Friday, March 14, 2014

De-Macaulayization - 4

S. Irfan Habib, historian, and if I'm correct, son of an eminent historian, had a brief essay about Maulana Azad, in the Hindu newspaper of February 22nd, "The Forgotten Inheritance of Azad".
It was on this day in 1958 that Maulana Abul Kalam Azad passed away. It was not merely the death of an extraordinary human being but also the death of an idea that sparkled for a few decades — the idea of an undivided India where Muslims could live happily with the Hindu majority.
Azad, we are told, is far more interesting than the conventional image conveys.


Azad lived many lives. Some of them are well known, yet some have remained mysteriously unknown. Not much is known or written about them in public. There was a decade in his early days when he was disenchanted with the inherited faith and had to brazen out some difficult and uncomfortable questions about Islam.

Even before arriving at this situation, he was a rebel as a child who disagreed with his father’s faith, got enamoured of Sir Syed’s modernism that his father Maulvi Khairuddin hated, and decided to learn sitar on the quiet though his father did not approve of music. His dissent against the inherited belief went even further — he became an atheist (dehri) and reposed faith only in materialism and rationalism. Religion was reduced merely to a superstition. From the age of 14 to the mid-20s, he just put up a facade of belief in public but inwardly remained completely without faith.

This short phase in his life was ephemeral as he soon got back to Islam, yet his Islam remained qualitatively different. And it is on this count that Azad stands distinctly apart from everyone else. He was himself conscious of the fact that not many people went along with him when he said: “In religion, in literature, in politics, on the paths of philosophy, wherever I went, I went alone. The caravans of the times did not support me on any of my journeys.”

Azad emphasised all his life on the original spirit of engagement with the Quranic text, which was available to all believers of Islam. He refused to accept the canonised Islam; instead he called for independent reasoning or ijtihad to interpret the faith. He also warned against reading more than what was intended to be conveyed in the Quran. This sounds so prophetic in the contemporary context where Islam is invoked by many to speak what they want the Book to speak.
 S. Irfan Habib writes:

The present day Islamic enthusiasts need to learn a lesson or two from the insights of a scholar like Azad — both from his writings against conformism and conservatism and his questioning of his own family’s intellectual and religious inheritance. He writes further in another letter: “Nothing is greater hindrance to the growth of a mind than its conservative beliefs. No other power binds it as do the shackles of conformity…At times so strong is the grip of inherited beliefs that education and environment also cannot loosen it. Education would give it a new paint but never enter the inner belief structure where the influence of race, family and centuries old traditions continue to operate.”
We need to reflect upon and recall Maulana Azad’s precious and mostly forgotten inheritance, which was based on free thinking and pluralism. In particular, Azad’s Islam was much more accommodative than the contemporary rigid and combative Islam.
Jinnah objected to the Indian National Congress having any Muslims in its leadership; and at the time of the Cabinet Mission negotiations in Simla, he famously refused to shake hands with Maulana Azad (it was widely reported in the press).  This, I had thought, had to do with Jinnah's claim to be the sole spokesman for the Muslims of India (instead of, e.g., the predominant spokesman).  Unfortunate, but understandable.  However, there may have been more to it. 

Major Woodrow Wyatt, British Member of Parliament, was a close friend of Jinnah's.   Jinnah enjoyed his whisky and soda,  but had to keep this unIslamic taste hidden from the public.   He trusted Wyatt enough to drink with him.   Wyatt wrote about this period in his  "Confessions of an Optimist".  Around May 4,  1946, at the start of the Simla Conference, Wyatt had to cajole Jinnah to come to a photography session.  Jinnah told him:
The Cabinet Mission won't realize what the dispute is all about. Otherwise they couldn't have insulted me by asking me to be photographed with two people like Maulana Azad and Gaffar Khan.   They are both stooges, I won't have anything to do with them.   They've only been put up as delegates to sabotage the negotiations.  I'll talk to Nehru or to Patel or to that Gandhi fellow who stays behind the scene pulling the strings.   But Azad - he's like my bearer.  He can understand a few words of English but he can only answer "Yes" or "No".  Gaffar Khan's even worse.  He's like another bearer who comes with a chit saying he speaks perfect English but when you talk to him he doesn't understand a word.  What' the use of discussing important matters with people like that?"
That Maulana Azad and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan ("the Frontier Gandhi") were held in disdain by Jinnah, not just for the political reason of their being Muslims in the Indian National Congress, but also for their lack of English is a symptom of the Macaulayization of the Indian mind.   As I've mentioned earlier, this "doesn't know English, cannot be smart" syndrome is one that infected Kumar Mangalam Birla, too - to his credit, he grew out of it.