Sir Syed and India s Islamic surgery


Recently, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, founder of Aligarh Muslim University (Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College), received fulsome tributes on his 200th birth anniversary. Khan was a devotee of British rule even before the Mutiny (1857) forced the Crown to directly administer its Indian territories, hitherto held in trust by the East India Company, and make plans to safeguard its empire in India.


Civil servant A.O. Hume created the Indian National Congress in 1885 to control the intellectual energies of a rising class of educated Indians. Some years later, the Muslim League was nudged into existence, to trigger Muslim separatism and contain the Hindu majority.


Having successfully used political Islam as a tool to instigate the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire, the British again deployed it to surgically partition India and protect their strategic and commercial interests in the oil-rich Gulf, Asia, and the Indian Ocean. Hence, the client state of Pakistan, which cannot survive without a powerful patron (currently the United States and China, whose conflicting interests could tear it apart).


Baloch scholars have emerged as vocal critics of the partition of India, which exposed them to unspeakable atrocities by Pakistan. Naseer Dashti observes that post-1857 the British mooted the theory of Muslims being a separate nation to split India on religious grounds; they hired writers to promote the ‘two-nation theory’ and helped set up religious schools (madrasas) in different parts of the country.


Janmahmad says that in 1888, Syed Ahmad Khan, “a retired clerk and spy of the East India Company, was financed to open the famous religious school in Aligarh and he was officially portrayed as a great Muslim intellectual”. Later, loyal Muslims were united under the banner of the ‘All India Muslim Conference’ which, along with the madrasas, propagated separatism and provided leaders and cadres for Pakistan.


Britain used religion in the Central Asian Khanates to instigate opposition to the Russians in the ‘great game’ for control of Central Asia. From the late 19th century, robust attempts were made to mobilise Muslims in Central and South Asia, Middle East and North Africa, against the infidels (Russians). After the Bolshevik Revolution whose anti-imperialist slant attracted Muslims, the target became atheist socialists. 


London exploited the latent desire of Muslims to establish true Islam. Dashti says the terminology of Islamic Umma was twisted to create a pan-Islamic movement, for which writers and activists were hired across India, Turkey, and Egypt. Jamaluddin Afghani was one such recruit. Born in Kabul or Asadabad in 1839, Afghani was the son of an East India Company agent in Afghanistan. As with his birthplace, there is controversy about his roots (possible Jewish or Persian Shi’ite links); but he preached Islamic fundamentalism and is considered the founder of modern political Islam.


British experts Wilfrid S. Blunt and Edward G. Browne controlled Afghani and got him appointed to various important positions in Afghanistan, Turkey, Egypt and Iran. In 1869, he was sent to India to coordinate intellectual efforts on the “two-nation theory”, but was withdrawn when he could not get along with Syed Ahmad Khan and his group. British manipulations placed him in Cairo’s Al Azhar University where he recruited many students, most notably Muhammad Abduh, founding ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood Movement. 


Afghani’s colourful career took him to Paris, where his pan-Islamist circles included Egyptians, Indians, Turks, Syrians, and North Africans, mostly recruited by the British military in Egypt and India. In 1885, Britain got Afghani appointed as Persian prime minister, but after being expelled for plotting to kill King Nasir ad-Din Qajar, he went to London in 1886 and helped to destabilize the dynasty by recruiting Ayatollahs and other clerics; some powerful Ayatollahs and clerics ruling Iran since 1979 are direct descendants of Afghani’s recruits. 


The recruits helped Britain to divide India on religious grounds. They already had a blueprint in the partition of Bengal in 1905. This was followed by the creation of the Muslim League in 1906. Dashti says the League comprised loyal Muslims, British spies, and persons whose families served the East India Company. The League was empowered through the introduction of separate electorates at the provincial level in 1909. The Communal Award in 1932 accentuated the communal divide, and the stage was thus set for Muhammad Ali Jinnah.


The ‘Quit India Movement’ cleared the path for the Muslim League which openly supported Britain during the War. However, the League’s links with the colonial state did not appeal to the majority of Muslims and in the elections of 1937, the League failed to secure a majority vote in any Muslim majority province. This prompted London to quickly impose partition on the country and secure strategic facilities such as the Karachi port and air bases in North West India for Western imperial interests in the region. 


On 3 June 1947, Viceroy Louis Mountbatten announced the partition of British India into India and Pakistan. The provinces of Punjab and Bengal were divided and Pakistan created with the merger of Sindh and North-Western Frontier Province; soon thereafter, British Balochistan was also annexed to the new Islamic state.


Realpolitik thus made Pakistan the first country to be created on the pretext that people of one religion cannot live with people of another faith. The notion that religion constitutes a nation defies all established norms of nationhood. Janmahmad dubs this ideological foundation of Pakistan as superfluous and without any historical truth. The people who invaded, ruled and settled in India from the 9th century onwards were a medley of Middle Eastern and Central Asian nations and tribes who never constituted a nation. National identity, he points out, derives from common origins, common language, common social values and traditions, common history and territory – all of which are absent in the case of Pakistan.


Yet this ‘Allah given and British created’ state was ushered in with unprecedented speed, in just six years of mooting the Lahore resolution, and without any movement on behalf of the general populace. Its entire ‘national leadership’ was exported from what remained of India; its ideology was created by the colonial power; its national language, Urdu, was not the lingua franca of any constituent province; and the population of regions included in Pakistan was overwhelmingly against the creation of Pakistan.


Given its flawed conception, Pakistan had to be subservient to its Western masters. Those who celebrate Syed Ahmad Khan and other imperial minions must realise that they are upholding the continued subordination and lack of agency of the Muslim world, even in the 21st century.


Article was first published in and


Also read

1. Aligarh Movement 

2. How the British divided Punjab into Hindu and Sikh

3. Who was responsible for Partition

4. How the British created the Dowry System in Punjab

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