Badruddin Tyabji : The first Muslim president of Indian National Congress

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Badruddin Tyabji

By J.S. Bandukwala

 The nineteenth century saw one of the profound changes in Indian history. The centuries old Mughal empire was unwinding. The East India Company was tightening its administrative, commercial and military grip over this vast country.  For Muslims, this was a period of considerable angst. 

 The glory of Akbar and Shah Jahan were distant memories. Deep uncertainty prevailed over the community. In a sense it was similar to the current national phase. Lack of education  and business was  added to the gradual slipping away of power from Muslim hands. At this stage two fascinating Muslim figures appear: Sir Syed Ahmad and Badruddin Tyabji.  

 Sir Syed was a generation senior to Tyabji.  Yet they had almost diametrically opposite vision of the future of Muslims in India. Their  opposing viewpoints were to play a crucial part in the next two centuries .  Sir Syed was a part of the Mughal establishment  in the last days of the empire. He could see the inability of the Mughals to cope with the huge historical challenges that were about to engulf the vast sub continent.  He correctly judged that for Muslims.  The crux of the problem was the illiterate mass of the community. More vital he judged that the English were replacing Muslim rule  and therefore the animosity between the English and the Muslims would widen to a break point. That would be disastrous for the community. 

 Sir Syed went out of his way to build bridges between English rulers and the Muslims. His role in bringing Muslims closer to the new rulers was substantial. In a sense, he made it possible for Muslims to accept British rule in India. By the same token, Sir Syed widened the gulf between Hindus and Muslims. Hindus would have preferred an axis between the two communities. We must note that in those days communications were difficult and travel was very rare. Even if Sir Syed desired a Hindu Muslim axis, it was beyond his capacity and the tempestuous days after 1857, to play any meaningful role in uniting the two communities. Years later, it was to culminate in the partition of our dear country.

 The other major figure was Badruddin Tyabji, born in October 1844, into a Shia Sulaimani Vohra family at Cambay near Bharuch.  Shia Vohras of Gujarat are basically small businessmen,  tracing their origins to Yemen. Being petty businessmen, they were mild and avoided any controversy in public. This again was a shrewd tactic adopted in the peak of Mughal rule, to avoid clashes between Shias and Sunnis.

 It was far better to be adjustable, than be dead.  Note that Sulaimani Vohras, even today may barely number around 10,000, concentrated mostly in Hyderabad and Vadodara. Yet the role they played in national life is far far beyond their small numbers. The principal credit goes to Badruddin Tyabji. Unlike Sir Syed Ahmed, Tyabji realized the vast importance of a national   political body, the Indian National Congress, founded in 1885.

 Being educated at Bombay’s Elphinstone and with connections with England, his involvement with the Congress was immediately welcomed by the new body. Principal point was that he was an educated Muslim who understood the issues facing both Muslims and the country. He became the third President of the party,  and helped cement the impression that the Congress in those days represented Muslims and Hindus. But being a very polished gentleman, he avoided  a clash with the British and also with the vast Hindu community. His focus was on law, and he became the first Indian to be appointed Chief Justice of a High Court. In this case it was the one at Bombay.

He left behind a most welcome legacy of a family that believed strongly in one united India. The legacy of Sir Syed sadly culminated in the rise of Mohammad Ali Jinnah. The consequences are too painful for all the people  of India. The millions who perished, and the millions who continue to suffer today due to NRC and lynchings will ever condemn the partition of the country. Equally it was partition that made it possible for an aggressive majoritarianism to emerge in India. It substantially weakened the impact of Gandhi on India. Note that Pakistan is worse of compared to India, proving that  Jinnah’s  Pakistan as a homeland for Muslims failed. Strangely the one country that has come out very well in recent years is Bangladesh, which went beyond religion, and focussed on improving its socio-economic indicators. It is the fastest growing economy in the Asia Pacific region.

 Badruddin Tyabji was fortunate in his family. His legacy lives on due to the impact his children and grand children had on India in general, and Muslims in particular. Abbas Tyabji became very close to the Mahatma. It was he who organized the Dandi salt march, right down to selecting the exact site of the satyagraha and the place where Gandhi stayed at Dandi.  Rehana Tyabji and her sister Hamida were Gandhiji’s early walking support.  Rehana was Gandhiji’s favourite ‘bhajan’ singer. It is remarkable that over a century ago, this Muslim woman, from a conservative family played such a role for Gandhi himself. Another grand daughter Surayya had the high honour to design our national flag. Azeem Tyabji was a pioneer in Muslim education in the old Baroda state. Idris became the Indian Air Force Chief, and later the Governor of Maharashtra. 

 Badruddin, a grandson, was Vice Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University and Ambassador to Japan. This list goes on and on as the third and fourth generations play their part in helping Muslims integrate into the national mainstream. There are national level artists like Naseem and the Cabinet Secretary Zafar Saifullah from the large family who enriched and served the country. Most vital, their presence made it easier for Muslims to settle down and live in India, after the trauma of partition.

 As we honour Badruddin Tyabji on his birthday, October 10, let us also honor his family who made it easy for Indian Muslims to adjust to the India afrer 1947.

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(The author  is  a retired  professor  and a well-known human rights activist based in Vadodara, Gujarat.The article was first published in IndiaTomorrow.net )

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