Abul Kalam Azad

11 Nov 1888
22 Feb 1958
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Abul Kalam Muhiyuddin Ahmed Azad (11 November 1888 – 22 February 1958) was an Indian scholar and a senior political leader of the Indian independence movement. Following India’s independence, he became the first Minister of Education in the Indian government. In 1992 he was posthumously awarded India’s highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna. There is also a theory which suggests that earlier when he was offered Bharat Ratna he promptly declined it saying that it should not be given to those who have been on the selection committee. Later he was awarded posthumously in 1992. He is commonly remembered as Maulana Azad; the word Maulana is an honorific meaning ‘learned man’, and he had adopted Azad (Free) as his pen name. His contribution to establishing the education foundation in India is recognised by celebrating his birthday as “National Education Day” across India.

As a young man, Azad composed poetry in Urdu language, as well as treatises on religion and philosophy. He rose to prominence through his work as a journalist, publishing works critical of the British Raj and espousing the causes of Indian nationalism. Azad became the leader of the Khilafat Movement, during which he came into close contact with the Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi. Azad became an enthusiastic supporter of Gandhi’s ideas of non-violent civil disobedience, and worked to organise the non-co-operation movement in protest of the 1919 Rowlatt Acts. Azad committed himself to Gandhi’s ideals, including promoting Swadeshi (indigenous) products and the cause of Swaraj (Self-rule) for India. In 1923, at an age of 35, he became the youngest person to serve as the President of the Indian National Congress.

Azad was one of the main organisers of the Dharasana Satyagraha in 1931, and emerged as one of the most important national leaders of the time, prominently leading the causes of Hindu-Muslim unity as well as espousing secularism and socialism. He served as Congress president from 1940 to 1945, during which the Quit India rebellion was launched. Azad was imprisoned, together with the entire Congress leadership, for three years. Azad became the most prominent Muslim opponent of the demand for a separate Muslim state of Pakistan and served in the interim national government.

Amidst communal turmoil following the partition of India, he worked for religious harmony. As India’s Education Minister, Azad oversaw the establishment of a national education system with free primary education and modern institutions of higher education. He is also credited with the establishment of the Indian Institutes of Technology and the foundation of the University Grants Commission, an important institution to supervise and advance the higher education in the nation.

National Education Day (India) an annual observance in India to commemorate the birth anniversary of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, the first education minister of independent India, who served from 15 August 1947 until 2 February 1958. National Education Day of India is celebrated on 11 November every year in India.

Azad was born on 11 November 1888 in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. His real name was Abul Kalam Ghulam Muhiyuddin who became known as Maulana Azad. His forefathers – made up of scholars and soldiers – had immigrated to India from the then Khorasan, after the Shi’a Safavids took over Persia and Babur established the Sunni Mughal Empire in India. Azad’s father was Maulana Muhammad Khairuddin, a scholar who authored a dozen of books and had thousands of disciples, while his mother was an Arab, the daughter of Sheikh Mohammad Zaher Watri, himself a reputed scholar from Medina who had a reputation that extended even outside of Arabia. Maulana Khairuddin lived with his family in the Bengal region until he left India during the First Indian War of Independence and settled in Mecca, where Maulana Azad was born, but returned to Calcutta with his family in 1890. Azad began to master several languages, including Urdu, Hindi, Persian, Bengali, Arabic, and English. He was also trained in the Mazahibs of Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i and Hanbali fiqh, shariat, mathematics, philosophy, world history and science by reputed tutors hired by his family. An avid and determined student, the precocious Azad was running a library, a reading room, a debating society before he was twelve, wanted to write on the life of Ghazali at twelve, was contributing learned articles to Makhzan (the best known literary magazine of the day) at fourteen, was teaching a class of students, most of whom were twice his age, when he was merely fifteen and succeeded in completing the traditional course of study at the young age of sixteen, nine years ahead of his contemporaries, and brought out a magazine at the same age. In fact, in the field of journalism, he was publishing a poetical journal (Nairang-e-Aalam) and was already an editor of a weekly (Al-Misbah), in 1900, at the age of twelve and, in 1903, brought out a monthly journal, Lissan-us-Sidq, which soon gained popularity. At the age of thirteen, he was married to a young Muslim girl, Zulaikha Begum. Azad compiled many treatises interpreting the Qur’an, the Hadith, and the principles of Fiqh and Kalam.

Azad developed political views considered radical for most Muslims of the time and became a full-fledged Indian nationalist. He fiercely criticised the British for racial discrimination and ignoring the needs of common people across India. He also criticised Muslim politicians for focusing on communal issues before the national interest and rejected the All India Muslim League’s communal separatism. Azad developed curiosity and interest in the pan-Islamic doctrines of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and visited Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Syria and Turkey. But his views changed considerably when he met revolutionary activists in Iraq and was influenced by their fervent anti-imperialism and nationalism. Against common Muslim opinion of the time, Azad opposed the partition of Bengal in 1905 and became increasingly active in revolutionary activities, to which he was introduced by the prominent Hindu revolutionaries Sri Aurobindo and Shyam Sundar Chakravarty. Azad initially evoked surprise from other revolutionaries, but Azad won their praise and confidence by working secretly to organise revolutionaries activities and meetings in Bengal, Bihar and Bombay (now called Mumbai).

Azad’s education had been shaped for him to become a cleric, but his rebellious nature and affinity for politics turned him towards journalism. He established an Urdu weekly newspaper in 1912 called Al-Hilal and openly attacked British policies while exploring the challenges facing common people. Espousing the ideals of Indian nationalism, Azad’s publications were aimed at encouraging young Muslims into fighting for independence and Hindu-Muslim unity. His work helped improve the relationship between Hindus and Muslims in Bengal, which had been soured by the controversy surrounding the partition of Bengal and the issue of separate communal electorates.

With the onset of World War I, the British stiffened censorship and restrictions on political activity. Azad’s Al-Hilal was consequently banned in 1914 under the Press Act. Azad started a new journal, the Al-Balagh, which increased its active support for nationalist causes and communal unity. In this period Azad also became active in his support for the Khilafat agitation to protect the position of the Sultan of Ottoman Turkey, who was the caliph for Muslims worldwide. The Sultan had sided against the British in the war and the continuity of his rule came under serious threat, causing distress amongst Muslim conservatives. Azad saw an opportunity to energise Indian Muslims and achieve major political and social reform through the struggle. With his popularity increasing across India, the government outlawed Azad’s second publication under the Defence of India Regulations Act and arrested him. The governments of the Bombay Presidency, United Provinces, Punjab and Delhi prohibited his entry into the provinces and Azad was moved to a jail in Ranchi, where he was incarcerated until 1 January 1920.

Upon his release, Azad returned to a political atmosphere charged with sentiments of outrage and rebellion against British rule. The Indian public had been angered by the passage of the Rowlatt Acts in 1919, which severely restricted civil liberties and individual rights. Consequently, thousands of political activists had been arrested and many publications banned. The killing of unarmed civilians at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar on 13 April 1919 had provoked intense outrage all over India, alienating most Indians, including long-time British supporters from the authorities. The Khilafat struggle had also peaked with the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I and the raging Turkish War of Independence, which had made the caliphate’s position precarious. India’s main political party, the Indian National Congress came under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, who had aroused excitement all over India when he led the farmers of Champaran and Kheda in a successful revolt against British authorities in 1918. Gandhi organised the people of the region and pioneered the art of Satyagraha—combining mass civil disobedience with complete non-violence and self-reliance.

Taking charge of the Congress, Gandhi also reached out to support the Khilafat struggle, helping to bridge Hindu-Muslim political divides. Azad and the Ali brothers warmly welcomed Congress support and began working together on a programme of non-co-operation by asking all Indians to boycott British-run schools, colleges, courts, public services, the civil service, police and military. Non-violence and Hindu-Muslim unity were universally emphasised, while the boycott of foreign goods, especially clothes were organised. Azad joined the Congress and was also elected president of the All India Khilafat Committee. Although Azad and other leaders were soon arrested, the movement drew out millions of people in peaceful processions, strikes and protests.

This period marked a transformation in Azad’s own life. Along with fellow Khilafat leaders Dr. Mukhtar Ahmad Ansari, Hakim Ajmal Khan and others, Azad grew personally close to Gandhi and his philosophy. The three men founded the Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi as an institution of higher education managed entirely by Indians without any British support or control. Both Azad and Gandhi shared a deep passion for religion and Azad developed a close friendship with him. He adopted the Prophet Muhammad’s ideas by living simply, rejecting material possessions and pleasures. He began to spin his own clothes using khadi on the charkha, and began frequently living and participating in the ashrams organised by Gandhi. Becoming deeply committed to ahinsa (non-violence) himself, Azad grew close to fellow nationalists like Jawaharlal Nehru, Chittaranjan Das and Subhas Chandra Bose. He strongly criticised the continuing suspicion of the Congress amongst the Muslim intellectuals from the Aligarh Muslim University and the Muslim League.

The rebellion began a sudden decline when with rising incidences of violence; a nationalist mob killed 22 policemen in Chauri Chaura in 1922. Fearing degeneration into violence, Gandhi asked Indians to suspend the revolt and undertook a five-day fast to repent and encourage others to stop the rebellion. Although the movement stopped all over India, several Congress leaders and activists were disillusioned with Gandhi. The following year, the caliphate was overthrown by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and the Ali brothers grew distant and critical of Gandhi and the Congress. Azad’s close friend Chittaranjan Das co-founded the Swaraj Party, breaking from Gandhi’s leadership. Despite the circumstances, Azad remained firmly committed to Gandhi’s ideals and leadership. In 1923, he became the youngest man to be elected Congress president. Azad led efforts to organise the Flag Satyagraha in Nagpur. Azad served as president of the 1924 Unity Conference in Delhi, using his position to work to re-unite the Swarajists and the Khilafat leaders under the common banner of the Congress. In the years following the movement, Azad travelled across India, working extensively to promote Gandhi’s vision, education and social reform.

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