A once great but now mostly forgotten Bangalorean was Mirza Ismail. A distinguished dewan of both Mysore and Jaipur, in those princely states he reformed and modernised the administration, beautified their capital cities, and emphasised modern education. In both Jaipur and Mysore, there are roads named after him, as well as charming markets that he had built.
Mirza Ismail was a close friend and admirer of Mahatma Gandhi’s. After Gandhi’s remarkable fast for peace in Calcutta in September 1947, Ismail wrote to him that ‘you are rendering the greatest possible service to India in her most trying time. Your moral influence on all communities — Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, alike, and on all races, whether in or outside India, is at its highest today.’
I recently came across Mirza Ismail’s address to the 1945 convocation of the Benares Hindu University. The vice-chancellor of BHU at the time was the philosopher Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, who had once taught at Maharaja’s College, Mysore, and knew Mirza Ismail well.
After thanking Radhakrishnan for inviting him, Ismail drew the audience’s attention to the troubling atmosphere in which he spoke. During the war, when Gandhi and Congress leaders had been in jail, Jinnah and the Muslim League had made rapid strides. Communal polarisation was growing. In this context, Mirza Ismail argued that ‘the more deeply one understands and feels the vital truths of one’s own religion, the more responsive one is to the religion of others’. Yet, sadly, in the India of 1945-46, ‘having absolutely forgotten religion, and being moved only by narrow and mistaken ideas of communal self-interest, our communities are everywhere engaged in hostilities which degrade our religious names’.
As one modest step to recover a better and more ennobling, idea of religion, Mirza Ismail asked: ‘Might not [the universities of] Benares and Aligarh, in concert, exert that uplifting and reconciling power which can most naturally be found in great universities? I am sure that both deeply desire this, and I believe that the closest contact and alliance between them might make an immense difference to our future’.
Mirza Ismail thought a closer alliance between BHU and AMU could be a prelude to a deeper rapprochement between currently warring groups. He believed that in all universities, ‘every graduate, every true alumnus, should seek to exercise the right and privilege of an emissary of reconciliation among all the peoples of India’.
Three years earlier, Gandhi had delivered the Convocation Address at the BHU. There, he had likewise urged his hosts to encourage regular interactions with the university which carried ‘Muslim’ rather than ‘Hindu’ in its name. And so Gandhi asked his audience: ‘Have you been able to attract to your University youths from Aligarh? Have you been able to identify with them? That, I think, should be your special work, the special contribution of your University. Money has come in, and more will come in if God keeps [the BHU founder Madan Mohan] Malaviya ji in our midst for a few more years. But no amount of money will achieve the miracle I want — I mean a heart-unity between Hindus and Muslims.’
I don’t know whether Mirza Ismail had read Gandhi’s address before he travelled to Benares. In any case, Ismail was deeply committed to inter-faith harmony — he bitterly opposed the Pakistan movement — and he might on his own have urged the BHU to forge a closer collaboration with AMU in the larger interests of the country.
In his Convocation Address, Mirza Ismail moved from matters of faith to matters of science. Modern science and technology had produced many marvels, but, cautioned this wise Bangalorean, these could just as easily be used for ill as for good. The atom bomb had just been tested on the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; as Ismail presciently warned, ‘that demoniac power will be available ere long to many nations’. Turning to a slightly older invention, that of the radio, Ismail noted that in the years since it had been in operation its main use ‘has been for propaganda, largely untruthful, in the service of conflicting national policies’.
Mirza Ismail next turned to industrial and economic development. When India became free, he said, ‘there must be one single aim, and that is not the wealth of India, still less the wealth of industrial leaders, but simply and solely a really adequate and comfortable livelihood for the whole people, their deliverance from the acute physical want in which literally the majority of them are living now’.
Towards the end of this speech, this good Bangalorean and better Indian spoke of how university education, at its best, enriched and furthered ‘the life of reason in thought, speech and act’. University administrators must be open-minded; for, as Ismail put it: ‘The rigid mind is even worse than the volatile one’. Then he added: ‘And what of the sealed and empty mind? There are many such.’
The emphases in the words quoted above are all Mirza Ismail’s. His speech was pertinent for the times, but it is no less relevant for ours. Our universities are in turmoil, in part because administrators prefer rigidity to creativity, in part because rival political ideologies have superseded the search for truth, knowledge and understanding for many students and teachers.
Mirza Ismail’s speech should be read and digested by vice-chancellors and education bureaucrats, the chairman of the University Grants Commission, and education ministers in all states (and in the Centre as well). I think the Honourable Member of Parliament from Varanasi might profitably read it too. It was published in Volume 1 of the Indian Annual Register for 1945, a copy of which I possess, but which should be available in any decent library in India.
Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Gandhi Before India. He tweets by @Ram_Guha.
(The views expressed are personal.)