Sir Syed Ahmad Khan is often remembered as the founder of Aligarh Muslim University. However, while people see him as an educationist, they fail to appreciate his wider intellectual faculties and vision. The organized effort started by him to popularize modern education among Muslims was much more than establishing schools and colleges. Syed Ahmad wanted Indian Muslims to develop scientific temper, rational thinking and logical reasoning. Religious orthodoxy, in his view, was the cause behind backwardness of the Muslim community. Sadly, after almost 150 years, the community continues to face the problem.
The world, in the last two years, has witnessed the first major pandemic of the post War era. While on the one hand Covid-19 has shown our limitations in preparing ourselves for such diseases, on the other development of vaccines within a short span is an evidence of the triumph of modern sciences. The devastation caused by the disease is evident and yet a lot of people are averse to vaccination. It is not the first time that the world stands divided over vaccination; during the late 20th century people were divided into two camps over the issue of smallpox vaccination.
Most of the Indian nationalist leaders of the time were against the smallpox vaccination as they believed that it was an unnecessary interference by the English government into Indian religious practices. At that time, Sir Syed believed that the Indians should embrace the advancement of medical science wholeheartedly. The fact that Indians, in the name of religion, were opposing the vaccination drive disturbed him. As a member of Viceroy’s Legislative Council, he introduced the Vaccination Bill in the Council on 30 September, 1879, which proposed to make vaccination legally compulsory.
While introducing the bill, Sir Syed said, “I am suggesting a law consistent with the policy of humanity and toleration”. He presented the data showing that more than 4.5 lakh Indians had perished to smallpox in the British controlled Indian territories during the previous five years. Not many, he believed, in India opposed the vaccination drive but a few who refused to get vaccinated were risking others for no fault of their own.
He reasoned, “The infection carries it from neighbour to neighbour, and those who suffer from the calamity may be said to be instrumental in inflicting it upon others. My Lord, if this view is supported by the undeniable results of science, the question no longer remains one of only personal liberty. Even if it be granted that a man has a right, if he chooses, to die of small-pox, no respect for personal liberty would justify the harm which he does to his neighbours by conveying the infection.”
Several educated Indians argued that with time people would know the pros and cons of the vaccine and thus accept or reject the vaccination accordingly. So, the people should be given time to judge and voluntarily decide in favour of the vaccine. To this, Sir Syed argued, “To expect that people will gradually come to the knowledge of benefits derivable from vaccination, and will of their own accord resort to it without necessitating the application of any legal pressure is, he says, a hard-hearted cruelty; and that it reminds one of the old proverb, 'By the time the antidote is fetched from Iraq (Mesopotamia), the snake-bitten is no more'.”
The people who opposed the vaccination were putting the whole country at risk. The argument of personal liberty did not hold good and he made it clear that, “in a matter of this kind the discussion resolves itself into the simple question whether the indifference or opposition of a part of the community should be allowed to deprive the whole community of advantages which the truths of science and the conclusions of actual experience have made undeniable.”
Sir Syed further told his fellow members and the Viceroy, “I feel that I am advocating the cause of humanity against the indifference of the majority, and the vague and unfounded prejudices of a limited section of the population…….. I find it difficult to conceive of any vague apprehensions of opposition, or the existence of unfounded prejudices can have greater weight than the absolutely certain fact of the enormous loss of human life which the absence of a well organised system of compulsory vaccination involves.”
The bill could not be passed at that time in its original form but it displays the foresightedness and empathy of Sir Syed. Time proved that the smallpox vaccination was indeed effective and if it was made compulsory at that time, the act could have saved lakhs of lives which India had lost because of religious orthodoxy in the next few decades.
It is high time that we revisit Sir Syed Ahmad Khan not only as an institution builder but also as a thinker, philosopher and science communicator.
(Saquib Salim is a Writer and a historian)