By Karmanye Thadani:
If India is where it is today in terms of technological advancement, much of the credit actually goes to a Muslim cleric, though few think of him that way. Maulana Azad (1888-1958), the first Education Minister of free India, was the one who introduced the IITs, and today, the 11th of November, happens to be his birthday and is observed as National Education Day.
As Education Minister, he ensured a high budgetary allocation for education and was vocal against Christian missionaries misusing education for mass conversion, something that would today quickly earn a Hindu political leader the tag of being communal!
A prominent freedom fighter, he started off by using violent methods to fight the British but later went on to join the Congress and was arrested a number of times for his participation in the freedom struggle. Maulana Azad was committed to the cause of modernity and progress by way of embracing the English language and studying Western science like Sir Syed Ahmed Khan but was opposed to the latter’s pro-British and somewhat communal views. He had started running a magazine at the age of fourteen and at that age, was imparting traditional Islamic education to those twice his age! Later, he started a newspaper Al Hilal promoting Indian nationalism of a modern variety among Indian Muslims, a venture he didn’t stop in spite of death-threats from Muslim League supporters.
He became the youngest ever Congress President in its Ramgarh session in 1923, having ensured that differences in the Congress leadership over contesting elections under the colonial framework didn’t cause a split in the party and he later went on to take up that office yet again for a considerable stretch of time, and even managed to strike a compromise with Jinnah to prevent the partition of India, which was undone by Nehru, owing to Nehru’s commitment to having a strong central government (for which Jaswant Singh has criticized Nehru in his book on Jinnah). Maulana Azad had also resolved the difficult question of land reforms in Bihar by putting to rest some genuine concerns of the zamindars.
A vociferous opponent of the Muslim League and a stronger opponent of the idea of the partition of India than even Nehru and Patel, Maulana Azad stands out as a towering figure in the modern Islamic history of South Asia. He asserted that if the whole of India could belong to the Muslims as much as to the Hindus, then it certainly didn’t make sense for the Muslims want to reserve only some specific parts of it for themselves. He also was impartial enough to say that the idea of Pakistan, being inspired by the idea of Israel, made less sense than the latter, and even went on to say one could possibly rationally sympathize with the latter in his opinion.
He was prophetic to the extent of accurately going on record to foresee the secession of East Pakistan and further ethnic tensions between the Balochs, Sindhis, Punjabis and Urdu-speaking people in Pakistan, besides that country not having a stable government with the possibility of military dictatorship and becoming subservient to foreign powers. A firm champion of Hindu-Muslim unity, he praised Hindus as being open-minded to embrace schools of thought from the world over, such as Marxism, and mostly supporting the secular Congress instead of the communal Hindu Mahasabha. He rejected outright the idea that Hindus were basically intolerant and that Muslims would be a vulnerable minority in independent non-partitioned India. He also asserted that some Muslims, by their extremist behaviour, gave rise to Hindu communalism. However, he did not say these things in a manner as though he was selling himself to please Hindus and was very jingoistic about Islam being the best religion and its having made immense contributions to Indian culture, and he was indeed very critical of regressive maulvis. He also denounced Hindu communalism, even its presence within the Congress, in no uncertain terms. His interview is a must-read.
Jinnah, who himself ate pork, often called the Maulana a Congress show-boy for the Muslim community, but the Maulana was among the most prominent scholars of Islam globally and his modernist interpretations of the Islamic texts are widely accepted by progressive Muslims. In fact, it is believed that had the Maulana supported the cause of the creation of Pakistan, he would have ended up as the Prime Minister of that country, being the great scholar of Islam that he was.
Yet, owing to my commitment to impartiality, I would mention that I am not an uncritical admirer of the Maulana’s (nor am I am uncritical admirer of Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, Bhagat Singh or even my icon Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, though I salute all of them from the bottom of my heart), and he was among the leaders of the regressive Khilafat Movement in the 1920s to restore the glory of the Sultan of Turkey who he regarded as the Khalifa of the Islamic world, supporting the institution this hereditary monarch, though Islam mandates a democratically elected Khalifa. This becomes even stranger, since the Maulana had been in contact with Arab revolutionaries trying to overthrow Turkish imperialism and pro-democracy Turkish revolutionaries. Also, the Maulana did support the anachronistic idea of pan-Islamism and heavily influenced Nehru against Israel, in spite of his (the Maulana’s) having rationalized (though not justified) Zionism in the past, as mentioned earlier in this article. Zionism was undoubtedly regressive, and was opposed even by Gandhi and Nehru, but the Maulana’s opposition to it also definitely stemmed from some sense of religious fraternity with the Arabs, though we have had practising Muslims with a much more liberal outlook in our political circles, like Arif Mohammed Khan or the late Rafiq Zakaria.
All said and done, the Maulana’s service to the nation has undoubtedly been tremendous and his suffering and sacrifice for the country has ensured that his name is enshrined in Indian history in golden letters.[box bg="#fdf78c" color="#000"]About the author: The author is a freelance writer based in New Delhi. He has co-authored two short books, namely ‘Onslaughts on Free Speech in India by Means of Unwarranted Film Bans’ and ‘Women and Sport in India and the World’. He is currently working on writing the script for a TV serial on the life of Maulana Azad. To read his other posts, click here.[/box]