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‘We are more, we are equal’: Story of Syed Mahmood, colonial India’s first Muslim HC judge

In ‘Syed Mahmood: Colonial India’s Dissenting Judge’, Mohammad Nasir and Samreen Ahmed chronicle how India’s first Muslim judge left an Eastern mark on the Western world.

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The issue of representation of Indians in the imagination of the English as found in the books then piqued Syed Mahmood; particularly the depiction of manners and customs of Indian races highlighting their purported ferity. As per an account of Sir Syed, when a young Englishman approached Mahmood and asked him whether he was a Hindustani, he was embarrassed to identify himself as such and had quickly added that his ancestors had formerly been of another country. This incident ignited the fire in young Mahmood to change the perception about Indians.

In a speech at the public dinner during the foundation-laying ceremony of MAO College in January 1877, he is reported to have said that both Englishmen and Indians stood on the same pedestal as subjects of the Queen of England and submission to Her Majesty made them equal in status. In an article Mahmood wrote for the Calcutta Law Review in 1879, he remonstrated the use of the expression ‘our Indian subjects’ employed by common Englishmen exclusively for the people of a colony of the British Crown—India.

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The differential treatment meted out to Indians—in contrast to the people of Canada and Australia, also a part of the British empire and for whom no such expression was used—was found to be discriminatory, derogatory and violative of the exclusive privileges of the crown.

Mahmood wrote: ‘Our ‘Indian subjects’ is an expression which, in a speech from the throne, or in a royal proclamation, would not be out of place; but in the mouth of Englishmen who, like ourselves, do not breathe the Syed Mahmood atmosphere of sovereignty, the expression sounds as an attack upon ‘the divine rights of kings’, and a violation of the exclusive privileges of royalty. That the expression is commonly used cannot be denied, that it is never intended to have the sense in which we have interpreted it, gives it a significance greater than the importance of a mere verbal discussion. India is not the only dependency of the British crown; Canada and Australia are as much portions of the British empire as any part of India. But we do not remember even hearing Englishmen employ the expression ‘our subjects’ towards the people of Canada or Australia. It hardly lies in the mouth of Englishmen to use contemptuous language towards us, because we helped them to build the empire over which they hold sway; it is hardly befitting to give us the invidious name of their ‘subjects’ because we helped to bring about the supremacy of which they have become the owners’.

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Underlining the importance of semantics as vehicles of thought and not mere rules of grammar, he postulated that the difference of language, though apparently merely a verbal one, is in reality of greater consequence than a simple rule of grammar or use of idiom.

As language is considered to be the vehicle of thought, and thought as the basis of human action, then expressions in ordinary use indicate not only the feelings of Britishers who use them, but also their behaviour towards Indians. ‘The behaviour of Englishmen towards the people of this country is a circumstance of which the eloquent patriot the journey begins of the day often complains, which English philanthropy of the nineteenth century often denounces,’ he wrote. Lamenting that the consequences of the fallacy of the expression ‘Indian subjects’ culminated in the relations of Englishmen with Indians becoming a matter of national antagonism or of personal insult and provocation that result in unbounded injury to public feeling, he made an impassioned case to the Raj for respecting the sentiments of national morality by recognising Indians as ‘fellow-men’.

He appealed: ‘The legislature is abused; complaints are sent up to Parliament; Parliament only lends an indifferent ear to Indian questions, and vociferous clamour, thus defeated, finds shelter in the guise of whispered grumbling. If it is an infallible law of nature that there is no effect without a cause, that every cause is in its turn itself an effect of some other cause, the present state of feeling between the ruling race and the ruled must have adequate causes, causes which cannot be said to be conducive to the welfare of the British rule or the prosperity of India. Let Englishmen, instead of assuming the vainglorious name of ‘conquerors’, do justice to historical truth and national morality, to humanity and civilization, by recognizing, not only in words but in deeds, the millions who inhabit the vast continent of India, as their fellow-men, fellow workers, and fellow-subjects’.

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While it remains a bit of a mystery as to why Mahmood did not fully complete his Cambridge degree, Syed Mahmood successfully qualified as a barrister when he returned to India on 26 November 1872. At that time, his father Sir Syed was posted as the judge of the small causes court in Banaras.

The city of Banaras, along with his family and friends, gathered to celebrate the occasion, and to honour the first Muslim barrister of India. Mahmood lived with his father in Banaras before moving to Allahabad to begin his professional legal career. He frequently visited Banaras until Sir Syed retired and permanently settled in Aligarh in 1876.

According to Lieutenant Colonel Graham, the event is a landmark in the history of NWP (British India). He writes, ‘When Syed Mahmood returned from Cambridge and Lincoln’s Inn as a barrister at law, his father gave a dinner to celebrate the occasion. It was remarkable as being the first dinner in these provinces at which Mohammedan and English gentlemen sat down together.’

The dinner was presided over by Alexander Shakespeare (then commissioner of Banaras) and toasts were raised in his honour. Barrister Mahmood candidly spoke of his wish: ‘To unite England and India socially even more than politically. The English rule in India, in order to be good, must promise to be eternal; and it can never do so until the English people are known to us as friends and fellow subjects, than as rulers and conquerors’.

This excerpt from ‘Syed Mahmood: Colonial India’s Dissenting Judge’ by Mohammad Nasir and Samreen Ahmed has been published with permission from Bloomsbury India.

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