Dr Syud Hossain – A true patriot

Part 1 The fiery orator and nationalist

Most people would not know who this person is; some people may have seen his name on a few websites talking ill of the Nehru family and others studying the independence movement would have seen fleeting mentions here and there. But simply, 99.99% of the people of India have no clue about this gentleman. And of course they and most of India would not know very much about the key role America played in the last rounds of the fight for Indian independence and the Indian lobby in America and their fight from distant shores has been long forgotten. The whole story will take many words and a lot of paper to retell, but the role of Syud Hossein in these events is, like many others, a revealing story of patriotism. In my research, I thus came to know more of this secular and fiery orator who wowed listeners in America during his lecture trips, of a lecturer and professor, who spoke to full classes, where there was not even standing room at times and of a man who was, distressingly, kept away from everything he loved, by the very people he fought for.

Hossain, as you will see, was the first to bring Gandhi’s message to America in 1921 and perhaps the person who brought it to them in the most appropriate and educative fashion. But the preceding three years were definitive years for the young man, who despite hailing from an influential wealthy Bengali family, chose the path of education, journalism and public service. His father Nawab Syud Mohammed was a famous Urdu writer and his grandfather the founder of the Muslim literary society in Calcutta.

Early years

Syud Hossain was born on June 23, 1888, in Calcutta. After finishing early education (intermediate) in Aligarh (did that alumni link get him in touch with Ozai-Durrani whom I wrote about earlier? Were they acquaintances in college? Perhaps!), and showing his mettle even at that young age as a writer and speaker, Syud moved to Calcutta as Sub-deputy Collector. Soon after, around the end of 1909, he went to Lincoln’s Inn, England to study law. Even then, his forte lay in extempore speeches made with such lucidity and organization that it was apparently difficult to believe they were not prepared. For seven years, he pottered around, never becoming a lawyer or completing his course, his mind meandering about other matters of interest. The Home rule league and the Khilafat were coming to the fore and the winds from the East were bringing snippets of the work of Annie Besant to London.

Education and work at Bombay Chronicle

After spending seven years there, he returned in 1916, to work for Pherozeshah Mehta’s Bombay Chronicle, as Associate (assistant) Editor. Here, he aided the making of a journalistic history in Bombay, which Horniman, the Editor in Chief was then creating. B.G. Horniman was a British national who found activism the Indian Independence Movement something dear to him. He promoted militant nationalism through the issues of the Bombay chronicle, and himself participated in activities such as the Satyagraha as a dhoti clad, bare footed firangi. So much so that the Bombay Chronicle was considered the mouthpiece for the anti-British nationalist group, during those days. In 1919, Horniman was finally deported from India back to London, but his feelings for India were so strong that he promptly took a ship back to Colombo and from there by boat and train to Bombay. Horniman was rearrested and as Horniman was fighting for his future, the person who came to his support and carried on the work at Bombay was Syud Hossain (Incidentally MA Jinnah was the paper’s chairman at that time, though not one in support of the non-cooperation movement). Such people instill strong feelings in people around them and Syud Hossain was one of those parties, glad to be working under Horniman (His story is so interesting that I will cover it another day – Until then remember him when you pass Horniman circle Gardens in Bombay). But with Horniman sidelined, the paper was in danger of closure.

The first brush Syud had with the British authorities was when he joined the Home rule movement (around the time Horniman was deported) and Annie Besant, thus making him a marked man in the British Secret service. He was a member of the Home Rule League Deputation to England in 1918 which was turned back from Gibraltar by the British Government. Their destination was England where they hoped to preach the message of Home Rule. The voyage ended in Gibraltar with arrest, cancellation of his passport, detention for a few days and being returned to India by the British authorities at their own expense.

Crossing swords with the Nehru’s

After a couple of brilliant years in the Bombay Chronicle, where all his articles were devoured by the public with great interest, a development took place when the duo of Horniman and Syud moved into the Nehru circle. Motilal Nehru, the Cambridge returned lawyer, had joined the ‘Leader’ as Chairman, at Allahabad, but moved out soon to create the ‘Independent’ in 1919, as the former paper’s approach was too mild for his taste. He started it with the help of Horniman of the Bombay Chronicle who brought with him Syud Hosain for the editorship of the new paper. In those days it was said that what Horniman did not know about Journalism was not worth knowing at all and what Syud Hossain wrote was nothing but the best.

Editor of Independent

‘A sensationalist and one who would risk everything for the sake of a strong adjective’ - that is how Nehru described Syud. He excelled in titling and writing article such as “Devils dance while Angels weep” decrying the British actions in India. His startling headlines made people take a second look and his editorial excellence and choice of stinging words irritated the officialdom in Delhi and London, to no end. But that was not what brought his short-lived life in the Independent to an end, it was a personal matter, one involving a young lady called Swarup who fell head over heels in love with him and likewise, Syud too was besotted by the beautiful lass.

Swarup Kumari a.k.a. Vijayalakshmi (Nan) Pandit

The Swarup affair, as it was then known, was not aired too much and was kept under wraps for a long time. But though it was to trouble Syud throughout his whole life, he did not allow it to distract him too much. Yes, it did make him a different man with not a care, a spendthrift and brooding dark personality at times, but life after all is life, and things did change for the couple after a few decades, as we will soon see.

Let us look for the time being, look at it from Swarup’s point of view. Nan says in her autobiography – A couple of years earlier, while still in my teens, I had become attached to a young man, Syed Hossain, whom my father had appointed editor of a newspaper he had just started. In an era that proclaimed Hindu-Muslim unity, and belonging to a family that had close Muslim friends, I must have thought it would be perfectly natural to marry outside my religion. But in matters such as marriage, the times were deeply traditional, and I was persuaded that this would be wrong.

The storm of the love affair hit the Anand Bhawan (the Nehru house) household, and spread through the Congress hierarchy. Gandhiji was involved, Pandit Nehru was not at all happy about it and Susannah, George Joseph’s wife played mediator. The couple had to be separated, so Swarup was sent off to Sabarmati to get over it and as the Khilafat movement had just started to simmer, Gandhiji quickly made Syud Hossain its spokesperson and packed him off to England.

It was like the classic Ekalavya finger story…

The young Syud Hossain, who worshipped the ground Gandhiji walked upon obeyed without a murmur, but with dread in his heart and boarded the steamer for England. As was well known, he was being exiled off the shores of India by his very Guru, and would remain exiled for a very very long time, for over two and a half decades. We will discuss this and related events in more detail later, but as many reports and sources point out, the two were perhaps even married, albeit briefly, before a separation was quickly arranged and the marriage annulled. Nan was given in marriage to Ranjit Pandit soon after and George Joseph took over the editorship after Syud’s departure.

Khilafat movement - Involvement

Syud had been involved with Khilafat since 1919 and later on went to write great papers about the movement and its meaning. The Khilafat movement (1919–1924) was defined as a pan-Islamic, political protest campaign launched by Muslims in British India to influence the British government and to protect the Ottoman Empire during the aftermath of World War I. The Ottoman Turks called for help and the Khilafat movement was the result. The movement collapsed by late 1922 when Turkey gained a more favorable diplomatic position; by 1924 Turkey abolished the roles of Sultan and Caliph (Khalifa). I had written about this on a few earlier occasions and will touch upon it again in later articles. It was during this time that Syed Hussain obtained support from the Islamists for Gandhiji’s noncooperation movement providing them with the appropriate (tark-I muwalat) religious interpretations.

As we saw, perhaps for entirely different reasons or with wise foresight, Gandhiji included him in the core team headed by Mohammed Ali, deputed to London in 1920. That Syud was involved with the movement in the past is clear, but he always separated religion from nationalist causes, working only on the nationalistic angle earlier and later. During this trip, Syud, the secretary, tried marshaling support from the Arabs including King Hussein of Jordan and were disappointed with the results.

Working at India - London

He continued to work for the British committee of the Indian national Congress and its mouthpiece paper in London, titled ‘India’ editing it jointly with Fenner Brockway (the entire process by which this was archived is a story unto itself, Syud supported by the Besantites and Horniman versus Brockway supported by the traditionalists in India). He continued to use his brilliant writing and speaking skills in Britain, fanning the flames of nationalism and Indian home rule, but the paper started by Dadabhai Naoroji was soon to cease publication due to other reasons (where even the remuneration for Hossain was denied from the nay sayers in India). During this period he also supported Sarojini Naidu’s efforts and forged a great friendship with her, while touring and lecturing in Europe, China, Japan and notably at Paris in 1920.

Move to USA

The world congress of religions was then holding a conference in New York and using the influence of Agha Khan and Chotani, Syud, as instructed by Gandhiji, managed to get across the Atlantic to the new world. Thus it was in 1921, that Syud Hossain arrived in USA to lecture in New York and remained to report the Washington disarmament conference as a press representative for India. After this event, he continued to network with the few Indians rooted to American soil and inform about the land of India and her peoples, the person called Gandhi, correct much disinformation spread by the British and also change the public opinion of the normal American, by travelling through the 48 states of that period. If one were to stop here, take a breath and think about that enormous task, that person would just balk. But Syud had to do just that and survive only with the remuneration from his lectures and good will.

Since that period, he was virtually the non-accredited Indian Ambassador to USA, until his friend Asaf Ali and later Vijayalakshmi Pandit herself took the job formally. How ironic!! Together with Haridas Muzumdar and Dr. Anup Singh, he was a member of the second generation of Indian exiles, establishing close interpersonal links with religious pacifists and civil rights activists in the United States, as well as many a top bureaucrat in Washington, forming what they title today as the India Lobby, working for Indian liberation. Around the mid 30’s he moved to the University of South California to work with the Indians who were mainly settled around the California region and to lecture in the university. He was very much involved in the lobbying for citizenship of Indian immigrants, finally obtaining quotas for Indians.

He briefly visited London and India 1937-9, even meeting Subash Bose but before and after that, he was involved with the New Orient magazine, the India League and later spearheaded Vijayalakshmi Pandit’s successful tour of San Francisco. He spoke at town halls, churches (on themes ranging from Buddha, Islam, Turkey and various other subjects and specifically on many occasions explaining the principles of Gandhi) ……he spoke without any religious leanings, fiercely supporting secularism, much to the disgust of people like Jinnah.

Campaigns with Vijayalakshmi

Back in India, Ranjit Pandit died and Nan Pandit decided to travel to USA in 1943 to work for Indian independence from the USA. Since she had no formal approval to travel, she flew to US in a military plane, in a bucket seat, to the USA. Her children were in the US studying at Wellesley by then and as fate decided, the paths of Syud and Nan Pandit crossed again. The next few years were busy for them, travelling around the USA and promoting India’s cause jointly, with people such as Pearl S Buck and JJ Singh, pushing the US bureaucracy to support India overtly and covertly, mostly the latter due to the Great War underway.

It appears that Syud Hossain finally (1945) took the decision to request permission to return home, perhaps after discussions with Nan Pandit. He cabled Nehru – Thinking Coming India to help toward Hindu Muslim Unity on basis clarification fundamental issues. Could run for central election as Muslim nationalist if necessary. Please cable your opinion regarding usefulness feasibility such course….

Nehru replied, after consulting Asaf Ali and Gandhi – No chance running for central election owing technical difficulty absence name from electoral registers. Your return India helpful especially in Bengal if stay long though results inevitably slow in present conditions and your long absence. Difficult say where your usefulness greater. Gandhiji thinks you can do more important work in America.

But Syud did come to Delhi in 1947, according to MO Mathai, sipping Cognac from a hip flask, staying at Hotel Imperial eventually getting the ambassador post in Cairo, representing the New India in the Middle East. Was it a long overdue recognition for his tireless services? Or was he being exiled again from his own country? Jinnah and the Muslim league forgot him for he was not an Islamist supporting their cause, the congress did not think Syud understood the new Independent India (in order to survive the rough and tough Delhi now ruled by Indians). And there was the rumor mill running wild again, linking him with Nan Pandit as Mathai explains, so it was decided that he had to stay out. Nan Pandit meanwhile was sent away to Moscow.

At Cairo – the final act

Staying at the famous Shepheard hotel in Cairo, he ran the first Indian embassy at Cairo, by now a distinguished diplomat, and well suited for the job with his knowledge of Arabic and other languages and the deep knowledge of the region and Indian ideals. He did well in representing India’s side of the difficult Islamist issues with respect to Kashmir and Hyderabad, in the Arab league.

Two years later he was no more, dead of a heart attack at the Papayoannou Greek hospital in Cairo. The Egyptian government gave him a state funeral and a marble tomb in Cairo. A road was named after him. As is said, his friends in Cairo swore he died of a broken heart.

In India nobody cared or remembered, nobody knows him today, no mention is ever made of the person who spent all his adult life in public service, fighting for his nation’s freedom.


He lived his sad life in style, be it with a cognac flask in his hip pocket (as Mathai puts it), or movie star like in good hotels as the laboring Sikhs of Sacramento complained, but his heart was in India, his words were about India, his plaintive cries were about India, his lectures to his students were about his country and its culture and his fiery retorts to any unfortunate nay-sayer was in total support of secularism and India. His actions, words and writings helped sway the powerful American thought towards Indian liberation from the British. Never a divisive leader or religious fanatic, always secular in heart, soul and words - That was the Syud Hossain we never knew.

With the coming of Indian independence, Nan Pandit entered a distinguished diplomatic career, leading the Indian delegation to the United Nations (1946–48, 1952–53) and serving as India’s ambassador to Moscow (1947–49) and to Washington and Mexico (1949–51).


Role of Press and Indian Freedom Struggle: All through the Gandhian Era - A. S. Iyengar
The scope of Happiness – Vijayalakshmi Pandit
Jinnah Reinterpreted – Saad R Khairi
My Days with Nehru – MO Mathai
Echoes from old Dacca - Syud Hossain
Communications and Power - Milton Israel
George Joseph: The Life and Times of a Kerala Christian Nationalist - George Gheverghese Joseph
Dr Syud Hossain – A glimpse of his life, Speeches & Writings – JN Chakrabartti
Pan-Islam in British Indian Politics: A Study of the Khilafat Movement - M. Naeem Qureshi
Sikhs Swamis, Students & Spies – Harold Gould
Roosevelt Gandhi Churchill – Venkatramani & Srivastava
Over a cup of tea – Onlooker – Hasan Mohiuddin Abbasi
Up Against Odds: Autobiography of an Indian Scientist By Piara Singh Gill

Tail note: One thing I never could find out was how Syud Hossain got the Doctor title. Was it honorary? As we know he did not complete his graduation in England and studied no further. At the same time he did become a lecturer and all through carried the Dr Hossain title. Perhaps it was honorary. If anybody could help clarify this, the final bit of mystery will be cleared in my mind.

Part 2 will cover his period in USA in greater detail, more personal details on Syud and the professional relationship he had with Guy Horniman.

Read Part 2 here 



windwheel said...

Fascinating article. I don't suppose it could have been easy campaigning for India in the States at that time- especially after Katherine Mayo's infamous 'Mother India' came out. British Intelligence was also very active and had numerous double agents. Dhan Gopal Mukherji, possibly the first Indian author in America?, hanged himself at the age of 46 in the mid thirties.

Maddy said...

thanks windwheel..
It was pretty tough, but in the case of Hossein, his sheer personality, eloquence & brilliance took him through. That was his differentiator compared to many others who whined about discrimination.

The next part will provide some more details and I will finally round off the topic with articles on mother india and the contributions to Indians by Pearl S Buck...

Happy Kitten said...

Thank you for bringing back to life this forgotten hero..I am sure many more are there but we Indians know only a handful..

Maddy said...

Thanks HK,
I will have another on him soon, and then will veer off to other topics. Regretfully not many people care about such people or those days any more...but this page will be there for reference some day for some lone person looking for info!!

sathya said...

I have been following your blog for quite a while now. Your choice of subjects is refreshingly unique. Fragments of history have a charm of their own. Academics in India tends to portray history in an uni dimensional manner, thereby never allowing the students to analyse the facts and arrive at their own conclusions.
Your tidbits have resulted in my exploring further to reach some amazing discoveries! Look forward to your next article on Syud Hossain.

Maddy said...

Thanks Sathya..
glad to hear this and welcome to the blog..
history study is like unraveling mysteries, if you really get into it...great fun..
please stay around & do comment, i am usually regular with my postings

Saif said...

Dear Maddy, very well detailed article. You may want to reach out to his nephew in Dhaka, where he lives currently. His nephew was an ambassador to Hong Kong from Bangladesh - Syud Iqbal Ahmed. Mr. Ahmed's sister was my grandmother and niece of Dr. Syud Husain.


Maddy said...

thanks Saif..
I have the part 2 ready but am still to post it. I expected some disinterest, but well it is so. Great to hear that his progeny is following the diplomatic career...

Unknown said...

Syud Hossain was my great uncle (half brother of my maternal grandmother).
Thank you for discovering him. His speeches have been published.
Munawar Karim

Maddy said...

Thanks Munawar..
I enjoyed researching this as well...
Hope you read the part 2

Unknown said...

It's very fascinating to know about such noble man.
. thank you for this article..a brilliant piece from Indian independence movement

silviya said...

wonderful article..

Vinod said...

Interesting piece. Was reading MO Mathai's book when I came across Dr Hossain and decided to explore further. Do you know where in Cairo his marble tomb is located?


Unknown said...

Many many thanks. Nice to read.

Unknown said...

Form: Rafiq kaiser.Dhaka.Bangladesh. May i know the name of Dr.SyudHossain father's name? With thanks.

Maddy said...

Thanks Rafiq
His father was Syud Mohammed the Registrar General of Bengal. His maternal grandfather was Nawab Abdul Latif Khan Bahadur.

Zubair said...

Thank you very much for upload this real And enthusiast history. I know about Dr Syud Hossain and his nearest relatives.

Anonymous said...

I have a early pamphlet on syud hossain from emmerich lecture bureau 1924-25

Anonymous said...

https://photos.app.goo.gl/3uy3PSTFMmM2V7mx9 syud hossain

Syeda Jebeen S. Shah said...

What a fascinating story about a forgotten hero of India's Freedom Struggle! I stumbled upon an old email, where the link to your blog was shared. The elderly friend who had shared knew him from the discussions among his elders, and he was infact sent to his hotel room once to run an errand but he had not returned. I feel sad for his personal life and for the fact that nobody even knows him. I intend to write something briefly about him and right on time for his birthday 23 June, which is today already in the Indian subcontinent.
Thank you so much.
Syeda Jebeen S. Shah

Syeda Jebeen S. Shah said...

What a fascinating story about a forgotten hero of India's Freedom Struggle! I stumbled upon an old email, where the link to your blog was shared. The elderly friend who had shared knew him from the discussions among his elders, and he was infact sent to his hotel room once to run an errand but he had not returned. I feel sad for his personal life and for the fact that nobody even knows him. I intend to write something briefly about him and right on time for his birthday 23 June, which is today already in the Indian subcontinent.
Thank you so much.
Syeda Jebeen S. Shah