When Princely Hyderabad Looked to Imperial Tokyo

By Tariq Sheikh. Tariq is Assistant Professor of Japanese Studies at the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad. His research interests include the intellectual history of early modern Japan and the history of India-Japan relations.

Salar Jung III (Source: Salar Jung Museum)

The first floor of the eastern block of the Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad houses the “Japanese gallery.” Inside this gallery is a collection of Japanese porcelain, paintings, embroidered silks and other artistic objects, forming one of the most valuable collections of Japanese art in South Asia.

No records exist in the museum about how these objects were procured. However, since more than ninety percent of the exhibits of the museum are from the personal collection of Nawab Mir Yousuf Ali Khan, (popularly known as Salar Jung III), there is a possibility that he acquired these objects during his trip to Japan in 1927.

While the Japan collection in the Salar Jung Museum offers evidence of interactions between Hyderabad and Japan, hiding in plain sight is Osmania University. The establishment of Osmania was heavily influenced by the “Japanese model” of education.

Universities established by the British in India at the time, including the famous Calcutta, Madras and Bombay Universities, were all modelled on the University of London and offered courses only in English. The Nizams of Hyderabad rejected this. They were inspired by Tokyo’s success at creating a system of education that taught modern science and humanities in Japanese. This led to their revolutionary move to create a modern Indian university in a regional language: Urdu.

Early twentieth century India-Japan interactions focus primarily on British India (areas of the subcontinent directly under British rule). These interactions almost always involve topics such as anti-colonialism, war, and Pan-Asianism and the role of nationalist figures such as Rash Behari Bose and Subhash Chandra Bose. However, beyond British India, the relationship between India and Japan looks markedly different.

Throughout the colonial period, Hyderabad stood out as one of South Asia’s largest and wealthiest princely states. As a princely state, the external affairs of the kingdom were controlled by the British administration. Native princely rulers such as the Nizam did not have the independence to set their own foreign policy or set treaties with other rulers without British approval. Nevertheless, princely rulers retained significant autonomy over their kingdom’s internal affairs such as education.

During the twentieth century, education became an important site for native Indian rulers to develop their political authority and influence. Hyderabad’s decision to follow the Japanese model of education tells us much about how this regional Deccani kingdom saw itself and aspired to modern power in a world dominated by European empires and colonialism.

Hukm establishing Osmania University on April 26, 1917
(Source: Tariq Sheikh)

In an official order, or hukm, dated 26 April 1917, a university that would use Urdu as a medium of instruction was established in Hyderabad. This order inaugurated one of the largest translation projects in the history of India. Since there were no suitable textbooks in Urdu for modern university subjects, an official translation bureau was established by the University. The bureau took up the massive cultural and intellectual project of translating books from English into Urdu in a range of fields – from chemistry and medicine to European history, geography, and many other subjects.

All of the translations published by the Osmania University Press during the 1920s contain a common preface written by Maulvi Abdul Haq, also known as the Bàbà-i-Urdu (Father of Urdu):

Preface of Urdu medium textbooks published by Osmania University Press (Source: Tariq Sheikh)

“In the life of every nation in the world, there comes a time when signs of deterioration begin to appear in its mental powers; material for discovery and creation, thought and consideration are early lost; the strength of imagination’s flight and vision becomes narrow and limited; the agreement of scholarship rests upon a few customary facts and on mimicry. At that time, the nation either becomes defeated and lifeless, or to recover, it must accept the influence of other advanced countries. In every era of world history, there is evidence of this. Even now as we watch, this has happened to Japan, and this is the condition of India (Hindustan).”

(Translation: Kavita Datla)

What Maulvi Abdul was suggesting was that, sooner or later, Asian countries must come face to face with the economic and technological supremacy of the West. Japan had faced it in the past, probably referring to the “fubyōdō jōyaku” or unequal treaties signed between Japan and aggressive Western powers in and around the Meiji Restoration of 1868. And it “accepted the influence of other advanced countries” and had modernised aggressively in order to become a great world power. Now that is in the middle of the 20th century, India must face the same situation and decide which way to go.

Looking up to Japan as the role model for Asian countries was common among Asian intellectuals after Japan defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese war in 1905. This marked the first time an Asian power had defeated a European power. Intellectuals and political leaders across Asia drew special inspiration from this event and began questioning what led to this unprecedented achievement. Hyderabadi intellectuals considered Japan’s success to be related to its unique educational system and role of a native “medium of instruction.”

Although the Osmania hukm talked about using Urdu as the medium of instruction, the officials of the Education department of the state were not very confident about the feasibility of offering courses in Urdu. The education department reached out to intellectuals within and outside Hyderabad to seek their opinions on vernacular education. They especially looked toward Japanese as the only successful experiment of mass and university education in an Asian language.

In 1922, the Director of Public Instruction for Hyderabad was sent to Japan to study their education system and the reasons for its success. The Director at this time was Syed Ross Masood (1889-1937). He was the grandson of the famous educationist, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, founder of the Aligarh movement and Aligarh Muslim University. Following his return from Japan, Masood published a report entitled “Japan and Its Education System: A Report Compiled For The Government Of His Exalted Highness The Nizam.” Although a product of English education through his studies at Aligarh Muslim University and Oxford University, he confessed to his readers, “[I] went to Japan a cynic but have come back a firm believer in her political greatness.”

(Source: Archive.org)

Masood continued, “What I saw in Japan has convinced me still further that the creation of the Osmania University, by His Exalted Highness, is one of those epoch-making steps which continue to influence the activities of human beings for centuries to come.” He strongly recommended that a local language should be used as the medium of instruction just like it was done in Japan. Doing so, Masood wrote, was necessary in order to “spread knowledge amongst the masses of a country rapidly,” “enable students to assimilate knowledge and to think for themselves,” “create unity in the social life of a country,” bridge “the gulf that today divides the intellectual life of our men from that of our women,” and bring books and knowledge “within the reach of the working class.”

However, while praising the Japan model, he was also sceptical about whether it could be applied to an area as diverse and multilingual as Hyderabad. The kingdom had speakers from four major languages – Telugu, Urdu, Kannada, and Marathi.

To overcome this hurdle, Masood proposed a three-pronged approach to education: “I. Loyalty to His Exalted Highness the Nizam. II. Love of the country. III. Knowledge of the official language.” He justified this approach by drawing comparisons to Japanese equivalents. The Japanese people had what Masood called “intense devotion … to their emperor.” He argued they had made such phenomenal progress in industry and political influence because “the Japanese language was made the medium of instruction from the very beginning.”

The founders of the Osmania University imagined a future in which Hyderabad State would develop and progress in close collaboration with Japan. Intriguingly, such a collaboration also implied unique claims to sovereignty and power in a rapidly changing international arena. History, however, had something else in store for both Hyderabad and the Empire of Japan in the 1940s.

After the accession of Hyderabad in 1948, the State of Hyderabad ceased to exist, and the recommendations of Masood were never implemented. Nile Green, historian of Islam and Globalizations, has called such ‘unrealized futures imagined in the Indian Muslim encounter with Japan during the inter-war period,’ “Forgotten Futures,” and rightly so.