Maulana Abul Kalam Azad

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A brief biography

April 16, 2023: The Times of India

Maulana Azad did not live a long life. He passed away on 22 February 1958 while his admirers and colleagues were planning a commemorative volume for his seventieth birthday. However, his had been an eventful life and he left behind a huge corpus of work.

Azad began his creative career very early — he had achieved a lot by the time he turned 15, an age when most others had not even begun thinking coherently about larger issues. Not only did he break away from his father’s rigid faith and come up with his own understanding of Islam, he tried his hand at journalism and editing — experiences that helped him launch his formal journalistic career with Al-Hilal in 1912.

The formative phase of his life was crucial for his future career as an Islamic scholar as well as for his other careers as a journalist and a politician. Azad did not attend any madrassa or university, his father was his first teacher and later chose teachers for him with strictly laid down parameters. This led to a secluded life that deprived him of a much necessary peer group; he grew up around adults where there was hardly any space or scope for childhood fun. Like many who are brought up in a stifling atmosphere, Azad rebelled. The first target of his rebellion against tradition was his faith, which led to him breaking away and carving a space for himself. He was attracted to Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s worldview, which was despised by his father Maulana Khairuddin.

Azad was confronted and rebuked by Maulana Khairuddin for this outrageous disobedience but he remained steadfast in his faith. Eventually, on his own terms, he distanced himself from Sir Syed and his political stance but the lessons Azad learnt from Sir Syed’s rejection of tradition remained with him forever.

Azad’s travels in West Asia, Egypt, and France in 1908-1909 convinced him that composite nationalism was indispensable in successfully battling the colonial regime. His mission in the freedom struggle was twofold — first, to fight against the colonial government and second, to confront the Muslim and Hindu communalists.

He was also conscious of the nexus between these two forces, which were out to weaken and undermine the freedom movement and the foundations of an independent India. Azad was prescient when he argued that the demand for Pakistan was absurd; he wanted the Muslim community to know that such a move would be disastrous for the Muslims left behind in India as well as for those who opt for Pakistan…

Azad was a scholar and a solitary man who was uncomfortable in the midst of a huge crowd. Even Gandhi had to rely on leaders like the Ali brothers when Azad refused to be a frontline leader or was hesitant to sit in the front during a public meeting.

He was a total misfit in the midst of communal rabble rousing of all hues and his serious scholarly engagements did not cut much ice with communalists. His idea of a composite nation or Ummat-i-Wahida appeared as a novelty in that hour of social, economic, and political turmoil. In this context, his political programme was too different from that of the Muslim League.

Azad (and others of his ilk) were not merely political leaders but also scholars and men with vision—we can keep their ideas alive if we care to follow their ideals

In fact, it was the alternative understanding of nation states and God that Azad provided to the Muslims of South Asia which threatened the basic political philosophy of the Muslim League. Despite being a reluctant public figure, Azad did succeed in weaning away a huge section of Muslims from the Muslim League trap, convincing them about their safe future in India.

In the end, Azad could not keep India united, however, he did succeed in convincing a large section of Muslims to stay back in India and participate in the nation-building process of the next few decades. Azad was able to convince the Muslims to have faith in composite nationalism and the Jamiat ul-Ulema-i-Hind and the Deoband seminary also stood by Azad.

The communal cauldron of Partition burnt everything reasonable and raging passions dumped the voices of sanity. At this juncture, Maulana Azad was joined by a large number of Muslims, particularly the ajlaf (backward sections), who questioned the notion of Islamic nationalism…

Maulana Azad, as I have said before, interpreted and defined nationalism as inclusive, he even used Islam and its history to reinforce his argument. He did this more aggressively to counter communal forces of all hues, which were determined to supplant the spirit of anti-colonial struggle with communal self-interests. And today do we want to pursue the divisive politics of the communalists who caused havoc in our lives during the freedom struggle or espouse the composite nationalism which was the foundation of our independent India?

Maulana Azad failed to keep India united despite his unbridled faith in indivisible nationalism. However, he remained committed to the fact that religion alone can never be the basis for nationhood. This fact was never as relevant in the past seventy years as it is today… In the end, Azad could not keep India united, however, he did succeed in convincing a large section of Muslims to stay back in India and participate in the nation-building process

(In my writings) I conclude with Azad’s crucial role after Independence, when he was assigned the task of reconstructing our education system, building our scientific and technological institutions, and revamp our cultural policy. It was an arduous task in the aftermath of Partition violence and the ensuing bitterness in society, however, a new India had to be built.

These tasks were crucial for development, as India had opted for a secular democracy where 85% of the citizens were illiterate and unaware of democratic governance. A huge section of the adult population was also not literate which made the challenge even more daunting. There were millions of mouths to feed while food was hardly available.

Thus, scientific and technological institutions had to be set up and the colonial agenda of scientific and technological production and research had to be redone in the national interest. A lot was accomplished on all these fronts in the decade of the 1950s though much still remained to be achieved.

There was no institutional platform for any cultural or intellectual expression like literature, music, or fine arts. The British government did not care to use resources on such ‘wasteful’ projects, so Azad had to begin almost afresh. I have briefly traced the origins and the ongoing challenges in the founding of several such institutions.

The three ‘akademies’ of arts, literature, and music were established during this short phase of 10 years. Azad also had a passion for cultural relations beyond national borders, particularly with countries in West Asia and Europe, thus the Indian Council of Cultural Relations was founded to facilitate cultural exchanges between India and the world. This was no mean achievement in the trying times Azad was placed in…

Azad (and others of his ilk) were not merely political leaders but also scholars and men with vision—we can keep their ideas alive if we care to follow their ideals. We need to understand Azad more than ever, not only in the context of Islam but also as a means to create conditions that are conducive to living happily together with our fellow countrymen in one composite India.

Excerpted with permission from Maulana Azad: A Life (published by Aleph Books )

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