Bringing out a comprehensive biographical account of Maulana Azad (1888-1958) is a challenging task in various ways. The first challenge for a professional historian is to figure out the aspects that have been left out in the pre-existing or extant accounts, which are many.
The latest arrival, Maulana Azad: A Life, by S. Irfan Habib (Aleph, 2023) would and should be expected to grapple with the pertinent questions, such as these:
1. In the 1930s, when the Shariat Act was being drafted and legislated, what roles did Azad play? Why Jinnah was seen in the driver’s seat on this count? Why did the League become more successful politically, under Jinnah, rather than the nationalists under Azad?
2. In the Constituent Assembly Debates, what did Azad do? He remained mostly silent, and/or, got out of the debate when voting took place on some of the crucial issues. This aspect has been brought out in detail by Pratinav Anil, in his latest book, Another India: Making of the World’s Largest Muslim Minority, 1947-1977. Anil is rather very harsh against Azad. In fact, his provocative rhetoric and polemics are not sparing anyone.
3. Post-independence, why couldn’t the interventions of nationalist Muslims against the Two Nation Theory be popularised? More so, when India’s Muslims, as a collective, were made to suffer from guilt and circumspection! The critiques were from Husain Ahmad Madani (1887-1957), Abul Mohasin Sajjad (1880-1940), Hifzur Rahman Seohaarvi (1901-1962), Tufail Ahmad Manglori (1868-1946), Abdul Qaiyum Ansari (1905-1974), etc. Their Urdu language critique of the two-nation theory is elaborated in my 2014 book, Muslim Politics in Bihar: Changing Contours; Venkat Dhulipala’s 2015 book, Creating New Medina deals with these in greater detail.
4. Did Azad engage with the likes of Qaiyum Ansari on the question of caste and social justice for the historically subordinated Muslim communities? What did Azad do on the question of gender justice among the Muslims, when Nehru was pushing the reforms in Hindu Personal Law in the 1950s?
Almost none of the above issues have really been taken up by S. Irfan Habib, with any degree of depth. Thus, Mushirul Haq 1933-1990) is the only “biographer” (1970) of Maulana Azad who helps us understand the “loneliness” of Azad, as to why a big chunk of Ulama deserted him and took along the narrative-making class of the Qaum towards the politics of the Muslim League, after 1938?
Maulana Azad’s failures in sustaining and multiplying his institutional experiments towards building up a cadre base of Ulama for his brand of politics through the Darul Irshad of Calcutta (1914), and the Madrasa Islamiya of Ranchi (1921) also contributed to his loneliness. Intriguingly, even after becoming the education minister of free India, Azad couldn’t look back upon the Madrasa of Ranchi, even though it still endures.
Immediately after Azad’s death, his associate Humayun Kabir (1906-1969) brought out an anthology, a memorial volume, in 1959, in which a lot of the contemporary stalwarts (scholars and politicians) contributed their tributes and eulogies. The same year, another associate, Abdur Razzaq Malihabadi (1895-1959) brought out Azad’s Urdu memoir as told to him by Azad himself; he also published Zikr-e-Azad, both after Azad’s death. This one is different from Azad’s India Wins Freedom, dictated to Kabir. It added 30 pages, in 1988, as bequeathed by Azad. (To date, I haven’t been able to comprehend what was so provocative about the 30 pages, that, to be released or revealed, it had to wait for long three decades after Azad’s death).
In 1976, Arsh Malsiyani brought out his biography. VN Datta’s biography came out in 1990, and the one by Ian Henderson Douglas was edited and published in 1991. Tirmizi’s account came out in 1991. Syeda Sayyidain Hameed’s anthology (1990) compiled some well-informed essays, and subsequently, she brought out a biography in 2014. In 1992, Mushirul Hasan compiled an anthology on Azad comprising scholarly essays by some of the best-known historians. In 2010, S Irfan Habib compiled an anthology of essays on Azad and the National Education System.
Rizwan Qaiser (1960-2021), in his 2011 account, demonstrated Azad’s helpless peripheralization and loneliness as the President of the Congress during 1940-1946. He culled out evidence where even the tall Congress leaders (like Sardar Patel, Sampurnanand, P.D. Tandon, etc. in their correspondences with Gandhi, Rajendra Prasad, Nehru etc.), expressed their dislikes for the Maulana, the President of the Congress. “In Gandhiji’s perception even before Azad relinquished his presidentship, he was reduced to a position where he did not enjoy the authority of an elected president of the Congress”. Qaiser also dedicated a chapter on Azad’s contributions to free India as its Education minister; and his immensely significant roles in creating institutions of arts, letters, literature, knowledge, music, dance, etc. Thus, the majoritarian tilt of the provincial and lower units of the Congress in the last decade of colonialism could be demonstrated by Qaiser. Ironically, despite these many corpuses of literature on, and by, Azad, Ramchandra Guha’s Makers of Modern India had excluded the scholar-politician, Azad, from his list.
Meanwhile, in 1970, Mushirul Haq (1933-1990) brought out a political biography of Azad with the title, Muslim Politics in India, 1857-1947. This is a comprehensive and critical account. It is surprising that the most comprehensive biographies (viz., Ian Douglas, V. N. Datta, etc.) haven’t made adequate engagement with Haq’s critical account. Also, this is the only book of Haq that he hasn’t trans-created into Urdu. Though, one of its chapters, “Maulana Azad: Facts and Fancies” has been rendered into Urdu by Akhtarul Wasey. This chapter points out factual and other discrepancies and inconsistencies in various accounts pertaining to Azad’s life, education, politics, etc. Haq deserves to be quoted at length simply because the better-known biographical accounts of Azad don’t engage adequately with Haq’s pertinent arguments. He writes:
“Abul Kalam Azad very wittingly created a halo around him which paved him way to be recognized as one of the ulama; even though he was not one of them. This he had to do, because, otherwise, he would have not been so successful in his attempts in arousing the Muslims in general and the ulama in particular from their political slumber. But since the religion was the foundation stone of the political edifice Azad was but to equate politics with religion” (p. 71).
Haq’s significant contribution is to have diagnosed and found out the genesis of why Azad’s politics of erecting a combined resistance of Muslims and Hindus, failed in the face of the communal-separatist politics of the Muslim League, particularly after 1938, when the competitive communal politics, actively prodded by the colonial state became a triumphant force. Haq argues (p. 104) that Azad’s language of reconciling Islam with Nationalism had become unintelligible to the Ulama.
Thus, Haq says (pp. 132-133), this “was one of the factors which helped the Muslim League to win the sympathies of the Muslims for the claim that the Muslims were a separate nation, in spite of the repeated statements of Maulana Azad and other nationalist ulama that India was the motherland and that there was only one nation in India, the Indian Nation”. Haq also argues that, without Azad's scheme of Amir-e-Hind and Shariah courts, the Ulama were not able to become ambitious for political power.
Haq argues that Azad’s was politics based on the cultural protection of Shariah. Peter Hardy (Muslims of British India, 1972) called it a fatal politics of creating a “Juridical Ghetto”. In this politics of the “Ghetto of Shariat”, something was inherent and inevitable: In the last decade of colonialism, Shariah, with political power could be offered only by the League's Pakistan. This was lapped up by the narrative-making class of the Muslims who always suffered from the syndrome of being ex-rulers, an obsession with power theology. Hence, the League emerged victorious in 1946-1947, among the narrative-making class of the Qaum, who were evidently supported by the British colonial state.
Humayun Kabir (1959), and to some extent, Muhamamd Mujeeb (1966), had made this personality assessment, of loneliness, or, aloneness, of Azad. However, Kabir and Mujeeb couldn’t articulate why the bigger chunk of Ulama deserted Azad. Pratinav Anil (Another India, 2023) terms this loneliness of Azad as his taking refuge in the cultural realm, which, according to Anil, is de-politicization and robbing Muslims of their agency. Anil testifies to the loneliness of Azad in his dipsomania.
Azad’s loneliness was acute when towards the last years of Gandhi’s life, Azad was hardly on very good terms with Gandhi. It appears (though, this aspect awaits further exploration) that Azad was falling out of Gandhi’s favour, and Zakir Husain was increasingly occupying this space. Gandhi was not in favour of Azad being included as a minister in the Interim government in 1946. In the last decade of Azad’s life, he was barely on talking terms with Zakir. So much so that, after Zakir became the Vice-Chancellor (1948-1956) of the Aligarh Muslim University, the VC, while seeking government funds for the AMU, was having correspondence more with Dr Rajendra Prasad, rather than with the education minister, Azad. Laurence Gautier in two of her recent essays, on AMU, has hinted at this.
Thus, we end up finding hardly anything new in the latest biography of Azad by S. Irfan Habib. For readers who are inquisitive about comprehending the unprecedented rise of majoritarianism and looking up to Azad in order to resist and contend with it, one may not find much enlightenment and insight from this book. For this, as said earlier, Haq’s 1970 book is much more helpful. This is certainly not to deny the significance of the book for the new generation who will get to know about Azad and his contributions to the politics and culture of modern India.
Haq’s critique of Azad’s gigantic role in politicizing the Ulama up to the 1920s is important not to be ignored and to be paid deeper attention to, it has to do with the question of understanding compatibility or incompatibility or inadequate compatibility, with Indian Secularism, of a larger section of Muslims in post-independence India. Haq, in his 1972 booklet, Islam in Secular India, deals with this issue. A chapter of this booklet, “Secularism? No; Secularism?, Well-Yes”, is, particularly significant to be re-read in our times, as also in order to assess the role of Azad. Haq says, “The Indian Muslims are in a dilemma: so far as the secular state is concerned, it is acceptable, for one thing, no alternative is available and, for the other, a secular state guarantees religious freedom. But the philosophy of secularism is considered to be a poison for religious life”. He further says:
“On the question of secularism, however, Indian Muslims appear broadly divided into two sections. The first group, in a minority and rather contemptuously called ‘secularist’ includes mostly modern educated Muslims who hold that religion, as a faith, can co-exist with secularism. The second group, led by the "Ulama, stands by the view that religion is not only faith but shariah, also. Faith may co-exist with secularism, but shariah cannot”.
For this state of mind among the common Muslims of India, Haq argues, Azad’s role, since 1919, is largely responsible, who, according to Hardy, created a “juridical ghetto”.
Of all the available studies on Azad, Mushirul Haq is possibly the only scholar who has tried to look comprehensively into Azad’s position on religious politics and its implications in the colonial as well as post-independence periods. Haq’s expositions help us become more informed about the shariah-obsessed politics of India’s Muslims since the early 20th century persisting till date. Haq’s last intervention in this regard was in 1988, in a talk hosted by and addressed to the AMU alumni in Delhi. The title of the published tract is, Mazhab aur Hindustani Muslim Siyasat: Kal aur Aaj, i.e., Religion and India’s Muslim Politics: Past and Present. This talk was delivered when the Shah Bano issue was fresh in the mind of the audience, most of whom had taken sides with the so-called shariah, fuelling majoritarianism in a rather unprecedented way, since then. [Two years later, Haq was assassinated in Kashmir].
In sum, notwithstanding many limitations of S. Irfan Habib’s portrait of Azad, it is indeed a good, lucid book for lay readers, particularly helpful for non-Urdu readers. It would help in understanding various significant facets of Maulana Azad in the making of modern India. A deeper look into and critical re-evaluation of the failures of the scholar-politician however may offer even deeper insights to fight the current menace of the sub-continental majoritarianism.
[Note: This is an extract of the presentation that I made in MANUU, Hyderabad, on 18 August 2023, in a panel discussion on the book, Maulana Azad: A Life, with the author, S. Irfan Habib]
(Mohammad Sajjad is a professor of history at Aligarh Muslim University.)