When the Indian subcontinent was pushed into violent communal turmoil and was being partitioned as its consequence, one person firmly stood out as the guardian of secularism, unity and peace. He was Maulana Abul Kalam Azad.
He was, in fact, one of the architects of India's secular constitution, the pioneer of free and compulsory elementary education in the Indian subcontinent, a preacher of Islam and a statesman of unparalleled wisdom.
However, Maulana Azad never attended a formal school, college or university. He was born in Mecca in a conservative Muslim family. He was home-schooled and self-taught and he was a prodigal learner.
By the age of 12, he could compose poetry and could write literary treatise in Urdu, Arabic and Persian. He even started to edit his first weekly newspaper Al Misbah. Azad went on to complete Dars-E-Nizami curriculum which required him to study Quran, Hadith, Islamic laws and philosophy deeply.
He was deeply influenced by the pan-Islamic thoughts of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and Jamal-al-Din-al-Afghani. He dreamt of the revival of the lost Islamic heritage by achieving freedom from the British colonisers.
In the wake of the First World War when the Ottoman Empire joined hands with Imperial Germany, Maulana Azad published two magazines named Al-Hilal and Al-Balagh where he tried to persuade Indian Muslims against British rule and in favour of the Ottoman Khilafat.
Both of these magazines were banned by the British government; his place in Kolkata was ransacked and he was forced to leave the city. After the war ended, Maulana Azad became a key organiser of the Khilafat movement which was aimed at preserving the Ottoman Khilafat under which Maulana's pan-Islamic vision could be materialised.
Although the Khilafat was lost and Mustafa Kamal's abolitionist steps threw it into oblivion, Maulana Azad through this movement came in contact with Mahatma Gandhi which greatly changed his political career.
He was greatly inspired by Gandhi's non-violent civil disobedience movement and became extremely critical of the Muslim League's communal and often violent approach.
He left the Muslim League in 1920 and joined the Indian National Congress. After the end of Khilafat movement, Maulana Azad's focus of political activism was shifted to preserving Hindu-Muslim unity.
He vehemently opposed the two nations theory stating that "India's actual problem is economic, not communal."
Due to his firm anti-colonial stance and uncompromising dedication for Hindu-Muslim unity, he became extremely popular and was elected as the youngest president of Congress in 1923 at the age of only 35. In the same year, during the Delhi Convention, he made an historic remark which made him the "ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity."
He said, "Today if a farishta (an angel) were to descend from the Heaven and declare from the heights of the Qutab Minar that India will get Swaraj within 24 hours provided she relinquishes Hindu-Muslim unity, I will relinquish Swaraj rather than give up Hindu-Muslim unity. Delay in the attainment of Swaraj will be a loss to India but if our unity is lost it will be a loss to entire mankind."
Maulana Azad opposed partition not just as a congress leader but also as a Muslim scholar. He foresaw that the formation of Pakistan on the basis of religion would not sustain and Muslim minorities in partitioned India would face alienation and discrimination.
He said in his book India Wins Freedom, "There would remain three and half crores of Muslims scattered in small minorities all over the land. With 17 percent in UP, 12 percent in Bihar and 9 percent in Madras, they will be weaker than they are today in the Hindu majority provinces."
Maulana Azad's political and religious wisdom has been vividly reflected in his magnum opus Tarjuman-Ul-Quran, an interpretation of Quran published in two volumes (one in 1930 and another in 1936).
In this partial-Urdu translation and interpretation of Quran, he discussed different tenets of Islam along with the faiths existing at the time of Islam's revelation such as: Daoism, Buddhism, Christianity, Zoroastrian and Hinduism. This modern and unifying interpretation of Islam was acclaimed internationally at that time.
As the education minister of free India, Maulana Azad took many historic steps which ultimately shaped modern India and ensured quality education for millions of minorities.
He was one of the founders of Jamia Millia Islamia, a central university of India which has become the epicentre of educational and cultural renaissance of Indian Muslims. It is today one of the top 10 universities in India.
Maulana Azad universalised elementary education and launched a massive drive for adult education to remove illiteracy. University Grants Commission, Board for Rural Higher Education and Indian Institute of Technology (IITs) were his brainchild which have qualitatively remodelled India's higher education system.
He replaced the colonial education system by an open and democratic education system where minority and marginalised communities enjoyed free access.
On his 63rd death anniversary, we have to admit that we have deviated greatly from Maulana Azad's modern, progressive thoughts. We didn't listen to his warnings and the entire sub-continent is still paying the price for it.
The passing of the citizenship amendment act in India, spread of communal and ethnic conflicts in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar prove how right he was.
Although his birth anniversary is observed as India's national education day, today he is remembered only in the Muslim majority areas of the country. Pakistanis have a mixed feeling towards him and in Bangladesh he is rarely mentioned.
However, there is no doubt that for the peace and stability of this region, it is now that we most need a progressive leader like Azad and to re-visit his modern, secular ideals.
Md Shahnawaz Khan Chandan is a teacher and journalist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org