Maulana Abul Kalam Azad: Striving for a composite and pluralist India

Maulana Azad was not only a frontline nationalist leader but also one of the architects of modern India. His commitment to the pluralist ethos of our freedom struggle is reflected in his profile as the first minister for education, science and culture in independent India. He constantly strived as a minister and as an intellectual to synthesize the Islamic, Indian and the Western ideas into a coherent and single pattern for the newly independent nation. He was one of the few leaders of the freedom movement who, steeped in medieval scholarship and classical learning, transcended the limits of different classical languages and religion. He castigated any kind of narrow outlook, whether expressed as cultural tradition, as national chauvinism or religious orthodoxy. Most of the scholars have concentrated on Azad’s political contributions, which are surely important or on his theological acumen as an Islamic scholar par excellence. However, we also need to grapple and acknowledge his immense contributions to nation building, particularly in education, science and culture. It is even more significant in the context of Islam today, not only in India but globally.

In 1916, he explicitly asserted his having studied, over a period of a decade or so, the problem in its entirety, and claimed to have developed “a critical-cum-creative insight” in the discipline of education. One of the major early influences on Azad was Ibn Khaldun, the 14th/15th century Moroccan philosopher, historian and traveler, who inspired Azad to question the traditional methods of teaching as well as the curriculum. Maulana Azad agreed with him in holding that what led to stagnation in religious and secular learning was an unquestioning acceptance of theology. He found education to be the sole means to rectifying this error. Azad found the curricula in the Islamic madrasa’s fundamentally narrow, with a significant omission of mathematics, which is the basis of science and technology. Another significant influence, in the context of science and education was Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, which attracted Azad towards modern education and modern science for the Muslims; however he later got out of the community concerns alone due to his commitment to the anti-imperialist and nationalist politics. He admitted in his writings like Azad ki Kahani that Sir Syed’s writings brought about an intense revolution in his thought, both in his religious as well intellectual life. Among the 19th century Islamic thinkers and reformists, Azad was not impressed by Syed Ahmad alone; he was surprisingly in agreement with Sir Syed’s bête noir Jamaluddin Afghani and his disciple MohdAbduh as well. Azad wanted to imbibe the best from both and in this he found that Afghani was all for modern scientific and technical education and was also critical of those ulema, who urged the community to keep away from anything which has to do with the British. Here Azad gives some clue to his eclecticism, which had set in very early in his life and proved extremely useful in his profile as a nationalist leader. We later find that Azad’s educational perspective was fundamentally Islamic in inspiration, yet he synthesized happily anything of value from anywhere. He was not `exclusively an “Islamic” mind or even an “oriental” mind, unacquainted with, or insensitive to, the rich streams of influences emanating from other sources . He was deeply impressed by the advances made in the West in the realm of elementary education for children. He was firmly committed to what was scientific in the Western system, and the two factors that most inspired him were the idea of freedom as the technique of education, and an all embracing importance of primary education. He was particularly impressed by the French philosopher Rousseau and was in agreement with him in the innate goodness of man. He even wrote about this in his paper al-Hilal, where he looked upon Rousseau as one who revolutionized the entire intellectual and social life of his age. Azad agreed with Rousseau in his advocacy of the child’s necessity and ability to grasp the truth through his own insight. Contrasting the centrality extended to education in the West, Azad was bewildered at the apathy towards it in the East, with mediocrity as its hallmark. He writes: He strongly felt that we in India are even oblivious of the fact that education is of paramount importance for the nation’s overall development. He considered planning for education on a national scale as more important than national planning in economic and industrial development.

For Maulana Azad, no education at any level was complete without art and culture. He repeatedly emphasized the significance of culture and heritage while formulating his educational policies. While opening an art exhibition in New Delhi, he said “Art is an education of emotions and is thus an essential element in any scheme of truly national education. Education, whether at the secondary or at the university stage, cannot be regarded as complete if it does not train our faculties to the perception of beauty.”

Soon after he joined the interim government, few months before independence, Maulana Azad felt that enough is not being done to promote Indian classical music on All India Radio. He shot off a letter to Sardar Patel, who was formally in charge of Broadcasting, where he said: “You perhaps do not know that I have always taken keen interest in Indian classical music and at one time practiced it myself. It has, therefore, been a shock to me to find that the standard of music of All India Radio broadcast is extremely poor. I have always felt that All India Radio should set the standard in Indian music and lead to its continual improvement. Instead, the present programmes have an opposite effect and lead one to suspect that the artistes are sometimes chosen not on grounds of merit.” He even proposed that he can find time to advise the concern person who is in charge of the programmes and suggest ways of improvement. This is enough to establish the commitment of Maulana Azad to matters related to arts and aesthetics.

It was this commitment of Azad, which prompted him to institutionalize Indian art and culture in the 1950s. He was conscious that the colonial government had deliberately ignored this aspect that needed to be looked after in independent India. Within a short span of ten years, he established most of the major cultural and literary academies we have today, including the Sangeet Natak Academy, Lalit Kala Academy, Sahitya Academy as well as The Indian Council for Cultural Relations. While setting up these Academies, Azad was clear that all these institutions of creative talent need to be autonomous and free from official government control and interference. He categorically pointed out at the First All India Conference of Letters that “even a National Government cannot, and should not be, expected to develop literature and culture through official fiats. The government should certainly help both by material assistance and by creating an atmosphere which is congenial to cultural activities, but the main work of the development of literature and culture must be the responsibility of individuals endowed with talent and genius.”

“India can be proud of long heritage and tradition in the field of dance, drama, and music. In the field of fine arts, as in those of philosophy and science, India and Greece occupy an almost unique position in human history. It is my conviction that in the field of music, the achievement of India is greater than that of Greece. The breadth and depth of Indian music is perhaps unrivalled as is its integration of vocal and instrumental music.”

Conclusion Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, as I have tried to bring out briefly, occupies a key position in the educational, cultural and scientific development of independent India. He used the egalitarian Islamic spirit to democratize modern education, taking it beyond religious and caste constraints. We find that he institutionalized crucial Indian sectors like education and culture and laid the foundations of a future network of scientific and technological institutions. However, I feel that a more extensive research is needed to do justice with the multi-faceted contributions of Maulana Azad and his role in the growth of a robust and pluralist independent India.

Author is Former Maulana Azad Chair at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi