The first time I met Maulana Abul Kalam Azad as a small girl when my father took me to his King Edward Road home in Delhi to wish him for Eid, he left a deep impact on my childish mind. I can still remember him reclining on a sofa with a slim cigarette case on the table, his gentle smile and his reserved manner. I never imagined that I would one day become his biographer and spend almost half my life studying his life and his works.

As his 63rd death anniversary was observed earlier this week, I began to think about his urgent relevance in the 21st year of the 21st century. The fact that he was the tallest leaders of the freedom movement, standing shoulder to shoulder with the Mahatma, is not enough. The fact that he was Nehru’s mentor – India’s first prime minister referred to him as Amir e Karvaan, the leader of the group – is also not enough.

What matters is that Azad holds the cure to the biggest scourge India faces today: the communal virus that has seeped into the vital organs of my country. This slow poison today is more lethal than the great pandemic that hit us in March 2020.

Hindu-Muslim unity

In 1923, as the youngest president of the Congress party, Azad he spoke words that no one would dare utter today for fear of being hauled up as “anti-national”.

He said:

  “If an angel was to descend from the Heaven’s and from the heights of Qutab Minar announce that provided Congress abandons its policy of Hindu-Muslim unity, Swaraj would be granted in 24 hours, I would turn my back on that Swaraj. Shunning it for the cost being demanded may delay Swaraj and harm India for a short period. But abandoning our unity as a price for freedom will be lethal for all humanity.”  

However, Azad’s mission of Hindu-Muslim unity had begun much earlier. He had grown up in Kolkata under the strict eye of his disciplinarian father Maulana Khairuddin, a renowned Sufi pir with thousands of murids but did not follow his father’s vocation. As a young man of 17 or 18, he secretly became part of the guerrilla movements Anushilan and Yuagantar, joining hands with revolutionaries Rash Behari Ghosh and Shyam Sundar Chakravorty.

In 1912 at the age of 24, Azad started a journal called Al Hilal, The Crescent. The weekly created a storm of interest in Kolkata. In its pages, he exhorted Muslims to join hands with Hindus and fight for India’s independence. Quoting verses from the Quran, he told them that their mazhab or religion required that they join hands with Hindus and adherents of other faiths to throw out the British.

But to call Azad a Muslim leader or leader of Muslims is a fallacy. He was not for one community – he was for all Indians. He could stand before thousands of Hindus and mesmerise them with his strict adherence to principle and the power of the spoken word.

Indian leaders at the Simla Conference (1946). From Left to Right: Rajendra Prasad, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, C. Rajagopalachari and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. Credit: Unknown authorUnknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

‘A common nationality’

In 1946, he was elected Congress president again. At the party’s Ramgarh convention, he made a speech that is the best definition of the blending of cultures that created the mosaic called India.

“Just as a Hindu can say with pride that he is an Indian and follows Hinduism so also we can say with equal pride that we are Indians and follow Islam,” he said. “The Christian can with equal pride say that he is an Indian who follows Christianity’. He spoke of a thousand years of joint life that has moulded the two qoms, the two people, into a common nationality.

“Nature has fashioned this through hidden anvils and set her seal on it,” Azad said. “No fantasy and artificial scheming to separate and divide us can break this unity.”

Healing a broken nation

Many of the political positions that are being taken today would have been anathema for Azad. A lust for power, which is the name of the game today, was definitely not his game. He could have chosen any portfolio he wanted in the first Cabinet of free India. He chose education because he knew it was crucial for development of a broken nation.

He helped create the three Academies: Sangeet Natak for the performing arts, Lalit Kala for the visual arts and Sahitya for literature. He helped create the Indian Council for Cultural Relations for aadaan pradaan, or reciprocity, of culture around the world. He helped create the University Grants Commission, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, the Indian Institutes of Technology, public libraries and much more.

Today, as the world watches India being convulsed by communal hatred, the farmers protests, student unrest, a draconian campaign against citizens exercising their democratic right, we are reliving our colonial history – only the players have changed. Colonialism has been born in a new avatar.

As I write this piece sitting in my home in Delhi’s Jamia Nagar, I see these divisive forces everywhere. Jamia Millia Islamia as been in the forefront of protests against a law that will deprive one section of Indians of their citizenship rights. Today, security forces have been posted at the gates of an educational institution that was built as fulfilment of Gandhi’s dream.

Azad was called a lonely prophet in his time but also Amir of the Karvaan, even by his staunch critics. His message remains as relevant as ever.

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s death anniversary was on February 22.

A former member of the Planning Commission of India, Syeda Hameed is the author of India’s Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Islamic Seal on India’s Independence: Abul Kalam Azad a Fresh Look and Maulana Azad, Islam and the Indian National Movement.