Before I come to the education policies that had to be reworked and redesigned in national interest, I want to briefly touch upon the issues of equity and access because we inherited a colonial educational structure which was based on diverse injustices. Thus, soon after Independence, one of the important issues for Azad was the democratisation of education, particularly when India had emerged out of two hundred years of colonialism, going through varied forms of discriminations and deprivations.

His commitment to a change in the British educational system can be seen in the 1920s during the Non-cooperation Movement. In a pamphlet published then, called Talimi Taraqi-Mawalat, he began with a statement that “of all the bonds of association with the British government which needs to be broken forthwith, education is the most important one.” Maulana Azad was not lacking in vision and emphasisedd several Quranic principles in the context of equity – he stressed on adl or justice, the supreme principle that brings the creative process to its completion.

Justice is all the more relevant to education as a process of harmonious nurture. Indeed, social justice commands a pivotal place in Azad’s general perspective, which influenced his educational outlook quite profoundly. He was conscious of the fact that a class or caste-ridden education system needed to be replaced by a more inclusive and just educational order. In 1948, while addressing the educational conference, Azad again reiterated that “education, at any rate, must be pushed forward as rapidly as possible. We must not, for a moment, forget that it is the birthright of every individual to receive at least the basic education, without which he cannot discharge his duties as a citizen.”

Azad also realised that equity in education is not conceivable merely through the expansion of school education. He was aware of the huge adult population that needed serious attention. For him adult literacy and education were crucial for any idea of inclusive and equity-based education in India. As he was an Islamic scholar, he used Islam as a democratic and modernist movement, quite in contrast to what is being done in the name of Islam today all over the world. He saw Islam as “a perfect system of freedom and democracy whose function consists in bringing back to mankind the freedom snatched away from it.” He also defined Islam as “the message of democracy and human equality to the world suffering from chronic type of class discriminations.”

Azad expanded Islamic values on a national scale, going beyond the narrow confines of faith, to explain and understand the problems of the newly-independent nation, particularly the access to education on a universal scale. India’s emergence on August 15, 1947 as the largest democracy in the world was itself a great political achievement and challenge. Azad, being a great democrat himself, took the challenge as an opportunity to make education a vanguard of democratic life in the country.

With a view to gearing education towards the cause of democracy, he, in his very first official statement, referred to Disraeli’s verdict: “A democracy has no future unless it educates its masters.” In independent and democratic India, with universal franchise as the key principle, the voter was truly the master of democracy, and Azad wanted this voter to be educated and aware. He was conscious of the sad inheritance of colonial inequalities, where 85 per cent of the country’s population was illiterate on the eve of Independence. Several class and caste discriminations and disabilities were never discussed before and had to be removed immediately.

Azad was convinced that the state had to play a key role in combating such social afflictions and provide everyone with the means to “the acquisition of knowledge and self-betterment”; however, the most disconcerting factor was the lack of necessary funds to carry forward the state’s responsibilities. Azad conceded with a sense of guilt as minister of education that the central government had allotted only 1 per cent of the funds in the budget for education and he thus pleaded in the Constituent Assembly to raise the expenditure to 10 per cent.

He pursued the issue with passion and was able to raise the allocation from 20 million to around 350 million during his tenure as minister of education. On September 30, 1953, Azad addressed the nation on All India Radio, reiterating that “every individual has a right to an education that will enable him to develop his faculties and live a full human life.” 28 He felt that our objectives could not be realised unless we shake off our narrow-mindedness, which has been our greatest hindrance. Elaborating further, he said: “like an actor it masquerades in disguise. In the domain of religion, it appears in the form of blind faith and wants to deceive us in the name of orthodoxy. In politics it wants to overpower us in the guise of nationalism. In learning and culture, it makes an appeal to us in the name of our nation and country. It behooves us not to be taken in by these fictitious names. We must remember that the root cause of all this is nothing but narrow-mindedness.”

Azad was inspired by the values of our freedom struggle and was convinced that those values would come in handy for nation building, where the universal right to education should be seen as true freedom for all the citizens of this newly-independent nation. In this context of age-old discrimination and deprivation, Azad also emphasised women’s education, which had so far been nearly building non-existent. He felt that the education of women was doubly purposeful: first that they need to be educated as citizens of free India, and second that their education facilitated the task of educating the younger generation. He raised this issue in the Constituent Assembly as well in 1949, demanding greater educational opportunities for Indian women.

Excerpted with permission from Maulana Azad: A Life, S Irfan Habib, Aleph Book Company.