Everybody knows Gandhiji, Nehru, Patel, Netaji, Bhagat Singh and many others who played a stellar role in the freedom movement and the founding of our republic. But many, many others, including most of the 299 who made our Constituent Assembly and gave us this wonderful constitution, are forgotten. ThePrint’s new weekly series, ‘Forgotten Founders’, is our humble contribution to honour them by introducing them to millennial India.
As India’s first education minister, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad advocated for free and compulsory primary education for all up to the age of 14.
Educationist, freedom fighter, politician and journalist — Maulana Abul Kalam Azad donned many hats in his more than four-decade-long public life. An intellectual par excellence, he left behind a lasting legacy in the field of India’s education.
Born in Mecca in Saudi Arabia in 1888, his family relocated to Calcutta (now Kolkata) two years after his birth. Education was at the heart of Abul Kalam’s growing up. It was at his home that he studied a variety of languages such as Persian, Urdu, Arabic and subjects such as history, philosophy and geometry.
It was only fitting that this young boy would later serve as independent India’s first education minister and establish institutions such as the Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi. His birthday, 11 November, is celebrated as the National Education Day in the country.
Speaking truth to power
In 1912, Azad started publishing a weekly called Al-Hilal which he used as a weapon to attack and question British policies. The publication gained immense popularity among the masses, so much so that the British finally banned it in 1914.
Undeterred by this move, Azad soon started another weekly, Al-Balagh, which ran until he was externed under Defence of India Regulations in 1916. The governments of Bombay, Punjab, Delhi, and United Provinces had banned his entry and he was deported to Bihar until 1920.
Despite censoring, he found ways to rebel against British activities through the power of his pen.
After his release, Azad, already inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of non-cooperation to fight the British, started leading the Khilafat Movement, launched by Indian Muslims to demand that the British preserve the authority of the ‘Ottoman Sultan as Caliph of Islam after World War I’.
At 35, Azad rose to prominence as a Congress leader — he became the youngest party leader in 1923. In 1942, he along with the rest of the leadership was arrested and put in jail for four years for participating in the Quit India movement. Later, ‘Maulana’, as Azad was fondly referred to, would head constituent assembly debates which went on to shape many of our policies, particularly those related to education. He believed that India as a nation should aspire for high educational standards and never compromise on that count.
A strong voice against communal politics
Azad was a strong believer in the co-existence of all religious communities. His visits to countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Syria and Turkey shaped his worldview and his approach towards secular politics. He was deeply affected by the violence witnessed during India’s Partition. Azad travelled through the violence-affected regions of Bengal, Assam and Punjab and contributed in establishing the refugee camps and ensured supply of food and other basic resources.
Contribution to Constitution
The 7th schedule of the Constitution lists subjects on which the central and state governments can enact legislation. Under British India, education had been listed as a subject, for which only provinces could enact legislation. Maulana Azad was strongly against leaving education to the states.
He argued that education was a matter of grave importance and the central government should be given this authority in order to ensure a uniform national standard of education across the country.
While his stance was supported by Jawaharlal Nehru and other key members of the constituent assembly, a few felt this was a bad idea given the diversity of our country. They were of the view that a decentralised approach would enable states to make laws pertaining to education in their respective states. Ultimately, the issue was resolved by retaining education in the state list but also including entries related to higher education under the union list.
At all times, education remained an important issue for Azad. Speaking at a meeting on 16 January 1948, Azad had said, “We must not for a moment forget, it is a birthright of every individual to receive at least the basic education without which he cannot fully discharge his duties as a citizen.”
He also established ‘the board for adult education’ to facilitate education among the uneducated adults.
Shaping the path ahead
As first education minister of the country from 1947 to 1958, he advocated for free and compulsory primary education for all children up to the age of 14 as he believed it was the right of all citizens. Later, he went on to establish the Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi and contributed to the setting up of the IITs. He was also one of the the brains behind the University Grants Commission, India’s higher education regulator, and played a key role in the establishment of other educational institutions.
The scholar-politician passed away on 22 February, 1958. In 1992, he was posthumously conferred the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award.