Mushirul Hasan is a prolific writer who has authored and edited many reputed scholarly works on modern Indian history. This edited volume, titled Islam, Pluralism, Nationhood: Legacy of Maulana Azad, consists of brief introductions on very special documents dealing with key developments in the life of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. By collecting and publishing these rare documents - confidential facsimiles of memos, notes and letters, which have been lying in government files - the author has enriched the discourse on Azad's contribution to Indian national public life. This is all the more important since, as Professor Hasan points out, "information on Azad's role after Independence is thin".
Azad's life story can be understood if it is kept in mind that he was an Islamist scholar by training, with an early education that spanned Mecca, Calcutta and the Muhammedan Anglo-Oriental college, Aligarh (later Aligarh Muslim University). But his grounding went much beyond his roots as a scholar of the Quran. His newspaper, Al-Hilal, "dealt with affairs in the Arab world and with religio-cultural problems" as enunciated in Islam. In short, he imbibed the universal values of Islam during his formative years.
This religio-cultural background provides an understanding of Azad's active involvement in the Khilafat movement. Indeed, the documents on the Khilafat movement and Mahatma Gandhi's non-cooperation movement comprise the most important section of this work. For Azad, Khilafat revealed "the motivating logic beneath pan-Islamism" and linked with the argument that it "was a God-sent institution to secure obedience to Him".
Even before Azad's participation in the Khilafat movement, however, he was closely observed by the British, from 1912-13 until his imprisonment in 1921. He spent 10 years in her Majesty's prisons. A Memo to Governor General of India on February 6, 1917, says, "As the Maulana has all along led a religious and scholastic life it was never thought that he would be regarded as a political suspect".
But it was the post-Khilafat phase that was quite difficult for Azad because his fundamental values of "composite nationalism" and "cultural syncretism" came into conflict with the ideology of Muslim separatism. The battle lines were drawn because Azad not only renounced and denounced Muslim separatism as advocated by Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League, he also espoused the cause of composite culture by asserting that "Islam's splendid traditions of thirteen hundred years are my inheritance. I am unwilling to lose the teachings and history of Islam, its acts and letters and civilisation are my wealth and my future".
The greatest puzzle about Azad is his "silence" at the Congress Working Committee meeting on June 2, 1947, when the Mountbatten Plan for Partition was ratified. It is hardly a consolation to note that Azad, in his book India Wins Freedom, described Partition as "one of the greatest frauds on the people to suggest that religious affinity can unite areas which are geographically, economically, linguistically and culturally different". When this book was published posthumously, Jawaharlal Nehru described it as an "individualist" opinion of Azad, while the editor observed that "when it comes to an appraisal of Azad's life, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that he played a constructive role envisaging the birth of a resurgent India".
That may be true, but every great leader should be evaluated in the historical context in which he functioned. History and context matter. This is one part of the story. The other aspect of historiography is that different generations ask different questions because they are exposed to different situations in society.
So, first, just because Azad was a product of a Muslim seminary in Calcutta does not mean that all madrasa products, like him, are liberals. Like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's Shishu Niketans, madrasa education has contributed to spreading religious fundamentalism. These documents do not show any evidence of Azad proposing, as minister of education, to close these religious factories masquerading as educational institutions.
Second, Azad was a good pan-Islamist and his active involvement in the Khilafat movement did not in any way make him a "Mullah". But pan-Islamism in the 21st century has been identified with fundamentalists who are trying to capture state power to establish theocracies - Taliban is a good example. This is the present reality of pan-Islamist movements in the Arab world and in South Asia.
Third, the long-term impact of the Khilafat movement on Indian Muslims and its joint struggle with the Gandhi-led non-cooperation movement of the early 1920s deserves to be critically analysed. The documents mention that Azad maintained that "the Muslims know fully well that at the present moment there is only one Government in the World that is Turkish and Islamic and that Government is in Ankara". This attitude deserves analysis because post-Khilafat developments in India have prompted many people to have second thoughts about the impact of Islam, pan-Islamisn, madrasas et al on the secularisation process of Indian Muslims.
Religion in public life, even for a good cause, strengthens the place of "religion" in society, and religious pluralism in reality means that "separate" religions continue to coexist. Could Azad's own belief system have laid the foundations of a religion-free secular society? The answer is no.