Besides laying the platform for Aligarh Muslim University, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was the first Muslim public intellectual of the nineteenth century who propagated a way of life that drew on cultural pluralism. He deliberated upon the issues that kept Indians content with their ignorance for centuries, and these issues still have a direct bearing on our social life.
Familiar with many social communities, Sir Syed tried to eliminate the sectarian attitude that fostered a conservative point of view. He believed that the sentimentalism was neither beneficial for the individual nor the country.
Many accuse Sir Syed of fomenting the Urdu–Hindi controversy, and his espousal of Urdu is branded as an act of sowing the seeds of separatism. The first half of the nineteenth century witnessed a fierce debate on the language policy of the government. In 1837, the East India Company replaced Persian with English, and in various provinces, the regional Indian language became the official and the lower courts language. Accordingly, Urdu was made the official language in Bihar, the Central Provinces, and North-Western Provinces. The educated Hindus did not appreciate this, and several representations were made. The government issued instructions to use simple language.
In 1868, a committee for the propagation of Hindi was formed in Banaras, and Babu Saroda Pershad Sandal was made its secretary. At that time, Sir Syed was a Judge of Small Causes in Banaras. Babu Saroda Pershad sought his opinion on the issue, and Sir Syed wrote an article on the subject. To make the ordinary readers aware of the argument in favour of the Devanagari, Sir Syed had Sandal's article published in his weekly, The Aligarh Institute Gazette . Describing Hindi as the language of the majority, Sandal said that Urdu was not used by many illiterate and semi-literate people living in rural areas. The frequent use of ambiguous Persian and Arabic words rendered it irrelevant.
Sir Syed denied that Urdu was heavily loaded with Persian and Arabic words, idioms, and expressions and said, “Only people fully conversant with Persian make excessive use of such words and the majority use and easily understandable words.”
He wondered if any language other than the commonly used mixed language known as Urdu existed in the North-Western Provinces. He saw no merit in the argument that Devanagari was acceptable across the provinces.
Sir Syed believed that a language carrying a high degree of exactness should be made the language of the courts and here Hindi looked inadequate. Hindi and Urdu were the same languages to Sir Syed, and the unpleasant nature of the debate deeply hurt him. At the height of the Urdu–Hindi controversy (1868–1869), “The Aligarh Institute Gazette” published 26 articles, and although not necessarily espousing the cause of Urdu, it gave considerable space to the protagonists of Hindi. The publication of articles in support of Hindi reveals Sir Syed’s unwavering commitment to journalistic ethics.
The language controversy barely subsided during Sir Syed’s time. He described it as a significant political issue while appearing before the Imperial Education Commission. The cause of Urdu was very close to his heart and one day before death when the pressure mounted on the Lieutenant Governor of the North-Western Provinces to implement Hindi, Sir Syed argued that public acceptance must be taken into consideration before granting the official status.
For Sir Syed, the popularity of a language could be gauged if one found out how many newspapers were published in the language. “If we find that most of the books, journals and periodicals are published in Urdu, it should serve as sufficient proof of the fact that the script in actual everyday use in the country is Urdu language.”
He also referred to the letters that the post offices of the North-Western Provinces and Bihar delivered. It manifested the popularity of the language. Sir Syed fought a battle against attempts to replace Urdu with Nagri in all government offices and courts. He found no justification to discontinue Urdu, though he was of the view that the language of the rulers should be made the language of the courts.
Here one can see a contradiction in Sir Syed's argument. First, he makes a plea making the popular language (the people's language) the language of the courts and the government offices, and then he demands that the language of the rulers be accorded the status of the official language.
Historian Francis Robinson is of the view that both the Hindu and Muslim elite were initially inclined towards Urdu, but when some Hindus tried to further the cause of their culture and interests, Sir Syed turned hostile, and he decided to fight for Urdu.