Maulana Abul Kalam Azad - The Builder of Modern India

A normal human tendency is to forget the past and march ahead. If one looks down upon those who had helped them when they confronted challenges, an educational reformer proved to be different.

He had to face challenges in advocating a National System of Education. Infact, a recent circular of the Government of India to commemorate the birthday of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad on November 11, as National Education Day has raised many eyebrows in the country to re-organize the grim educational situation.

But if we look back to the historical developments of education in India, a man of enormous tastes, rated high in the realm of education, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad has all along played a prominent role in keeping the movement of education alive in this country.

Packed with several achievements, Maulana Azad oversaw the establishment of a national education system with free primary education and modern institutions of higher learning.

The very recent decision of the Union Ministry of HRD, Government of India to declare his birthday as National Education Day is a treatise on the live, struggle, and contribution of the great educationist of the country. It would, hopefully, be of immense interest and inspiration for all the citizens, scholars, students, teachers, and academicians, to imbibe his sprit of educational ideas among the current posterity of the nation.

The country's educationist has to learn from his outstanding contributions and policies. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was the first to raise the issue of the National System of Education which is today the bed-rock of the National Policy on Education (1986) updated in 1992. The concept implies that, up to a given level, all students, irrespective of caste, creed, location or sex have access to education of a comparable quality.

All educational programmes, he stressed, must be carried out in strict conformity with secular values and constitutional framework. He stood for a common educational structure of 10+2+3 throughout India.

If Maulana Azad were alive today he would have been the happiest to see the Right to Free Education Bill and national flagship mission mode projects getting a Cabinet approval for the approval of Parliament. The Right to Education Bill seeks to make free and compulsory education a fundamental right.

The wealth of the nation, according to Maulana Azad, was not in the country's banks but in primary schools. Maulana was also a great votary of the concept of Neighborhood schools and the Common School System. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad is one of those rare personalities through whom the distinctions of the 20th century can be recognized and possibilities of the 21st century determined.

He stood for a learning society through liberal, modern and universal education combining the humanism of Indian arts, a society where the strong are just and the weak secure, where the youth is disciplined and the women lead a life of dignity - a non-violent, non-exploiting social and economic order.

He was free India's first Education Minister and guided the destinies of the Nation for eleven years.

At the age of 20 he went on a tour of Iraq, Syria and Egypt and met the young Turks and Arab nationalists including Christians. The tour proved very useful to Azad to crystallize his thoughts on the neo-colonialists who were exploiting those countries and how India could help them.

On return he started a journal in Urdu named 'Al Hilal' in 1912. It was this journal where he aired his liberal views, 'Rationalist in outlook and profoundly versed in Islamic lore and history'.

Writes Nehru in his 'Discovery of India'. The Maulana interpreted scriptures from the rationalist point of view. Soaked in Islamic tradition and with many personal contacts with prominent Muslim leaders of Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Palestine, Iraq and Iran, he was profoundly affected by political and cultural developments in these countries.

He was known in Islamic countries probably more than any other Indian Muslim.

The journal 'Al-Hilal' became extremely popular and in two years its circulation rose to 30,000. The inevitable happened when in 1914 the British Government confiscated the press and banned the journal under the Defence of India Act. Azad was arrested and sent to Ranchi jail where he suffered untold hardships. Released from jail he resumed his educational writings. He spoke in a new language, writes Nehru.

It was not only a new language in thought and approach, even its texture was different, for Azad's style was tense and virile though sometimes a little difficult because of its Persian background. He used new phrases for new ideas and was a definite influence in giving shape to Urdu language as it is today. The older conservative Muslims did not react favorably to all this and criticized Azad's opinion and approach.

Yet not even the most learned of them could meet Azad in debate and argument, even on the basis of scriptures and tradition, for Azad's knowledge of these happened to be greater than theirs. He was a strange mixture of medieval scholasticism, eighteenth century rationalism and modern outlook. There were a few among the older generation who approved of Azad's writings, among them being Shibli and Sir Sayyaid of Aligarh University.

Among the new institutions he established were the three National Academies viz the Sangeet Natak Academy (1953), Sahitya Academy (1954) and Lalit Kala Academy (1954), the Indian Council for Cultural Relations having been established by him earlier in 1950.

The Maulana felt that the cultural content in Indian Education was very low during the British rule and needs to be strengthened through curriculum. As Chairman of the Central Advisory Board of Education, an apex body to recommend to the Government educational reform both at the center and the states including universities, he advocated, in particular, universal primary education, free and compulsory for all children upto the age of 14, girls education, vocational training, agricultural education and technical education.

He established the University Grants Commission (UGC) in 1956 by an Act of Parliament for disbursement of grants and maintenance of standards in Indian universities.

His greatest contribution, however, is that in spite of being an eminent scholar of Urdu, Persian and Arabic he stood for the retention of English language for educational advantages and national and international needs. However, primary education should be imparted in the mother-tongue.

On the technical education side, he strengthened the All Indian Council for Technical Education (AICTE). The Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur (IIT-K) was established in 1951 followed by a chain of IIT's at Bombay, Madras and Kanpur and Delhi. The School of Planning and Architecture (SPA) came into existence at Delhi in 1955.

Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad, a Muslim theologian of international repute, was one of the earliest to join the nationalist movement and to lead it steadfastly, arousing the ire of his communal-minded co-religionists. He was perhaps the only one among our leaders who was jailed during both World Wars I (1914-1918) and II (1939-45) for campaigning for Swaraj.

During the most fateful days of the national struggle, he was the President of the Indian National Congress. Personally unwilling to accept the principle of the two-nation theory, he too, like Gandhiji, reluctantly reconciled himself to India's partition in 1947. He took active part in the agitation, joined the secret societies and revolutionary organization, and came in contact with Sri Aurobindo Ghosh and Shyam Sundar Chakravarty.

Maulana Azad was a prolific writer with books in Urdu, Persian and Arabic notably amongst which is 'India Wins Freedom', his political biography, translated from Urdu to English. Maulana's translation of Quran from Arabic into Urdu in six volumes published by Sahitya Akademy in 1977 is indeed his 'Magnum Opus".

Since then several editions of 'Tarjaman-e-Quran' have come out. His other books include 'Gubar-e-Khatir', 'Hijr-o-Vasal', 'Khatbat-I-Azad', 'Hamari Azadi', 'Tazkara'. He gave a new life to Anjamane-Tarrqui-e-Urdu-e-Hind'. During the partition riots when the 'Anjamane-Tarrqui-Urdu suffered, its Secretary Maulvi Abdul Haqq decided to leave for Pakistan alongwith the books of the Anjaman. Abdul Haqq had packed the books but Maulana Azad got them retrieved and thus saved a national treasure being lost to Pakistan. He also helped the Anjaman to revive by sanctioning a grant of Rs.48,000 per month from the Ministry of Education.

Likewise he increased the grants of Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI), Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) in their days of financial crisis and formulated several central legislations in education.

I do not mean to say that everybody has to be like Maulana Azad to represent that composite culture. There are many representatives of it in various parts of India; but he, in his own venue, in Delhi or in Bengal or Calcutta, where he spent the greater part of his life, represented this synthesis of various cultures which have come one after another to India, rivers that had flowed in and lost themselves in the ocean of Indian life, India's humanity, affecting them, changing them, and being changed themselves by them.

So spoke Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru at the 1st Maulana Azad memorial lecture on 11th November, 1959. "The Maulana was a great religious scholar, journalist, writer, poet, philosopher and above all, a great political leader whose services and sacrifices in the freedom struggle will be long remembered along with his matchless contribution as free India's first Education Minister."

He used to read late into the night in dim candle-light, early in the morning, and sometimes even missed his meals. He often spent his money on books. He mentioned: "People pass their childhood in playing but I, at the age of twelve or thirteen, used to pick up a book and slip into a remote corner trying to hide myself from people's looks."

As for his writing, a great scholar wrote: "Like Somerset Maugham (an eminent English writer) Maulana Azad learnt writing as a fish learns swimming or a child learns breathing."

A unique quality about him was that he always remained much ahead of his age, in years, in many fields. He was running a library, a reading room, a debating society before he was twelve! He was teaching a class of students, most of whom were twice his age, when he was merely fifteen.

He edited a number of magazines between thirteen and eighteen years of age and himself brought out a magazine of high standard at the age of sixteen. The power of his writings shaped in no small measure, the pattern of thought and political values of the Indian youth of his day.

Maulana's Tarjuman-al-Quran is a classic in Muslim religious literature. According to one of his biographers, S.G. Haider, Urdu-speaking people once invited a 'learned scholar', whose writings they had read with admiration, to address a national-level conference in 1904.

Throughout his life he stood for the chords of cordiality between Hindus and Muslims and the composite culture of India. He stood for modern India with secular credentials, a cosmopolitan character and international outlook. A man like Maulana Azad is born rarely. Throughout his life he stood for the unity of India and its composite culture. His opposition to partition of India has created a niche in the hearts of all patriotic Indians.

There he stands with Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, his senior an Ashfaqullah his junior. In the words of Iqbal:

"Hazaron sall Nargis apni benoori par roti hai,
Bari Mushkil sey hota hai chaman mein deeda var paida".

(For a thousand years the Narcissus weeps for her blindness, With great difficulty is born in the garden a man with vision).

Apart from his countless contributions in the field of education, Azad rose to prominence through his work as a journalist, publishing works critical of the British Raj and espousing the causes of Indian Nationalism Azad became a leader of the Khilafat Movement during which he came into close contact with Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi. Azad became an enthusiastic supporter of Gandhi's ideas of non-violent civil disobedience, and worked actively to organise the Non cooperation Movement in protest of the 1919 Rowalts Acts.

Azad committed himself to Gandhi's ideals, including promoting Swadeshi (Indigenous) products and the cause of Swaraj (Self-rule) for India. He would become the youngest person to serve as the President of the Indian National Congress in 1923.

Abul Kalam Azad was one of those geniuses whose names are written with golden letters in the pages of history. All of them contributed their energies in various ways. They not only structured the syllabi but also formulated the policies in order to carry the light of education in the remotest rural areas. They also chalked out programmes for the training of teachers to make them abreast of the developments taking place in the world of education.

The 'National Education Day' is of course a day to pledge to work on various initiatives taken under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) in setting up model schools in secondary education; on the various initiatives taken in higher secondary education; and in vocational and higher education sectors by the Central Government on its own; and in partnership with state governments, as well as through private public partnership for the re-organization of present system of education in the country.

The questions remains which, the educational strata has to answer. Have we as a Nation achieved our Universal enrolment as the half of the century has cross over? Have we as a nation achieved the Universal education besides advocating policies and central legislation at the centre?

The National Education day is a goodwill gesture for our policy makers to re-thing of change in India's present system of education which is not at par with the desires of its children.

At this moment, the nation is in need of a vital agenda to reach the hitherto uncovered populace with a new education policy with thrust on values and skills.

The country's policy makers need to wake up and pledge on this day for revolutionary changes in the system.

By - Sadaket Malik

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