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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 46 New Delhi November 7, 2015

National Education Day: Forgotten Birthday of a Great Indian

Tuesday 10 November 2015

by Sukumaran C. V.

The following article is on Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, one of the greatest secular democrats of the country, on the occasion of his birthday (observed as the National Education Day) on November 11.

If religion expresses a universal truth, why should there be differences and conflicts among men professing different religions? Why should each religion claim to be the sole repository of truth and condemn all others as false?
—Maulana Abul Kalam Azad

As far as we, Indians, are concerned, November is the month in which two important birthdays and two important National Days come. Everybody knows that Nehru’s birthday (November 14) is celebrated as Children’s Day. But most of us are ignorant of the other Day—the National Education Day. November 11 is the birthday of India’s first Minister of Education, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, and it is celebrated as the National Education Day.

 India’s most important secular democratic pillars are the Gandhi-Nehru-Azad trio. While October 2 and November 14 are well known; November 11 has somehow become oblivious. It is unfortunate that it has become so. Azad was one of the most important figures of our national movement (next only to Nehru and Gandhi) and he always remained a staunch opponent of the two-nation theory and partition.

 Even after 68 years of independence, our country still witnesses communal hatred and the secular fabric of the nation is being torn asunder. Diversity and plurality, the salient features of our democracy, are being systemati-cally sidelined. Men of letters, who criticise religious obscurantism, are being shot dead; people are lynched by fanatic mobs for eating what they like. Little children are burnt to death for being Dalits. Things that should never happen in a democratic country happen in the largest democracy in the world and it seems that our democracy is slowly but steadily sliding into a fascist mode controlled by religious obscurantism and fringe groups.

 Only the thoughts of leaders like Maulana Azad, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Ghandhi, and the secular democracy they have built on the foundations of diversity and plurality can save India from the edge of the catastrophe to which the nation has been driven by the activities of both minority and majority funda-mentalism and the treacherous activities of the secular parties for whom secularism has only been a plank to garner votes in order to be always in power.

 As Meera Nanda wrote in an article published in 2001, ours is ‘a democracy without democrats, a secularism without secularists’. I read the article (‘Breaking the Spell of Dharma: Case for Indian Enlightenment’) when I was a JNU student, exactly 14 years ago, in Economic and Political Weekly (July 7, 2001). Today the article seems more contemporaneous than when it was written. Let me quote the first four paragraphs of the article:

“A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words. I came across one such picture recently that speaks far more eloquently about the roots of the crisis of Indian secularism. I urge you, dear reader, to take a long hard look at this picture and weep.

“It is a black and white wire photo, first printed in The Times of India on September 14, 1987 and reprinted in Lise McKean’s recent book, The Divine Enterprise: Gurus and the Hindu Nationalist Movement. The picture shows a crude wooden platform, about five feet high, with an emaciated, half-naked and unkempt old man dangling one leg over the wall of the platform. Underneath stands a middle-aged man clad in all white, with his bowed head touching the foot of that leg dangling from the platform.

“The owner of the leg is a holy man by the name of Sant Devraha Baba of Vrindavan. The bowed head belongs to none other than Balram Jakhar, former Speaker of the Lok Sabha. The representative-in-chief of the house-of-the-people of this, the secular-democratic Republic of India, touching the feet of an alleged god-man with his forehead, seeking his blessings.

“This picture troubles me. I wince every time I see it. Why? Haven’t I seen it all before? Aren’t utterly humiliating, hierarchical and non-reciprocal gestures of self-effacement before power, sacred and profane, in private and in public institutions alike, a routine part of social life in India? But the very fact that such sights are so commonplace, and that we have continued to accept them as facts of life, is exactly what troubles me. Indeed, the banality, the utter taken-for-grantedness of our elected representatives, in their official capacities, bowing, prostrating and in other ways displaying their helplessness and inferiority before religious authorities ought to trouble all secularists.”

But Indian secularists have not been troubled and today our secularism is torn asunder. To save it, we have to re-invent the real secularism practised by the founding fathers of our nation and the millions of people who sacrificed their lives on the altar of the freedom struggle to make India a secular democracy.

Azad is the only President of the Indian National Congress who held the post for six consecutive years (1940-46) before independence. During the epoch-making era of the national movement, he led the organisation with an uncompromising devotion to secular nationa-lism. In his autobiography India Wins Freedom, the Maulana says: “Differences however arose about the composition of the Executive Council (under the Government of India Act). Mr Jinnah’s demand was that the Congress could nominate all Hindu members but all the Muslim members must be nominees of the League. I pointed out that the Congress could never accept such a demand. It had approached all political problems from a national point of view and recognised no distinction between Hindus and Muslims on political issues. It could not in any circumstances agree to be an organisation of Hindus alone. I therefore insisted that the Congress should have the freedom to nominate any Indian it liked regardless of whether he was a Hindu or a Muslim or a Christian or a Parsi or a Sikh. The Congress should participate on the basis of Indian Nationhood or not participate at all.” (Chapter 9, ‘The Simla Conference’)

“The Simla Conference marks a breakwater in Indian political history. This was the first time when negotiations failed not on the basic political issue between India and Britain, but on the communal issue dividing different Indian groups.”

On April 15, 1946, as the President of the Indian National Congress, Azad issued a statement dealing with the demands of Muslims and other minorities. In the statement he said: “I have considered from every possible point of view the scheme of Pakistan as formulated by the Muslim League. As an Indian I have examined its implications for the future of India as a whole. As a Muslim I have examined its likely effects upon the fortunes of Muslims of India. Considering the scheme in all its aspects I have come to the conclusion that it is harmful not only for India as a whole but for Muslims in particular. And in fact it creates more problems than it solves....Two states confronting one another offer no solution of the problem of one another’s minorities, but only lead to retribution and reprisals by introducing a system of mutual hostages.”

 How prophetic he was and, see, how accurate one of his predictions has turned out to be. In the ‘Epilogue’ of India Wins Freedom he says: “No one can hope that East and West Pakistan will compose all their differences and form one nation.”

It should be remembered that India Wins Freedom was first published posthumously in 1959. Ensuing a bloody liberation struggle, East Pakistan became Bangladesh in 1971.

 On March 31, 1947, when partition was no longer an absurd notion, but a grim reality, Azad went to see Gandhiji and the Mahatma’s “very first remark was, ‘Partition has now become a threat. It seems Vallabhbhai and even Jawaharlal have surrendered. What will you do now? Will you stand by me or have you also changed?’ Azad replied, ‘I have been and am against partition. Never has my opposition to partition been so strong as today. I am however distressed to find that even Jawaharlal and Patel have accepted defeat and, in your words, surrendered their arms. My only hope now is in you. If you stand against partition, we may yet save the situation. If you however acquiesce, I am afraid India is lost.’”

The rest is history and we know the blood-soaked history. See it in Azad’s own words: “When partition actually took place, rivers of blood flowed in large parts of the country. Innocent men, women and children were massacred. The Indian Army was divided and nothing could be done to stop the murder of innocent Hindus and Muslims.”

 Still blood is flowing in the subcontinent in the name of religion. In this regard, let’s remember another great son of India, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, and his poignant autobiography I Am Not An Island: An Experiment in Autobiography. In the chapter titled ‘Who killed India?’, Abbas writes:

“India was killed by the British and their ‘Divide and Rule’ policy. But not by the British alone. India was killed by fanatical Muslim Leaguers who played upon the community’s apprehensions and fears to produce in them a peculiar psychosis which was a dangerous combination of inferiority complex, aggressive jingoism and religious fanaticism.

“India was killed by the fanatical Hindus, the Hindu fascists and Hindu imperialists, the dreamers of a Hindu empire, the crusaders of Hindu Sangathan, who provided the ideological fuel for the fire of Hindu communalism and fanaticism.

“India was killed by the Communist Party of India which (during the days of its ‘People’s War’ and ‘pro-Pakistan’ policies) provided the Muslim separatists with an ideological basis for the irrational and anti-national demand for Pakistan.

“India was killed, and stabbed in the heart, by every Hindu who killed a Muslim, by every Muslim who killed a Hindu, by every Hindu or Muslim who committed or abetted, or connived at, arson and rape and murder during the recent (and earlier) communal riots.”

 Let’s draw inspiration from the humane thoughts of people like Gandhi, Nehru, Azad and Abbas to stop forever this spilling of human blood in the name of religion. Let the National Education Day help us to think beyond religions and let’s educate ourselves and others not to hate people in the name religion and caste. Let’s live and let live. Let’s make the earth a place to live in and to love, not a place to violate, to destroy, to devastate, to kill and to maim.

The author, a former student of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, is currently working as a clerk in the Kerala State Government service and stays in Palakkad (Kerala).

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