imprisoned in the Naini Jail of Allahabad, for his participation in the Civil Disobedience Movement.

The correspondences of Syed Mahmud reveal that by 1939, he had developed considerable disillusionment with the Congress on the issue of communalism, which he wanted to be addressed on priority. In fact, in 1937, when the Congress was going to form ministries in provinces, according to Maulana Azad, Syed Mahmud was the most deserving candidate for Chief Ministership in Bihar, but Rajendra Prasad played a game, called two essentially caste leaders viz. Shri Krishna Sinha (Bhumihar) and Anugraha Narayan Sinha (Rajput) from the Central Assembly and got S.K. Sinha ‘elected’. Azad expressed his agony in his India Wins Freedom (P.17), (blamed Rajendra Prasad who threw his weight behind S.K. Sinha), and said that ‘the Congress failed the test of Nationalism’. Whereas Rajendra Prasad’s Autobiography fails to defend the act, only thing he says that he did not repent the decision.

The S.K. Sinha led cabinet made him Minister for Education, Development and Planning in 1937. His emphasis was on providing primary education to largest possible number of people, worked for revision of curricula, appointed Urdu teachers in the Patna University.

He fought for raising the proportion of Muslims in the government jobs and in the local bodies. To mitigate the Hindi-Urdu tension, he launched a bilingual (Urdu &Hindi) newspaper called Raushni. He also wrote a book, A Plan of Provincial Reconstruction (1939). It became so popular that several editions were re-printed in the same year. It displays his vision for the problems like public health, education and human resources, material resources of Bihar. This book dealt at length about rural indebtedness and agricultural finance. During 1946-52, he was the Minister for Transport, Industries and Agriculture in Bihar. He was engaged in such exercise when other big leaders of Bihar were engaged in caste based factionalism, much lamented by R.M. Lohia, Jaya Prakash Narayan and Sahajanand Saraswati.

In 1949 he suggested to Nehru to enter into a particular military pact with Pakistan in order to safeguard the nation from China which could not materialize. Pained with communal partition of India, an optimist in him motivated him to write another book Hindu Muslim Accord (1949), celebrating the ‘Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb of India’. During 1954-57 he was the Union Minister of State for External Affairs but resigned due to eye troubles. He participated in the historic Bandung Conference (1955), where the Panchsheel was spelled out. He played remarkable roles in India’s useful diplomatic relations with the Gulf countries, Iran and Egypt.

By 1940s, the Muslim League leaders of Bihar had developed a low level hostility against him, so much so that they instructed their followers not to participate in the last rites (janaza) of his mother –in-law, the marriage ceremony of his daughter was sought to be disturbed by the lumpens claiming to be supporters of the Muslim League.

In June 1961, the communal riots and the abdication of responsibilities by the state disillusioned him. It got further accentuated in the riots of 1964, when he started re-thinking the question of minorities in both India and Pakistan, founded the Muslim Majlis Mashaweraat (MMM), yet he warned against having exclusive identity based political party in the India’s secular democracy. He rather wanted it to act more as a pressure group. In April 1968 he left the MMM precisely because its leaders started talking in exclusivist language.
In post-Independent Bihar, the Congress leaders acted  as caste leaders, established linear network of patronage distribution. For example, the Bhumihar and Rajput leaders had their ‘sub-contractors’ in many districts, who established a large number of high schools and colleges, offering recruitments to their caste fellows. These employees acted as their electoral strength/booth managers. Syed Mahmud did not develop this kind of linear networks of patronage distribution.

Nadeem, the Urdu monthly from Gaya (Bihar), in its special number on Bihar, 1940, claimed that its idara had all the manuscripts to write a comprehensive biography, Hayat-e-Mahmud.

The writer is a Lecturer at the Centre of Advanced Study in History AMU, Aligarh

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