By C P Bhambhri
January 30, 2014
Syeda Saiyidain Hameed
Oxford University Press; 325 pages
Maulana Abul Kalam Azad played, with great dedication and distinction, the roles of a leader of the Indian Muslim community and the Indian national movement. If, on the one hand, Azad firmly maintained that the Quran was the true guide for religion and politics, on the other he described himself as "… a reformer, guide, of the Caravan of the Quam, the Muslims".
This great reformist Muslim leader and scholar of Islamic holy texts and traditions comfortably merged his Islamic loyalties with secular Indian nationalism and, as a committed Muslim believer and a nationalist; he unhesitatingly - and unambiguously - fought for Hindu-Muslim unity. Syeda Saiyidain Hameed deserves to be congratulated for writing an extremely competent biography of the scholarly nationalist leader who remains an unquestioned symbol of India's "composite culture".
The first six chapters are devoted to the development of Azad's personality and ideology, and the remaining four narrate his role in the freedom struggle.
Although Azad's world view was rooted in the Quran, he took a firm stand against the Ulema, or Muslim legal scholars, who interpreted the texts. To quote Ms Hameed, "The perpetrators of oppression, Azad says, have always availed of the services of the Ulema who are more than willing to serve the state." According to Azad, the Ulema are "...worse than snakes and scorpions" and, as a reformist, Azad told his community that "Man's ultimate guidance is therefore to be derived not from these Ulema-e-Duniya Parast … but from the word of the Quran and the Sunnat of the Prophet".
Azad himself wrote and translated the Holy Quran into Urdu. In Chapter 8, titled "Tarjuman-ul-Quran", the author clearly shows that Azad wanted to educate Muslims in the doctrines of Islam and liberate believers from the misrepresentation of Qur'anic injunctions by motivated and political time servers, whether they were Ulema or self-appointed Muslim leaders of the community.
Azad believed it was every Muslim's religious duty to participate in politics against "oppressors" and colonialists. Therefore, the Khilafat movement, which was launched in India against the enemies of Islam, was naturally aligned with Mahatma Gandhi's non-cooperation movement and the first five years of the 1920s witnessed a unity in struggle against both the destroyers of Muslim holy places and the struggle for India's independence.
Chapter 5, "Muslim politics: Khilafat", focuses on Azad's efforts to educate Indians about the "natural bond between India and Islamic nations" so that the Khilafat movement was not launched for a cause that was "external" to India but was an integral part of Indian struggle for causes dear to Arab friends. This philosophy can be best summed up in his own words: "Because I am an Indian, I am a Muslim, I am a human being."
Is this effort to base politics on religion inherently flawed and contradictory? Azad and many others like him think religion, as understood by them, cannot be divorced from politics because religious spirituality is a moral guide for the lofty goals of the politics of freedom. But the facts are contrary to the belief in religion-based politics, because while talking of Hindu-Muslim unity it is often forgotten that people remain separate entities, as Hindus and Muslims.
In fact, the last four chapters concretely show that not everyone involved in the freedom struggle shared the hefty ideal of Hindu-Muslim unity at any cost that Azad held dear. This divergence of views was not limited to purely religion-based parties such as the All-India Muslim League and the Hindu Mahasabha; Azad himself had to sit in the company of protectors of Hindu interests in the Indian National Congress. Chapter 11, titled "President and negotiator", bears enough testimony to the fact that in crucial negotiations with British Prime Minister Clement Attlee or his viceroy in India, Lord Louis Mountbatten, several Hindu leaders took positions that could only be described as communal. Azad's experience as Congress president and Congress Working Committee member should have made him realise that it was quite another thing to make everyone believe in real secularism.
Azad's tragedy was that full-fledged Muslim communalists described him, in the words of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, as the "Show boy of Indian National Congress", and he had to negotiate his way in the Gandhi-Nehru Congress in which practitioners of realpolitik also played the Hindu card. He was deeply uneasy when K F Nariman, a Parsi, and Syed Mahmud, a Muslim, were not made leaders of the Congress party in Bombay and Bihar, respectively, after the 1937 elections. "Congress did not come out fully successful in its test of nationalism," he wrote at the time.
The description of 20th-century India till Azad's death in 1958 has considerable relevance for 21st-century India; the most important lesson is that without the separation of religion from politics, democracy in the country - formally or informally - remains involved in the struggle for claims like first-class Hindu citizens versus second-class Muslim citizens. This Amir of the Quam's Caravan could neither liberate his community from the control of the fanatics nor leave a strong legacy of Hindu-Muslim unity in post-Independence India.
Ms Hameed's rich and well-researched biography is, however, incomplete because it does not analyse the basic contradiction in Azad's beliefs, personal practices and politics. Religion in politics pollutes politics and is a divider of society. Azad never reflected on this side of his belief in "religion-based politics". This criticism is not intended to denigrate his immense contributions, but not analysing the fundamental weaknesses in the philosophy of a leader like Azad does disservice to the hero of the many battles he fought.