Abul Kalam Azad’s commitment to religion, the nation, lights the path for Muslims, secular Hindus - IAMC
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Abul Kalam Azad’s commitment to religion, the nation, lights the path for Muslims, secular Hindus

I, who live in a “Muslim ghetto”, have sat up all night with five pieces of writing before me. They are from the “Minority Space” of The Indian Express, which was initiated by Harsh Mander’s article, (‘Sonia Sadly’, IE, March 17). All the writers are my friends and colleagues. Ramchandra Guha is my colleague from the Nehru Memorial Library.

I am one of those Muslims who has often been told, “You don’t look like a Muslim”. I don’t wear hijab or burka, only saris, mostly handloom. And I am visible in public forums. The inference being Muslims must look, dress and behave the same.

In 1947, my mother, along with my aunts, gave up the burka with the consensus of the men of our family. “Hijab”, my father said, “lies in the eyes of the individual, man or woman, not in wearing a veil or topi”. Father prayed five times a day but he always prayed at home. From both parents I learnt to pray alone. Their closest friend, Dr Zakir Husain, spoke and wrote of the momin who prays alone with tears in her/his eyes in the stillness of the night. These words, which I quoted in his biography, ring in my ears when I spread my prayer mat.

I was one of the millions who watched Babri crumble and the killings that followed. I was one of six women who reached a burning Gujarat in 2002 and lived to recount the violence, sexual and other, unleashed on Muslim women and girls. Like the blind Greek prophet, Tiresias, I have seen too much to feel surprised when a public intellectual like Guha, a friend, talks of the word burka and calls it antediluvian in the same breath or when he compares burka and skull cap to the trishul. Burka, a humble piece of cloth worn out with constant wear, is hardly a weapon.

Muslim leadership is another issue raised by Guha. Other writers in the series have quoted names of various leaders, thankfully some of them women. But there is one hasti everyone has forgotten. The man who began his struggle for freedom in 1912 when Mahatma Gandhi was still in South Africa. His journal, Al Hilal, was a clarion call to Muslims to join with Hindus in the freedom struggle. In 1923, as the youngest Congress President at 35, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad said at the Delhi session that if an angel was to descend and ask him to choose between Swaraj and Hindu-Muslim unity, he would choose the latter. Because a delay in Swaraj will be a loss for India but the loss of Hindu-Muslim unity will be a loss for all mankind. Mander had once asked me to send him Azad’s speeches. I regret not doing so because he would have used them beautifully in his Karvaan-e-Mohabbat.

No one remembers Azad. Not even the Congress, the party to which he committed his life. He has been relegated to a corner of political hoardings, a man with a topi and beard, a Muslim caricature. This is unlike what he remained all his life, the elegant, erudite statesman who towered next to Gandhi and Nehru during the tumultuous days of the freedom struggle.

I have in my library two large portraits, one of Azad alone done by K K Hebbar and the other of Azad with Gandhi and Nehru, a photo from national archives. They inform and inspire my work. Before this triumvirate, I aver the thesis of Mander and Apoorvanand. To quote Mander (and Apoorvanad): “Muslims are equal citizens in every way, integral to India’s imagination, its creation and its future.” These words echo the assertion of Azad, which he made as a Muslim and an Indian. These are words which I would want to see as the lodestar for both Hindus and Muslims.

In 1946, Azad was once again elected President of the Congress at the Session at Ramgarh. “I am a Muslim and profoundly conscious of the fact that I have inherited Islam’s glorious traditions of the last 1.300 years. I am not prepared to lose even a small part of that legacy. I have another deep realisation born out of my life’s experience, which is strengthened not hindered by the spirit of Islam. I am equally proud of the fact that I am an Indian, an essential part of that indivisible unity of Indian nationhood without which this noble edifice will remain incomplete. I can never give up this sincere claim,” he said.

Are Muslims, as a quom, secular Hindus and political parties who claim to be secular willing to imbibe these words and give the country the fresh life-blood needed to restore its critical state of health?