Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was one such person whose 54th death anniversary passed quietly by on Feb 22. The life and works of this multidimensional man have indispensable value for aficionados of Urdu, students of the Independence movement and those concerned with the future of South Asia. My intention here is not to write a hagiographic portrait of Azad, but to pick up vignettes to shed light on his personality and relevance.
Azad was a firm believer in unity in diversity but the unwavering nationalist was let down by key Congress leaders in the run-up to Partition, a disappointment he did not divulge during his lifetime but that he instructed be incorporated in the posthumous edition of his book India Wins Freedom. His assessment of the personal and political characteristics of the domineering figures of the 1940s helps us understand not just the high politics of Partition but also the resultant bitterness that afflicted Azad until his death.
Jawaharlal Nehru and Azad were more than lifelong political comrades. Azad’s affection for Nehru was based on a personal bond that evolved over years of friendship. But he was mindful of Nehru’s weaknesses which at crucial times clouded his political judgment. He felt Nehru was an ‘impulsive’ man, prone to succumbing to flattery.
In his Ghubar-i-Khatir (1946), a masterpiece of Urdu prose, Azad mentions how in Ahmednagar Fort prison he would be up before dawn and at that quiet hour, the only disturbance would be Nehru’s mild snores and sleep-talk — always in English. Azad observes that sleep-talk is often the trait of people guided more by emotions than reason. “Whether awake or asleep, Jawaharlal’s actions are dictated by emotions,” he wrote.
Azad was saddened when his favourite, Nehru, conceded to the idea of Partition. He warned that “history will never forget us if we agree to Partition. The verdict would be that India was divided not by the Muslim League but by Congress”. Moreover, for Azad, “Vallabhbhai Patel was the founder of Indian partition”. Patel was a pro-Hindu Congress leader who became independent India’s first home minister and deputy prime minister. These harsh assessments, as Azad had willed, appear in posthumous editions of India Wins Freedom. To avoid cracks in Congress unity, he chose not to make disagreements public during his lifetime.
Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Azad followed divergent political paths. Both towering Muslim politicians, they often clashed politically about the future of India and the place in it of Muslims. According to Azad, “Pakistan was for Jinnah a bargaining counter” and the division of India, instead of resolving the communal problem, would turn it into inter-state rivalry with Muslims in Hindu-majority regions being in a state of permanent disadvantage.
Azad chose to remain quiet about the role of Congress stalwarts in expediting Partition and blamed Jinnah for India’s division. In retrospect, a more valuable contribution may have been calling the bluff of the likes of Patel instead of staying quiet in the name of party unity.
Partition continued to haunt Azad after 1947. Presciently, he warned that dividing India on religious grounds would turn the communal conflict into inter-state rivalry leading to militarisation at the expense of human development. He reminded the Muslims who were leaving for Pakistan that religious affinity would not override cultural differences between the migrants and the natives. For him, a shared religion was an inadequate foundation for a state in South Asia given the religious and cultural diversity of the region.
In Pakistan, the elite did not heed the pitfalls identified by Azad. He blamed Congress for not accommodating the demand for regional autonomy as propounded by the Muslim League. Post-Independence Pakistan’s ruling elite repeated that mistake,
leading to the break-up of the country in 1971. The event also proved Azad right in his belief that religion cannot be the foundation of a state in ethnically, denominationally and religiously diverse societies.
The Islamisation of Pakistan has strengthened sectarianism, leaving Muslim and non-Muslim in a state of perpetual vulnerability. Over-centralised states identified with a particular religion cannot come together to form a peaceful region for
South Asians. The Muslims in Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindutva-inspired India, Hindus in Buddhist-dominated Sri Lanka or non-Sunnis in Islamic Pakistan will always be vulnerable citizens, and states not at peace within will not be at peace with each
other as neighbours.
Azad dreamt of a decentralised subcontinent where diverse ethnic and religious groups could live without fear in a composite culture. Partition shattered his dream and today’s Pakistan, with its rising tide of religious intolerance, would be Azad’s
nightmare. What he proposed for undivided India in 1946 — a decentralised state with equal respect for all religions — is precisely what Pakistan needs in 2012.
I would conclude with two assessments, one about Azad and one that he made. Azad was president of the Congress party in 1940 and wanted to start a dialogue with Jinnah about the future of India. Jinnah refused to engage in parleys, dubbing Azad a Congress ‘show boy’. Observers may point out that the description would not fit Azad who earned his place in the frontline of the anti-colonial movement.
Ghubar-i-Khatir remains readable not only for its flowing prose but also for its superb collection of quoted Persian and Urdu couplets. Being a lover of Urdu and Persian poetry, Azad nevertheless chose to ignore Iqbal and did not include any of his work. Jinnah’s assessment and Azad’s omission might be seen by some as having been dictated by political partisanship.
The writer is a Canada-based academic.