Professor Francis Robinson at the Karachi Conference Foundation

Jamal Mian could have breakfast in Dhaka, lunch in Lucknow and tea with Jawaharlal Nehru in Delhi

Professor Francis Robinson CBE spoke yesterday (7 January 2015) about Karachi in the life of Maulana Jamal Mian of Farangi Mahall under the banner of the Karachi Conference Foundation. The event was held in the imposing library of The Pakistan Institute of International Affairs. He is Professor of the History of South Asia, Royal Holloway University of London and is writing a biography of Jamal Mian, for which he has access to Jamal Mian’s private papers, his library, diaries, correspondence, collection of photographs, business documents and other material. 

Professor Robinson has been close to the Farangi Mahallis for many years, ultimately publishing The Ulama of Farangi Mahall and Islamic Culture in South Asia (2001). Since he was drawing upon work which has not yet been published, it may be considered as a great favour extended to the organisers of this session. Professor Robinson gave a masterly presentation, actually, of Jamal Mian’s life and times, his political career, business dealings and social circle both in Pakistan and India. Karachi figured in the narrative by default.

Many questions come to mind about the transitional times in which Jamal Mian lived. He was born in 1919 and he visited Karachi for the first time in 1938. He was a brilliant orator and dedicated Muslim League activist. His own position may have been a little different from that of his contemporaries in the All India Muslim League. He was heir to a great spiritual and educational tradition, not just to material assets. In the unsettling times after the Partition, he moved between India and Pakistan, between Karachi, Dhaka, Lucknow and Delhi in the search for livelihood as well as the search for adjustment to the reality of the Partition.

What did the new borders mean to the Muslim ashraf of the subcontinent across this new divide? They still had to come to terms with those borders. According to Professor Robinson, Jamal Mian belonged to the group of Muslim leaders who worked for the creation of Pakistan but did not necessarily want to move to or settle in Pakistan. As Professor Robinson said:

Jamal Mian could have breakfast in Dhaka, lunch in Lucknow and tea with Jawaharlal Nehru in Delhi.

Indeed, my own research shows that in those times, many affluent and educated members of the Muslim community thought that the creation of Pakistan was a wonderful achievement and their children would be able to get good jobs there but would be able to spend their vacations in India. Witness that Nawab Ismail Khan stayed back in his ancestral home in Meerut, in his cherished Mustafa Castle, but sent his three sons to Pakistan where they all rose to high positions in the civil service. But my father, K. Sarwar Hasan, was more realistic. When he took the deliberate decision to move to Karachi from Delhi and from his ancestral home in Panipat, he knew it was forever.

The event was covered by the Pakistani media and in his coverage in the leading national daily Dawn, Peerzada Salman made the following expert comment:

By showing an early picture of the maulana, Prof Robinson stated that he was a precocious young man. To put things in perspective, he gave a brief account of the Farangi Mahal family. He said it traced its history to the 11th century elder Abdullah Ansari of Herat, who was a descendant of Hazrat Abu Ayub Ansari. The family earned prominence in India in the late 16th century when Emperor Akbar gave one of their elders, Mullah Hafiz, the madad-i-mua’ash. Hafiz’s grandson Qutbuddin was killed in a land dispute. Later Emperor Aurangzeb gave the family the property of a European merchant in Lucknow into which the family moved in 1695.

Since the property belonged to a European, it was named Farangi Mahal. In the 18th century the two main contributions of the Farangi Mahali to Indian society was the emphasis on, and projection of, rationalist subjects in Islamic scholarship — logic, theology, philosophy, etc — and the development of the curriculum, the Dars-i-Nizamiya.

Similarly, as reported by Anil Datta of the News, Jamal Mian was extremely concerned about the welfare of Muslims of India and according to Professor Robinson:

His primary concern was to protect the Muslims’ interests.

Some members of the audience were curious, like myself, about the political compromises made by Jamal Mian and some of his former Muslim League colleagues. They had fought for the creation of Pakistan under the principled leadership of Jinnah, and suffered too, for establishing a democracy. But here he was, accepting a licence for a sugar mill from an autocratic military regime in Pakistan and barging into Ayub Khan’s office to complain when there was a problem with the licence! (After all, Jamal Mian actually launched Ayub Khan’s presidential campaign in Karachi.) Chaudri Khaliquzzaman, who had been tasked by Jinnah to stay behind in India to look after the interests of the Indian Muslims, moved to Pakistan surreptitiously and later had no qualms about making political compromises with a military dictator. This aspect was not lost on the audience yesterday but Professor Robinson stood up for Jamal Mian whom he apparently greatly respects, to say that he did so only to look after his young family and keep his head above the water.

Perhaps Jamal Mian rationalised that since Pakistan did not turn out to be the kind of state he thought it would, it did not matter who handed out the licence to him and perhaps he found solace in sending so much sugar regularly from his sugar mill to the shrine of Baba Fariduddin Ganjshakar at Pakpattan. How can we forget those in our country, however, who had refused to accept sugar mills to sustain themselves, from rulers who were dictators and rulers who claimed to be democrats?

Post authored by the Chairman (PIIA), Dr Masuma Hasan, email:, links by Editor.


Filed under Discussion, Events, India, Pakistan, Partition, Sufism

3 responses to “Professor Francis Robinson at the Karachi Conference Foundation

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