Hundred years ago, with the death of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the torch of Indian Nationalism came into the hands of Mahatma Gandhi.
Gandhi launched on the same day the greatest protest against the Raj after the revolt of 1857.
The similarity in both the great Revolt and Non-Cooperation Movement was the participation of Hindus and Muslims fighting together against the Raj.
When Non-Cooperation Movement was withdrawn by the Mahatma, Congress got divided into two factions, pro-changers led by Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das and Motilal Nehru and no-changers by Chakravarty Rajgopalachari, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, and Rajendra Prasad.
Both the groups looked upon Maulana Abul Kalam Azad for reconciliation at this critical juncture. It was because of Maulana Azad’s great skill of mediation that prevented a split like Surat in 1923.
Jivatram Bhagwandas Kripalani, one of the important members of the Gandhian Congress, stated later, ‘It was [Azad’s] moderating influence that avoided a cleavage at the time between the pro-changers and the no-changers.’ (Kripalani quoted in Humayun Kabir (ed.), Abul Kalam Azad (Publications Division, New Delhi), p. 32.).
Hence in September of 1923, when Maulana Azad was asked to be the youngest Congress President in the History, it was a tribute to his merit at the time of crisis, who by this time was a known figure in India, and had hypnotised Indians by his writings in Al-Hilal.
Three qualities had by now became coterminous with Maulana Azad, the first was his universal approach of Islam, which was similar to Gandhi and Tagore’s approach towards Hinduism.
On January 1, 1913, he wrote, “Islam does not command narrow-mindedness and racial and religious prejudice. It does not make the recognition of merit and virtue, of human benevolence, mercy, and love dependent upon and subject to distinctions of religion and race. It teaches us to respect every man who is good, whatever his religion.”(Quoted in Mujeeb, Indian Muslims, p. 458.).
Azad’s second quality was patriotism; he believed that Patriotism was akin to his religious belief, in as early as 1912 he stated that ‘for the Hindus, patriotism might be a secular obligation, but for the Muslims, it was a religious duty.’ (Al-Hilal, Dec. 18, 1912, quoted in Haq, Muslim Politics, p. 101.).
And the third was a commitment to secularism, from which he never wavered. His commitment to the Hindu Muslim Unity predates his encounter with Mahatma Gandhi.
He stated to the Muslims in India, “let us not be afraid of the Hindus. Only God is to be feared. If you want to live in India you have to embrace your neighbours… If there is any hindrance from their side in cooperating, just ignore it…Even if others do not treat you well, you must behave as gentlemen. “(Al-Hilal, Sept. 11, 1912, pp. 81–83.).
After meeting Gandhi, a staunchly religious man like Azad, his commitment towards Religious pluralism got firmer.
And as youngest Congress President, his words still echoes in the ears of secular and patriotic Indians.
Azad said, “If an angel descends from the heavens today and proclaims from the Qutb Minar that India can attain Swaraj within 24 hours provided I relinquish my demand for Hindu-Muslim unity, I shall retort to it: ‘No my friend, I shall give up Swaraj, but not Hindu-Muslim unity, for if Swaraj is delayed, it will be a loss for India, but if Hindu-Muslim unity is lost, it will be a loss for the whole of mankind.”(Quoted in Malsiani, Azad, pp. 43–4.).
Azad was not afraid of using religious connotations to prove his point, in that case, he was quite similar to Mahatma Gandhi and Chakravarty Rajgopalachari on religious tolerance.
Azad had articulated that unity was sanctioned in Islam and he cited the example of the Prophet-
“When the Prophet Muhammad migrated to Medina he prepared a covenant between the Muslims and the Jews of Medina. In the covenant, it was mentioned that ultimately the Muslims and non-Muslims would become one nation (ummah vahidah).
Ummah means a qaum or nation; vahidah means one. Thus if I say that the Muslims of India cannot perform their duty unless they are united with the Hindus, it is in accordance with the tradition of the Prophet who himself wanted to make a nation of Muslims and non-Muslims.” ( Haq, Muslim Politics, p. 98.).
After becoming the Congress President, he was the core member of the Gandhian inner circle, along with Sardar Patel, Jawaharlal Nehru, Chakravarty Rajgopalachari and Rajendra Prasad.
His stature also increased when Muhammad Ali distanced himself from the Congress and Hakim Ajmal Khan and Mukhtar Ahmed Ansari had left this world.
Azad served as the Congress President again, when Muhammad Ali Jinnah had shed “Hindu Muslim unity” and had taken a new ‘avatar‘ in 1937 at Lucknow.
Congress was facing another blow with the rivalry among Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Rajaji, and Dr. Rajendra Prasad with Subhash Chandra Bose. Also, now Indian politics was not limited to India’s geographical boundaries, there was the influence of both the allied and axis powers in Indian leadership.
At this critical juncture, Congress once again looked on Azad, and his speech at Ramgarh is no way less important for patriotic and secular Indians than his last Presidential speech at Delhi.
Azad stated that though India can’t support the Fascist groups, Indians are tired of Imperialism, “India cannot endure the prospect of Nazism and Fascism, but she is even more tired of British imperialism.”.
To the Muslims, who had started to get enchanted with their ‘new Qaide E Azam’ (Abul Kalam Azad was called Qaide E Azam before Muhammad Ali Jinnah), he said, “Muslims in India are a vast concourse spreading out all over the country. They stand erect, and number between eighty and ninety million. They indeed number only one-fourth of the total population, but the question is not one of ratio, but of large numbers and the strength behind them. If they are in a minority in seven provinces, they are in a majority in we, Indian Musalmans view the future of India with suspicion and distrust or with courage and confidence? If we view it with fear and suspicion, then undoubtedly we will have to follow a different path. No present declaration, no promise for the future, no constitutional safeguards can be a remedy for our doubts and fears. We are then forced to tolerate the existence of a third power.”
“…Every fibre of my being revolted against [this] alternative. I could not conceive it possible for a Musalman to tolerate this unless he has rooted out the spirit of Islam from every corner of his being.”
Then Azad spoke on how Islam has influenced India and how Muslims are indispensable to India:
“I am a Musalman and proud of the fact. Islam’s splendid traditions of thirteen hundred years are my inheritance. I am unwilling to lose even the smallest part of this inheritance. In addition, I am proud of being an Indian. I am part of the indivisible unity that is Indian nationality.
I am indispensable to this noble edifice. Without me this splendid structure of India is incomplete. I am an essential element that has gone to build India. I can never surrender this claim.
It was India’s historic destiny that many human races and cultures and religions should flow to her and that many a caravan should find rest here. . . . One of the last of these caravans was that of the followers of Islam. This came here and settled here for good.
We brought our treasures with us, and India too was full of the riches of her precious heritage. We gave her what she needed most, the most precious of gifts from Islam’s treasury, the message of human equality. The full eleven centuries have passed by since then. Islam has now as great a claim on the soil of India as Hinduism.
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 produced a new synthesis. Our old dress may be seen only in ancient pictures . . . No fantasy or artificial scheming to separate and divide can break this unity.” (Quoted in Malsiani, Azad.).
In 1940, when Lahore Resolution was passed by the Muslim League, and Muhammad Ali Jinnah called the former Qaide E Azam as “Muslim Showboy of the Congress”.
Azad was one of the first to challenge the charges of the Muslim league that ‘different civilizations, different epics and different heroes’ and that ‘very often the hero of one is a foe of the other.’ (Merriam, Gandhi vs Jinnah, p. 68)
Azad stated to them, “Providence brought us (Hindus and Muslims) together over a thousand years ago. We have fought but so do blood-brothers fight…No, it is no use trying to emphasize the differences. For that matter no two human beings are alike. Every lover of peace must emphasize similarities.” (Desai, Azad, p. 124).
During the Quit India imprisonment, he lost his wife Zuleikha.
Ghubar-i-Khatir contains the letter written on April 11, 1944, which tells about this incident in detail: “On March 23, I received news of her critical illness through a telegram. When the newspapers arrived they contained the same news. The superintendent told me that if I wanted to make any representation in this connection he would send it immediately to Bombay. I told him firmly that I wanted to make no request to the government.
The equilibrium of my life was shaken. . . . The newspapers arrive here between noon and 1 p.m. My room faces the superintendent’s office. The jailor brings the paper from there direct to my room. As soon as he got out of the office and I could hear his footsteps, my heart used to palpitate with the apprehension that the paper may contain some dreadful news. Then I used to check myself with a jerk.
My sofa does not face the door. Until the visitor comes inside he cannot see my face. By the time the jailor arrived, I was able to nod at him with a smile and to indicate that he might leave the paper on the table.
Then I used to resume my writing as if I was in no particular hurry to glance at the paper. I admit that all this was a show put up by my conceited self so that its power of patience and dignity may not be tarnished by over-anxiety.
Finally the poisoned cup of sorrows brimmed over. On April 9 the superintendent handed over to me a telegram conveying the bad news. Thus ended the 36 years of our wedded life. Though my determination did not desert me, it seemed as if my feet had no strength left in them. There is an old grave in the Fort compound. God knows whose it is, but ever since I arrived here I have seen it hundreds of times. Now when I look at it I seem to have developed a certain affection for it. Last evening I gazed at it for a long time.”.
He had already lost his only child Haseen in 1908 and three months later his sister Abru Begum, who lived in Bhopal, also passed away. Lonely Azad fought a lost battle to save his country from the vivisection.
Independence came with bloodshed, and partition, Azad after three months of Independence again gave a historic speech, asking Muslims to stay in India.
“It is nothing new for me to address a vast crowd in the historic mosque built by Shah Jahan. I have-addressed you earlier, when your faces shone with confidence, instead of being smudged with anxiety, you remember that I called you and you cut off my tongue, that I took up my pen and you lopped off my hand, that I wanted to walk and move, and you tripped my foot… My lapel says because your impudent hands have torn them… If you live with fear now, it is just retribution for your past deeds.
I told you that the two-nation theory was the death-knell of a life of faith and belief. Those on whom you relied for support have forsaken you, left you helpless…
Behold the minarets of this mosque bend down to ask you where you have mislaid the pages of your history! It was but yesterday that your caravan alighted on the banks of the Jamuna… How is it that you feel afraid of living here today in this Delhi, which has been nurtured by your blood?
That some faces disappeared from your sight is no cause for alarm. Indeed they have brought you together to make their departure easier. If they snatched their hands away from your hands, it is no bad thing. But beware if they have taken away your hearts.
I am not asking you to obtain certificates of loyalty from the new ruler or to live like camp followers. This country is ours. There are quite a few pages still blank in the history of our country; we can become the headings of these pages.
You are afraid of quakes when not long ago you were yourself a quake. Today you shiver in the darkness; don’t you remember that you were yourself a light? Should you take notice of this water trickling down from the skies and hitch up your trousers when your forefathers plunged into the seas, trampled upon the mountains, and laughed at the bolts of lightning? Is your faith breathing its last that you who used to catch hold of kings by their collars are today searching for customers who would buy your collars?
Dear Brethren! I have no new antidote for you, only something that was brought about 1400 years ago. . . .
Do not fear and do not grieve,
And you will indeed gain the upper hand
If you are possessed of true faith.
Taken from Malsiani, Azad, pp. 164–9 and S.T. Lokhandwalla (ed.), India and Contemporary Islam (Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Simla, 1971), p. 51.
After, Independence, Azad after Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel became the most important members of the cabinet and contributed immensely in making a secular Constitution along with Nehru, Patel and Dr. B.R Ambedkar.
If Nehru and Patel worked together in integrating the States, Nehru and Ambedkar in reforming the Hindus, Nehru, and Azad worked together in building many non-sectarian institutions of India.
Hence he holds the same place in India’s History, as Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. B.R Ambedkar, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel holds.
Today, Azad is denigrated by the communalists, and forgotten by the seculars, the Indians need to go back to the principles of Maulana Azad.