The Maulana on the Mahatma
Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s powerful address days after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, continues to throw light on an extraordinary life and a remarkable association
The world, poorer without the Mahatma, was exploring ways of keeping Gandhi’s ideas and ideals alive. The Congress Working Committee too had constituted a six-member committee to decide on an appropriate memorial to the Mahatma. But even as written accounts of his activities and memorable deeds were being preserved for the future generation to draw inspiration from, Maulana Azad declared at the meeting, to his mind there was something conspicuously missing.
Personalities like Mahatma Gandhi, he pointed out, emerged on the world stage but rarely, personalities who transcend man-made boundaries of all kinds and tower above man-made conflicts. Future generations needed to be reminded of Gandhi Ji’s message of truth, non-violence, peace, unity and harmony, all achievable goals in this world.
Mankind, the Maulana said, had created divisions and separate identities. Human beings live in different continents like Europe or Asia, in different countries like India and are identified as Arabs or Africans. Religious and national boundaries distinguish the Christian from the Sikh, the Muslim from the Hindu and an Englishman from an Indian. Similarly, linguistic and racial differences categorise people into different sparring categories.
These boundaries, Azad said, were often natural and necessary as social and cultural identifiers, leta‘rafu, as the Quran put it (Urdu: ta‘rruf), and for harmonious coexistence. As long as the boundaries remain constructive, they act as great pillars of support. But when the boundaries are abused for political ends and destructive purposes, they turn out to be disastrous for people.
Then the Maulana spoke on the role of religion. Great religions, he said, had emerged to reform and make the world a better place. Peace, harmony, tolerance and justice are held up as ideals by all religions. And yet History is witness to bloodbaths, genocide, massacre of human beings and other forms of atrocities in the name of religion and in the name of God.
A false sense of pride and arrogance, he recalled, had time and again destroyed nations, races and civilisations. It is in such periods of strife that great personalities emerge out of nowhere and challenge the accepted narrative and the narrowly defined worldview. Blinkers put on by religious fanaticism or nationalism fail to prevent such messiahs from rising above pettiness and breaking the shackles put by society.
An emotional Maulana Azad, apparently with Jawaharlal Nehru sitting by his side (an audio clip of the meeting is available), went on to recall his own 28-year-long association with Gandhiji, beginning from their first meeting at Hakim Ajmal Khan’s house in Delhi in January 1920. The association was such, he recalled, that they could have been living under the same roof.
They had differences and disagreements, he recalled. While Mahatma Gandhi was bitterly opposed to support Britain’s war effort in the Second World War and to India participating in the war, the Congress Working Committee had decided that India could participate in the war if Britain agreed to granting India its independence after the war. Mahatma Gandhi reiterated that freedom achieved in the shadow of a battle and bloodshed was unacceptable to him.
But despite his reservation and differences with the majority opinion in the CWC, when Maulana Azad and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru approached him for drafting the CWC’s resolution, Gandhi Ji, who alone drafted the resolutions, readily agreed, underscoring his amazing ability to work peacefully despite disagreements.
Despite several such occasions of serious differences, the Maulana recalled, their hearts never turned even for a moment. “We could never break away from the string of his greatness literally holding us by the neck,” he said.
Maulana Azad said he himself could be a difficult person to work with. He would not easily submit to authority or accept ideas unless they were powerful and strong enough to convince and intellectually overpower his mind, to eventually hold him by the scruff of his neck to submit to the superiority of that force. He was therefore not blinded by faith or devotion when he met Gandhi Ji for the first time. But it was following years of close association that Gandhi Ji’s qualities overwhelmed him, forcing him to acknowledge the Mahatma.
He and Pandit Nehru had come to know Gandhi Ji intimately; and they were both overwhelmed to find that his life was like an open book, with every page open and with every line, every word and letter shining brightly. He was the only public figure they knew whose life was so transparent, with no secrets.
His public persona and private life were not different. He overcame personal and political lust, rose above religious and sectarian associations. Not tamed by ideologies and accepted frameworks, he suffered from neither greed nor envy.
The Mahatma, the Maulana emphasised, was undoubtedly a Hindu and a believer. But his Hinduism was not bound by narrow definitions. It was broader. His being a Hindu did not come in the way of embracing and respecting people following other faiths.
Azad suggested that ancient Hindu culture was extremely broad-minded and of all the religions or faiths it was the Hindu religion that had closely observed the notion of monotheism or belief in one God. But that form of Hinduism, he lamented, had become a rarity.
In ancient India, the Greeks were treated as Brahmins, for Greece was known as a country heavily invested in knowledge and scientific temperament. But Hindu religion since then, the Maulana lamented, had lost the ability to assimilate and acknowledge others. Pointing to oppressive, hierarchical stratification of society based on varna, or jati, which was scripturally justified, Azad noted that notions such as untouchability, rigidity and orthodoxy in Hinduism has taken a toll.
But Gandhi Ji, he said, had set a higher standard. His Hinduism was inclusive and universal and was not restricted to rituals but encompassed humanity.
Azad concluded his speech by stressing that any memorial created for the Mahatma would be incomplete if it failed to reveal the greatness of his mission and inclusive philosophy of his life. The truth experienced by him, he added, could enlighten us all just as the Sun and its rays do for mankind, for a life free from prejudice.
(Raziuddin Aquil teaches History in Delhi University. The article is based on Khutbaat-i-Azad, speeches of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, volume I, edited by Malik Ram, reprint, New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 2006)