Very few people know that besides Badruddin Tayabji, Rahimtullah M Sayani was among the first 10 people who became INC presidents. He was among the two Muslims present at the first Indian National Congress INC session in Mumbai, in 1885. Eleven years later his was the honour to preside over the INC session in Kolkata.
Rahimtulla was born on April 5, in 1847, and not with a silver spoon in his mouth. He was truly a self-made man. On the one hand he was a man of the masses, which gave him a unique political exposure, and on the other his erudition enabled him to understand how the wheels of colonialism moved.
More importantly, he was probably the first Indian leader who studied in detail and spoke at length about the economics of British colonialism, a key to understanding how colonial powers drain colonies of their wealth, an understanding without which no struggle for freedom from colonial exploitation can succeed.
He saw through the exploitative nature of the British taxation system in this subcontinent, and published authentic studies on how the system inevitably led to agricultural shortfalls, resulting in acute famines. It may be recalled here that while regional crop failures, largely due to erratic monsoons and lack of proper irrigational network, were not uncommon during the Mughal era, preceding the British rule, devastating famines, killing millions were direct results of British policies.
And even as by 1857 the people of the subcontinent were up in arms against the British, the reasons for the misery of the common people that coincided with the British colonial regime remained unexplained. It was Rahimtulla’s study which probed into the real reasons of India’s growing hunger. His life, solely dedicated to the cause of the Indian nation, ended on June 4, 1902. And it is sad not much has been done to resurrect this eminent patriot from oblivion.
But then all this coming from Sayani isn’t surprising at all, for he was an extraordinarily educated man for his times. A contemporary of Syed Ahmed Khan (1817 – 1898), celebrated for his call to Muslims for adopting western education, Sayani was the first Muslim post graduate in the Indian subcontinent in 1868. Within two years he also obtained a law degree. He became an advocate, and delved deep in social work. His popularity among the masses got him elected to the Bombay Municipal Corporation in 1876, and in 1888 he became its first Muslim president, a post the designation of which was changed to mayor in 1931.
And what remains relevant even to this day in India, Rahimtullah M Sayani’s address to the 12th INC session as its president is a glowing testimony to his wise foresight about the absolute necessity of forging an unshakable unity among peoples of various religions, castes and languages to ensure ‘national growth’. He was a beacon of secularism.