Life History of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad
Remembering All about Maulana Abul Kalam Azad
November 11, the birth anniversary of freedom fighter and independent India’s first education minister Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (1888—1958), is commemorated as National Education Day. In contrast to the nationwide celebrations of Sardar Patel’s birth anniversary just 11 days ago, only three MPs turned up at the Central Hall of Parliament to pay tribute to Azad, the great scholar and one of the architects of modern India. Since enforced amnesia about icons like Maulana Azad is order of the day,Maulana Azad immensely enjoyed the company of writers, poets and intellectuals. His interactions with writers and poets would be long where the Maulana would fall back on his own deep studies, quoting Urdu, Persian and Arab poets and writers. After he became a senior minister in Nehru’s cabinet, his interactions with poets and writers got severely restricted.
Once Urdu poets Kunwar Mahinder Singh Bedi and Josh Malihabadi went to see the Maulana at the latter’s official residence in New Delhi. The Maulana was already busy with some other visitors. After waiting there for a while, Josh got restless and wanted to leave. Despite Bedi’s requests to wait for some more time, Josh decided to leave. But before leaving, he handed over a piece of paper to the peon and asked him to give it to the Maulana. The paper carried a couplet:
Namunasib hai khoon kaulana
Phir kisi aur waqt Maulana
Josh and Bedi had hardly walked a few feet away from the residence when the Maulana’s PA Ajmal Khan came rushing, telling them that the Maualna didn’t know they were waiting for him. The duo were immediately ushered before the minister who profusely apologized, regretting that political and official works hardly permitted him to sit with people with literary pursuits. However, he told them to see him once in 10 days so that he could get some “relief” from political works.
The two poets visited the Maulana one evening and they had hardly begun talking when Ajmal Khan came in, saying,” Maulana, Pandit Nehru (PM Jawaharlal Nehru) has just called to say that he is coming to meet you to discuss something urgent.” “Tell Punditji that I am not free right now. I will call him later,” said Maulana. Josh and Bedi couldn’t believe it and tried to convince the Maulana that they didn’t have any serious work and he should not stop Punditji from coming. But by the time Ajmal Khan called back to the PM’s residence, Punditji had already left and reached the Maulana’s house in a few minutes. “Make Punditji sit in the drawing room. I will soon join him,” said Maulana to his PA. Maulana continued to interact with the poets for a couple of minutes and took a break. And after around 10 minutes, he returned to resume the talk. Josh was a famous poet and man of letters. But he would not talk much when he was with the Maulana. “The Maulana is so well-read and such a big scholar that I feel safe by not opening my mouthing in his presence,” Josh once told Bedi.
History is replete with instances when turncoats switched sides for temporary gains, when supposedly faithful commanders turned traitors to ensure defeat of their masters and when so-called “patriots” wrote missives to the British Raj to seek pardon and release from prisons. But today we are going to discuss Maulana Azad’s steely determination against compromising his principles.
Maulana Azad was 19 when he was married off to Zulekha Begum, daughter of one mureeds (disciples) of his famous Sufi father Maulana Khairuddin. The couple technically spent 36 years together, but a lot of time away from each other. Azad’s political activism took him to endless conferences, meetings, morchas and eventually to prisons.
Azad was in Ahmednagar jail when he received a telegram from Calcuta about serious illness of his wife. In his long letter to his good friend Nawab Sadaryar Jung Habibur Rahman Sherwani from Ahmed Nagar Fort jail on April 11, 1943–Azad’s letters to Sherwani were later compiled into Ghubaar-e-Khatir, a milestone in Urdu prose writing–Azad says that the jailer had indicated to him that the government could permit him parole to go and see his ailing wife if he gave an application. Azad never sought such a permission.
The last time he met his wife before leaving for the All India Congress Committee’s meet in Bombay where he, along with Gandhi and many others, were arrested for launching Quit India Movement, Azad says his wife didn’t say anything except Khuda Hafiz. “She was telling me Khuda Hafiz not because I was travelling. She was saying it because she was about to leave for her last journey,” writes Azad poignantly.
He further writes that his other close relatives were aware of the fact that he would never bend and seek any favor from the oppressive British regime. And so nobody told him to change his stand. He poignantly and beautifully writes about an old grave in the jail compound. He says he must have seen it a hundred times but ever since he heard of his wife’s death he has begun liking this grave. “Last evening, I kept looking at it for a long time,” he wrote, ending the letter with an Urdu couplet to sympathies with Sherwani for pouring out his heart to him for so long:
Sauda khuda ke waste kar qissa mukhtasar/Apni to neend ud gayee tere fasaane mein.
After release from jail, Azad visited his wife’s grave in Calcutta. Zulekha begum had suffered in silence without complaining. A dairy found in her belongings suggests she was a closet poet though not very polished one. The couple’s only son named Hussain died at four and they never had another child. Though a man of strong willpower, Azad couldn’t overpower the pain of losing such a doting wife and wept bitterly at her grave.
Don’t listen to your father when it comes to career selection. Listen to your heart. This is the mantra many career counsellors are often heard doling out. Maulana Azad never consulted any career counselor but listened to his heart. And his heart was not in the peeri-muridi or sitting at a khankah and solving people’s miseries through mystical methods. One who had his Bismillah or beginning of learning at Haram Sharief in Mecca when he was 5, Azad received traditional education, from his own father Maulana Khairuddin who taught him Arabic and Persian, and from different other tutors, most of them his father’s disciples. Azad’s elder sister Abroo begum would read out famous Urdu tales and stories to him. Once he devoured all the story books of his sister, one Mohammed Ameen, a disciple of his father, began telling Azad tales and fables since Ameen himself was fond of tales. Soon Ameen ran out of his stock of stories and when Azad insisted on hearing more stories poor Ameen had to fetch some books from the market.
Azad was primarily self-taught. Unlike his very dear friend and fellow traveller Pandit Nehru who had attended Harrow and Cambridge, Azad acquired impressive knowledge and scholarship by reading books. It is wide reading that made him rebel against a lot of set rules in his environment. He developed a critical approach to every aspect because of his wide reading.
His interest to learn English began quite late. It was because of his reading of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s books that he felt he would never understand the currents of history and human civilization properly unless he learnt English and read the vast literature available in it. Having read almost every word that Sir Syed had written, he turned to read what was worth reading elsewhere.
One Maulvi Mohammed Yusuf taught him English alphabets and gave him a primer. But Azad actually learnt English while he was imprisoned in Alipore Jail. After finishing King Primer, he quickly moved on to reading story books and newspapers. To read English newspapers , he would sit with a dictionary. That is how he built up his vocabulary.
He writes that he read the Bible simultaneously in English, Urdu and Persian.
History and philosophy became his favorite subjects. He would not speak English much but it was pleasure for his interlocutors to discuss with him what he had read in English. He learnt French too and read books in French as well. Humayun Kabir’s daughtet Laila Kabir
once told Urdu scholar and a currently principal of C M College in Darbhanga Prof Mushtaque Ahmed that after Azad became minister and didn’t get much time to read he would feign illness for a few days and lock himself inside his room to read news books that he would get from all over.
Much before his impressive study stocked Shakespeare, Shelly, Wordsworth, Marx and Tolstoy, apart from of course books and treatises in Urdu, Arabic and Persian, Azad would go behind trees at Calcutta’s Lal Diggy. He was minor and one family aide Hafiz Walliullah would accompany him. Azad would carry books to read sitting on a bench behind the trees while Hafiz Waliullah loiter around. Waliullah in frustration would be hear murmuring:”If you wanted to read books, what was the need to come to this secluded place. Reading could have been done at home.”
Maulana Azad was a great champion of Hindu-Muslim unity. Born into a deeply religious family, he was brought up in an environment where religion played a dominant role. There are instances when children not exposed to diverse culture grow up with skewed and conservative outlook. Sometimes regimented upbringing easily pushes people to the dark world of communal ism and fanaticism from which it becomes very difficult to extricate.
Fortunately Azad trained himself to remain rooted to his Islamic background and yet imbibed India’s famed multiculturalism. He saw India as a salad bowl which contains people of different races and cultures with their distinct identities intact. Nothing could shake off his belief in India’s pluralistic ethos. He never agreed to exchange Hindu-Muslim unity with anything else.
In his presidential address of Indian National Congress’s Annual Conference in 1923, Azad declared:”Even a farishta (angel) comes down from the skies and announces from atop the Qutub Minar that Swaraj will be granted provided India gives up its Hindu-Muslim unity, then I will prefer to give up Swaraj and keep this unity. If gaining Swaraj gets delayed it will be loss of India but if we loses our unity, it will be a loss of humanity.”
Equally proud of his Islamic roots and Indian citizenship, he saw India as a great boon from God which gave this country a distinct quality to accommodate people of diverse faiths and cultures. His speech at the Congress’s annual session in 1940 reads like a charter on India’s celebrated syncretism. After explaining his devotion to Islam and its contribution to his own upbringing, Azad praises, in fact, enthusiastically celebrates, India’s syncretism created over centuries. He describes how caravans of people from different faiths came to this land, blended in its culture after settling down here. The composite culture created out of co-mingling of so many different currents in the shape of languages, dialects, dresses, food and architecture has given India a distinct identify. He warned both Hindus and Muslims against thd futile attempt to try to revive their past way of life as this would not be practical. “No artificial separateness can divide us. We should accept the decision of nature that we are one and we must get down to shaping our destinies,” he passionately urged. India is yet to see a bigger and better votary of Hindu-Muslim unity.
The British government got so disturbed with Maulana Azad’s weekly paper Al Hilal, launched in June 1912, that they confiscated the paper’s press. The paper became so popular that in two years its circulation reached 26000 copies, the highest for an Urdu weekly in the history of Urdu journalism. Azad had primarily launched this paper to awaken the Muslims from their slumber, revolutionist their thoughts and educate them politically. After the government confiscated Al Hilal’s press, Azad remained undeterred and fired another salvo in the form of Al Balagh, another paper in the mould of Al Hilal. The government, under Defense of India Regulations Act (2), imposed ban on Azad’s presence in Calcutta and his entry to Delhi, UP and Bombay.
The Maulana went to live in Ranchi. But soon, to confine his movements, he was put in house arrest. He was allowed to pray four times at the mosque but was prevented from moving out of the house in the night. The Maulana petitioned the government to allow him to offer the Isha (night) prayers in the mosque but the government rejected this demand. Azad defied the restrictions and began visiting the mosque in the night too. For one year he gave Quran’s lessons at the Jama Masjid of Ranchi. It is during his exile in Ranchi that he penned Tarjumanul Quran, the widely acclaimed commentary on the holy book.
One night Azad came out of the mosque in Ranchi and met a man who was covered in a blanket. “Do you want to speak to me?,” Azad asked. “Yes. I am very poor and have come from very far,” replied the old man. How far? Kandahar (Afghanistan). From Kandahar the man had reached Quetta on foot. Some businessmen employed him as a “servant” and brought him to Agra. From Agra he again set out on foot for Ranchi to meet Maulana Azad. Why did he undertake such an arduous journey? Because, he said, he had read every word of Al Hilal and Al Balagh and wanted to meet Maulana Azad personally and get explanations of some Quranic verses from him. Azad writes that the man stayed there for a couple of days and then suddenly vanished. He didn’t met Azad before leaving because he probably thought Azad would offer him some money for his return journey. He might have gone back to Kandahar mostly on foot. Maulana Azad writes on the first page of his seminal work Tarjumanul Quran that he regrets that he doesn’t remember this man’s name, neither does he know if the man is alive or dead. “Had my memory not failed me, I would have dedicated this book to that man,” writes Azad on Tarjumanul Quran’s first page. The book’s first volume is kept at the Indian Council for Cultural Relations’ Library.
Perhaps nothing pleased Maulana Azad more than reading and sipping tea. Fond of Chinese Jasmine tea, his would prepare tea himself and talk highly of it. He was so enamoured by this “special” tea that he discusses it in many of his letters to Sadaryar Jung Habibur Rahman Khan Sherwani, compiled into Ghubar-E-Khatir, a seminal book. In one the letters Azad writes: “Perhaps you don’t know that I have certain rights over tea. I have tried to create a delightful taste and flavor by mixing the tea with the bitterness of tobacco. With the first sip of tea I drag on the cigarette too….”’ Azad never added milk or sugar to his tea. Mirza Masood Beg who worked as secretary to Azad for a decade in an interview recounts Azad’s habit of taking tea. Azad’s daily dose of tea was like this:Two-three cups in the morning, one after the breakfast and then one cup in the evening. Azad expected his guests to whom he offered tea to appreciate it. Beg recalls an incident. He says that once he entered Azad’s room and saw him having his favorite Jasmine tea. “What are you doing right now?,” asked Azad. “’Nothing important, ” replied Beg. “Come, take this,” Azad said offering him a cup of tea. Beg says it tasted bland since it had no milk or sugar and so he didn’t say anything in it its praise. “Did you like it?,” asked Azad. “I didn’t like it much,” replied Beg. “You are a man of poor taste,” said Azad.
Azad habitually was a lonely man. He never became a man of the masses. Many people accused him of being arrogant but he craved privacy and like to be left alone so that he could read in silence. He even talked of his loneliness in a lecture that he delivered at Khilafat Conference of Bengal in 1920. He slept out his own loneliness in these words: “…Regrettably there is no one among you who can understand me. No one knows me. I tell you frankly that in this country I find myself helpless and homeless.”
In one of the letters to Sherwani written from Ahmed Nagar Jail, Azad wonders how someone can feel solitary during the punishment of “solitary confinement.” “If remaining solitary is a punishment, God should give this punishment to everyone,” he writes. He also writes that once a fellow prisoner, after seeing Azad being kept alone in a room, complained to the jail superintendent and requested him to keep Azad with other inmates. “You wanted to provide relief to me. But whatever little relief I enjoyed here because of my single occupation is being taken away because of you,” said Azad.
When useless fiction and bawdy, meaningless literature flooded Urdu market, some concerned individuals decided to cure Urdu of this malaise. For this purpise Anjuman Taraqqi Urdu, as literary wing of Mohammedan Educational Conference, was established in 1903. Famous writer and poet Allama Shibli Noamani became its first secretary. Maulana Azad who was just15 then became a member of its general committee.
Azad writes that the purpose to establish Anjuman was to enrich Urdu with educative, meaningful literature. Books from Arabic, Persian and English were translated into Urdu and published by Anjuman. Azad’s magazine “Lesanul Sidq” worked as a mouthpiece of Anjuman, reporting its activities.
Azad wanted the reading public to get away from fictional stories and tales and read books which could inspire them to act. He wanted Anjuman to focus on bringing out books on popular science, history, philosophy, social and sociological movements.
Anjuman’s office at Delhi’s Daryaganj too came under attack during the communal riots of 1947. Most of the books at its kibrary and Bookstore were burnt. Dr Mukhtar Ansari’s building where Anjuman was located was badly damaged. Unfortunately, Maulvi Abdul Haque tried to take the books and manuscripts left at Anjuman to Pakistan. Maulana Azad had a fight with Maulvi Abdul Haque. Azad argued that Abdul Haque could take only those books to Pakistan wgich belonged to his personal collection. The rest of the books and manuscripts belonged to Anjuman and would remain with it. Yet, Abdul Haque carried a huge number of rare manuscripts and books.
Azad transferred the Anjuman to Aligarh and got a grant of Rs 48000 sanctioned for it. Anjuman was later brought back to Delhi. In February 1958 Anjuman held Urdu Conference which Pandit Nehru inaugurated and where Azad delivered his last public speech of his life. He said:”After Hindi was adopted a national language with majority vote, Urdu has stopped being a rival language. Now Urdu should get its rights that it deserves. Every Indian should now think about it.”
Not many know that much before Azad began writing powerful prose, he had penned some poems too. In fact, his surname Azad is actually a takhallus or the pen name poets adopt.
Towards the end of 19th century Calcutta was an important center of Urdu and Persian. Mushairas and literary meetings were held at the drop of a hat. A poet Abdul Wahid Khan Sahsarami would often visit Maulana Azad’s house because the poet’s sister worked there as a servant. Sahsarami would participate in the local mushairas and often discuss it with Azad. Even Azad began thinking of writing poetry. Sahsarami encouraged him and suggested “Azad” as takhallus (pen name) for him. Azad liked it. And the future politician and essayist began writing poetry in the name of Maulvi Abul Kalam Mohiuddin Azad Dehlvi.
It is quite interesting that Azad later graduated from Maulvi to Maulana and also dropped Dehlvi from his name. Maulana Syed Suleiman Nadvi, the famous scholar and student of Allama Shibli Noamani who completed Shibli’s seminal biography of the Prophet(PBUH), writes that “Maulvi” Azad became Maulana Azad only after he joined Shibli to edit Al Nadwah, then a prestigious magazine from Nadwatul Ulema, Lucknow.
Azad couldn’t continue his passion for poetry for long as journalism appeared to him a bigger and far more better and powerful medium to express his revolutionay thoughts. But the joy that he felt after seeing his name in the print for the first time can be believed and acknowledged only by those who are in the business of writing. Azad had penned his first couplets when he was barely 11 but see how he felt even decades later. “Even today, 36 years after I penned those lines, I can feel the happiness I felt when they were published first. The ghazal was published in ‘Arghmane Farakh’ ( a magazine based in Bombay) and I was thrilled to see my name in print first time in my life, ” writes Azad. A couplet in this ghazal goes:”Azad bekhudi ke nasheb wa faraaz dekh/Poochchi zameen ki to kahi aasmaan ki.
The loss of poetry was gain for Urdu prose and Indian politics.
Mohammed Wajihuddin, The Times of India Journalist.