The Odd Secularist
Maulana Abul Kalam Azad
Opposed to the two-nation theory
he stood for Hindu-Muslim unity. India's real problem,
he said, was economic -- not communal.
The maker of phrases survives the maker of things in history.
"There is nothing so swiftly forgotten," says Gore Vidal,
"as the public's memory of a good action. This is why
great men insist on putting up monuments to themselves
with their deeds carefully recorded since those they served
will not honour them in life or in death. Heroes must
see to their own fame. No one else will."
British historian of south Asia noticed how differently
those who supported the movement for Pakistan have come
to be remembered as compared with those who devoted themselves
to Indian nationalism. Mohammad Iqbal's tomb of sandstone,
lapis lazuli and white marble is a place of pilgrimage.
Mohammed Ali Jinnah's mazar is a symbol of Pakistan's
identity and one of the first places to which the visitor
to Karachi is taken.
Abul Kalam Azad's mausoleum before the Jama Masjid in
Delhi, on the other hand, is not greatly frequented. The
relative neglect of his tomb suggests that many Indian
Muslims may have lost interest in keeping his memory alive.
It also suggests that Indian society as a whole may no
longer value, as before, and perhaps may not even know
the principles for which he stood.
is not at all surprising why history books in Pakistan
make no mention of Azad, except to echo the Quaid-i-Azam's
view that he was a Muslim "show-boy" Congress president.
What is surprising is how a man of Azad's stature has
been submerged beneath the rationalisation of the victors
-- the founders of Pakistan -- in our own country. This
is the man whom Jawaharlal Nehru called "a very brave
and gallant gentleman, a finished product of the culture
that, in these days, pertains to few".
was the Mir-i- Karawan (the caravan leader), said Nehru.
That he wasn't. Though not detached from the humdrum of
political life, he was not cut out to be an efficient
political manager. He was comfortable being a biographer
rather than a leader of a movement. He was not somebody
who traversed the dusty political terrain to stir the
masses into activism. That is why he settled for Gandhi's
leadership, acted as one of his lieutenants during the
Civil Disobedience Movement in 1930-32, and steered the
Congress ship through the high tide of the inter-War years.
spent years in jail, where some of his prison colleagues
thought of him as an "extraordinarily interesting companion",
with "an astonishing memory" and encyclopaedic information.
More importantly, a point is that the Maulana embodied
in his position and person perhaps the most important
symbol of the Congress aspiration to be a nationalist
party. His status was thus the focal point of Gandhi's
clash with Jinnah, who maintained that politically no
one but a Muslim Leaguer could represent Muslim interests.
Patel, the hero of the Bardoli satyagraha and the home
minister who carried the princely states to the burning
ghat of oblivion, spoke and acted from the lofty heights
of majoritarianism. Azad, caught up in the crossfire of
Hindu and Muslim communalists, did not occupy the same
vantage point. He had to play his innings on a sticky
turf in rough weather. On occasions, his own party colleagues
thwarted his initiatives and turned him into just a titular
Congress head during, for example, the vital negotiations
with both the Cripps and the Cabinet missions.
strident Muslim Leaguers, on the other hand, decried him
as a 'renegade'. Yet this elder statesman, sitting silently
and impassively at Congress meetings, as he always did,
with his pointed beard, remained, until the end, consistent
in his loyalty to a unified Indian nation. Time and time
again, he repudiated Jinnah's two-nations theory. He reaffirmed:
"It is one of the greatest frauds on the people to suggest
that religious affinity can unite areas which are geographically,
economically, linguistically and culturally different."
With an insight rare for those from his background, he
pointed out that the real problems of the country were
economic, not communal. The differences related to classes,
not to communities.
a thinker and the chief exponent of Wahdat-i-deen or the
essential oneness of all religions, Azad played around
with a variety of ideas on religion, state and civil society.
Thoughtful and reflective, he had a mind like a razor,
which cut through a fog of ideas (Nehru). Lesser men during
his days found conflict in the rich variety of Indian
life. But he was big enough not only to see the essential
unity behind all that diversity but also to realise that
only in unity was there hope for India as a whole. He
was a man on the move, his eyes set on India's future
which was to be fashioned on the basis of existing cross-community
networks. His unfinished Tarjuman-al-Quran was easily
the most profound statement on multiculturalism and inter-faith
understanding. His political testament, delivered at the
Congress session in 1940, was a neat and powerful summation
of the ideology of secular nationalism:
am proud of being an Indian. I am part of the indivisible
unity that is Indian nationality. I am indispensable to
this noble edifice and without me this splendid structure
is incomplete. I am an essential element, which has gone
to build India. I can never surrender this claim."
a region that has experienced the trauma of Partition
the life of Azad shows how during the freedom struggle
there were Muslims who worked for the highest secular
ideals. To a region beset by religious intolerance the
life of Azad reveals how the finest religious sensibility
can fashion the most open and humane outlook in private
and public life.
"Chalo aao tum ko dikhaain hum jo bacha hai maqtal-i-shehr
mein Yeh mazaar ah-i safa ke hain yeh hain ahl-i sidq
along, I will show you what remains in the city's slaughterhouse,
These are the shrines of the pious, and here the graves
of those with honesty and conviction)."
Mushirul Hasan is former pro vice-chancellor,
Jamia Milia Islamia, and author of Legacy of a Divided
Nation: India's Muslims Since Independence.