In ‘Maulana Azad: A Life’, historian S. Irfan Habib resurrects the life and career of the country’s first Minister of Education in an effort to understand both his Islam as well as his idea of India.

The result is a charismatic read about a man who occupied centre stage during India’s freedom struggle for over four decades.

The author gives an interesting and detailed account of the Islamic scholar’s political struggle, mainly his fight against communal politics. The historian delves deep into the decisive moments in his life that have a direct bearing on our present.

The idea is to understand Azad against the current Islamic and national context as well as a historical figure. He has tried to locate Azad in terms of ideas theological, political and philosophical.

He tracks Azad’s evolution as a religious scholar and as a nationalist through his own writings as well as by looking at his contribution to the freedom struggle. His task was not just to be involved in the struggle to emancipate India from imperialist bondage but to keep the country united despite the nefarious designs of fissiparous forces like British imperialism and Muslim medievalism.

Azad was against both Hindu and Muslim communalists. To those Muslims from UP who had decided to leave for Pakistan in 1947 he said: “You are leaving your motherland. Do you know what the consequences will be? Your frequent exoduses such as this will weaken the Muslims of India.

“A time may come when the various Pakistani regions start asserting their separate identities Bengali, Punjabi, Sindhi, Baloch may declare themselves separate qaums (tribe). Will your position in Pakistan be anything more than uninvited guests?

“The Hindu can be our religious opponent but not your regional and national opponent. You can deal with this situation. But in Pakistan, at any time you will have to face regional and national opposition. Before this opposition, you will be helpless.”

Imagine a person who was taught at home and without any English education. Without speaking or writing in English Azad was as easily and effortlessly at home in Western culture as in Indian, Eastern or Islamic culture. Nothing that was good was strange to him.

Gandhi, as well as India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru were aware that Azad was passionately committed to education, culture and scientific and technical progress. Azad was not a run of the mill politician but a scholar with a vision and who brought with him decades of experience as a writer and thinker on different aspects of Indian public life.

Nehru visualised him as a bridge between the cultures of the East and the West, as the man who magnificently spanned in his person the gulf between the past and the future.

Azad represented the idea of a composite India which the nation developed over decades of the freedom struggle. There could not have been a better choice at the time he took over the crucial Ministry of Education.

No one said it better than philosopher and second President of the country S. Radhakrishnan: “Once freedom was won, he again felt that we must use that freedom for promoting social welfare, cleanse this country of sickness, squalor, illiteracy and cleanse our minds of superstition, of obscurantism of fanaticism.

“He stood for what one may call the emancipated mind, the mind which is free from narrow prejudices of race or language, province or dialect religion or case. We had in Maulana Sahib a civilised mind”.

Author S. Irfan Habib has been studying Maulana Azad for decades. He discovered that most of the information found about Azad is in Urdu and that has limited access to those who want to know more about him.

In this book, Habib concludes that Azad was averse to being called a Muslim leader. He saw himself as an Indian. He was a Muslim but who never brought his faith into the public domain except during the short lived Khilafat movement.

Today when faith-based nationalism has become part of mainstream political discourse it is inspiring to remember what Azad said many decades ago: “It is one of the greatest frauds on the people to suggest that religious affinity can unite areas which are geographically, economically, linguistically and culturally different.

“It is true that Islam sought to establish a society which transcends racial, linguistic, economic and political frontiers but after the first century Islam was not able to unite all Muslim countries into one state on the basis of Islam alone.”

As Minister of Education, Azad had institutionalised music, art and literature. The colonial regime neither promoted nor patronised anything related to Indian art, literature and culture; instead most of the worthwhile objects and books were transported across the seas.

No concerted effort was made to provide a platform for any branch of culture. The first institution that was founded was the Sahitya Akademi inaugurated in 1954 in New Delhi followed by the Lalit Kala Akademi and the Sangeet Natak Akademi.

Azad had a passion for cultural relations beyond national borders particularly with countries in West Asia and Europe and founded the Indian Council of Cultural Relations to facilitate cultural exchanges between India and the world.

Art historian Kapila Vatsyayan is quoted as saying that Maulana Saheb had insisted that these institutions should be spelled as ‘akademi’ and not academy to underscore the Arab and Greek origins and also to conform to the Hindi pronunciation. Once Vatsyayan had made the mistake of writing ‘academy’ in a file that was promptly returned to her by the Minister with a note to pen akademi a hundred times, a punishment she had performed with some sense of humour and humiliation.

In his first press conference after taking over the responsibility in the interim government, Azad spoke with clarity of objectives: “Nothing has a more important bearing on the quality of the individual than the type of education imparted. A truly liberal and humanitarian education may transform the outlook of the people and set it on the path of progress and prosperity, while an ill-conceived or unscientific system might destroy all the hope which have been cherished by generations of pioneers in the cause of national freedom.”

For Azad the greatest charge against the British system of education was that it did not lead to the development of a national mind. Azad had lamented the working condition of teachers and their loss of social and economic well-being: “In the past the stature of the teacher in Indian society was an exalted one. He might not have been wealthy but his comparative poverty was compensated by the need of respect and prestige which the profession of teaching carried with it.

“Today, unfortunately all this has changed and the teacher especially in primary stages is considered as hardly better than an inferior servant.

“Any program for reconstruction of education must therefore place in the forefront the task of improving the status and conditions of teachers, and I am confident that the new National Government of India will recognize this as its first and foremost tasks.”

India had inherited a colonial educational structure which was based on diverse injustices. Soon after independence one of the important issues for Azad was the democratisation of education particularly when India had emerged out of 200 years of Colonialism going through varied forms of discrimination and deprivation.

He was conscious of the fact that a class or caste ridden education system needed to be replaced by a more inclusive and just educational order. In 1948 while addressing the educational conference Azad reiterated that education at any rate must be pushed forward as rapidly as possible. We must not for a moment forget that it is the birth right of every individual to receive at least the basic education, without which he cannot discharge his duties as a citizen.

National education in 1950 had outlined the following objectives of the ministry of education: “The provision of basic education on a universal free and compulsory basis for all school going children. The provision of adult education in order to wipe out the colossal illiteracy of our masses.

“The improvement and expansion of technical education in order to solve the problem of manpower for industrial and technical development and the reorganization and improvement of university education from a national point of view.”

Azad was an Islamic scholar who firmly believed in the power and role of reason in human progress. He was conscious of the fact that huge parts of the world including India were colonised mainly on the strength of the colonisers scientific and technological ability. According to him India had to cultivate scientific and technological capabilities to overcome hunger, scientific and technological capabilities to overcome hunger deprivation and poverty. It also needed to excel in scientific research for which institutions of excellence and universities were founded.

Azad played a crucial role in and after independence when he was assigned the task of reconstructing the education system, to build scientific and technological institutions and to revamp cultural policy. Azad’s travels in West Asia, Egypt and France in 1908 had convinced him that composite nationalism was indispensable in successfully battling the colonial regime.

His mission in the Freedom Struggle was to fight the colonial government and to confront the Hindu and Muslim communalists. Azad was conscious of the nexus between the two communal forces that was out to weaken and undermine the freedom movement, and later the foundation of an independent India.

In the end Azad could not keep India united despite his unbridled faith in indivisible nationalism. However, he remained committed to the idea that religion alone can never be the basis for nationhood. There is all this and much more in ‘Maulana Azad: A Life’ for all those who care to read.

Maulana Azad: A Life

Author S. Irfan Habib

Published by Aleph Book Company, 2023