Does anyone remember Maulana Azad and Rafi Ahmed Kidwai anymore?

The frenzied debate over the comparative legacies of Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, sparked by Narendra Modi’s foray into counter-factual history, provides an occasion to remember two tall Congress leaders whose contribution to the idea of a modern, united and secular India has gone by default because there are no votes to be had by invoking their names.

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Rafi Ahmed Kidwai — along with Zakir Hussain — were the last of a formidable generation of truly nationalistic Muslim leaders. Unlike Nehru, their belief in pluralism and tolerance did not derive from exposure to the western values of Enlightenment but from their own experience of Hindu-Muslim cultural fusion — the so-called Ganga-Jamunitehzeeb.

Given the nature of India’s current Muslim leadership, characterised mostly by intolerance and a narrow self-serving view of Muslim interests, it is hardly surprising that it does not want to be reminded of those who had a very different vision for their community, and who did not see politics as a zero-sum game between majority and minority groups.

The result is that at least three generations of Indians have grown up with no knowledge of Muslim contribution to nation-building. This has been exploited by the Hindu Right to portray Muslims as being outside the “national mainstream”; and as scroungers living off the labour of Hindu nation-builders.

Role models

Worse, young Muslims have been deprived of role models in politics to look up to. When they look around, they see Muslim “leaders’’ whose grasp of the community’s priorities is so slight and politics so opportunistic that they can’t be blamed for feeling cheated and facing a leadership vacuum.

Both Azad and Kidwai were practising Muslims, but their religious sensitivities were not so fragile as to be offended by a pedestrian novel irreverent of the Prophet, or a crass Islamophobic film. Moreover, they were a living refutation of the idea that religiosity equals fundamentalism — a notion fuelled by the antics of a new breed of self-styled Muslim leaders claiming to act in the name of Islam.

Azad, complete with a beard and what these days is referred to, in slightly derogatory tone, as a “Muslim cap,” was an Islamic scholar who compiled highly regarded commentaries interpreting the Koran and the Hadith. He also trained in science, mathematics and philosophy.

Setting up the IITs

Few know that it was Azad — the bearded, topi-wearing namazi — who laid the foundations of world-class technological education in India by setting up the Indian Institutes of Technology, whose graduates are making waves around the world.

As independent India’s first education minister, he was also the architect of many of the modern higher education institutions, such as the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) of which the country is justly proud. He introduced the system of universal free national education, making it possible for millions of poor young Indians to go to university.

A unifier

Kidwai, or “Rafi sahib” as he was popularly known, was independent India’s first communications minister. Nehru had such confidence in him that later he entrusted him with the food and agriculture portfolio when the country faced a serious food crisis. He proved so successful that the Indian Council of Agricultural Research instituted an award in his memory to honour scientists for outstanding contributions to research in agriculture.

Dubbed an “Islamic socialist” for his broadly leftist views, he played a big role in mobilising Muslims of eastern and central Uttar Pradesh around the idea of a united and inclusive India when the State’s Muslim elite was drifting towards the Muslim League’s campaign for a separate Muslim homeland. Thanks to his popularity and influence in what was then the United Provinces, his followers came to be known as “Raffians.”

Although he barely stepped out of India, in many ways Kidwai was a more modern man — and understood universal values of tolerance and inclusion better — than many of the globe-trotting present crop of Muslim leaders.

Delhi’s Rafi Marg is named after him, but how many people know who that Rafi was? A random poll many years ago revealed that many thought it referred to the singer Mohammed Rafi.

Questions for the community

It is a pity that today men like Azad and Kidwai are regarded as no more than ghosts from the past who have no relevance in the modern world. Conspiracy theorists accuse the government of deliberately neglecting Muslim leaders, but what about Muslims themselves? What has the Muslim community done to carry forward their legacy?

The duo represented the finest traditions of Indian Islam, and there could be no better time to “exhume’’ them than now when its core values of co-existence and cultural integration are under attack. They would be turning in their graves as Islam becomes shorthand for intolerance, backwardness and, worse, terrorism.

Narendra Modi on Patel

Mr. Modi’s intervention on behalf of Patel may be a crude electoral ploy, but it would have served a purpose if it opens up a wider debate on the need for us to revisit our liberation heroes and nation-builders less selectively (and more frequently) — not just by building their statues and naming projects after them but by disseminating their ideas and acting on them.

Indians are unique in lacking a sense of history just as, in contrast, the British are obsessed with it. Which is why it has become so easy for the Indian Right to distort history to suit its objectives. It is time the story of modern India was told through many different voices. Nehru and Patel were, no doubt, the “big beasts,” but there were others who had more than walk-on parts in this great story. And their legacy, too, must be kept alive.

(Hasan Suroor is an independent columnist. His forthcoming book, India’s Muslim Spring: Why is Nobody Talking About It? is being published by Rupa & Co. E-mail: hasan.suroor@gmail.com)

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