tenure as AMU V-C was marked by very tough, painful decisions, and
an unwavering will to stem the rot. His administrative skills as a
seasoned bureaucrat came in handy. His seniority in the IAS
fraternity (he had only recently retired from service) ensured the
respect of Aligarh district magistrate and superintendent of
police; his academic record got him the respect of teaching
community. That left students to concentrate on their study and
stay away from mischief.
At a meeting of the Indian Publications Ltd. (IPL), board chairman Saiyid Hamid is a picture of dignity – making an apt observation here, a polite intervention there. When the session gets too serious, he tells a joke to break the ennui. Everybody bursts into a laughter. The tedium is relieved.
At lunch break everybody gets up from his seat – the good Muslims among them head for the bathroom to make ablutions for the noon prayers. Saiyid Hamid stands patiently in the queue, waiting his turn. The prayer is led by an IPL peon, who leads the prayer everytime Saiyid Hamid prays in the office. Behind the peon, facing Makkah, stand some of the richest and most illustrious of Indian Muslims, equals in Islam, bowing to a single God.
Saiyid Hamid personifies humility and loves the company of humble people. However, his circumstances have not been humble – a former officer of the prestigious Indian Administrative Service, he went on to become the vice-chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University, his alma mater. "That was the greatest honour one ever got", he reminisces.
After prayers, the entire board troops down to the nearby Hotel Karim’s in Nizamuddin. At the site of delicious mughlai cuisine everybody gives discretion a go-by and gorges as if there would be no tomorrow, as if most of them already did not have a high blood cholesterol and triglycrides count, as if quite a few of them did not have a medically confirmed heart condition and excess body weight.
Saiyid Hamid, who is not plagued by any of these ailments of prosperity, eats sparingly – a chicken breast, some salad, a roti, some rice. He has perfect table manners – he eats daintily, tie firmly tucked in coat, no trace of food particles on his fingers or mouth, the white napkin unsullied. One wonders whether the Brits trained their bureaucrats to develop impeccable manners (Saiyid Hamid joined UP Provincial Services during the twilight years of the Raj, in 1945).
The above is a profile of one of the respected elders of India’s Muslim community at work, prayer and while partaking of food. At every occasion, his personal bearing, his humility, and his profound remarks make you feel that you are in august company. You know that here is a man who would not brook sloppiness, bad manners or inefficiency.
He always set himself a difficult task. He did an MA in Persian in 1945 after joining PCS. He had done his MA in English in 1944. He went on to join the Indian Administrative Service in 1950. He never rested on his laurels, nor does he like anybody doing that.
Many people from the generation of Muslims born immediately after independence find a role model in him. Here is a man who managed to build a sound academic record at a moment in India’s history when Muslims were afflicted with uncertainty. He joined PCS around the time when the country witnessed an outbreak of anti-Muslim hysteria.
The country was partitioned amid the most violent fratricidal fury. Indian Muslims were virtually running for their lives. Millions of them crossed the Indo-Pak borders to find shelter and hope for a new life. Amid that turmoil, a young (a highly eligible bachelor) Saiyid Hamid was rising through the ladders of bureaucracy. From there he never looked back.
His detractors complain that “he takes far more work for himself than is humanly possible for 10 persons to do.” There is a grain of truth here – he stubbornly refuses to accept that age matters, or there is a limit to human capabilities. A possible explanation could be that he is too polite to refuse request for help and guidance from myriad Muslim social and educational organisations in India and abroad. He even thinks of building another AMU, a great university of science and technology.
For the generation succeeding him he has been a role model for his endurance, his personal charisma, his concerns, his Sesyphus–like tenacity. The best point about it is that he has survived the vicissitudes of India’s political life with his dignity intact. He often advises Muslims to ensure their survival and prosperity through good education and high standards of public health (his mantra even before Amartya Sen put the seal of Nobel authority on it), closing of ranks and reaching out to Hindus, Christians, Sikhs and others. He wants Muslims to be considerate to Dalits.
Everytime there is a big anti-Muslim riot, he gets worried. He takes the loss of life, limb and property in his own stride. After all, he has seen rivers of blood flowing in 1947. What he worries about most is the effect of all this on the community’s morale (hausla). He insists on hausle ki bazyabi (the retrieval of morale) everytime the community is subjected to a massive pogrom (like in Gujarat in March-April). He tells Muslims not to lose courage, not to lose hope. And, yes, live with dignity. "A life without dignity is not worth living", is his constant refrain.
He demands very high standards from himself and others. Sloppily dressed, ill-mannered, bumbling oafs better stay clear of him. However, once in a while he feels that the standards could be too high and unrealistic for many Indian Muslims who, as a community, have found themselves at the wrong end of history right from 1857. "For the first time I realised it in Aligarh when I went there as vice-chancellor", he reminisces.
His tenure as AMU V-C was marked by very tough, painful decisions, and an unwavering will to stem the rot. His administrative skills as a seasoned bureaucrat came in handy. His seniority in the IAS fraternity (he had only recently retired from service) ensured the respect of Aligarh district magistrate and superintendent of police; his academic record got him the respect of teaching community. That left students to concentrate on their study and stay away from mischief. He would listen politely to student leaders, but sent the message that they better concentrated on their careers. The tenure as V-C was a mixed experience: he succeeded in crushing anarchy, driving ruffians out of the campus, restoring the dignity of Sir Syed’s university, regularising academic activity.
However, in his lone moments he wishes he could have found out some less heavy-handed way of dealing with the outside hooligans who had captured the campus. Honestly, nobody has yet been able to suggest a less brutalising way of arresting the rot at AMU where students had been murdered on campus, teachers and officials assaulted (a V-C was nearly lynched).
At AMU there are only two types of people – either they are Saiyid Hamid fans or they are violently anti-Saiyid Hamid. He finds it amusing. An AMU professor says, "Only two people built this university – Sir Syed and Saiyid Hamid". Obviously, it is an exaggeration. Saiyid Hamid thinks it is sacrilege. A sense of proportion is a sorely missed attribute in both pro-and anti-Saiyid Hamid camps.
Behind Saiyid Hamid’s tough, no-nonsense exterior lies an amazingly warm person. In true Brit tradition, he frowns at public display of emotion, preferring an Olympian stance that creates an illusion of his being above human frailties. However, nobody is a hero to his butler. People close to him have seen him deeply moved by incidents like the Gujarat pogrom and incessant media attacks on Islam.
After reading a particularly scathing piece on Indian Muslims, remembers an aide, "the Saiyid Sahib suddenly turned ashen-faced". In deep anguish he said, "Sharm se ji chahata hai zameen khod kar gar jaoon" (I am ashamed. I want to burrow myself in the earth).
The same aide remembers a moment when he was talking about the disempowerment of Muslims and their exclusion from the economy, business, political power, bureaucracy, police and security forces. In a voice laden with regret and dismay, he said in his characteristic, sophisticated Urdu, "Na hum kisi shumaar mein hain na qataar mein" (We, Indian Muslims, are not there in any queue, any reckoning).
The Muslim situation is a constant source of pain for him. On a personal level, he has seen his parents and long-standing friends leave him one by one. A few years ago he was devastated by his elder brother Saiyid Mahmood’s death in Pakistan around the time his friend Malik Ram died. Hamdard’s Hakeem Abdul Hamid’s passing away was a particularly sad event. Hakeen Sahib had been a role model for Saiyid Hamid for his "frugality, hard work, spartan living and public service". Hakeem Sahib had willed that his mantle of Hamdard University’s chancellorship should fall on him. Accordingly, he succeeded Hakeem Sahib as chancellor. As years pass by (he is 82), he finds more and more of his old friends leaving him.
However, he is not one to be overwhelmed by sorrow or self pity, again a trait associated with the British of earlier times. So, what should be done to bring Muslims back in "shumaar aur qataar"? He ponders for a while, and says, "Reservation in educational institutions, jobs. Our people need affirmative action till they are able to catch up with the rest of India". He reels off data to show how Muslims have been left behind.
His detractors complain that “he takes far more work for himself than is humanly possible for 10 persons to do.” There is a grain of truth here – he stubbornly refuses to accept that age matters, or there is a limit to human capabilities. A possible explanation could be that he is too polite to refuse request for help and guidance from myriad Muslim social and educational organisations in India and abroad. He even thinks of building another AMU, a great university of science and technology. True to character, he has been broaching the idea to people who can do something about it.
Another criticism that one often hears is that he allows all kinds of people – crooks and dishonest folk included – to come near him. His generosity and child-like simplicity could very well encourage all kinds of people to get close to him. Amazingly, this is one trait that he shares with some of the most respected ulama and sufis of the sub-continent over the last 100 years, down to the late Ali Mian Sahib. Despite their formidable learning and enlightenment, they possibly knowingly refused to distinguish between gentlemen and roughnecks, and did not prevent anyone from coming near them.
It is true that one can easily seek an appointment with him, virtually anytime of the day or night and go on rambling away, telling him all the bullshit that comes to one’s mind. Interestingly, he would not for once tell the visitor that he does not agree with what he is hearing. "Aap baja farmate hain" (you are quite right, sir) is his standard interjection. Even after the visitor leaves, he would not for once say that his time had been wasted, or he had been subjected to non-sensical talk. One wonders whether he is really bothered about the veracity or sensibility of what he has heard. To common people, impressed by his learning, erudition and experience, all this looks puzzling. Some are infuriated.
His reading habits reflect a classicist bent of mind. To him the only literature is canonical literature -- Chaucer, Shakespeare, Swift, Shaw, Dickens, Jane Austen in English. In Urdu Sir Syed, Hali, Ghalib and Iqbal. With Iqbal he shares a passion for the Persian Jalaluddin Rumi. Among contemporaries he has a soft corner for Shamshuddin Faruqui and Qurratulain Hyder, for quite obvious reasons. For him no Mills and Boon, please. And don’t mention Alistair Cook and Barbra Cartland before him.
In the final analysis, he is one of the last gentlemen (if not the last gentleman) among us, a nearly extinct species by now. It would be better to help and encourage him, rather than getting infuriated at his idiosyncrasies.