Sunday, November 11 happens to be Maulana Azad’s birthday, forgotten this year as it has been in the past. The Maulana is an inconvenient name to remember at a time when Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel towers above every national leader.
When Hamid Ansari, India’s former vice president, released Hindi, Urdu and Malayalam translations of my book Being the Other: The Muslim in India, he quoted from a speech Patel had made on August 11, 1947, four days before Partition. Some TV channels went ballistic. The quote is actually quite well known: “To be united, India would have to be divided.” Patel was tracing how the consensus to “divide” India came about. No, but Ansari should not upturn conventional wisdom that “Jinnah was the culprit.” If it were the evil Jinnah who created Pakistan, it follows that the Congress Working Committee (CWC) were busting their guts to keep a united India and Jinnah outfoxed them.
Mountbatten’s June 3, 1947 plan sought a division of India largely along religious lines. The CWC swallowed the plan hook, line and sinker. Of the two Muslim leaders present at the CWC, Frontier Gandhi Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan wailed, “You have thrown us to the wolves!” Maulana Azad smoked a box of cigarettes and said nothing. Supposing the two, vehemently opposed to Partition, had walked out of the meeting in protest, what interpretation would future historians have placed on the remaining CWC composition?
Jawaharlal Nehru valued Azad for his intellect. Some of Nehru’s admiration for Azad comes across even in his intimate letters from Ahmednagar jail to his daughter, Indira. “Maulana is an extraordinarily interesting person. The more I know him, and I have known him now for over 21 years, the more I find in him. He has an astonishing memory and his information on a variety of subjects is encyclopaedic. He is soaked in the lore of the Middle Ages…he has Plato and Aristotle on his fingertips and is perfectly at home at Cordoba of Arab Spain. It seems such a pity that with such vast learning and a very unusually keen mind and a powerful style, he should have written so little.”
At one point Nehru reveals he is keen to learn Sanskrit from Acharya Narendra Dev and Persian from Azad. Nehru then gives vent to his afterthought: “But Azad is too erudite.”
The paradox is that despite such admiration for Azad, Nehru still found time to let him down repeatedly. It was a delicate package, that Azad, as Congress president, had negotiated with the Cabinet Mission and Viceroy Lord Wavell to keep India united. Nehru torpedoed it by raising contentious issues at a press conference in Bombay.
Azad was shocked when the entire CWC accepted the Mountbatten plan without fuss. “Partition over my body!” kind of sham was instantly abandoned. In fact, Rajendra Prasad came down strongly on a suggestion Mountbatten and Azad had made: that a United Armed Forces for a short period would obviate the massacres which eventually followed. “Not for a day” after August 15, 1947 would the Congress government tolerate a united army, Prasad thundered. He wanted Partition to be sealed irreversibly. It was no concern of the CWC that an army, abruptly separated along sectarian lines would be sucked into the horrendous violence that followed as a partisan force on both sides.
Mahatma Gandhi’s secretary Mahadev Desai wrote about Azad: “There was no other in the Congress to match Maulana’s insights and wise counsel.” Stalwarts like C.R. Das and Motilal Nehru deferred to him on many issues. On his wisdom and erudition, Sarojini Naidu was at her wittiest, “Maulana was 50 years old when he was born.”
It was this vast reservoir of wisdom that Nehru relied on when Home Minister Kailash Nath Katju decided to bar foreign missionaries in India, “If evangelism is their purpose.” The statement created a furore among Christian missionaries. Nehru singled out Maulana to handle the situation. The letter that Azad wrote to Cardinal Valerian Gracias is reproduced on page 79 of my book, Being The Other. It is a masterpiece of reasoning and logic on the question of conversion. Azad had settled the issue over 60 years ago.
He made a distinction between religious conversion, which requires deep reflection on issues of theology and what the constitution calls “mass conversions.” The latter is a response to a social and political provocation.
It is possible that Maulana was not suited to the rough and tumble of politics which demands fickleness generally dressed up as flexibility. Maulana was incapable of deviating from his core principles – Hindu-Muslim unity as the bedrock of Indian nationalism.
Dr Rajesh Kumar Pruthi, director general of National Archives, published a rare collection of the Maulana’s letters in Urdu. The preface, by Dr Pruthi is by itself quite masterly. As evidence of Maulana’s consistency, he cites a passage from the Maulana’s address as president of the Congress at a session held in Delhi on 15 December, 1923:
“If an angel came down from heaven and, from the height of the Qutub Minar, announced that if the Congress abandons its platform of Hindu-Muslim Unity Swaraj, or independence would be granted in 24 hours, I would turn my back on that Swaraj. Shunning it for the cost being demanded may delay Swaraj and harm India’s interest for a short period but abandoning our unity for good as a price for freedom will be a blot on all humanity.”
He maintained a decent silence on colleagues who had “blotted humanity.” But he did not cheat history. He kept away in the National Archives thirty pages which expose the men with feet of clay who faltered in the last lap towards freedom. Partition, he wrote in a press note “would be unadulterated Hindu Raj.” These pages were made public in 1988 when he and all his colleagues had died. He may have had grievances with Nehru but that did not prevent him from dedicating India Wins Freedom to “Jawaharlal, friend and comrade.”