Glimpses Into A Nationalist

Azad and Secularism

Irfan Engineer

Not very long ago Cultural Minister Mahesh Sharma called the late APJ Abdul Kalam, the former President of India, as a "nationalist and humanist despite of being a Muslim". The offensive statement reflected the Cultural Minister's attitudes towards Muslims, namely that in general Muslims are not nationalists or humanists and that the late former President was an exception. Some would like to say that the late APJ Abdul Kalam was a nationalist and a humanist because he was a Muslim. The cultural minister should have known Maulana Abul Kalam Azad if not of billions of other instances of Muslims who are humanists and nationalists all over the world because they are Muslims. There are tens of thousands of Muslims who went to jail and fought for India's independence, some like Ashfaqullah even kissed the gallows, along with other Indians belonging to all religions. In fact, the Hindu nationalists, and the Muslim League members were supporters of British imperialism. In this regard the views of Abul Kalam Azad are worth recalling.

Maulana Azad was born in Mecca in 1888 and lived in Mecca till his father Maulana Muhammad Khairuddin returned to Calcutta in 1890. Maulana's mother was an Arab woman. Azad and his brother travelled to Egypt, Turkey and Iran and he was influenced by the revolutionary struggle there for democracy and freedom in those countries. Azad started a weekly in 1912 at the age of 24 Al-Hilal to shake off the political lethargy among the Muslims and mobilize them to join the anti-colonial struggle along with other compatriots.

When Maulana Azad started Al-Hilal, Muslims weren't as active in the freedom struggle as the members of Hindu community. Sir Syed had adviced the Muslims to keep away from politics. The religious leaders were engaged in guiding the community in religious matters and Shari'a issues. The politically oriented feudal elite were befriending the colonial authorities to negotiate their share under colonial subservience and arrangements. Al-Hilal espoused the cause of Independence movement and exhorted the Muslims to join the movement. Muslims, Azad wrote, are obliged to follow the straight path (sirat al-mustaqim) and fight for freedom shoulder to shoulder with their Hindu brothers. Within a short period circulation of Al-Hilal reached 26,000—an unprecedented fete for any Urdu daily. The demand of previous issues was such that they had to be re-printed.

The Colonial Government confiscated the security deposit of Al-Hilal in 1914 under the Press Act and asked for additional Rs 20,000. Muslims joined the Independence movement in large numbers in the non-cooperation movement launched by Gandhiji during the period 1919-1922. The movement was an unprecedented success. The Ali Brothers also contributed to the success of the movement.

Having succeeded in mobilizing the Muslims into Independence movement, Azad's efforts were to consolidate this Hindu-Muslim unity on firm, foundations of faith of Muslims as well as on the shared culture of both the communities. In his 1940 Presidential address to the Indian National Congress in Rampur, Azad said "This [immigration of Muslims onto Indian soil] led to a meeting of the culture-currents of two different races. Like the Ganga and Jamuna, they flowed for a while through separate courses, but nature's immutable law brought them together and joined them in a sangam. This fusion was a notable event in history. ...Eleven hundred years of common history have enriched India with our common achievement. Our languages, our poetry, our literature, our culture, our art, our dress, our manners and customs, the innumerable happenings of our daily life, everything bears the stamp of our joint endeavour. ...Our languages were different, but we grew to use a common language; our manners and customs were dissimilar, but they acted and reacted on each other, and thus produced a new synthesis. ...This joint wealth is the heritage of our common nationality, and we do not want to leave it and go back to the times when this joint life had not begun. ...This thousand years of our joint lift has moulded us into a common nationality. ...Whether we like it or not, we have now become an Indian nation, united and indivisible. No fantasy or artificial scheming to separate and divide can break this unity. We must accept the logic of fact and history, and engage ourselves in the fashioning of our future destiny". (Azad, 1940) In contrast and contrary to the facts, the Muslim League and Hindu nationalists were arguing that culture was based on religion and that Hindu and Muslim cultures were irreconciliable.

Azad argued in favour of muttahida quumiyat (composite nationalism). He cited the example of the first state established by Prophet Mohammed in Medina wherein all the people of Medina entered into a covenant called as 'Covenant of Medina'. Under the covenant, if Medina was attacked by outsiders, all would join forces to defend the city. However the Jews and Christians were free to practice their religion. Azad further said, "I am proud of being an Indian. I am a part of the indivisible unity that is Indian nationality. I am indispensable to this noble edifice, and without me this splendid structure of India is incomplete. I am an essential element which has gone to build India. I can never surrender this claim".  For Azad, Hindu-Muslim unity was more fundamental than independence if it was to be achieved by partitioning India. In his address to the special session of INC in 1923 Azad said, "If today an angel descending from the clouds were to declare from the top of the Qutub Minar in Delhi, Discard Hindu-Muslim unity and within twenty-four hours swaraj is yours", I would prefer to sacrifice swaraj rather than Hindu-Muslim unity, for delay in the attainment of swaraj will be a loss to India alone, but if our unity disappears it will be a loss to the whole world of humanity."

When the Muslim League leaders were scaring the Muslims that in united India, Hindu majority would dominate and oppress them, Azad wrote in al-Hilal 1 (8) 2-3, "The fact that Hindus are a majority is of no .significance. It is the condition to which you have brought yourselves that will insure your destruction... There is no need to fear Hindus. You must fear God. You are the army of God. But you have cast off the uniform He gave you. Put it on again and the whole world will tremble. You have to live in India, so embrace your neighbours... You must realize your position among the peoples of the world. Like God himself, look at everyone from a lofty position. If other communities do not treat you well, you should still treat them well. The greater forgive the faults of lesser."

Azad had opposed Pakistan to the best of the ability he commanded. "God's earth cannot be divided into Pak (pure) and impure" he wrote. Azad was most pained by the partition and was never reconciled to the fact. Azad and Gandhiji were marginalized within the Congress Working Committee. "Two states in conflict with one another did not offer solution to the problems of minorities", Azad opined, "as minorities would be vulnerable to retributions and reprisals for acts of their co-religionists in the state where they were in majority." Azad had staked his entire political career on united India and lost. When the All India Congress Committee voted in favour of partition on 14th June 1947, Azad's final plea was that even if the political defeat had to be accepted, the INC should try to ensure that the culture was not divided. He pleaded that even if a stick is placed in the water and it divides the water temporarily, water remains undivided.

Azad was the first Education Minister of the Union Government headed by Jawaharlal Nehru. After independence, he dedicated himself to promoting peace and laying the foundation of educational infrastructure. Amongst other things Azad desired that religious education be imparted along with secular education as the serious business of religious education cannot be left to the respective religious leadership of the communities—they tend to take supremacist and communal stand. Azad desired that common values of all the religions should be taught to the students so that they do not develop prejudices against each other. He writes, "Today India is free... She can have any kind of mental mould she pleases. Will it be exclusive... or will it be all-inclusive, which has been the characteristic of Indian culture throughout the ages?... In the advancement of nations there is no greater hindrance than narrow mindedness. It is our duty to keep ourselves free from this disease in the new era of independence".

Secularism for Azad rested on the principle of wahadat-e-din on the one hand and disregarding the intermediaries—the priestly class institutionalization of religion. Every human has to struggle to live righteous life—enjoining the good and forbidding evil. There can be numerous guides to learn from in this struggle, but not intermediaries. Azad was not for competition in proving which religion is superior.

Secularism, according to Azad was not in confining religion to observances of certain rituals within home, but in religion inspiring followers to live righteous path and seeking guidance of almighty in understanding what that right path is. Therefore every human being has to struggle to become a better follower of their respective religions. Maulana Azad wanted to codify Islamic law and reform of Islamic law, but he breathed his last on 22 February 1958 without undertaking the task. Indians should revisit life of great humans as the Maulana rather than ignoring them and carry on their work and achieve their unfinished tasks.

Vol. 48, No. 42, Apr 24 - 30, 2016