Maulana Sayyid Abul Kalam Ghulam Muhiyuddin Ahmed bin Khairuddin Al-Hussaini Azad was a descendant of Sheikh Jamaluddin who did not endorse Emperor Akbar’s Din-i-Ilahi, and was forced to take refuge in Arabia.
Azad’s father left for Arabia during the first war of independence in 1857. His mother came from a leading family of Medina. He was born on 11 November 1888 in Makkah at Saudi Arabia.
He rose to prominence through his work as a journalist, publishing works critical of the British Raj and espousing the causes of Indian nationalism. He established an Urdu weekly newspaper in 1912 called Al-Hilal, which was banned in 1914 with the onset of World War I. He started a new journal the Al-Balagh in 1914. He also wrote a number of books including India Wins Freedom, Ghubar-e-Khatir, Tazkirah and Tarjumanul Quran, etc.
Azad also adopted his own style of Urdu writing. He changed the simple structure of Urdu language which was introduced by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, who liberated it from its Persianised form. Azad, opted to Arabicise the language by introducing religious terminology and Arabic words. As a result, the Urdu language became largely incomprehensible to the common reader.
Azad also made an attempt to glorify the historical role of the Ulema. In his book, Tazkira, he traced the contribution of Indian Ulema to the Muslim community and paid high tributes to Sheikh Ahmad Sirhindi who, according to him, alone resisted and defended Islam against the ‘atheism’ of Mughal emperor Akbar. Azad promoted Sirhindi as a hero and criticised Akbar’s religious policy. Unfortunately, Azad is mistaken in saying that Akbar subscribed to atheism. Akbar was not an atheist; on the contrary, his intention was to search for truth. For this purpose, he invited scholars of all religions to the House of Worship (Ibadat Khana), which he established at Fatehpur Sikri, and discussed the nature of their respective beliefs with them.
Azad’s interpretation of history created a lot of misunderstandings. As a result, Ahmad Sirhindi became the champion of the two nation theory, while Akbar is condemned as a ‘secular’ and an enemy of Islam. Further, he glorified other Ulema such as Shah Waliullah for their laudable services as reformers of the Muslims of India.
He became active in the Khilafat Movement, during which he came into contact with Mahatma Gandhi. In 1923, he became the youngest person to serve as the President of the Indian National Congress at 35 years of age.
During the third session of the All Parties Conference held at Bombay in May 1928, Indian political parties formed a committee under the chairmanship of Motilal Nehru to determine the basic features of the future constitution of India. The Nehru Report was presented in the fourth session of the All Parties Conference held in August 1928. The Congress asked the Government to make a constitution by 31 December in accord with the recommendations of Nehru Report and threatened that otherwise the party would start a mass movement for the attainment of Swaraj. Azad endorsed the Nehru Report of May 1928, developed a close friendship with Nehru and began espousing socialism.
Azad was again elected Congress president at the 53rd session of All India Congress in Ramgarh on Tuesday 19th March 1940. In his Presidential address he spoke vehemently against Jinnah's Two-Nation Theory—the notion that Hindus and Muslims were distinct nations—Azad lambasted religious separatism and exhorted all Muslims to preserve a united India, as all Hindus and Muslims were Indians who shared deep bonds of brotherhood and nationhood. In his presidential address, Azad said that Islam has now as great a claim on the soil of India as Hinduism. If Hinduism has been the religion of the people here for several thousands of years Islam also has been their religion for a thousand years. Just as a Hindu can say with pride that he is an Indian and follows Hinduism, so also we can say with equal pride that we are Indians and follow Islam. … The Indian Christian is equally entitled to say with pride that he is an Indian and is following a religion of India, namely Christianity.
Our languages, our poetry, our literature, our culture, our art, our dress, our manners and customs, the innumerable happenings of our daily life, everything bears the stamp of our joint endeavor … Our languages were different, but we grew to use a common language, our manners and customs were dissimilar, but they acted and reacted on each other and thus produced a new synthesis … If there are any Hindus amongst us who desire to bring back the Hindu Life of a thousand years ago and more they dream, and such dreams are vain fantasies. So also if there are any Muslims who wish to revive their past civilization and culture, which they brought a thousand years ago from Iran and Central Asia, they dream also and sooner they wake up the better. These are unnatural fancies, which cannot take root in the soil of reality.
These thousand years of our joint life has moulded us into a common nationality. Whether we like it or not, we have now become an Indian nation, united and indivisible. No fantasy or artificial scheming to separate and divide can break this unity … It was India’s historic destiny that many human races and cultures and religions should flow to her, finding a home in her hospitable soil, and many a caravan should find rest here … one of the last caravans, following the footsteps of its predecessors, was the followers of Islam. This came here and settled for good. This led to a meeting of the culture currents of two different races. Like the Ganga and Jamuna, they flowed for a while through separate courses, but nature’s immutable law brought them together and joined them in a sangam. We gave our wealth to her and she unlocked the doors of her own treasure to us. We gave her what she needed most, the most precious of gifts from Islam’s treasury, the message of democracy and human equality … If Hinduism has been the religion of the people here for several thousand years, Islam also has been there religion for a thousand years … Eleven hundred years of common history have enriched India with our common achievements … Our languages were different, but we grew to use a common language; our manners and custom were dissimilar, but they acted and reacted on each other and thus produced a new synthesis. Our old dress may be seen only in ancient pictures of bygone days; no one wears it today. This joint wealth is the heritage of our common nationality and we do not want to leave it and go back to the times when this joint life had not begun … These are unnatural fancies which cannot take root in the soil of reality. I am one of those who believe that revival may be a necessity in a religion but in social matters it is a denial of progress … Whether we like it or not, we have now become an Indian nation, united and indivisible. No fantasy or artificial scheming to separate and divide can break this unity … our success depends upon three factors: unity, discipline and full confidence in Mahatma Gandhi’s leadership.
Maulana Azad said, India cannot endure the prospect of Nazism and Fascism, but she is even more tired of British imperialism … If India remains deprived of her natural right to freedom, India would on no account be prepared to lend a helping hand for the triumph of British Imperialism … The government of India Act was imposed upon India by the British Government. So far as the War was concerned, India had clearly condemned Nazi Germany. Her sympathies were with the democratic nations, and this was a point in Britain’s favour. Under such circumstances, it was natural to expect that if the Government had changed the old imperialistic mentality in the slightest degree, it would, even though as a measure of expediency, change its old method at this juncture … It’s policy was dictated exactly in accordance with the habits of an imperialism a hundred and fifty years old. It decided its course of action and, without India being afforded in any manner and in the slightest degree an opportunity to declare freely her opinion, her participation in the War was announced. It was not even considered necessary to give those representative assemblies, imposed upon us by British diplomacy for purposes of show, an opportunity of expressing their opinion … When the War began, a war which will probably one of the greatest in the world. India was pushed into it suddenly without her even realizing that she was entering it … War was declared on the 3rd of September and on 7th September the All India Congress Working Committee met at Wardha to deliberate upon the situation … The Congress postponed its final decision and asked the British government to state its war aims, for on this depended peace and justice for India, but for the whole world … if it was really being fought to safeguard Freedom, Democracy and Peace and to bring a new order to the world, then. In all conscience, India had a right to know, what would be the effect of these aims on her own destiny … Twenty –five years ago the world was plunged into one of the biggest infernos of death and destruction known to history … On the 17th October, 1939, the statement of the Viceroy was published and the working committee met to deliberate upon it on the 22nd October at Wardha, and decided, ‘In the circumstances the Committee cannot possibly give any support to Great Britain for it would amount to an endorsement of the imperialistic policy which Congress has always sought to end. As a first step in this direction, the Committee called upon the Congress Ministries to tender their resignation’. Congress ministries in eight provinces resigned … It is the verdict of history that in a struggle between nations, no power foregoes its possessions unless compelled to do so … Was it impossible that two great peoples of the World, who had been tied together by the course of events as rulers and ruled, should create a new relationship between them, based on reason, justice and peace?
The Congress president Maulana Azad was arrested at Allahabad Railway Station on Friday 3 January 1941 morning at 5-15 in connection with a speech made at Purshotamdas Park Allahabad on 13 December 1940. He was driven to Naini Central Jail. News led to closure of Calcutta Stock Exchange and spontaneous Hartal in major cities. His trial was held in the Naini Central jail by the City Magistrate Allahabad on 8 January and sentenced to 18 months simple imprisonment and recommended A class.
During the war, Gandhi and Patel advocated an all-out rebellion demanding immediate independence. Azad and Nehru warned that such a campaign would divide India and would not force a British exit.
In the Congress Working Committee's meetings in May and June 1942, Azad became convinced that the Congress had to provide leadership to India's people and would lose its standing if it did not. On 7 August 1942 at the Gowalia Tank in Mumbai, Congress president Azad inaugurated the struggle with a vociferous speech exhorting Indians into action. Just two days later, the British arrested Azad and the entire Congress leadership.
At the end of the war, the British agreed to transfer power to Indian hands. All political prisoners were released in 1946 and Azad led the Congress in the elections for the new Constituent Assembly of India, which would draft India's constitution. He headed the delegation to negotiate with the British Cabinet Mission, in his sixth year as Congress president. While attacking Jinnah's demand for Pakistan and the mission's proposal of 16 June 1946 that envisaged the partition of India, Azad became a strong proponent of the mission's earlier proposal of 16 May. The proposal advocated a federal system with a limited central government and autonomy for the provinces. The central government would have Defence, Foreign Affairs and Communication while the provinces would win all other subjects unless they voluntarily relinquished selected subjects to the Central Government. Additionally, the proposal called for the "grouping" of provinces on religious lines, which would informally band together the Muslim-majority province in the West as Group B, Muslim-majority provinces of Bengal and Assam as Group C and the rest of India as Group A. Azad argued that Jinnah's demand for Pakistan would be buried and the concerns of the Muslim community would be assuaged. Under Azad and Patel's backing, the Working Committee approved the resolution against Gandhi's advice. Azad also managed to win Jinnah's agreement to the proposal citing the greater good of all Indian Muslims.
Azad had been the Congress president since 1939, so he volunteered to resign in 1946. He nominated Nehru, who replaced him as Congress president and led the Congress into the interim government. Azad was appointed to head the Department of Education.
However, Jinnah's Direct Action Day agitation for Pakistan, launched on 16 August sparked communal violence across India. Thousands of people were killed as Azad travelled across Bengal and Bihar to calm the tensions and heal relations between Muslims and Hindus. Despite Azad's call for Hindu-Muslim unity, Jinnah's popularity amongst Muslims soared. Later in his autobiography, Azad indicated that Patel became more pro-partition than the Muslim League, largely due to the League's not co-operating with the Congress in the provisional government on any issue.
Azad continued to proclaim his faith in Hindu-Muslim unity: "I am proud of being an Indian. I am part of the indivisible unity that is Indian nationality. I am indispensable to this noble edifice and without me this splendid structure is incomplete. I am an essential element, which has gone to build India. I can never surrender this claim."
Azad privately discussed the proposal with Gandhi, Patel and Nehru, but despite his opposition was unable to deny the popularity of the League and the unworkability of any coalition with the League. Faced with the serious possibility of a civil war, Azad abstained from voting on the resolution, remaining silent and not speaking throughout the AICC session, which ultimately approved the partition plan.