Remembering Maulana Abul Kalam Azad: A Scholar, Patriot and Builder of Modern India

Today, November 11, marks the 135th birth anniversary of India's first education minister. The Maulana played a crucial role in bringing Indian Muslims out of their self-imposed political indifference to cooperate with their Hindu brethren in the task of freeing the country from foreign rule.

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was a stalwart of the freedom struggle who stood out amongst a galaxy of leaders on account of his intellectual prowess and deep commitment to the nationalist politics of 20th-century India. He was a profound thinker, an interpreter of religion, an upholder of secularism, and one of the builders of the modern Indian state. He was a rare combination of high learning, deep intellect, and revolutionary activity.

Azad’s father, Muhammed Khairuddin, was a scholar and mystic. He wrote numerous books in Arabic and Persian, and had a large number of disciples in Delhi, Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Calcutta. Being the son of a religious leader, Azad received his early education in the traditional manner, directly under the supervision of his father. After acquiring proficiency in Arabic and Persian, he studied Philosophy, Mathematics, and Algebra. He completed the entire course of study by the time he was 16. Soon after, he became a teacher of Philosophy, Mathematics and Logic, and quickly earned recognition as a scholar in Arabic and Persian and in Islamic theology. Azad had inherited from his father the temperament of a scholar, but his thirst for knowledge and his passion for action did not permit him to lead the quiet life of a teacher and religious leader.

At the age of 20, he toured the West Asian countries and came in contact with Arab and Turkish revolutionaries who were working for the freedom of their lands. Abul Kalam was inspired by these people, and on his return to India, he entered politics and started Al Hilal, an Urdu weekly, from Calcutta in 1912 to propagate his ideas. The first issue of Al Hilal was published on June 1, 1912. Abul Kalam was only 24 then, but he had already been accepted as ‘Maulana’ by Muslim theologists. From the very day of its inception, Al Hilal took its stand against British rule in India. In the pages of this journal, he wrote editorials which were remarkable for their beauty of style and forcefulness of language. Through these, the Maulana urged the Muslims of India to come out of their self-imposed political indifference and cooperate with their Hindu brethren in the task of freeing the country from foreign rule. This was a bold and new line of thinking for Indian Muslims and it created a great stir among them.

Also read: On His Birth Anniversary, Remembering What Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Said About Sedition

Ever since the unsuccessful Indian revolt of 1857, Indian Muslims had been living in an atmosphere of despair and lack of faith. Some Muslim leaders like Sir Syed Ahmed Khan tried to restore the confidence of the Indian Muslims by pursuing a policy of gaining the favour of the ruling power and keeping away from the field of active politics.

Revolt of 1857. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

To Maulana Azad, this policy appeared not only unpatriotic but also un-Islamic. He realised that the interests of Indian Muslims could be served only if they took part in the national struggle for independence. He felt that the liberation of India was necessary for the progress and prosperity of the entire Muslim world. From 1920 till 1945 Abul Kalam Azad was in and out of prison a number of times.

After he was released from Ranchi, he was elected president of the All-India Khilafat Committee (Calcutta session in 1920), and president of the Unity Conference (Delhi) in 1924. In 1928, he presided over the Nationalist Muslim Conference. He was appointed in 1937 as a member of the Congress parliamentary sub-committee to guide the Provincial Congress ministries. He was twice elected president of the Indian National Congress, the first time in 1923 when he was only 35 years old, and the second time in 1940. Addressing the delegates at the Congress session in Ramgarh (Jharkhand) the Maulana stated:

I am a Muslim and profoundly conscious of the fact that I have inherited glorious traditions of the last thirteen hundred years. I am not prepared to lose even a small part of that legacy. The history and teachings of Islam, its arts and letters, its civilisation and culture, are part of my wealth and it is my duty to cherish and guard them. As a Muslim, I have a special identity within the field of religion and culture… But, with all these feelings, I have another equally deep realisation, born out of my life’s experience, which is strengthened and not hindered by the spirit of Islam. I am equally proud of the fact that I am an Indian, an essential part of the indivisible unity of Indian nationhood, a vital factor in its total makeup without which this noble edifice will remain incomplete. I can never give up this sincere claim.” 

According to historian S. Irfan Habib, this was Azad’s response to the exclusivist and faith-based nationalism of Savarkar, which aided the Muslim communalists led by the League to instil fear among Muslims about their future in united India.

Maulana Azad concluded his presidential address thus:

Our shared life of a thousand years has forged a common nationality. Such moulds cannot be artificially constructed. Nature’s hidden anvils shape them over the centuries. The mould has now been cast and destiny has set her seal upon it. Whether we like it or not, we have now become an Indian nation, united and indivisible. No false idea of separatism can break our oneness. We must accept the inexorable logic of facts and apply ourselves to fashioning our future density. 

He continued as the president of the Congress till 1946, for no election was held during this period as almost every Congress leader was in prison on account of the Quit India Movement (1942). After the leaders were released Maulana Azad, as the president of the Congress, led the negotiations with the British Cabinet Mission in 1946, and when India became independent he was appointed education minister, a position in which he continued till his death on February 22, 1958. His role as India’s first minister for education was marvellous. Besides setting up many scientific and technological institutions, he founded the Indian Council of Cultural Relations as also the three ‘akademis’ devoted to arts, literature and music. He thus substantially contributed to the fulfilment of Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision of modern and liberal India.

Also read: Review: Irfan Habib’s ‘Maulana Azad: A Life’ Is a Voice of Reason and Unity in Times of Hate

Two events in Maulana’s life in the years leading to independence are worth recalling. In 1939, Mahatma Gandhi, opposed to the re-election of Subhas Chandra Bose as president of the Indian National Congress, proposed Azad’s name, but the latter, after initially accepting the offer, withdrew from the contest. This was politically correct as a contest against Subhas Chandra Bose, who was then at the peak of his popularity, was too risky. Hence Azad chose discretion as the better part of valour. Like Gandhi, Maulana Azad was opposed to the partition of India right till the end. But unlike the Frontier Gandhi, and like Gandhi, he ultimately gave in to the Mountbatten Plan.

According to historian Rajmohan Gandhi, “By the end of March 1947, Patel had become keen on division and, later, Nehru too was reconciled to it — Azad too acquiesced. In India Wins Freedom, he has written of his battles to prevent division but at Congress’s meetings, he did not oppose the Mountbatten Plan. Neither the Mahatma nor the Maulana defied Nehru and Patel who were backed by Rajagopalachari, Rajendra Prasad, Govind Ballabh Pant and many others.”

This is corroborated by Acharya Kripalani, Congress President in 1946, and a bitter critic of Azad. The Acharya writes in his biography of Mahatma: “In his book India Wins Freedom (pp. 192-97), Maulana Azad has said that he was against partition and that he had made his opinion clear to Gandhiji. I do not know what private conferences he had with Gandhiji. All I know is that he never opposed it in the Working Committee or the AICC.”

Soon after partition, deeply hurt and angry, addressing a vast multitude from the pulpit of Delhi’s Jama Masjid the Maulana gave them hope and confidence:

I told you that the two-nation theory was the death knell of a life of faith and belief … Those on whom you relied for support have forsaken you, left you helpless …. dear brethren ! I have no new antidote for you, only something that was brought about 1400 years ago…. do not fear and do not grieve. And you will indeed gain the upper hand if you are possessed of true faith.

Maulana Azad died on February 22, 1958, before he turned 70. A week before he died prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru visited the ailing Maulana who looked in the eyes of his beloved friend and said, “Jawahar Khuda Hafiz.” No better words could express the personality of the great scholar than Nehru’s tribute in Parliament on February 24, 1958, “It has become almost a commonplace, when a prominent person passes away, to say that he is irreplaceable. That is often true; yet, I believe that it is literally and absolutely true in regard to the passing away of Maulana Azad. We have had great men and we will have great men, but I do submit that the peculiar and special type of greatness which Maulana Azad represented is not likely to be reproduced in India or anywhere else — we mourn today the passing of a great man, a man of luminous intelligence and mighty intellect with an amazing capacity to pierce through a problem to its core.”

Indeed the greatness of Maulana, like Nehru himself, cannot be reproduced here or anywhere.

Praveen Davar is an ex-Army officer, a columnist, and the author of Freedom Struggle and Beyond.