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Maulana Abul Kalam Azad – Freedom fighter, Journalist, Educationist and Islamic Scholar

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad

November 11 is observed as the ‘National Education Day’ in memory of Abul Kalam Azad, the first Education Minister of independent India, who was born on this day in 1888. He died in 1958 at the age of 70.

A freedom fighter, journalist, educationist and an Islamic scholar, he was widely respected and wrote extensively on concepts like universalism, nationalism, secularism, national integration and communal harmony. A staunch nationalist, he opposed the idea of Pakistan and rallied Muslims in India.

In 2007, on his birth anniversary, a tribute in one of the most prominent daily newspapers summed up his life in the following words, “Azad was President of the Indian National Congress from 1940-45, leader of the Quit India movement and head of Congress delegations to crucial meetings during this period. As a Muslim divine, steeped in the erudition of his faith, and as a committed nationalist unalterably opposed to the proposed partition of his country, Azad symbolised the all-inclusive aspirations of the nationalist movement.”

Born in Makkah, and raised in Calcutta, his original name was Feroz Bakht/ Muhiyuddin Ahmed; but he is better known by his pen-name ‘Azad’. In his book India Wins Freedom, the Maulana wrote: ‘I was born into a family, deeply imbued with religious traditions, where all the conventions of traditional life were accepted without question. I could not reconcile myself with the prevailing customs and beliefs. I began to move out and seek my own path. For two or three years, this unrest continued, and I passed from one phase to another and a stage came when all the old bonds imposed on my mind by family and upbringing were completely shattered. I felt free of all conventional ties and decided that I would chalk out my own path. It was about this time that I decided to adopt the pen name ‘Azad’ or ‘Free’ indicating I was no longer tied to my inherited beliefs’.

He was one of the founders of the Khilafat movement (1919-1924) and “viewed European attacks upon the authority of the caliph as an attack upon Islam, and thus a threat to the religious freedom of Muslims under British rule. His thinking was influenced by his travels in the Middle East in 1908-09, when he met with nationalists and religious reformers in Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Egypt. He established a weekly Urdu journal in 1912 called Al-Hilal, in which he called upon India’s Muslims to unite and join with other Indians in a nonviolent campaign for independence.

He was the educationist behind setting up institutions like Indian Institute of Technology (1951) and the University Grants Commission (1953). So extensive was his influence and contribution to higher education in India that a number of educational institutions are today named after him. Prominent ones among them are Maulana Azad Medical College (MAMC: New Delhi), Maulana Azad National Institute of Technology (MANIT: Bhopal), Maulana Azad Library, Aligarh Muslim University (AMU)—perhaps the second largest library in South Asia, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad University of Technology (MAKAUT: Kolkata), Maulana Azad National Urdu University (MANUU: Hyderabad), etc.

In 1975, ‘Maulana Azad Memorial Academy’ was established in Lucknow with the mission to promote Azad’s unfailing ideas of patriotism, secularism and national integration. The Academy also publishes Azad Academy Journal (monthly; tri-lingual) which aims to further Azad’s ideals, sacrifices, and contributions through academic research to a wider public in India and abroad (for more details, see www.mamlucknow.com).

In 1989, on the occasion of Azad’s birth centenary, the Union Ministry of Minority Affairs set up Maulana Azad Education Foundation, which provides National Fellowship to MPhil and PhD researchers (from minority communities). The Foundation was established “to promote education amongst backward sections of the society”. In 1992, Maulana Azad was awarded, posthumously, ‘Bharat Ratna’, India’s highest civilian honour for his invaluable contribution to the nation. In 1993, at the joint initiative of the Government of India, Department of Culture, Ministry of Human Resource Development and the Government of West Bengal, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies was set up as an autonomous research institute in Kolkata.

Padma Shri Syeda Saiyidain Hameed, however lamented in The Indian Express (28th Mar 2018), “No one remembers Azad…he has been relegated to a corner of political hoardings, a man with a topi [cap] and beard, a Muslim caricature. This is unlike what he remained throughout his life, the elegant, erudite statesman who towered next to [MK] Gandhi and [Jawaharlal] Nehru during the tumultuous days of the freedom struggle.” Has his legacy been really forgotten?

[Dr Tauseef Ahmad Parray is Assistant Professor, Islamic Studies, Govt. Degree College Pulwama (Higher Education Department), Jammu & Kashmir. The above article is published today by National Herald.]

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