When I chanced upon this image of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad wincing in despair, I wondered why the cartoonist chose to depict the leader in this unflattering hunchback posture. The cartoon, published in the Urdu magazine Nuqoosh in February 1959, had been drawn by the eminent journalist Irshad Haider Zaidi. It was most probably a reference toAzad’s anguished last speech at Delhi’s Jama Masjid in 1948, where bemoaning the Partition, he accused the Muslims of India of breaking his back:

“Do you remember? I hailed you, you cut off my tongue, I picked my pen, you severed my hands, I wanted to move forward, you broke off my legs, I tried to turn over, you broke my back…Today mine is no more than an inert existence or a forlorn cry. I am an orphan in my own motherland. This does not mean that I feel trapped in the original choice that I had made for myself, nor do I feel that there is no room left for my aashiana [nest]. What it means is that my cloak is weary of your impudent grabbing hands. My sensitivities are injured, my heart is heavy.”

A week after the Delhi Police stormed the premises of Jamia Millia Islamia making a desolation in the interest of peace-keeping, students across the country continued to spill out on streets in grief and righteous anger. Roused from the benign lethargy of writing up my PhD thesis in London, 7,500 km away from everything I called home, I am still struggling to shake off the image of the blood-stained corridor of the Zakir Husain Library where I spent six months during fieldwork two years ago and where I found this curious image of Azad in its Periodicals section.

Azad was the First Minister of Education in the Indian Government. In 1920, he was elected as a member of the foundation committee to establish Jamia Millia Islamia. One of the main founders of the Dharasana Satyagraha in 1931, Azad vigorously led the cause of Hindu-Muslim unity and India’s secular ethos. Often dubbed as a “Congress Showboy” by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Azad continued to proclaim his faith in Hindu-Muslim entente.In a speech in 1940, he declared:

  “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 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.”  

Azad and Jinnah had different worldviews and both went on to espouse an ideology different from the one they initially propagated. In light of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s sly suggestion that the people protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act could be identified by their clothes, it is perhaps parenthetical but telling that despite changing their ideologies, Azad and Jinnah did not change their appearance.

The sherwani-donning Azad, who completed Dars e Nizami Islamic curriculum, undertook the study of Quran, hadith, tafsir, fiqh and who produced the unfinished four-volume Tarjuman-ul-Quran – a reinterpretation of Islamic theology reconcilable with the religiously composite ethos of India – sided with the secular Congress and supported Indian nationalism. Jinnah, who used to wear Savile Row suits and had little orientation about Islam, sponsored the idea of creating a state in the name of Islam.

Jawaharlal Nehru with Mahatma Gandhi and Abul Kalam Azad, Wardha, August 1935,

Azad was born in Mecca in 1888 in a family known for piety and religious scholarship. His real name was Sayyid Ghulam Muhiyuddin. The first change in Azad’s thinking came when he read the works of scholars like Sayyid Ahmad Khan, Shibli Nomani and Jamaluddin Afghani. The concept that appealed to him initially was that of pan-Islamism. Azad joined the Muslim League in 1913 and remained a member till 1920 while also being the driving force behind the creation of Jamiat-ul Ulama e Hind in 1919 along with Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani.

Well versed in Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Turkish, Azad had exceptionally precocious journalistic capabilities. He started editing his first newspaper Al-Misbah at the age of 12. In 1903, Azad’s monthly magazine Lisan us Sidq (Voice of Truth) gained popularity, his prime concern being the revival of Muslims and their political challenges in the world at large. In 1914, the British government banned his Al-Hilal and Al-Balagh for his anti-British stance. Charged with sedition, he was asked to leave Bengal under the provisions of the Defence of India Act.

The turning point in Azad’s life came after his release from Ranchi Jail in 1920 when he met Gandhi who then joined hands with the Khilafat Movement leaders and launched the Non-Cooperation movement. Azad became an integral part of this movement and parted ways with the Muslim League. Adopting new ideas of cultural harmony, national unity and freedom, Azad wholeheartedly threw his lot with the Congress. He presided over its special session in 1923 in Delhi. Galvanised by the Kemalist abolition of the Osmanli Caliphate in March 1924, the pan-Islamic oppositional unity of an ummah wahida against the British that Azad’s Al Hilaal and Al Balagh stirringly invoked were now replaced by new idioms of secular nationhood and religious ecumenism. In fact, in his Ramgarh Address (1940), he described the history of India as a symbiosis where Hindus and Muslims resembled each other closely.

While Gandhi’s entry into active politics occasioned a sea-change in Azad’s politics, the same conjuncture spurred Jinnah’s transformation into a Muslim Nationalist from being a territorial nationalist (once known as the “Ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity”). In 1929 he announced his famous Fourteen Points to safeguard Muslim interests in self-governing India. Which of the two leaders was successful in ensuring the full realisation of their vision is a question with no easy answers.

Azad with Jawaharlal Nehru, industrialist Jamnalal Bajaj, Sarojini Naidu and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan at the 1940 Ramgarh Session of the Indian National Congress in which Azad was elected president for the second time.

The Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens has provoked a widespread backlash in the country, especially from students. While the full implications of the law are yet to be realised, many Indian citizens worry, with good reason, that it might mutate into something more nefarious.

On December 20, after the Friday prayers at Jama Masjid, another Azad dramatically surfaced amidst the sloganeering thousands: the Bhim Army Chief Chandrashekhar Azad who read out a few passages from the Indian Constitution that he was holding in his hands. It is the same masjid from where Maulana Azad made his clarion call to Muslims migrating to Pakistan:

  “Where are you going and why? Raise your eyes. The minarets of Jama Masjid want to ask you a question. Where have you lost the glorious pages from your chronicles? Wasn’t it only yesterday that on the banks of the Jamuna, your caravans performed wazu?”  

Maulana Azad lies buried in the vicinity of Delhi’s Jama Masjid. Somewhere close by, just across Jama Masjid also lies buried Sarmad Kashani, the sixteenth century Armenian mystic poet who traveled to India and was executed by Aurangzeb for his unorthodox religious views, freedom of speech and whose life Azad eloquently recounted in his Hayat e Sarmad Shaheed and with whom Azad, true to his sobriquets Abul Kalam (father of speech) and Azad (free) identified with. Before he was beheaded, Sarmad composed the following Farsi couplet:

“Shor e shud wa az khwab e adam chashm kishudem
Didem ki baqi ast shab e fitna, ghunudem
There was a clamour and we opened our eyes from an eternal sleep
Saw that the night of wickedness endures, so we slept again.”

The sword of course fell on Sarmad.

Who knows when this shab-e-fitna will end or if it ever will without decapitating us but the clamour is stirring people in statutory caution from an eternal slumber and the minarets of Jama Masjid recall Azad’s impassioned call for action:

“Brothers, keep up with the changes. Don’t say, ‘We are not ready for the change.’ Get ready. Stars may have plummeted down but the sun is still shining. Borrow a few of its rays and sprinkle them in the dark caverns of your lives.”

When the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act was passed, exultant Pakistani Twitter users got #ThankYouJinnah to trend on Twitter. Hundreds of social media accounts recounted their hard-won victories in Jinnah’s quotable adage rehashed over and over: “Muslims who are opposing Pakistan will spend rest of their lives proving loyalty to India”.

Our hearts are heavy. The hunchbacked ghost of Azad and India’s secularism stare us back in our faces and the bitter fight for India’s secular backbone continues.

Maryam Sikander is a doctoral researcher at the Department of South Asia, SOAS, University of London.