Sir Syed Sultan Ahmed

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Sir Syed Sultan Ahmed

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Sir Syed Sultan Ahmed

September 30, 2007

REVIEWS: Fond memories

Reviewed by Dr Muhammad Reza Kazimi


Sir Sultan did not believe in the two-nation theory; yet there was unpleasantness between him and the Nizam when Sir Sultan tried to induce him to transfer a portion of his wealth to Pakistan.

THE 60th anniversary of independence affords an opportunity for reflection and S. Tanvirul Hasan has performed a signal service by producing this biography. Ever since Azim Husain wrote on the life of his father Sir Fazli Husain, family memoirs have carved a respectable niche in the historiography of South Asia. The author cannot hide his sentiments any more than this reviewer can, yet S. Tanvirul Hasan has made a conscious effort at objectivity while putting the life of his grandfather in context. So much so, that the Life and Times of Sir Sultan Ahmed appears not as the title but the subtitle of the book.

Starting practically with the regimen his grandfather followed, the author speaks of Sir Sultan’s life long habit of sleeping early, rising well before dawn to study. He next treats the legal and political career of Sir Sultan Ahmed. Sir Sultan was called to the Bar from Grey’s Inn in 1905. His political career began with the membership of the All-India Muslim League. He was not present at the inaugural session at Dhaka, but attended the Karachi 1907 session (p26) Sultan Ahmed as joint secretary was able to put the Bengal Muslim League on a sound footing. Syed Sultan Ahmed moved a resolution in the 1912 Bankipore (Patna) Session of the All India Muslim League calling on the British to recruit Indians to the higher echelons of public service. It was during this session that he first met Jinnah. During that time, a fugitive Muhammad Ali Jauhar was hidden at his Ripon Street, Kolkatta residence. When an undercover agent came to investigate, he was driven away by the umbrella brandished by Sir Sultan (P.27)

Meanwhile his practice was thriving. In 1919 he was elevated to the Calcutta High Court at the age of 39. This he did in deference to the wishes of his father Khan Bahadur Khairat Ahmed. When his father learned that the appointment was causing financial loss to his son, Sir Sultan was allowed to step down. His list of clients included the rajas of Tekari, Dumrao, and Hatua, the nawabs of Bhopal and Khagra; and last but not the least, the Nizam of Hyderabad. (P.35)Sir Sultan next turned to education. In 1916 the students of Bihar, for a reason still inexplicable, had opposed the establishment of a university at Patna. Employing his forensic skills Sir Sultan argued with the students till they gave in and the University of Patna was established in 1917. He also countered the efforts of Rajendra Prasad to make the new university a vernacular university. From 1923 to 1930, Sir Sultan was himself the Vice Chancellor. During his tenure, the Bihar College of Engineering (1924), PatnaMedicalCollege (1928) and a full fledged ScienceCollege (1927) were established.

While mentioning Sir Sultan’s contribution to education, S. Tanvirul Hasan does not shy away from mentioning his patronage of classical music. He had turned the marriage ceremony of his son S. Najmul Hasan into a veritable music conference. At the All India Music Conference, 1940, when the chairman of the reception committee denigrated classical music, while favouring the modern version, Sir Sultan turned his presidential address into a court room rebuttal, giving one of the most learned discourses on Indian classical music in the English language.

Another dimension of Sir Sultan’s activities was his exposure to international politics. In 1938, he was a member of the Indian delegation to the League of Nations. In 1939, he headed the delegation and was also nominated to ICJ at The Hague, but war intervened. Sir Sultan Ahmed’s discourse on International Relations finds some place in his treatise A Treaty Between India and the United Kingdom (Allahabad, 1944). At the time of partition, Sir Sultan Ahmed was chairman of the Indian Institute of International Affairs.

S. Tanvirul Hasan after mentioning Sir Sultan’s efforts during the formative phase of the All India Muslim League, discusses in detail his expulsion. It was caused by Sir Sultan joining the Viceroy’s Executive Council, first as the law, and then as information and broadcasting member.

S. Tanvirul Hasan has cited the Transfer of Power Papers extensively and has not stinted from recounting that Lord Linlithgow disliked Sir Sultan, considering him ‘as leaky as a sieve’. What the author does not cite are the books of V.P. Menon about the transfer of power and the integration of the Indian states, with which Sir Sultan was directly concerned as legal remembrancer to the Chamber of Princes. He has been misled by Durga Das into believing that Sir Sultan and the Nawab Chatari approached Lord Wavell together at the behest of the Quaid-i-Azam to negotiate the All India Muslim League’s entry into the Interim Government. Actually they had met Wavell separately, Chatari was critical of Jinnah. Sir Sultan had indeed called on the Viceroy directly after meeting Jinnah, but since Jinnah and the Viceroy had met two days previously, Sir Sultan’s efforts were in the nature of a follow through.

Returning to Sir Sultan’s expulsion, S. Tanvirul Hasan speculates: ‘Sooner or later, Sir Sultan would have resigned from the Muslim League. He did not believe in the two-nation theory’ (P.124)

Regarding Sir Sultan’s refusal to resign from the Viceroy’s Executive Council at the time of Gandhi’s fast to death, the author ruminates: ‘In hindsight it was perhaps politically a wrong decision. Post 1947 the Congres government had nothing to offer Sir Sultan.’ (P.140)

It is a moot question whether Sir Sultan himself viewed matters in that light. Firstly it was not unexpected. Ten years earlier the Congres had removed Sir Sultan from the post of advocate general, although he had brokered their entry into the provincial ministries. If he had wished to pursue a political career there is the October 1999 testimony of the journalist Ved Prakash Mehta that the Quaid-i-Azam had offered Sir Sultan a cabinet post in Pakistan (P 226). Even in resuming his law practice, he had to be tricked into it by P.R. Das.

Sir Sultan did not believe in the two-nation theory; yet there was unpleasantness between him and the Nizam when Sir Sultan tried to induce him to transfer a portion of his wealth to Pakistan. The Nizam made a belated attempt but since his check was based on Indian securities, it could not be cashed. Sir Sultan Ahmed tried to obtain favourable terms for the Nizam. When the Indian government arrested Sheikh Abdullah, Sir Sultan Ahmed rendered him legal advice. What then did he stand for? This Sir Sultan Ahmed elaborated in A Treaty between India and the United Kingdom, which of course, merits a separate review.


Freedom and Partition: Life and times of Sir Syed Sultan Ahmed By S. Tanvirul Hasan

Commonwealth Publishers,

New Delhi

ISBN 81-311-0121-5

363pp. Rs995

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