11th November 1888: Abul Kalam Azad, leader of Independence movement, was born

A prominent leader of the independence movement, scholar and symbol of Hindu-Muslim unity, Abul Kalam Muhiyuddin Ahmed Azad, better known as Maulana Azad, was born on November 11, 1888, at Makkah in Saudi Arabia.

His father Maulana Khairuddin was a Muslim from Bengal of Afghan origins. His mother was an Arab. The family, which had moved to Saudi Arabia after the 1857 revolt, returned to India in 1890.

The young Azad showed an early inclination for languages and literature, and started learning several languages including Arabic, English, Urdu and Bengali. He was also taught religious texts, science and history. He started contributing to literary magazines by the age of 12. He was married to a young Muslim girl, Zulaikha, when he turned 13.

As Azad’s political views evolved, he embraced a pan-Indian nationalism. He slammed the British government for its policies of racial discrimination and not heeding the concerns of common Indians. He was also critical of a section of Muslim politicians who put community interest before national interest, and against the separatist ideology of the All India Muslim League. He opposed the 1905 partition of Bengal. During this phase he got to know some Hindu revolutionaries in Bengal and lend them a helping hand.

For some time Azad was also influenced by the ideas of Sheikh Abduh of Egypt and the young Egyptian nationalist Mustafa Kamil. In 1912 he launched an Urdu journal Al-Hilal that advocated both Islamic values and Indian independence. He urged Indian Muslims to join hands with Hindus in their common fight against imperialism. His work specifically promoted Hindu-Muslim unity in Bengal.

Al-Hilal was banned by the British in 1914 during World War 1. Azad started another publication, Al-Balagh, which too advocated nationalist causes and Hindu-Muslim unity. But with Al-Balagh gaining in popularity after Azad supported the Khilafat agitation in support of the Sultan of Ottoman Turkey, the government clamped down on his second journal as well. Azad was jailed in Ranchi.  

Mahatma Gandhi, who had by now effectively taken charge of the Indian nationalist movement, saw the Khilafat stir as a means to strengthen the bond between Hindu and Muslims, and accordingly extended support to the agitation, a move welcomed by Azad and other Muslim leaders.

Azad subsequently joined the Congress and also became president of the All India Khilafat Committee. Together with other Khilafat leaders, Azad became close to Gandhi. Azad, Mukhtar Ahmad Ansari and Hakim Ajmal Khan founded the Jamia Millia Islamia university in Delhi, which would be run by Indians without any British support. Azad also drew closer to other Congress leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru. 

Azad was elected president of the Congress in 1923, the youngest man to occupy the post. He also headed the Unity Conference in 1924, and tried to unite those affiliated to the Swaraj and Khilafat movements into the common Congress fold. In 1928, Azad came out in support of ending separate religion-based electorates.  

He also backed Gandhi’s call for a dominion status for India in one year. He along with thousands of other people was arrested after the Dandi march. Though Azad supported dialogue with the Muslim League in the mid-1930s, he slammed Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s move to present the League as the sole representatives of Muslims. 

While the Muslim League passed a resolution in 1940 that called for a separate Muslim state, the Congress elected Azad as its president. Speaking for Hindu-Muslim unity, Azad said that Islam had as great a “claim on the soil of India” as Hinduism.  “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.

Azad was arrested during the Quit India movement in 1942, and would along with other Congress leaders, stay in jail for more than three years, until World War 2 ended. Despite the best efforts of leaders like Gandhi and Azad, Partition became inevitable as 1947 approached.

In a remarkable interview in 1946, Azad reflected on what the splitting up of British India on religious grounds would mean in the future: “We must remember that an entity conceived in hatred will last only as long as that hatred lasts. This hatred will overwhelm the relations between India and Pakistan. In this situation it will not be possible for India and Pakistan to become friends and live amicably unless some catastrophic event takes place,” he said. “The politics of Partition itself will act as a barrier between the two countries. It will not be possible for Pakistan to accommodate all the Muslims of India, a task beyond her territorial capability. On the other hand, it will not be possible for the Hindus to stay especially in West Pakistan. They will be thrown out or leave on their own.”

After India gained Independence, Azad became the union education minister in the Nehru Cabinet. Two landmark institutes, the Indian Institute of Technology, and the University Grants Commission, were set up when he was education minister.

Abul Kalam Azad died on February 22, 1958 following a stroke. Today he is remembered not only as an ambassador for Hindu-Muslim unity but also a scholar-statesman and a prominent Congress leader who made countless personal sacrifices in the course of India’s freedom struggle.

Also on this day:

1926 — Johnny Walker, Hindi film comedian, was born

1985 — Robin Uthappa, Indian cricketer, was born

1944 — Ritu Kumar, fashion designer, was born  

1925 — Shanti Bhushan, union law minister and jurist, was born

1918 — K.K. Birla, industrialist and chairman of HT Media Ltd., was born

1924 — Rusi Modi, Indian Test cricket player, was born 

1980 — Binod Behari Mukherjee, Bengali painter and muralist, passed away

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