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How an English Education Made Asaf Ali a Global Citizen

Asaf Ali was one of our prominent freedom fighters and a great advocate for communal harmony. He was also India’s very first ambassador to the United States. Here, we look at the how an international education helped shape his cosmopolitan outlook and sharpened his insight.
BY Resham Mukherjee |   18-08-2015

India’s first ambassador to the United States of America, Asaf Ali, was born in the Bulandshahr district of Uttar Pradesh. Little is known about his early years. We do know that he attended the Anglo-Arabic High school in Delhi, and graduated from St Stephen’s College. While the school imparted the best of traditional Islamic and western education, the college groomed him in British education. The college was then run by the Cambridge University Mission to India - an Anglican mission organised by the alumni of Cambridge University under the auspices of Westcott House, a theological college.

In 1909, like many of his countrymen, Asaf Ali journeyed to London to attend the Lincoln’s inn, one of four Inns of Court in London to which barristers of England and Wales belong. The other three are – Gray’s Inn, Inner Temple, and Middle Temple. After a duration of two years during which he studied English common law, he was called to the Bar in January 1912. The Bar is where able barristers are invited to argue.

As was the fashion of the time, young Asaf, all of 21 years, decided to take a gap before beginning his legal practice. He travelled extensively across England and Europe. It contributed largely to his deep understanding of the Western world and its culture, as well as strengthened his command over the English language. These skills made him an asset to the fledgling independent government of India. He would frequently be appointed to positions of international importance and gravity.

Asaf Ali returned to to India in 1914 just before the First World War and joined the Delhi Bar. As a defense counsel in several celebrated trials, Asaf’s had the opportunity to hone his legal skills. One of his classic appeals was that of Bhagat Singh, an accused in the murder case of a British police officer John Saunders. Several other such cases landed him in politics.

His first significant role in India’s freedom struggle is said to have been in the old Home Rule League, organised by the leader of the then Madras based Theosophical society, Mrs. Annie Basant during the First World War.

Asaf Ali, like many other Indians, was attracted by Mahatma Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement. In 1918, he pleaded for his own defence when he was tried for his anti-British activities. His confident and clear expression, as well as his logical faculty, earned him an acquittal. However, he was to witness several spells of incarceration for his role in the freedom movement.

Between 1934 and 1946, he was appointed to pivotal posts for his knowledge and gravity. He also served the Central Legislative Assembly as the Chief Whip, its Secretary-General or its Deputy leader. In 1935 he was elected to the Delhi Municipal Committee (DMC) while still in the Assembly. He spent more than 10 years in the DMC.

As a nationalist, Asaf Ali was deeply concerned about Hindi-Muslim harmony, which he thought had a substantive implication on the future of India. His reputation as a man of “secular ideals” earned him immense adulation from both Hindus and Muslims. Undoubtedly, his western education had played its part in shaping his cosmopolitan outlook. He wrote a book called ‘Some Urgent Indian Problems’. It touched upon the various causes of Hindu-Muslim differences and how they were to be removed.

Post the Second World War, when the interim government headed by Jawharlal Nehru required someone to visit America as an Ambassador, Asaf Ali was found best suited for the job. Back from America he was appointed as the Governor of Orissa. Later, he was appointed Minister to Bern, the capital of Switzerland, with the personal rank of Ambassador. He was also accredited to Austria and the Vatican. He died on 2 April 1953 at the age of 65 years.


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