Maulana Abul Kalam Azad left us on 22 February 1958. He was not merely a freedom fighter and a politician but an Islamic scholar, and generally an erudite man. We need to remember him more seriously in the context of the ongoing divisive politics. He was one of the prominent and the most forceful voice which questioned the very idea of two-nation theory on the basis of religion. He questioned Muslim League as well as the Hindu communal forces who were busy polarizing the freedom fighters in the name of religion. Maulana espoused an idea of composite/indivisible nationalism, where Hindus and Muslims can jointly form a nation.
The biggest threat to this indivisible nationalism, according to Azad, was the narrow-minded and divisive approach of some of our people. For Azad, narrow-mindedness in the domain of religion appears in the form of blind faith and deceives us in the name of orthodoxy. And in politics, it wants to overpower us in the guise of nationalism. It may sound prophetic in the context of the ongoing nationalism debate, where only majoritarian consensus is projected as a legitimate nationalist voice. We are blind to the commitment of leaders like Azad, who, all their lives, questioned those who peddled sectarian nationalism, whether Hindu or Muslim.
For the Muslim League and its divisive politics, Maulana Azad was the most formidable challenge and Muhammad Ali Jinnah knew it very well. This was precisely the reason Azad was viciously targeted by the communalists and dubbed as a show boy of the Congress party. Azad was a threat for the sectarian cause of the League, because, as an Islamic scholar he had the ability and credibility to convince a large number of Muslims that Islam is not antithetical to composite nationalism. It was possible to form a nation with non-Muslim others and the apt example for this was available in the early history of Islam. Prophet Muhammad formed the first Islamic government in Medina, which was based on a covenant signed between the Muslims and the Jews. If the Prophet could do that in the seventh century then why can’t we do it now and form a nation with Hindus and others?
Where would Azad stand today
In the midst of the ongoing debate on CAA/NRC/NPR, the role and position of nationalists like Azad is under severe strain. He spoke (Syeda Saiyidain Hameed, ed, India’s Maulana, New Delhi, 1990, pp.147-164) in 1940 that “I have inherited Islam’s glorious traditions of the last thirteen hundred years. I am not prepared to lose even a small part of that legacy.” In the same breath he continued that “I am equally proud of the fact that I am an Indian, an essential part of the indivisible unity of Indian nationhood, a vital factor in its total make-up without which this noble edifice will remain incomplete. I can never give up this sincere claim.” Maulana Azad spoke this on behalf of the millions of Muslims who consciously decided to stay back in India-their homeland for centuries. Maulana wanted Hindus and Muslims to be part of one homogenous group which he called Ummat-i-Wahida (one nation).
Muslims and composite nationalism
Many people argue these days that partition should have settled the issue of Muslim homeland. The Muslims asked for it so they all should have moved to Pakistan. It is misleading and ahistorical as a large number of Muslims stood with Maulana Azad and condemned Jinnah for his divisive politics. Darul Ulum, Deoband, in present-day Western Uttar Pradesh was openly committed (Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani, Composite Nationalism and Islam, first published in 1938, New Delhi, 2005) to the idea of composite nationalism. Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani of Deoband wrote passionately on composite nationalism in 1938 and had an intense debate with Allama Iqbal, who peddled the idea of Islamic nationalism. Some hate-filled moron today may have the temerity to call Darul Uloom a den of terrorists but history speaks otherwise. I have reservations about its politics today on so many other counts but not on its stand on united India. Most of the Muslims who decided to stay back in India rejected the two-nation theory of Jinnah and the League and vouched for Maulana Azad’s and Madani’s composite nationalism. All those who taunt present-day Muslim Indians by repeatedly bringing in Pakistan are the ideological heirs of those whom Maulana Azad fought all his life.
I have many times wondered at the fact that Muslim population in Western Uttar Pradesh remained so high despite the region’s proximity to areas where partition violence was acute. It happened because the Muslim League appealed to the fears of professional, landed and business class Muslims, generally called ashraf, while the majority of others, mostly the poor and the lower middle class called the ajlaf, were under the spell of Darul Uloom as well as Maulana Azad. They had nothing much to lose, most of them were not ready to give up their homes for an unsure future. They made a conscious decision to stay back in India-their homeland.
When Azad invoked India
While delivering his famous Congress Presidential address at Ramgarh in 1940, Azad referred to several centuries of Muslim presence in India and how these “years of common history have enriched India with our common achievements. Our languages, our poetry, our literature, our culture, our art, our dress, our manners and customs, the innumerable happenings of our daily life, everything bears the stamp of our joint endeavour.” For all those today who have arbitrarily defined a certain brand of nationalism to profile the fellow citizens, need to recall what Maulana Azad said at the convocation address at Patna University in 1947, cautioning (Speeches of Maulana Azad, Publications Division, New Delhi, 1961, pp.12-22) people to be wary of nationalism. He said “We have to keep in mind that the nationalism propagated in the nineteenth century Europe is all shattered and the world is sick of the bounds of narrow nationalism. It is anxious to break those shackles. Instead of small cooped up nationalities the world wants to build super nationalism. Obviously, there is no room for narrow-mindedness in this modern age. We shall find a secure place in the comity of nations only if we are international minded and tolerant.” Azad could see the consequences of faith-based aggressive nationalism, which divided the country and killed millions in the name of religion.
Do we want to pursue the divisive politics of the communalists who caused havoc in our lives during the freedom struggle or espouse the composite nationalism which was the foundation of our independent India? Maulana Azad failed to keep India united despite his unbridled faith in indivisible nationalism. However, he remained committed to the fact that religion alone can never be the basis for nationhood. This fact was never as relevant in the past seventy years as it is today.
The author is former Maulana Azad Chair, National University of Educational Planning and Administration. Views are personal.