British education and Muslim alienation | Pakistan Today

British education and Muslim alienation

  • Adjusting to the new reality

As a result of the new education policy introduced by the British in united India, a new middle class took birth in the traditional society in the country which divided the existing society in more ways than one. It was a product of Western education and was almost absent among the Muslims. Their avoidance of Western education, their keeping away from trade and industry, and their adherence to feudal ways, gave a start to the Hindus which they profited by and retained. British policy was inclined to be pro-Hindu and anti-Muslim, except in the Punjab, where Muslims took more easily to Western education than elsewhere. Still they were conscious of the fact that they had come to dominate this vast subcontinent largely through subduing and undermining the authority of the Moghuls, so they followed a policy of keeping the Muslims out of reach of advantageous positions in the new Empire, or of neutralizing or counterweighting their power in places where they still continued to be dominant. Contrary to this, Muslims, having not yet forgotten the great days of the Moghul Empire, experienced difficulty in adjusting to a minority status among a subject population.

This all generated a feeling of frustration among the Muslims. The impact of British education and nationalist opinion touched none but a fringe of Muslim intellectuals. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was one of them. He realised the need for educating the Muslims in English, led the attack on Hindu domination and asked the Muslims not to identify themselves with the Hindus. Sir Syed was an ardent reformer and he wanted to reconcile modern scientific thought with Islam. He pointed out the basic similarities between Islam and Christianity. Above all, he was anxious to push a new type of education.

The early years of the 20th century witnessed two types of trend among the Muslim intelligentsia: one chiefly among the younger element, was towards nationalism, the other was a deviation from India’s past, and even to some extent her present, and a greater interest in Islamic countries and its faith

The beginnings of the national movement frightened him, for he thought that any opposition to the British authorities would deprive him of their help in his educational programme. Keeping in view the educational need of the Muslims he founded Aligarh College and tried ‘to make the Muslims of India worthy and useful subjects of the British crown.

He started the ‘Aligarh Movement’ to spread the Western education among the Muslims without weakening their allegiance to Islam. The movement aimed at evolving a distinct social and cultural community among the Indian Muslims more or less on modern lines. It condemned polygamy and the social ban on widow-remarriage which, though permitted by Islam, had crept in among some sections of the Muslims who were recent converts from Hinduism.

Although there was no serious feeling of hostility or resistance on the part of Indian Muslims, with the decline in the government’s suspicions for the Muslims, there was a greater acceptance of the latter and the Aligarh Movement contributed a lot to the participation of an increasing number of educated Muslims in the mainstream of modern India. But from the communal point of view it was admitted that the movement was essentially a reactionary movement of the Muslim upper class against the privileges that were being enjoyed by the Hindu middle class. Sir Syed Ahmad had a fear that the advancement of Hindus in all spheres would result in the domination of the Muslims by the Hindus.

At the beginning of the post-Mutiny phase the Muslims of India had hesitation about which way to turn. In spite of the Aligarh Movement of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and the Ahmadiyya Movement founded by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the Muslim intelligentsia was initially composed of the landlords or certain sections of the upper classes. They did not touch the urban or rural masses, who were completely cut off from their upper classes and were far nearer to the Hindu masses. The Hindu intelligentsia, because of its middle-class composition, could seek inspirations from the writings of Bentham, J. S. Mill and Comte. They developed a progressive and critical outlook.  But on the other hand, the Muslim intelligentsia had remained conservative and feared that if such ideas were allowed to spread among the Muslims, they would have a pernicious effect.  The then leaders of the Muslims failed to mobilise the Muslim masses in their favour mainly because they were products of the old traditional education.  However, for the Muslims, the revolt of 1857-58 marked the death of the old tradition and adaptation to the new environment, and use of the new forces that had come into play, acceptance of the new instrument of progress that had been created through English education. Soon the Muslims also appeared in the field of commerce and industries.

The British Policy towards the Indian Muslims had also gone a gradual change. This change was essentially due to the policy of balance and counterpoise which the British had pursued. Especially after the formation of the Indian National Congress in 1885, British policy became definitely pro-Muslim, or rather in favour of those elements among the Muslims who were opposed to the national movement. The unequal development of the two communities, the fact that for a long time the nationalist and social reform movement were dominated by Hindus and the discriminatory and often non-secular approach of the British —all sowed the seeds of the problem of national integration.

The early years of the 20th century witnessed two types of trend among the Muslim intelligentsia: one chiefly among the younger element, was towards nationalism, the other was a deviation from India’s past, and even to some extent her present, and a greater interest in Islamic countries and its faith. The old religion was based on the low level of economic and cultural development of the old society. It had to be remodeled to meet the needs of the new society. It had to be revised in the spirit of the principles of nationalism, democracy, an optimistic and positive attitude to life, and even rationalist philosophy. National progress became the main objective of these reconstructed religions. When religion itself was not repudiated or reformed, nationalism became identified with religion. As the religious reforms in Islam took place on a very small scale, the tendency towards nationalism was identified with religion itself. It became noticeable among the younger generation of Muslims.

The British Government encashed this Muslim sentiment and it was under the inspiration of the former that the Muslim League was started in 1906. The League had two principal objects: promoting loyalty to the British Government and the safeguarding of Muslim interests. Although it was formed to isolate Muslims from nationalist currents and the programmes of the Indian National Congress, it could not ignore the pressure of the younger generation coming nearer to the Congress.  Somewhat unwilling to keep the new generation aloof, it changed its creed of loyalty to government and supported the demand for self-rule for India.