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  Books   12 Aug 2023  Book Review | Why India forgot Syud Hossain, its first ambassador to Cairo

Book Review | Why India forgot Syud Hossain, its first ambassador to Cairo

Published : Aug 13, 2023, 12:05 am IST
Updated : Aug 13, 2023, 12:05 am IST

For those seeking to understand the context of the Khilafat Movement, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, look no further.

Cover photo of  'A Forgotten Ambassador in Cairo: The Life and Times of Syud Hossain' by N.S. Vinodh. (Photo by arrangement)
 Cover photo of 'A Forgotten Ambassador in Cairo: The Life and Times of Syud Hossain' by N.S. Vinodh. (Photo by arrangement)

When the bedazzling 30-year-old Syud Hossain from Calcutta met Sarup Kumari Nehru (Motilal’s daughter) coyly smiling at him across the dinner table at Anand Bhavan, his heart did a flip-flop. Hossain had been appointed editor of the Allahabad-based Independent by Motilal Nehru in 1919, which functioned out of the premises of Anand Bhavan where the condemned romance between Sarup and Hossain blossomed. They eloped, got secretly married and hastily so. But what awaited next perhaps ruined Hossain’s life.

The infuriated triumvirate – Mohandas Gandhi, Motilal Nehru and Jawaharlal Nehru – persuaded both to divorce. Not because Sarup was 12 years younger but because Hossain was Muslim. Sarup was later sent to Sabarmati Ashram, perhaps to “wash her sins”. She would subsequently begiven in marriage to Ranjit Sitaram Pandit, a Saraswat brahmin from Gujarat,in 1921, and be known to the world as Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit. Hossain never married.

Just like the N.S.Vinodh, the author of this tantalising account, A Forgotten Ambassador in Cairo, I, too, came across the run-down,abandoned and ill-maintained marble tomb of Syud Hossan, India’s first Ambassador to Cairo, in the Qarafa, City of The Dead, in February 2018. Though it did not at the time pique my interest, I later wondered why his remains had never been repatriated to India. Why was there not even one road or institution commemorating his existence? Unfortunately, my local tourist guide, a poor Bedouin, could not quell my angst.

But today, I know the answer and you should, too. Syud Hossain was born on January 23, 1888, in Calcutta. His father, Nawab Syud Mohammed, originally a Shia, converted into the Sunni sect, to marry Nawab Bahadur Abdul Latif Khan’s daughter. Abdul Latif is noted in history for introducing English in Mohammedan schools and was a member of Bengal Legislative Council.

Syud Hossain’s mother, Sahina Banu, died of cholera in 1890. The loss of his mother at the tender age of two was Hossain’s first bereavement. Nevertheless, the audacious Hossain studied at Calcutta Madrassa School (founded in 1780 by Warren Hastings) and later in Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College, now metamorphosed into Aligarh Muslim University. After he joined government service, like his father, he wrote his first book, Echoes of the Old Mecca. Later, in 1910, he resigned and went off to study law in Inner Temple, London.

The maverick Hossain wouldn’t become a lawyer, but a journalist. He wrote for the Pioneer, the Statesman, the Englishman, Foreign Affairs, New Age and the Asiatic Quarterly. Sarojini Naidu and Asaf Ali were his life-long friends. Following his father’s ill health, Hossain returned to India in 1916 and worked as the assistant editor of Bombay Chronicle. Due to the Defence of India (Consolidation) Rules of 1915, no newspaper could publish the atrocities of British rule, including the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and the other egregious impacts of the Rowlatt Act.

But on December 13, 1919, Hossain wrote for the world to know. His article,“Devils Dance while Angels weep”, is a heart-wrenching ode to the lives lost in Amritsar. Meanwhile, in India, he was president of the special session of the Congress on the Montagu-Chelmsford report in 1918 and coined the acronym – CMG (Chelmsford Must Go.) He had been a delegate at the second deputation of home rule to England by Annie Besant. Hossain spoke boldly for Hindu-Muslim unity, defied the narrative of the “white man’s burden” and openly critiqued communal British policies. Indeed, Motilal Nehru, utterly impressed by the young man’s chutzpah, had awarded him the position of the editor of the Independent. Unfortunately, after the annulment of his wedding, Hossain had no choice but to resign on December 18, 1919, and leave for England.

Back in England, he became the editor of India, a London-based newspaper of the British Committee of the Indian National Congress. Hossain wrote about the British atrocities not only in British India but also in Arabia, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Turkey and Persia. Unfortunately, India’s last issue was published on January 14, 1921. The internal frictions within the Congress and the lack of funding jeopardised the newspaper. Perhaps, Hossain was just an “undertaker to give the newspaper a proper burial”.

Hossain, now adept at living out of two suitcases and a myriad of hotel rooms, awaited his next journey. This time to the United States in October 1921. As the press representative to cover the first historical Arms Conference in Washington, DC, in November 1921, Hossain had the nerve to question the sordid role of the British in the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. The Indian diaspora adored Hossain. After all, he had a more moderate stand, instead of the extreme politics of the militant Ghadar movement. Also, his dashing looks were compared to those of Rudolf Valentino, the 1920s Italian sex symbol.

By 1924, Hossain became the editor of the New Orient. Essays from Rabindranath Tagore, Romain Rolland, Kahlil Gibran, Gandhi, Albert Einstein, H.G. Wells and Sarojini Naidu regularly feature don its pages. As a result, in 1928, Hossain’s name was put on MI5’s Blacklist of Indians.

In the roaring 20s of America, Hossain’s roar was the loudest. His lecture tours earned him a faculty position in the University of South California, Los Angeles. In 1937, he published another book, Gandhi: The Saint as Statesman. It did not irk him if his fondness for drink, lavish lifestyle or random flings gathered attention. Only his convictions mattered.

In 1937, during his sabbatical, he visited Egypt, Palestine and Syria, China, Singapore and Japan to for grassroots-level ethnography. After his return, he was hired as lecturer and advisor by the US war department at the School for Special Service in Fort Meade, Maryland. Interestingly, when Churchill visited Roosevelt in 1944, Hossain cleverly ensured that an advertisement titled “What About India?” meets Churchill’s eyes. The latter got irked.

After 24 long years, Hossain left the United States. Now, he had evolved from a political neophyte to a seasoned leader. On October 21, 1946, when he was on a train journey from Lahore to Delhi, almost 500 adherents of the Muslim League tried to attack his compartment at Amritsar, with sticks and daggers. Conscious of the Hindu family sharing the compartment with him, especially, their three-year-old child, Hossain patiently managed the situation; he conversed with the mob. As a result, the mob returned, shouting“Long Live Hossain”, but Hossain got down at the next stop.

Upon his return to India, the Partition and the death of Gandhi proved to be a living nightmare for Hossain that shattered his ageing soul. On February 17, 1948, he arrived at Cairo as India’s first ambassador and became first minister for Transjordan and Lebanon as well. When he suddenly died on February 25, 1949, at the age of 61 due to a heart attack, he received an Egyptian state funeral. The later-widowed Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, India’s first ambassador to the Soviet Union, would always halt at Cairo and spend some time at his tomb, reminiscing the forgotten chiaroscuro of his life.

Albeit incomplete with little by way of important dates, this book is the only biography available on Hossain. For those seeking to understand the context of the Khilafat Movement, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, the racism against Indians in America, the Ghadar movement as well as Indian politics post-Partition, especially through the eyes of a Muslim statesman, look no further.

A Forgotten Ambassador in Cairo: The Life and Times of Syud Hossain

By N.S. Vinodh

Simon and Schuster

pp. 378; Rs 799

Tags: book review, jallianwala bagh massacre, cairo