Maulana Abul Kalam Azad : Educationist & Scholar Extraordinary


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 and the rationalism of western sciences, 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. 


He 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, upto a given level, all students, irrespective of caste, creed, location or sex have access to education of a comparable quality. All educational programmes, he said, 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 getting 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. The Maulana was also a great votary of the concept of Neighbourhood schools and the Common School System. 

Born in Mecca on November 11, 1888, his father Maulana Khairuddin was a noted scholar, his mother Alia was an Arab, niece of Shaikh Mohammad Zahir Vatri of Madina. His father gave him the name of Feroze Bakht but he became Abul Kalam and the name stayed. At 10 he was well-versed in Quran. At 17 Abul Kalam was a trained theologian recognized in the Islamic world. His studies at Al Azhar University Cairo further deepened his knowledge. At Calcutta where his family had settled he started a magazine called ‘Lisan-ul-Sidq’. His early influences were Maulana Shibli Naomani and Altaf Hussain Haali, the two great Urdu critics. 

Azad made a debut in politics when the British Government partitioned Bengal in 1905 on religious grounds. The Muslim middle classes supported the partition but Azad rejected it outright. He took active part in the agitation, joined the secret societies and revolutionary organization, came in contact with Sri Aurobindo Ghosh and Shyam Sundar Chakravarty. He stood for a unified India and never deviated from his stand. He writes in his famous book ‘India Wins Freedom’ : ‘It is one of the greatest frauds on the people to suggest that religious affinity can unite areas which are geographically, economically and culturally different’. It is a fact of history that while other Congress leaders accepted the partition in 1947, Maulana stood steadfast. His famous statement on Hindu-Muslim unity stands out as Magna Carta of his faith : “If an angel were to descend from the heavens and proclaim from the heights of Qutab Minar: Discard Hindu-Muslim unity and within 24 hours Swaraj is yours, I will refuse the preferred Swaraj but shall not budge an inch from my stand. The refusal of Swaraj will affect only India while the end of our unity will be the loss of our entire human world.” 

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 favourably 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. 

After the confiscation of ‘Al-Hilal’ Azad brought out a new weekly called ‘Al Balagh’ but this too came to an end when Azad was interned in 1916. He remained in jail for four years. When he came out he was an acknowledged leader and took his seat with the great might of the Indian National Congress. In 1920 he met Tilak and Gandhi which was the turning point of his life. Gandhi had launched the ‘Khilafat Movement’ under the Deoband School and Firanghi Mahal where Gandhi and Azad were frequent visitors. But when Muslim League denounced Gandhiji’s Satyagraha, Azad who had enrolled himself in the League when a boy, left the Muslim League forever. His popularity was so high that at 35 he became the President of the Indian National Congress, the youngest ever to hold that office. In 1942 during the Quit India Movement he was elected as the Chief spokesman of the Congress. This distinction he also had during the negotiations with the Cabinet Mission in 1946 at Simla. 

As Education Minister (15.08.47 to 22.02.1958) 

In 1947 when the Interim Government was formed Maulana Azad was included as Member for Education and Arts. On August 15, 1947 when India attained Independence he became Free India’s first Education Minister with a cabinet rank where he achieved a number of distinctions and established institutions of excellence to promote education and culture. 

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 University Grants Commission (UGC) in 1956 by an Act of Parliament for disbursement of grants and maintainence of standards in Indian universities. He firmly believed with Nehru that if the universities discharged their functions well, all will be well with the Nation. According to him the universities have not only academic functions, they have social responsibilities as well. He was pioneer in the field of adult education. 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 All Indian Council for Technical Education. The Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur was established in 1951 followed by a chain of IIT’s at Bombay, Madras and Kanpur and Delhi. School of Planning and Architecture came into existence at Delhi in 1955. 

Student Unrest 

Secular to the marrow of his bones Maulana’s advice to students was: ‘Bury communalism once for all.’ Student indiscipline, however, continued to worry him. Presiding over the meeting of the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) on February 7, 1954 he said: “What worries me most is that the extent and magnitude of the student’s unrest is very often without any relation whatsoever to the supposed cause. Such unrest among the students strikes at the root of our national culture. The student of today is the potential leader of tomorrow. He will have to sustain the social, political and economic activities. If he is not properly trained and does not develop the necessary resources of character and knowledge he cannot supply the leadership which the national will need”. 

As an Author 

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, Aligarh Muslim University in their days of financial crisis. He paid particular attention to the Archaeological Survey of India’s efforts to repair and maintain the protected monuments. 

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. 


As an orator Azad had no equal among his contemporaries. When he spoke the audience listened to him spell-bound. Recalling the memories of the Roman and the Greek orators, there was magic in his words, his language was chaste, civilized, his speech was dramatic. In October 1947 when the Delhi Muslims were leaving for Pakistan tens of thousands of them, he spoke from the ramparts of Jama Masjid, like an ancient oracle: “Behold, the high towers of Jama Masjid are asking you: where have you lost the pages of your history. Only yesterday your caravans had performed ‘Wazu; (Ablutions) on the banks of Jamuna. And today you are afraid to live here. Remember that you have nourished Delhi with your blood. You are afraid of tremors, time was when you yourself were an earthquake. You fear darkness when you yourself symbolized light only recently. The clouds have only poured dirty water and you have raised your trousers for fear of being drenched. They were your forefathers who had dived deep into the seas, cut across the mighty mountains, laughed away the lightnings, answered the thunder of the skies with the velocity of your laughter, changed the direction of the winds and turned the typhoons that they have been misled to a wrong destination. It is an irony of faith that those who played with the destinies of the kings are victims of their own destiny today. And in doing so they have become so forgetful of their God as if it never existed. Go back it is your home, your country….” 

The effect of his speech was dramatic. Those who packed up their baggages to migrate to Pakistan returned home filled with a new sense of freedom and patriotism. There was no mass migration thereafter. In the history of international oratory Maulana Azad’s Jama Masjid speech can only be compared with the Gettysburg address of Abraham Lincoln, Birla House speech of Nehru on Gandhi’s assassination and recently of Martin Luther’s speech: ‘I have a dream’. 

As a man Maulana was even greater, he led an austere life. He had the madness of a Spinoza, the courage of Prometheus Unbound, the humility of a Dervesh. At the time of his death he had neither any property nor any bank account. In his personal almirah were found some cotton ‘Achkans’. A dozen ‘Khadi Kurtas’ and ‘pyjama’, two pairs of sandals, an old dressing gown and a used brush. But there were lots of rare books which are now a property of the Nation. 

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). Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s Birthday 11th November has been declared as National Education Day . 

(Courtesy: PIB)

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