Wednesday 16th Apr 2014
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Post-1857 Muslims: Victims of The Great Civilizing Mission

Cover Story


SOROOR AHMED points out the real reason behind the fall of the Mughals and subsequent decline of Muslims in the subcontinent.

"Perhaps there are few communities in the world among whom education is more generally diffused than among Mohammadans in India," wrote Major General Sir William H. Sleeman about 19th century Muslims of the sub-continent.

He went on further:

"He who holds an office worth twenty rupees a month commonly gives his son an education equal to that of a prime minister. They learn, through the medium of Arabic and Persian languages, what young men in our colleges learn through those of Greek and Latin – that is grammar, rhetoric, and logic. After his seven years of study, the young Muhammadan binds his turban upon a head almost as well filled with the things which appertain to these branches of knowledge as the young man raw from Oxford – he will talk as fluently about Socrates and Aristotle, Plato and Hippocrite, Galan and Avicenna; (alias Sokrat, Aristotalis, Alfalatun, Bokrat, Jalinus and Bu Ali Sena); and, what is much to his advantage in India, the languages in which he has learnt what he knows are those which he most requires through life."

Sleeman, who was Colonel at the time of his stay in India and famous for his suppression of the Thugs, was a leading critic of the administration of the Indian courts. But in his book Rambles and Recollections of an Indian Official, he had to admit that the madrasa education given in Delhi was something quite remarkable.

This one small passage from his book explodes a huge myth woven by many post-1857 Muslim intellectuals that the Mughals lost the power because they were educationally inferior to the British. Right from Sir Syed days till date there is no dearth of Muslims who failed to understand the real reason behind the fall of the Mughals and subsequent decline of Muslims in the sub-continent.

One just does not need to trace the distant past to know the answer for the fall of any great power. The Soviet Union was a Super Powerand in many ways it was even superior to the United States of Americayet in 1990 it got dismembered. This was not because the Russianswho form the main bulk of the populationsuddenly became illiterate. In fact they formed one of the most educated societies of the world. There was no dearth of Russian scientists, doctors, engineers, artists, social scientists, novelists, journalists, etc. The Soviet Union withered away within a couple of years after losing a military battle in the lofty mountains of Afghanistanand that too to the least developed and the least literate people of the world.

The Soviet Union was literally cut to the size of present day Russia because the people lost faith in its political ideology and system. This second most important Super Power witnessed a great fall just because the ruling establishment lost its destination and became rudderless and its policy to invade a neighbouring country to reach the warm waters of the Indian Ocean proved counterproductive. The ruling clique failed to gauge the mood of the people and the army and the country had to pay the price.

Once the ruling class lost its very purpose, all the scientists, scientific institutions, weapons of mass destruction, nuclear bombs and what not seemed to disappear. Some of the bombs literally fell into the hands of international smugglers who sold them in the black market to the various terrorist outfits of the world.

Not to speak of the defeat in Afghanistan alone the army of the most advanced country of the world got a bloody nose from the tiniest part of its own country, Chechnya. Ironically the Chechens in 1994 and even later fought on their own without the support of any external power.

The irony is that the Soviet Union collapsed not because any enemy invaded, captured and destroyed Moscow. It was during the Second World War that the Soviet capital faced such a threat. The second most important global power lost its status only months after its withdrawal from Kabul to the international border with Afghanistan, near the Oxus river.

A nation without any ideology, purpose, goal and commitment is like a toothless tiger. Once the motivating factorCommunism in the case of Soviet Uniondisappears, the biggest country of the world finds it difficult to tackle tiny Afghanistan and Chechnya. When the motivational level was high it was the same people who during the Second World War stoutly defended their country against the Germans and that too when they lost 1.25 crore people. It needs to be mentioned that the Soviet Union of 1990 was much more educationally and scientifically advanced than the Soviet Union of 1940s. Yet the result was different.

A nation without any commitment is bound to be defeated even if it is educationally and scientifically much more advanced. Some of the intellectualsespecially those belonging to the Aligarh movementmay dub the pre-1857 people the most illiterate and the backward lot on the surface of the earth. But the truth is that from William Sleeman to William Dalrymple (the author of the recently published book, The Last Mughal) there are many historians who are of the view that Delhi was one of the greatest seats of learning on the planet even when the Mughal power was declining by the mid-19th century.

At the time of the arrival of the British in India the literacy rate of Muslims was 97 per cent, but when they left in 1947 it was just 11 per cent. When Ranjit Singh captured Lahore the literacy rate of the Muslims was 82 per cent.

There was no dearth of poets, writers, journalists, doctors, hakims, scholars on different scientific subjects, etc. at that time. The Mughal capital alone had 130 reputed Hakims and nine different types of newspapers used to come out from there. The Delhi College, which preceded the Sir Syed’s Aligarh College by several decades used to publish six journals and there was innumerable printing presses in that city. Muslims were quite open to the western learning and many relatives of the Emperor were well versed in English. Bahadur Shah Zafar himself was master of at least five languages.

The Mughals lost because the entire ruling establishmentnot just the Emperor and the immediate family membersbecame soft, corrupt, directionless and purposeless. When the Sepoys, especially from Meerut, 80 per cent of whom were Hindus – rebelled and asked the 82-year-old Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, who himself was a great man of learning, to take up the leadership of Mutiny, he initially declined on the grounds that the Mughals had not fought any real battle for the last one century. One of his Princes, who were very eager to fight the battle against the British, ran away from the battlefield situated between Meerut and Delhi when a cannon ball exploded near him. It was all right for him till his own forces were firing from the cannon on the British soldiers.

In spite of this the Sepoys and the Ghazisthe Muslim volunteers from different places, for example Tonk, Gwalior, Bareilly, etc.almost came close to defeating the British in this four-month long war. But in the end they lost because they were leaderless, the ruling class had no idea whatsoever of any battle and there was total lack of unity among different groups. While the Sepoys were very well equipped and the Ghazis – even their women fighters – were extremely dedicated, the lack of unified purpose and command led to their rout.

The British won as they had a purpose. They played the card of divide and rule with utter perfection and notwithstanding enmity with Sikhs, Gurkhas and Pathans they one way or the other managed to win their support. It is these politically ignorant groups of people who ensured the defeat of the combined army of Hindus and Muslims.

Be it the War of Independence of 1857 or the earlier battles fought in South India or Bengal, the ideology, purpose, commitment and goal played crucial roles. The British often resorted to treachery and exploited the service of betrayers.  

Mughals and Ottomans

A close examination of two great medieval Muslim empires – the Ottoman and the Mughal – would reveal some interesting facts. While the subcontinent is about to complete 150 years since 1857, it is exactly 90 years back that the Turks lost the Holy Land to the same Christianised western powers – to be precise in December 1916-January 1917.

While the Ottomans during their peak period ruled a large part of East Europe, Arab States and Asia Minor, the Mughals had a virtual monopoly over the subcontinent. But the Ottomans, in spite of being in confrontation with the much advanced Europe lost their empire much later than the Mughals who were far away from the embattled zone of the world.

The Ottomans were still winning battles deep inside central Europe much after the era of Sir Isaac Newton. By 1683 they were at the walls of Vienna. That was about two hundred years after the discovery of the United States and when Europe was on the rapid path of the scientific development. Even till the advent of the 19th century, the Ottomans were one to one still superior to any European empire. This was the time when it lost some of its territories in Africa and Europe. The Ottomans often faced more than one European power at a time. They lost all their territories and were forced to be content with what is called the present day Turkey after the First World War.

Incidentally, they lost to the might of entire European armies – minus Germany – the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Despite this grand alliance against the Ottomans, the allies were routed in the initial phase of the First World War at Gallipoli and in Iraq. They lost lakhs of soldiers to the Ottoman army. They later started losing the battle only when the Arabs started betraying them, especially in Hejaz and Palestine, the two holiest places for the Muslims world over. The British instigated the Arabs to revolt and the combined army of the English and French soldiers, with the help of Arab traitors captured Al-Aqsa exactly 90 years from today.

The Ottoman army was always battle-hardened because of its proximity to the European enemies. In fact, the ruling establishment of Turkey was least disturbed to keep Istanbul as the capital notwithstanding the fact that it was on the western side of the Bosphorus Sea and always exposed to the attack from the West. More centrally located Ankara became the capital much later in the 20th century.

In contrast the Mughals became soft, corrupt and purposeless as they had virtually no big enemy around them. The Himalayas and Hindukush worked as huge defence walls for them. In fact, the invasion by Nadir Shah in 1739 was the first big attack in two centuries from any external power and the attack by Ahmad Shah Abdali in 1761 had more to do with the Marathas than the Mughals.

Thus, instead of the external aggression, the Mughals started collapsing under the pressure of their internal enemies. Throughout the 18th century the British only tactfully capitalised on their weaknesses.

If the Mughals ruled essentially Hindu dominated India, the Ottomans too had a sizeable Christian population in the heydays of their power. So if the Ottomans lost – of course in the repeated battles throughout the 19th century till First World War – it was to the full might of the European armies. The Mughals lost to the much weaker British army comprising only a few thousand Europeans.

The latter Mughals became so much unimaginative that they even failed to form an alliance with the important regional powers, which earlier formed part of their own empire. At the end of the 18th century Tipu Sultan found it prudent to seek alliance with distant Ottomans. Besides, he fully exploited the clash of interests between the French and British. Unfortunately he lost not because of military inferiority but the great act of treachery.

A handful of British, not as well armed as their brothers taking on the Ottomans and other powers in Europe, won the entire India with relatively less ease. While it is the Whites who had to do a lot of fighting against the Ottomans – no doubt they took some Indians too to fight in the First World War – here in India the British won most of the battles by pitting one Indian against the other and by using the army coming from the indigenous population.

Save at the hands of Haider Ali and Tipu Sultan and during the War of Independence in 1857, the British did not face any big challenge in India. The British in India had to fight with the minimum number of European soldiers and with almost the same quality of arms and ammunition which their opponents possessed. True, in 1857 the Enfield guns played a crucial role but the big guns and cannons of the Indians too wreaked havoc in the British camp. In the later days India the British found the society more fragmented than anywhere else. 

Three Universities in 1857

The military-cum-political defeat made all the changes in the fortune. The post-1857 developments need to be examined closely from another angle as well. It was in 1857 that Calcutta, Madras and Bombay universities came into existence. True, the process of opening these varsities started before the May 11 Mutiny but still the year is very significant. By 1857 the British were the virtual masters of the country. Bahadur Shah Zafar was the titular head of Delhi. The establishment of these three universities does not mean that the people were completely ignorant and illiterate. What it means is that by then the definition of education underwent a sea change. Education is what is defined by Thomas Babington Macaulay. It was this man who ignorantly declared that "a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia."

In spite of praise of the Indian education system by Sleeman and others the objective of the British establishment was to uplift "the uneducated and half barbarous people of India."

In 1837 the British abolished Persian as the language of government and replaced it with English (and occasionally regional language as well) as in the words of Charles Trevelyan, disciple and brother-in-law of Macaulay, "only the pure fount of English literature (can make) headway against the impenetrable barrier of habit and prejudice backed by religious feeling."

He was of the view that "the languages of western Europe civilized Russians. I cannot doubt that they will do for the Hindoo what they have done for the Tartar."

Herein lies the crux of all the battles since the mid-19th century. Though we are being repeatedly told by our reformers that we lost the field as we were ignorant and the British well-educated, we were backward while they were much advanced, we lacked scientific temper while they possessed that quality, the truth however is that the Mughals or Indians as such lost because they did not know where to go and why to defend.

Looking back at the developments which took place in whole of 19th and 20th centuries from now – when there is complete domination of the West and the English language – is no easy task. Now that all the Mughal centres of learning, libraries and other institutions have been systematically destroyed, looted and taken away for further research by the British in the post-1857 years, it is an uphill task to conjure up the real India of that age.

But one thing is certain: had Muslims become outdated and unscientific, Tipu Sultan’s Mysore would not have developed missiles and Bahadur Shah Zafar’s army would not have tried their hands on projectile which could kill a large number of enemies with one strike.

How many of us now know that till 15 years back Russia used to possess a large tribe of scientists. There still are a large number of them in that country. But after the disintegration of the Soviet Union many of them had to leave that country and join the scientific and military establishments of other countries.

There is always a subtle effort to distract the people’s attention from the real issue. The purpose of this article is not to justify illiteracy and ignorance or devalue science but to explain that without any goal, purpose and commitment education more or less loses its worth. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was an unlettered man yet he brought about a great bloodless revolution in the most ignorant and illiterate society. He gave an ideology and asked people to follow it. In no time his followers became the rulers of the world and were the masters in science, philosophy, arts, poetry, navigation and what not. The most literate community, Jews, of that age could do nothing. When the later day Muslims lost the sense of purpose and became luxury-loving, lazy and morally degraded, they were out of world scene.¨

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