The life and times of Asaf Ali

In ‘Circles of Freedom’, T.C.A. Raghavan profiles the forgotten freedom fighter and his friends, set against the independence movement and Partition.

Published : Jul 10, 2024 10:37 IST - 7 MINS READ

Asaf Ali at the Palam airport, just before leaving for the US as India’s first Ambassador to the country on February 7, 1947. He is holding Sceptred Flute, a volume of lyrics presented to him by Sarojini Naidu.

Asaf Ali at the Palam airport, just before leaving for the US as India’s first Ambassador to the country on February 7, 1947. He is holding Sceptred Flute, a volume of lyrics presented to him by Sarojini Naidu. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

The only son of an elite family of depleting means, Asaf Ali grew up in a haveli in Kucha Chelan, Daryaganj, once home to Delhi’s brightest lights and also the site of their punitive massacre after 1857. As such, Asaf was of the Muslim elite that was brutalised and marginalised after the 1857 uprising and, a half-century later, remained insecure about its prospects in British India. But also, he was a dapper young graduate of St. Stephen’s college, a barrister from Lincoln’s Inn, a man about town in early-1900s London “dressed in the height of fashion—well cut, well pressed lounge suits, fancy waistcoats, butterfly collars, foulard bow ties and bandana silk handkerchiefs”.

Soon enough, however, he would give up the silk for khadi, begin to address public meetings, get arrested, contest elections. A romantic with a conservative heart—he tore up a painting of Oscar Wilde after learning the writer was gay—Asaf nevertheless wanted a strong, independent-minded wife, and so married the scene-stealing Aruna Gangulee (amid vituperations in the press that would put our own media’s apoplexies to shame: “When they see such instances, Hindus begin to feel that every Musalman is unfit to be trusted—that you never can tell when he will cut your throat,” fumed an article titled “The Vile Act of Mr Asaf Ali”).

Circles of Freedom
Friendship, Love and Loyalty in the Indian National Struggle
By T.C.A. Raghavan
Pages: 408
Price: Rs. 799

A dissident of moderate temperament, Asaf would nevertheless defend nationalists accused of political violence, including Bhagat Singh, Sheikh Abdullah, and the three Army officers accused of treason in the INA trial held in Delhi’s Red Fort, the very place where Bahadur Shah Zafar was found guilty of treason less than a century earlier. How times had changed: where once a sovereign monarch could be held guilty of treason to a trading company, now three officers who had defected from the British army walked out free . Afterwards, Shah Nawaz Khan, Prem Kumar Sahgal, and Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon marched to Asaf’s house in Kucha Chelan: where once hundreds had been killed to avenge 1857, now hundreds gathered to cheer their release.

The eddies of history swirl through Asaf Ali’s life and times. For this and other reasons, Asaf, the protagonist of T.C.A Raghavan’s Circles of Freedom, is a writer’s dream. A man not cut, fully formed, from heroic cloth but rather moulded by the pull of his own desires and the push of his challenging times; a man hungry for love and politics, teetering under the unexpected weight of both, determined not to buckle; a man who is only, and in the most fragile way, human during a historical moment full of ambitions to immortality.

In Circles of Freedom, Raghavan’s eye for the ironies, the missed chances, and perhaps even complacency of the decades that led to Independence and Partition is unflinching. 

In Circles of Freedom, Raghavan’s eye for the ironies, the missed chances, and perhaps even complacency of the decades that led to Independence and Partition is unflinching.  | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

Raghavan wields a deft pen when drawing out such historical figures, “attendant lords” as he calls them, quoting T.S. Eliot’s very unheroic Prufrock. An earlier book by him, so titled, brought out the ambitions and ultimate tragedy of Bairam Khan and Abdur Rahim, courtiers and poets in the Mughal court. Now, it is Asaf and his revolving circles of friends, acquaintances, and mentors whose story he tells. A friend described the book as “warm”, and so it is, with a lovely lightness of touch that brings its characters alive.

We meet draft versions of V.D. Savarkar and M.A. Jinnah, for example, who were both, once, advocates of Hindu-Muslim unity. As the “presiding deity” of Sunday debates in London’s India House, which Asaf often attended, Savarkar would read from his book on 1857, in which he argued for the uprising as “a joint Hindu-Muslim enterprise”. Years later, Asaf would gift Aruna the book; she was “thrilled” by it, she said, “It politicised me.” Jinnah, meanwhile, would go on to hammer out a Congress-Muslim League pact with the Congress’s most Hindu face, B.G. Tilak; and later still, be heckled and booed for not being enamoured of the Khilafat movement.

Also Read | A tale of two broken promises, and the rise of Muslim ghettos in India

In London, Jinnah and Asaf were part of a circle orbiting the generous, gregarious, and fiercely secular Sarojini Naidu. Sarojini had a fondness for holding durbars, whether in the English nursing home where Asaf found her attendants “on the verge of a breakdown”, ferrying flowers and visitors to and from their “ungovernable patient”, or in her bungalow in Hyderabad, named with splendid egotism after her first book of poetry, The Golden Threshold. The charismatic Syud Hossain, a freelance journalist from Bengal, “in and out of debt, in love with a married Englishwoman”, was the fourth of this party. We see it in flickering black-and-white: the quartet meeting at the National Liberal Club, downing aperitifs at the Café Royal, dining in Soho and staying up until dawn, delighting in each other’s conversation.

In other moments, we see the Stephanian lodged firmly within the freedom fighter when Asaf jokes of how “the world suffers from handicaps but India suffers from Gandhicaps”; we see Syud Hossain exiled to America after he elopes with Jawaharlal Nehru’s younger sister (like a Wodehouse heroine sent to Blandings Castle, she was banished to Gandhi’s Ashram); we see Asaf and Nehru gardening together to pass the time while imprisoned in Ahmednagar fort (when the first sprouts appeared, “Jawaharlal shouted the glad tidings to me and I felt like a child securing his first toy”).

And finally, we see another “character” emerge in Raghavan’s narrative—in the form of the many arguments around the political relations between Hindus and Muslims. Increasingly, it was a question that the Congress preferred to defer—something to be dealt with post-Independence—and one that the Muslim League wanted settled first of all. Increasingly, the compromise that Jinnah was willing to allow was a loose confederation of states, while Nehru was adamant on a strong, centralised government. Between them lay Asaf Ali’s body, on the line quite literally: he was a Congressman, a member of the interim government, and a living argument, therefore, against separate electorates, against the need for a confederacy. And equally, for the League, he was not a real Muslim, or only one of the “Muslim dummies”, as the British government described them, “with which the Congress dress their shop window”.

Also Read | Being Muslim in contemporary India

Raghavan’s eye for the ironies, the missed chances, and perhaps even complacency of the decades that led to Independence and Partition is unflinching. We know today, better than at any other point in our post-Independence history, how crucial and unsettled the question of India’s secular identity remains; we have seen what the dangers of a “strong Centre” can be. In Circles of Freedom, we see these debates reflected in the anger, ambition, and resignation of its various actors—in Aruna’s declaration that “Unless the Congress can take to the masses its programme of a social revolution they will be puppets in nefarious hands”; in the patronising terms in which she is dismissed (“hysterical”, Nehru said); in the quiet dignity with which Asaf continues to love a wife who has left him and his moderations far behind and a country where “sly hints and allegations” about the loyalty of Muslims have become commonplace.

Like Prufrock, Asaf was no Prince Hamlet, nor was he meant to be. As his crumbling haveli in Kucha Chelan filled with terrified men and women escaping the mobs of Partition, Asaf may have wondered at how history was circling in upon itself, at whether the insecurities of the Muslim elite post-1857 would recur in the Muslim masses post-Independence. As his marriage ended, his friendships and his ideals ruptured, he might have wondered if he was not, like Prufrock, at times, a Fool. And still, Raghavan writes in his final pages, Asaf “soldiered on bravely”. Sometimes, that is the most heroic thing a person can do.

Parvati Sharma is the author, most recently, of Akbar of Hindustan and Jahangir: An Intimate Portrait of a Great Mughal.

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