“I am part of the indivisible unity that is Indian nationality.” – Maulana Abul Kalam Azad
November 11th is the birth anniversary of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, and we as Indians must remember his contribution to India, from her struggle for freedom to being one of the most significant voice against the idea of partition to being an advocate of education for all.
Born in 1888 as Mohiuddin Ahmed, he was a man of many parts. A precocious student, home-schooled and self-taught, he completed his religious curriculum at the age of 16. He viewed religion from a rationalist lens and believed that there was no conflict between Islam and nationalism. He quickly became the most prominent voice among the section of traditional Muslim scholars led by the Deoband school.
From the young age of 24, he published the newspaper Al Hilal through which he propagated his nationalist and rationalist ideas. He taught the youth the message of courage and fearlessness. He was an exception in his thinking and embraced a secular approach to political and economic questions. He said, “I [as a Muslim] am proud of being an Indian. I am part of the indivisible unity that is Indian nationality. I am indispensable to this noble edifice, and without me, this splendid structure is incomplete.”
It was the eloquence and sophistication in his writings and speeches that won him the sobriquet, Abul Kalam, which soon became his adoptive name and the name with which we remember him to this day.
He dedicated his life to the Indian freedom struggle. The nationalist movement gained momentum with the Khilafat movement where the younger generation of educated Muslims and traditionalists joined hands with the Congress, Maulana Azad, too, became a part of it. He went on to become Congress’s youngest and longest-serving president.
He was a man dedicated to the idea of United India. He believed in building bridges among communities. He vehemently opposed the divide and rule policy of the British and the separatist ideology of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, angering him and leading him to call Azad “Congress’ Muslim show boy.”
When Gandhi called for Quit India, he actively participated in the movement and was imprisoned. At the Shimla conference, he tried to break the ice between the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League.
In the end, as Congress accepted partition, Maulana Azad remained a critic of the idea of a divided India. Ten years after the partition he wrote, in India Wins Freedom, “As a Muslim, I for one am not prepared for a moment to give up my right to treat the whole of India as my domain and share in the shaping of its political and economic life. To me, it seems a sure sign of cowardice to give up what is my patrimony and content myself with a mere fragment of it.”
Post Independence, he became India’s first union minister for education and spent the remainder of his life in spreading education. He believed that education should reach all. He declared, “We must not for a moment forget, it is a birthright of every individual to receive at least the basic education without which he cannot fully discharge his duties as a citizen.” He is responsible for setting up of apex bodies such as AICTE and UGC. India’s pride, the IITs, IISc and School of Architecture and Planning were all his brainchild.
A man, way ahead of his times, he saw education as not just one that is had from books, but it could be vocational or the study of culture and literature of India. It’s no wonder that he established most of the cultural and literary academies we see today such as Lalit Kala Academy, Sahitya Academy, among others.
In honor of his immense contribution to India’s education, his birthday on November 11 is celebrated as “National Education Day”, and for his huge contribution, a large number of institutes were named in his memory, so extensive was his influence and contribution to higher education in India. Prominent ones among them are Maulana Azad Medical College, New Delhi, Maulana Azad National Institute of Technology in Bhopal, Maulana Azad Library, Aligarh Maulana Abul Kalam Azad University of Technology, Kolkata, Maulana Azad National Urdu University.
India’s first Prime Minister Nehru remembered him as “A very brave and gallant gentleman, a finished product of the culture that, in these days, pertains to a few.” On his death, Nehru announced on the All India Radio, “Aaj hamara Mir-e-Karavan chala gaya (Today, we have lost the leader of our caravan).” Such was his legacy; such was his dedication to freedom and the idea of a united India. In Azad lays every aspiration of the Indian struggle for independence.