Totem of secular India

Print edition : August 07, 2015

Azad on his way to the Viceregal Lodge for the Shimla Conference on July 16, 1945. M.A. Jinnah refused to shake hands with Azad when the two met in the presence of the Viceroy, Lord Wavell, at the Lodge. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

By Syeda Saiyidain Hameed. Publishers: Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2014. Pages: xxxii + 292. Price: Rs.895

By Mushirul Hasan. Publishers: Niyogi Books, New Delhi, 2014. Pages: 210. Price: Rs.695.

An illustration of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad which appeared in "Shankar's Weekly".

A STRONG sense of pathos surrounds the life of Mohiuddin Ahmed, more famously known as Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. He was undoubtedly a great leader who played a prominent role in the decades leading up to India’s Independence. Thus, his legacy is somewhat secure in nationalist historiographies but cast a look at his political record.

In his younger days, Azad was an avid pan-Islamist fighting valiantly for the cause of the Khilafat (the Islamic Caliphate), but with the abolition of the caliphate by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (the builder of modern Turkey) in 1924, he was forced to reorient his activism. Right from the days of his precocious youth, he strived to emerge as the leader of Muslims in British India. This aim was thwarted by his own commitment to Hindu-Muslim unity and the focussed intentions of Mohammed Ali Jinnah to emerge as the sole spokesman for Indian Muslims. Did Azad’s stewardship of the Indian National Congress (INC) through the most tumultuous years leading to Independence—from 1940 to 1946—prevent or delay Partition? No, here, too, he failed as his impatient colleagues at the INC gave in to Jinnah’s intransigence. How then do we evaluate the legacy of Azad, a man around whom a faintly tragic halo shimmers softly?

Two books published in 2014 deepen the readers’ knowledge of Azad while also providing them with ideas on how to engage with his nuanced legacy. Syeda Saiyidain Hameed’s biography, Maulana Azad, Islam and the Indian National Movement, is a landmark in Azad studies for its rich detail, empathetic narrative, and perceptive analysis.

Hameed’s father was a bureaucrat who had worked closely with Azad during his tenure as the first Education Minister in independent India, thus providing the author with an initial connection to Azad. (Azad held the portfolio until his death in 1958.) The other book under review, Islam, Pluralism, Nationhood, introduced and edited by Mushirul Hasan, is a useful reproduction of select primary historical documents pertaining to Azad.

The material is not exhaustive but the editor has curated it thoughtfully to represent the versatility of Azad as a politician, theologian, writer, and administrator. Here, the reader will find in the book, among other things, the cover page of the first issue of Al Hilal, a weekly Urdu newspaper established by Azad, the British intelligence correspondence on the threat posed by Azad, Azad’s Urdu and English writings, his speeches to INC delegates, and samples of his notes in Urdu.

Early days

The next few paragraphs provide a brief life sketch of Azad based on material mostly drawn from Hameed’s book. Azad was born in Mecca in 1888 and moved to Calcutta (now Kolkata) along with his family in 1895. His father was a respected Islamic scholar and Azad traced his lineage to three distinguished Muslim families of India and the Hejaz. He was a brilliant student who began to write poetry at a young age, and his restless intellect and brilliance marked him out early on. Not satiated with the Islamic tradition followed by his father, he sought his own interpretation of Islam and was briefly attracted to the radical Islamic creed of Syed Ahmed Khan.

His reputation as a writer and journalist in Arabic was well established by the time he was in his early 20s when he started campaigning aggressively for pan-Islamism and the Khilafat in the years leading up to, during, and after the First World War. By this time, Azad’s virulent antipathy to the British was formulated clearly and he used the pages of Al Hilal to attack the British policy on various fronts.

Leader of the caravan

It was during this period that Azad began to conceive of a role for himself as the “leader of the caravan” (of Indian Muslims). Recognising his own strengths, and with a sense of being chosen by destiny, Azad felt that he was the right person for this sensitive role. He also saw himself as someone who could interpret the Quran for his fellow Muslims—a task that he eventually accomplished in his magnum opus, Tarjuman-ul-Quran. Azad was an active participant in the Khilafat agitation and during the course of his participation set out the principles of his political creed of which Hindu-Muslim unity was an important component. How did this young pan-Islamist have a strong common cause with Hindus? Was it mere political expediency?

This transition from a communitarian to a more accommodating secular world view is an interesting journey. Azad was not the only Muslim leader who made this transition as a generation of nationalist Muslim leaders cut their teeth in the Khilafat movement while also coming into contact with Mahatma Gandhi for the first time. Saifuddin Kitchlew, Syed Mahmud and M.A. Ansari were prominent nationalist Muslim leaders who gained popularity during the Khilafat movement. Jinnah was perhaps the only prominent Muslim to stay away from the agitation, dismayed as he was by the thorough mingling of religion and politics. That he would go on to use religious identity as the bedrock of a political demand is perhaps the biggest irony of the founder of Pakistan.

Sufi at heart

For Azad, this transition was not unnatural. To understand Azad’s religious credo, we must go back to an essay he wrote just before 1910 in praise of Sarmad, the irreverent Sufi who was executed in 1660 for challenging the authority of the austere Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. In this work, we notice that Azad saw himself as following the legacy of Sarmad and Dara Shikoh (Shah Jahan’s son), marking him out as someone who was a Sufi at heart.

When he was arrested in 1921, Azad presented a written statement during his trial wherein he made an impassioned appeal to his fellow Muslims to oppose the British as the state was guilty. His statement, steeped in Islamic theology and history, invoked the rightful period of the first four caliphs to justify the religious basis for politics. His politics was rooted in his religion, and he drew legitimacy for his anti-colonialism from his understanding of Islamic theology citing Prophet Muhammad’s covenant with the non-Muslim Medinites.

It is important to note that Azad made no distinction between his religion and his politics. So it followed that he strongly justified his cooperation with non-Muslims through theology. Just before the launch of the Khilafat movement, Azad wrote a lengthy article arguing that non-Muslims could enter mosques.

By this time, Azad had met Gandhi and was acknowledged as a popular leader. In 1923, he became the youngest person to be elected as the president of the Congress. In his presidential address, he made an impassioned plea for Hindu-Muslim unity.

He said: “Today, if an angel were to descend from the heaven and declare from the top of the Qutab Minar that India will get Swaraj within twenty-four hours, provided she relinquishes Hindu-Muslim unity, I will relinquish Swaraj rather than give up Hindu-Muslim unity. Delay in the attainment of Swaraj will be a loss to India, but if our unity is lost, it will be a loss for entire mankind.”

Commitment to Congress

He founded the All India Nationalist Muslim Party in 1929 to mobilise Muslim opinion in favour of the Congress’ secularism but this organisation never achieved the kind of popularity the Muslim League enjoyed. With his political ideology firmly hitched to the Congress and Gandhi, Azad opposed the Communal Award of 1931, which introduced separate electorates for the depressed and backward classes and reservation of seats for Muslims in provinces. When the Congress won a majority of seats in the 1937 elections and formed governments in several provinces, Azad was pained to see Muslims discriminated against in the lower rungs of the party and the efforts made to keep them out of the organisation.

But he believed that the higher echelons of the Congress was not communal. His commitment to the Congress was based on his strong belief that the party would best safeguard the interests of Muslims.

With Jinnah and the Muslim League on the ascendant and Muslims feeling alienated from the Congress, Azad was the natural choice for the post of president in 1940. From this position, he tried to work towards a united India and address the insecurities of Muslims but his efforts were futile. Ridiculed by the Muslim League and alienated slightly within the Congress leadership, this must have been the lowest point of his life.

The penultimate Viceroy, Lord Wavell, records how Jinnah refused to shake hands with Azad when the two met at the Viceregal Lodge in Shimla in 1945.

More distressingly, a garland of shoes was flung at Azad at the Aligarh railway station in 1947 by students who saw him as a traitor to the Islamic cause. It must have been tough to be Azad at that point.

With Partition, Muslims in India once again looked to Azad for guidance. In his address at the Jama Masjid in Delhi on October 20, 1947, Azad spoke eloquently and emotionally: “Do you remember, when I called out to you, you cut off my tongue? I picked up my pen, you severed my hand. I wanted you to walk at my side but you sliced off my feet.” He broke down while delivering this speech but his qoum (community) was looking to him for leadership.

Azad’s legacy

How then do we evaluate the legacy of Azad? A simple answer is to treat him as a totem of secular India, valuing his important but marginal role.

The Indian state has done that to an insufficient (as some would argue) degree. It has named roads and universities after him and has accorded an honourable role for him in history textbooks. What then of the betrayal of Azad by his fellow partymen? When will that be adequately addressed? That is a larger question and beyond the scope of this review. Another facet of his legacy, which can be used more fruitfully in the present times, is his engagement with Islamic theology.

Azad lived and wrote in a different time when the world was still not overwhelmed by violent Islamist fundamentalism and concomitant Islamophobia. His liberal Weltanschauung strongly founded in his reading of Islamic texts, needs to be resuscitated and used to counter the restrictive interpretations of Islam that are used to justify violence in the name of Islam. This is, perhaps, another way of engaging more usefully with the legacy of Azad.