Review of S. Irfan Habib’s Maulana Azad — A Life: The azadi of Abul Kalam Azad 

Irfan Habib’s biography is an essential reminder of the relevance of the iconoclast’s views on religion and politics

Published - April 21, 2023 09:01 am IST

Abul Kalam Azad

Abul Kalam Azad | Photo Credit: The Hindu Photo Archives

Imagine a home-schooled Indian boy at the turn of the 20th century who begins work on his Persian dictionary at the age of 9, completes his early education by 12, establishes himself as a leading columnist, the editor of a monthly and a poet before he reaches 15, and goes on to become the youngest president of the Indian National Congress at 35.

The child prodigy was Mohinuddin Ahmad (1888-1958), aka Maulana Abul Kalam Azad which translates as ‘the liberated father of discourse’. Fittingly, the birth anniversary (November 11) of this remarkable man is celebrated in India as National Education Day. Yet Azad is a forgotten man today.

If last year the central government decided to discontinue the Maulana Azad National Fellowship (MANF) citing overlap with other schemes, this year the Congress did not even mention Azad in newspaper advertisements on its 85th plenary session. Then came the reported deletion of any mention of Azad from a revised Class 11 political science textbook published by the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT).

Such moves, notwithstanding Congress’s subsequent apology for the “inexcusable slip up”, could hasten the de-memorialisation of Azad’s service to the nation. But then as H.M. Seervai had said in Partition of India: Legend and Reality, “nationalist Muslims” like Azad had ceased to count for even the INC long before India’s Independence.

Thankfully, S. Irfan Habib’s Maulana Azad: A Life has come at the right time. It not just reminds us of Azad’s selfless sacrifices for the cause of a united India, but highlights the continued relevance of his iconoclastic views on religion and politics.

Religious worldview

Habib recounts how Azad disagreed with his father’s old-fashioned views on Islam and rebelled against the “awesomeness” of his paternal authority. Azad identified himself more with the liberalism of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan than with his father’s puritanism which he found intolerable. 

Habib reproduces one of Azad’s scathing diatribes against the clerics: “The perpetrators of oppression have always availed of the services of the ulema who are more than willing to serve the state.” 

Facsimile of a 15 paise special postage stamp released on November 11, 1966, in honour of the memory of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, who was Congress President and Union Education Minister.

Facsimile of a 15 paise special postage stamp released on November 11, 1966, in honour of the memory of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, who was Congress President and Union Education Minister. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Photo Archives

Azad’s father, a cleric himself, tried his best to wean his free-thinking son away from being an independent interpreter of Islam. He told Azad about Abdur Rahim ‘Dahri’ (1785-1853), a much-maligned rationalist Muslim, to warn him that “too much intelligence many times becomes reason for waywardness.”

Abdur Rahim had earned the derogatory sobriquet dahri (atheist) for giving up his traditional beliefs after studying different schools of philosophy and religion. But Azad was all praise for Abdur Rahim and said that he did not deserve to be dismissed as a dahri.

This intrepid defence of a clerically condemned dissentient in the conformist milieu of the early 20th century is breathtaking in its audacity. Only an original scholar of the Koran like Azad could have done it. Indeed, Azad was so confident of Islam’s inclusionary message that he wanted to put an end to “all notions of exclusiveness” that assign “divine blessings and favours to one’s own community” or understanding of religion.

However, a new book Another India: The Making of the World’s Largest Muslim Minority, 1947–77 by Pratinav Anil, accuses Azad of pushing Indian Muslims into a “juristic ghetto” after Independence by sacrificing their political safeguards on the altar of cultural safeguards which included the protection of a gender-biased Muslim Personal Law.

Political dissent

Azad’s political views were no less dissident. At a time when Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s Muslim League was using with great success the two-nation theory to demand Pakistan, Azad advocated the inclusive idea of composite nationalism (muttahida qaumiyat) to argue that Hindus and Muslims were part of the same nation and therefore, dividing India on the basis of religion would be an act of sheer folly.

But Azad did not think that Jinnah was solely responsible for the Partition. In India Wins Freedom — which for some reason Habib does not discuss — Azad expresses extreme disappointment with Sardar Patel for telling him that there was no alternative except to recognise the fact there were two nations in India, and therefore if two brothers cannot stay together “it was better to have one clean fight and then separate than have bickerings every day.” This prompted Azad to state: “Jinnah may have raised the flag of partition but now the real flag bearer was Patel.”

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (far left) with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru next to him in Hyderabad on September 24, 1952.

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (far left) with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru next to him in Hyderabad on September 24, 1952. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Photo Archives

However, Azad’s biggest shock came when Jawaharlal Nehru asked him to face reality and accept Partition as “it would be wisdom not to oppose what was bound to happen.” Azad warned Nehru that “history would never forgive us if we agreed to partition. The verdict would then be that India was divided as much by the Muslim League as by Congress.”

According to Azad, one of the main reasons for Partition was Nehru’s rejection of the Cabinet Mission Plan (CMP) after the resolution on it was passed with “an overwhelming majority” in the All India Congress Committee (AICC) meeting on July 7, 1946. On 10th July 1946, Nehru, on being asked at a press conference whether with the passing of the resolution by AICC the Congress had accepted the CMP “in toto”, stated that the Congress would enter the Constituent Assembly “completely unfettered by agreements and free to meet all situations as they arise”, and was free to change or modify the CMP as it thought best.

This “bombshell” of a statement, Azad laments, changed the course of history. It gave Muslim League — which had already accepted the CMP — the opportunity to state that Nehru’s comments meant that Congress would change the scheme through its majority in the Constituent Assembly and put the minorities at the mercy of the majority. Within days the Muslim League rejected the CMP and resorted to “Direct Action” that ultimately gave Jinnah the Pakistan he wanted.

One may disagree with Azad’s assessment, but this is how he perceived the events that led to the Partition of India. His forthrightness tells us why the free-thinking Mohinuddin Ahmad renamed himself Abul Kalam Azad. It was to announce his liberation from the narrow perspectives of the religion and politics of that period, and speak his mind as the father of discourse without fear or favour.

Maulana Azad: A Life; S. Irfan Habib, Aleph Book Company, ₹899.

The reviewer is the secretary-general of the Islamic Forum for the Promotion of Moderate Thought.

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