Home Opinion 100 years ago, a movement of Hindu-Muslim oneness

100 years ago, a movement of Hindu-Muslim oneness

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A hundred years ago, in the spring and early summer of 1922, Mahatma Gandhi and, by extension, the Indian National Congress, had two great goals – freedom through non-violent struggle and Hindu-Muslim unity. The harsh provisions of the post-World War II Rowlatt Act of 1919 had agitated the country in a way few enactments and actions of the Raj had, leading to a nationwide hartal called by Gandhi on April 6, 1919, following which a massive non-cooperation movement electrified the country. Energised further after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of April 13, 1919, the movement went on over the next two years, coalescing with the cause of the Khilafat in Turkey, which had given Muslims in India and elsewhere an urgent sense of their cultural and religious heritage being in danger from the designs of victorious European powers in the war. The Khilafat movement’s leaders, the brothers Maulanas Mahomed Ali and Shaukat Ali, who, with Gandhi’s lead, had brought his ideal of Hindu-Muslim unity to near-fruition, were promptly taken into custody. By early 1922, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, then 32, was arrested.

Patriotism and sedition had become, for the Raj, synonymous and were to be dealt with typically, by Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code.

Azad got his sentence on February 23, 1922 – one year’s rigorous imprisonment. He made a written statement that covered 33 closely-typed foolscap sheets in what Gandhi described as “polished Urdu… elaborate and eloquent”, giving his views on Khilafat and nationalism. The Azad family was Calcutta-based. Before being lodged in jail as a convict, Azad was available to send a message to his wife, Zuleikha, in that city. And, she, in turn, sent Gandhi a message by letter-post that matched her husband’s statement and, in a sense, went beyond it in its intent. It bears reproduction in extenso: “Judgment has been delivered today in the case against my husband, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. He has been sentenced to only one year’s rigorous imprisonment. This is astoundingly less than what I was waiting for…I make bold to inform you that I offer my humble service to fill up the gap caused by his absence in the rank of national workers in Bengal. All those activities which he performed will still be carried on normally…From today I will discharge all the duties connected with the Bengal Provincial Khilafat Committees with the assistance of my brother…” In an article in Young India on February 23, 1922, Gandhi congratulated Begum Zuleikha, “I tender my congratulations to Begum Abul Kalam Azad for her having offered to take her share in the public work,” he wrote. The same issue of Young India carried Gandhi’s iconic article titled Shaking the Manes in which he wrote, “The fight that was commenced in 1920 is a fight to the finish, whether it lasts one month or one year or many months or many years and whether the representatives of Britain re-enact all the indescribable orgies of the Mutiny days with redoubled force or whether they do not.”

It is that article that led to his trial, later termed the Great Trial and his first imprisonment in India. The Maulana and Begum Zuleikha were doubtless in his thoughts as he wrote that celebrated article.

Fast forward to 1942. The Quit India Movement launched on August 8 that year again saw well-nigh the whole of the national leadership arrested overnight. Gandhi was moved to the Aga Khan Palace Prison in Poona, and Azad, with Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel and JB Kripalani, and others to Ahmednagar Fort, near Poona. They were to be in that prison for three years. On the day that Azad left Calcutta for Bombay to attend that momentous session, Begum Zuleikha sensed the coming arrest and imprisonment. She was 20 years older than in 1922. As Azad left the house, she followed him to the front and as he left, stood at the doorway and bade him a silent khuda hafiz. She knew instinctively that she would not be seeing him again. He was still in the Ahmednagar Fort Prison, into the second year of his imprisonment, when he learnt of Zuleikha having fallen ill.

The Maulana wrote a series of letters from that jail, published later as Ghubar-e-khatir (Sallies of the Mind). The scholar-translator and thinker Syeda Hameed tells me that Azad writes in that epistolary work “…on April 9, my goblet of pain brimmed over.” Begum Zuleikha passed into her rest 99 years ago on April 9.

Her grave is in Kolkata, his in Delhi under the shade of the Jama Masjid. Distance separates them, faith in the destiny of India clasps them in love. And may we hope, in hope?

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor 

The views expressed are personal

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