It is said that to label a patriot as non-patriot is one of the greatest sins. Against the backdrop of this adage there is the curious case of Abul Kalam Azad, India’s first education minister and a nationalist Muslim credited with steering the boat of the Congress and, by that virtue, of India during the most difficult phase of the Pakistan movement from 1939 to 1945 under the shadow of World War II. There is a significant section of responsible Indians who believe that Azad and his ideological friends belonging to the Wahabi stream - the Deobandi Muslim leaders of that period - opposed Partition because they felt territorial nationalism had no place in Islam since the faith stood for converting the entire world and that the division of India would divide Muslim strength and awaken Hindus from a deep slumber under Muslim rule to the dangers of Pan-Islamism.
One of those who thought so was late retired bureaucrat, and a witness to the Partition, Yuvraj Krishen. His landmark book Understanding Partition is a good read on the actions and objectives of the Muslim League on one hand and, on the other, the Deobandis with their favourite Azad - who were in the Congress. Writing a guest column on the Partition for India Today in 2007, Krishen wrote:
"There is ample evidence now to prove that nationalist Muslims like Abul Kalam Azad and the then Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind president Ahmad Hussain Madani opposed Pakistan only because they felt that Partition would affect Muslim domination in the sub-continent and Muslims would heavily lose. Plus they tried to extract a heavy price from the Congress for their patriotism in the name of minority protection. Congress leaders have tried to hide the fact that as Congress president in 1945, Azad even went to the extent of agreeing to a proposal of rotating Indian headship. It meant India would have a Hindu and then a Muslim head of State and army chief by turns. So, eventually Gandhi and Nehru made Congress a hostage to ‘Hindu-Muslim unity at any cost’ which Jinnah skillfully exploited and got more concessions from the Congress to establish parity in numbers between Hindu and Muslim representation."
But a better way to look at Azad is from the eyes of secular and lslamic scholars/leaders of Pakistan. Amongst them the leaders of the Wahabi stream in Pakistan, generally opposed to Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s modernist approach, see Azad with respect while the Jinnah admirers see him as the representative of an unbending, orthodox and even retrograde brand of Islam and question Gandhiji for taking the support of retrograde Islamic forces. This can be gleaned from the writings and speeches of Wahabi stream leaders like late Tanzeem-e-Islami's (an Islamic socio-political body in Pakistan) Ameer Israr Ahmed and Jamat-e-Ulema-e-Islam president and Deobandi leader Fazlur Rehman and pro-Jinnah, liberal scholars like Ayesha Jalal - who teaches history in United States. Among other such supporters include Hamza Alavi, the eminent late Pakistani social scientist, Naeem Ahmad, an expert on the Pakistan movement and Sharif-Al-Mujahid, a well known Pakistani academic and freedom movement scholar.
Till he died in 2010, Israr Ahmed was as famous in Pakistan as Lashkar-e-Toiba chief Hafiz Sayeed or his milder version Syed Salahuddin. The reason: for over two decades, Ahmed gave lectures on the Quran on Pakistan TV and later became more famous when his alleged links with al Qaeda emerged when he openly called for the last Islamic battle against the US after 9/11. His al Qaeda links were further exposed when Pakistani scientist Bashiruddin Ahmed, who was very close to Ahmed, was detained by Pakistani security agencies in the aftermath of 9/11 under pressure from the United States on the charge that he might have supplied nuclear secrets to Osama Bin Laden.
The religious writings of Ahmed, which are available in Tanzeem-e-Islami archives, are full of praise for Azad for his exposition of the Wahabi view. Ahmed emphatically states that Azad played a leading role in the revival of Islam amongst Indian Muslims by floating an Islamic party called Hizbollah in 1913. In doing so, Ahmed writes, he also inspired the ultra-revivalist leader and founder of Jamat-e-Islami Maulana Maududi, before getting disappointed by the response of a section of the Ulema on various scores and deciding to enter the Congress in 1920.
Ahmed writes Azad contributed greatly to all future revivalist movements with his precise religious emphasis. In his September 2001 speech before a gathering of Muslims, he expounded more thus exposing the roles of Azad and the Deobandi Ulema further: "The Ulema (including Azad) opposed to Partition thought that Hindus didn’t pose threat to the Muslims and that Muslims would be able to deal with the Hindus very easily in United India. They also belived that division of India would divide Muslim power".
Interestingly, Ahmed let out several cats from Azad’s bag, which lay hidden in India even today. The biggest of them is his revelation that Azad floated an Islamic party called Hizbollah. His speeches triggered the first social crisis in Pakistan after its birth in the form of the anti-Ahmediya riots in 1950s. Interestingly, an autobiography should not miss a single important event of the writer’s life. But in his autobiography India Wins freedom, Azad doesn’t write a single word about Hizbollah. Why did he skip such an important chapter of his life? Ahmed also points to the strong bond between Azad and the Deoband leadership in his writings. He reveals, in 1920, the rector of Deoband School, Maulana Mehmood Hasan Deobandi alias Shaikh-ul-Hind, had tried hard to make Azad his successor, but the Deobandi Ulema gave the proposal a lukewarm response. The opposition might have been due to the fact that though Azad subscribed to the Deobandi ideology, he himself didn’t study at Deoband. Ahmed’s writings on Azad have to be matched with the speeches made in 2003 in Peshawar at a big anti-US and pro-Taliban political rally addressed by the political leaders of Wahabi parties in Pakistan. While speaking on the occasion, the leaders said in one voice “We are followers of Abul Kalam Azad who fought against British Imperialism.” The leaders included the head of the the Deobandi outfit, Jamat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the man who allegedly helped set up radical Deobandi madrasas on North West Frontier Province (NWFP)-Afghan border in early 1990s which later turned out to be factories for producing Islamic militants. The utterances at the Peshawar rally were much like the utterances of the Deobandi leaders in 1920s - talk about fight against Western imperialism and play the Pan-Islamic card alongside.
Hamza Alavi was one of those scholars who held Azad responsible for the growth of orthodox Deobandism in the subcontinent. He believed this eventually sowed the seeds of Taliban in Pakistan and Central Asia. Writes Alavi in an article for Economic and Political Weekly in November 2002: "The Pan-Islamic Khilafat movement (Azad was one of its leaders) backed by the Congress and Gandhi capitalised on the Pan-Islamic sentiment amongst the Deobandi Indian Muslims and undermined the secular leadership of the Muslim League. Gandhi helped the Mullahs to set up a political organisation of their own namely Jamat-e-Ulema-e-Hind (JUH), which was later reincarnated in Pakistan as Jamat-e-Ulema-e-Islam, the extreme hardliner fundamentalists who were instrumental in the rise of Taliban in Afghanistan." Azad was one of the main backers of the JUH in its initial years.
After describing Maulana Azad as the principal theoretician of the Khilafat movement in an article titled "The contradictions of Khilafat Movement", Alavi writes: “The Khilafat Movement has been idealised as an anti-colonial movement. But the main achievement of the Movement was the turning away of Indian Muslims from a secular understanding of politics towards a religious and communalist one. It has left a legacy of political activism of the Muslim clergy that bedevils India and Pakistani politics to this day. In the same article he writes: "The Khilafat Movement also introduced the religious idiom in the politics of Indian Muslims. Contrary to some misconceptions (and misrepresentations) it was not the Muslim League, the bearer of Muslim Nationalism in India, that introduced religious ideology in the politics of Indian Muslims but the Deobandi Ulema. Muslim Nationalism was a movement of Muslims and not a movement of Islam."
In an piece titled "Azad, Jinnah and Partitions", in Economic and Political Weekly, Ayesha Jalal dwells on Abul Kalam Azad’s complete version of his autobiography published in 1988 (Maulana Azad had willed before he died in 1958 that 30 pages of the autobiography, which had critical content and mostly about Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, should be released 30 years later in 1989). She also writes about Ian Henderson's famous 1989 biography of Azad titled Abul Kalam Azad: An intellectual and Religious Biography. In the article, Jalal raises many questions about how Azad’s actions and views strengthened Pan-Islamism and gave away a section of subcontinent’s Muslims to religious orthodoxy. Her comments on Azad are incisive as she virtually holds him as one of the persons responsible for Islamic revivalism amongst Muslims.
Curiously, she is scathing in her criticism of Douglas while reviewing his book. She says: "Douglas underplays the extent to which Azad’s revivalist and Pan-Islamist thinking influenced Muslim Separatism and indeed continues to influence the protagonists of the Islamic State of Pakistan (a reference to growth of Wahabism in Pakistan which is now bedevilling it). Her review of Azad’s autobiography is also quite incisive and virtually accuses him of hiding his real agenda. As she writes: "Where Azad lifts curtain at one place he drops it on three others." It is a clear pointer to Azad’s purposeful omissions like not mentioning in his autobiography the fact that he floated a radical Islamic Party in 1913. Jalal calls Azad’s autobiography a "self-consciously pruned political autobiography" thus clearly arguing that Azad has left out many important facts of his life with an agenda in his mind.
Writing on the Pakistan movement, Naeem Ahmad blames the Wahabi stream leaders for preventing rationalism in Islam. He writes: "For some steadfast and austere devotees of Islam too much emphasis on reasoning and attempts to harmonise dogma with the principles of science and philosophy amounted to interfering with the fundamental belief system of Islam. The tradition of rationalism suffered immensely at the hands of Qasim Nanotvi (founder of Deoband School in 1866 along with Maulana Rashid Ahmad Gangohi) Abul Kalam Azad, Anwar Shah Kashmiri (a top Deobandi preacher), Syed Sulaiman Nadwi and Mohammed Ali Jauhar."
In an article titled "Liaquat’s Singular contribution", Sharif-Al-Mujahid extols the role played by Pakistan’s first prime minister and Jinnah’s confident Liaquat Ali Khan in the formation of Pakistan and in steering its ship after Jinnah’s sudden death following the Partition. Significantly, he strongly argues as to how the principle of parity in numbers (It meant 24 per cent Muslims in India will be treated as 50 per cent in all matters and nearly 75 per cent Hindus will also be treated as 50 per cent) in any future set up at the Centre that Liaquat Ali snatched from Congress leader Bhulabhai Desai in the famous 1944 "Liaquat Ali-Bhulabhai Desai accord" actually strengthened the case of Pakistan in the final run. Mujahid says that the principal of parity agreed by Desai before Liaquat Ali had blessings of Gandhi. But what he doesn’t mention is that Azad, who was a close friend of Desai, was the Congress president then and that the parity formula couldn’t have been conceded by Desai without Azad’s consent. Significantly, Azad has said in his autobiography that Desai was his very close friend and that whenever he was in Mumbai he used to stay at Desai’s residence.
Clearly, the time has come for the Indian historiography to have a relook at the alleged pan-Islamist role played by Azad and the Wahabi movements as part of the Indian national movement in the growth of Islamic radicalism in South Asia that one sees today.