When he started writing poetry, Sayyid Ghulam Muhiyuddin Ahmed bin Khairuddin Al Hussaini adopted the pen name ‘Azad’ which means freedom. Little did he know that his chosen name would become an integral part of his identity during India’s united struggle for independence from the British Raj.
Maulana Azad, through his publication of newspapers – which were subsequently banned by the British – invoked the Muslim population of India to join the struggle to free their homeland of foreign rule. During his tour to Iraq, Egypt, Syria and Turkey, Azad was touched by the Islamic struggle for freedom and democracy. On his return, he started the newspaper Al-Hilal and subsequently Al-Balagh which introduced political writing of a kind that was never engineered before. Through his journals, Azad actively cheered the causes of Indian education, secularism and Hindu-Muslim unity against the British rule.
Banished from Bengal, Azad came across Mahatma Gandhi in 1920. In a mingling of two great minds, he adopted and advocated Gandhi’s ideals of non-violence, and led the Khilafat movement alongside Gandhi’s civil disobedience.
Azad changed the face of education in India. He insisted on freeing education from the impact of the British Raj and established, without any support from the British, Jamia Millia Islamia University in Aligarh. He also laid the foundation stone of Central Institute of Education, Delhi that later became the Department of Education in University of Delhi. It was his vision and leadership that culminated in the establishment of University Grants Commission in 1953. He also inspired the foundation of an MIT – modeled institute in India and gave it the name ‘Indian Institute of Technology’.
Additionally, Azad was against Jinnah’s two-nation theory and opposed Nehru in his advocacy of dividing the nation, therefore receiving condemnation from the leaders of the Muslim League. He made repeated attempts to convince both against it, but failed. “Reason was impossible in an atmosphere of emotional frenzy thus created” he quoted. In his bemoaning speech in Delhi’s Jama Masjid in 1948, he appealed to his audience, “Brothers, keep up with the changes. Don’t say, ‘We are not ready for the change.’ Get ready. Stars may have plummeted down but the sun is still shining. Borrow a few of its rays and sprinkle them in the dark caverns of your lives.”
Azad is buried in the vicinity of Jama Masjid. Till the last days of his life he cheered the cause of education and reason. Addressing a conference in 1948, Azad claimed, “We must not for a moment forget, it is a birthright of every individual to receive at least the basic education without which he cannot fully discharge his duties as a citizen.”
Azad’s clarity of vision echoes in the future he imagined for the country. His appeal for reason, peace and unity against blind faith has not entirely faded. It is in his name, and justifiably so, that India celebrates National Education Day every year on his birthday, that is the 11th of November.