Remembering Maulana Abul Kalam Azad

Samirnath Mallik

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (1888-1958) was elected as the President of Indian Congress party, the youngest one at thirty five to serve for seven years from 1939 to 1946. (The position was only for a year. But elections could not be held, because either the Congress party was declared illegal or the Committee members were in jail.) With deep faith in secularism he dreamt of a society of Hindu-Muslim amity in India and was anxious that India was not partitioned as the British left the land. Though a disciple of Gandhi, he believed in non-violence only for struggles within India against the British rule. Complete independence of India appealed to him more than any creed.

Later, as minister of education he created national projects for school and college construction and promoted universal primary education. He also established many institutions of higher learning, an example being his inauguration of  IIT, Kharagpur in 1951.

Abul Kalam was born in a conservative Muslim family. His father came to Calcutta with his family for medical treatment, liked the place and its people and settled here. The boy was not sent to any madrassa and his father taught him at home. If necessary, teachers in special subjects were appointed for him. His literary ability was seen at early age. At twelve years of age he was already proficient in several languages, Arabic, Bengali, Hindustani and Parsi. At thirteen he got married to a Muslim girl, who helped him in his later works.

He then learnt English and came in contact with the western world. For two or three years the unrest of his mind continued. All his old beliefs were shattered. About this time he took the pen name 'Azad' meaning 'free', indicating that he was no longer tied his inherited beliefs. When Curzon 1905 decided to partition Bengal province, he came in contact with an important revolutionary worker named Shyam Sunder Chakravarty, through whom he met others. He also met Arabindo Ghosh several times. Azad observed that revolutionary groups were recruited exclusively from Hindus. These groups suspected the Muslims. He allayed their fears and raised a group of young Muslims ready to take up new political tasks.

Around this time Azad visited Iraq, Egypt, Syria and Turkey and France. His contact with the revolutionaries of these countries confirmed his new beliefs. They expressed surprise that Indian Muslims were acting as followers of the British. Coming back to India Azad established the 'Al Hilal' Press and the new note of strong nationalism preached by it created a revolutionary stir among the Muslim masses. The government was disturbed. Soon World War I broke out and the Press was confiscated. Azad then started a new Press called 'Al Balagh'.

Azad met Gandhi in Delhi for the first time in 1920. A special session was held at Calcutta to consider the action prepared by Gandhi. Lala Lajpat Rai was the President of a session and Chittaranjan Das was a leading figure. Both Azad and Gandhi had high regard for Das. Das realized that Muslims were not represented proportionally in public life and so were inclined to the Muslim League led by Jinnah. He proposed that when the Congress would secure power in Bengal, 60% in administration and even 80% in Calcutta Corporation of the new appointments would be reserved for Muslims. This declaration took not only Bengal but also India by surprise. Many Congress leaders violently opposed it; but Das stood solid as a rock. Unfortunately his untimely death allowed his followers to repudiate his declaration. Thus when such power was given to the Congress ten years later, it was not implemented, sowing the first seed, observed Azad, of partition of India.

The Government of India Act 1935 provided complete provincial autonomy. But the Governors could declare a state of emergency to assume all powers to themselves. A strong section opposed even to participate in the elections. Azad opposed to boycott elections, saying that it would provide a platform to educate Indian politics to the masses. Later interim Ministries were formed in all provinces, after wresting an assurance that Governors would not interfere with the work of Ministries. During the short period of less than two years, the Congress Ministries settled several important issues, like abolition of zamindari, liquidating agricultural debts and undertaking a program of educating all children and adults. The outbreak of World War II suspended these activities and India was dragged into war.

Azad was elected President of Congress party, which passed a resolution, largely reflecting his views that nothing short of complete independence would be acceptable to the party. Gandhi was totally against the war. He even told viceroy Linlithgow that the British should give up arms and oppose Hitler with spiritual force! While Azad differed with Gandhi in his idea of non-violence,
they agreed that India could not participate in the war under the present condition.

Soon after the outbreak of World War II Stafford Cripps visited India and had many discussions with Azad in Wardha during the meeting of the Congress Working Committee. The views of Gandhi and Azad on participation of India in war were already known to him. On his enquiry Azad said that India would help the British in the war, provided they would declare Indian independence immediately after the end of war. Then Cripps sketched a plan for transfer of power.

On his mission for the second time, Cripps agreed that Indian independence would be recognized after the war. The provincial autonomy remaining the same, he proposed a new executive Council for the Viceroy, where the British members would be replaced by Indians, British officers acting as Secretaries. On the communal problem, he said that after the war the provinces would be free to decide whether to join the Union or not. Gandhi rejected the Cripps offer, as it would add to the difficulties and make a settlement of the communal problem impossible. Azad believed, the last clause was only a pretext to keep the power in the British hand.

The failure of Cripps Mission led to widespread anger among people in India. Many felt that the British (Churchill) cabinet had sent Cripps only because of American (Roosevelt) and Chinese (Chiang Kai-shek) pressure, but in fact Churchill had no intention of recognizing Indian freedom. Gandhi was thinking of a movement on the basis of non-violence; all methods short of violence would however be permissible. Nehru used a phrase for it, namely ‘open non-violent revolution’, which Gandhi liked. On July 1942 the Working Committee passed the 'Quit India' resolution implying the possibility of negotiation with the British was practically over.

All members of the Working Committee were arrested from Bombay and were sent to the Ahmednagar military fort jail. During this time Azad's wife and sister died. After three years the Government felt that it was no longer necessary to keep them in military prison and they could safely be transferred to civil jails of their own provinces. Azad was brought to Bankura, when the British Cabinet decided to take a fresh look at the Indian political problem: A Conference would be held at Shimla, inviting leaders of Congress, Muslim League and other parties.  Accordingly, members of Congress party were released to take part in the Conference.  Azad came back to Calcutta from Bankura.

On his way to Shimla, Azad first came to Bombay to meet Nehru, Gandhi and others. As he was very sick, he asked Humayun Kabir to act as his secretary during the Shimla conference. The Working Committee authorized Azad to represent Congress at the conference.

When Azad met Wavell at Simla, the Viceroy described his proposal. Azad found it was not substantially different from the Cripps offer. There was however an important difference in the circumstances. When Cripps made offer, the British were in dire need of Indian cooperation.  But when the Allies now defeated Hitler, this need was not there. But still the British Government made the same offer. Azad recognized, this created a new political atmosphere in India.

The Viceroy also desired an understanding between the Congress and the League. Azad told him clearly that an agreement with the League was very doubtful, as those in the control of the League had the impression that they enjoyed the support of the government. He however assured Azad that the Government was and would remain neutral. The Hindu Mahasabha also tried to get an invitation from the Viceroy, but was refused.

There was a long discussion in the Working Committee in Gandhi's presence. He did not on this occasion raise the question that participation in the war meant that Congress was giving up non-violence.

In the Conference Jinnah demanded that Congress could nominate all Hindu members but all Muslim members must be nominees of the League. Azad protested, saying that the Congress did not distinguish Muslims and Hindus on political issues; The Congress must have the full freedom to nominate any Indian, be he a Hindu or a Muslim or a Christian or a Parsi or a Sikh. Jinnah wished an informal discussion with the Congress but it proved abortive. Azad observed it was the first time the negotiations failed not on the political issue between India and Britain but on the communal issue.

The Viceroy's Executive Council had 14 members, of which 4 were nominated by him, 5 each by the Congress and the League. The Congress nominated 3 from each of Muslim, Christian and Parsi communities and only 2 from the Hindus. The Viceroy nominated 1 from the Sikhs, 2 from the Schedule casts and Khizir Hayat Khan, the Premier of Punjab. Jinnah reacted violently that 2 Muslims in the Council were not his nominees. Had Jinnah not opposed, there would have been 7 Muslims in the Council of 14, even though they were only 25% of Indian population. Thus the Shimla Conference was a failure.

Toward the end of 1945 the Labour Party assumed power in Britain. Prime Minister Attlee said that he did not wish to stress the differences among the Indians. They were all united in their desire for freedom. This had permeated even the soldiers, who had rendered splendid service in the war. The British sent a Cabinet Mission consisting of Stafford Cripps, Pethick-Lawrence and another member.

Azad told the members of a federal system, where the Central Government would look after defence, communications and foreign affairs. The Mission accepted his proposal and in addition, divided the country into three zones. One included Punjab, Sind , NWFP and the British Baluchistan. The second included Bengal and Assam. The third zone included the rest. All the zones would have their Provincial Governments to develop in their own ways. A white paper was issued by Attlee embodying the plan.

The Mission repudiated the idea of partition of the country as envisioned by the Muslim League in the Lahore Resolution in 1939. At first Jinnah was completely opposed to the scheme. The League Council met for three days to come to a decision. Finally, Jinnah had to admit that there could be no
fairer solution to the minority problem. As such, he advised the Muslim League to accept the scheme.

The acceptance of the British Cabinet mission both the Congress and theMuslim League was a glorious event in the history of the freedom movementin India. It meant that the difficult question of Indian freedom had been settled by negotiations and agreement and not by conflict and violence.

As the situation became normal, a fresh Congress election was held.Congress circles from Bengal, Bihar, Bombay, Madras and UP openly expressed the opinion that Azad should be charged with responsibility to launch free India in its course. But Azad decided to retire and proposed the name of Nehru for the post. However he wrote later, ".....this was perhaps the greatest blunder of my political life. I have regretted no action mine so much as the decision to withdraw from the Presidentship of the Congress at this critical juncture."

[We conclude remembering Maulana Abul Kalam Azad up to his presidential days of the congress party. [The account related above is taken mostly from Azad's book, INDIA WINS FREEDOM. The book was actually not written by him, as he was very ill. He narrated the history to Humayun Kabir and checked line-by-line with him. The book was published after his death.. I also acknowledge the help of Rabin Chakraborty in preparing the article. ]

Dec 21, 2020

Samir Mallik

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