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Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s Convocation Address (1949)



Dear All,

While translating some old documents related to the MOA College and the AMU for the dossier about the supreme court hearing regarding the Minority Character of the AMU, I laid my hands on Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s Convocation Address (1949) at the AMU and translated it from Urdu into English. It is worth reading, specially in today’s context when Indian Muslims face existential battle. Here is the translation:
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In the name of Allah, Most Compassionate, Most Merciful

Janab Nawab Saheb and Friends!
When your Vice Chancellor graciously invited me to join you at this annual ceremony and to address this gathering, I was naturally reminded of some past events. It took me no time to recollect my first encounter with Aligarh, some thirty-six years ago and its peculiar circumstantial setting and its impact both within and outside Aligarh.
That was the era when the Indian Muslims as a faith community were indifferent to all political activities in the country. Rather, they were against any move for political awakening. The Indian National Congress had been at the centre stage for the last twenty-seven years, well past its early stages. Yet the Muslim contribution to it was nil, barring the role of few individuals. A political entity under the banner, All India Muslim League, had come into being. Yet it was not aimed at generating any political consciousness among Muslims. On the contrary, it sought to keep Muslims away from politics. The Muslim politics of the day was negative, bent on insulating itself from any positive development. Theirs was an apolitical response and it was acclaimed as the standard policy of Muslims.
Several factors accounted for Muslims’ political apathy. However, its onus falls largely on Sir Syed’s political leadership. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the founder of this academic institution, advised Indian Muslims in 1886 to refrain from politics. Moreover, he persuaded them to oppose any demand for political rights.
In 1912 when I launched Al-Hilal and urged Muslims to join the Indian National Congress and to participate in the Freedom Movement, it was inevitable for me to criticize strongly Sir Syed’s above stance and to confront those who championed that approach. As a result, I was regarded by the Aligarh fraternity as an opponent of Sir Syed and his followers. It was assumed that apart from being a critic of Sir Syed’s political stance, I am opposed also to his educational institution. I have employed here the term “opponent”. Actually I was branded more bitingly as his “enemy.”
Was I really an opponent of Sir Syed and the educational institution founded by him? Was I their enemy, as was the popular belief? The truth is that I could not be his opponent at all. I was too young to have had the privilege of meeting Sir Syed. I was nonetheless a contemporary of his two successors and some senior figures of the Aligarh school. I was acquainted with them. There was a phase in my life when I fell almost under the spell of Sir Syed’s writings, which immensely influenced my mind. I was then a young student. In time this spell was over and other thought patterns gripped me. Yet his reformist mission left a lasting impression on me. I had differed with only a particular stance of his. And I have no doubt that it was his biggest blunder. How was he drawn to adopting this stance? Which forces were behind this? We know all this now as part of history. The British staff of the College, led by Mr Beck, dominated Sir Syed’s thought. It was Beck’s strategy which was supported by the Viceroy, Lord Dufferin and the Lt. Governor of the province, Sir Auckland Colvin.
Anyway I was not Sir Syed’s opponent; I was rather one of his admirers. However, my admiration for him did not deter me from identifying his shortcomings and mistakes, to the best of my understanding. All this happened thirty-six years ago and is now part of history. As I look back, I do not see any reason for revising my stance. Two points strike me simultaneously and it is not at all hard for me to concede both of these. I consider Sir Syed’s political stance as the biggest blunder of his life. At the same time I believe that he was a major reformer of 19th century and that he rendered excellent educational and reformist services for the country. I had taken exception to Sir Syed’s political views thirty-six years ago. Today I stand here before you in order to pay my tribute to his great contribution to social reform and education.
Today modern Western education has become part of life in India. It has turned out to be synonymous with education itself. Few can, however, realize the serious obstacles and problems faced by the champions of modern education one hundred years ago. Not only did they show a new way, they had to fight at every step. Their efforts were thwarted by numerous forces of orthodoxy which always resists fresh changes. The milieu of the day was enveloped by centuries-old superstitions and prejudices. Severe mental reservations and emotional outbursts were at the core of this clash. The opponents of modern education used religion as an emotive weapon. Religion is not opposed per se to knowledge and reason. However, it has been always projected so. It was the popular belief that modern education will drive people away from faith. Let us cling to the old educational system in order to defend faith. This clash has been part of the history of thought all over the world. This battle raged in Europe in 17th and 18th century whereas it afflicted the Orient in 19th century. Hindus faced this challenge at an early date and resolved it soon. However, Muslims took too long to grapple with it. Ultimately modern trends emerged victorious and orthodoxy had to give in. This may be said without any fear of contradiction that in this decisive battle confronting Muslims the victorious warrior was Sir Syed Ahmad Khan who lies buried in a corner of this University. This battle was fought at Aligarh and Aligarh thus stands out as a testament to this victory.
Some writers of the day have likened Sir Syed to Raja Ram Mohan Roy, and this is largely true. What Raja Ram Mohan Roy accomplished in Bengal, after some forty years Sir Syed carried out the same mission in north India, especially among Muslims. What distinguishes the two is that the former’s reform programme was mainly in the domain of religion whereas the latter’s forte was education. The imprint of their reform and creative spirit marks all the thought patterns of their day, be these religion, education, social life, language, literature or journalism. Their reform mission left its mark on all walks of life.
Let us bear in mind that notwithstanding Sir Syed’s opposition to any political movement, there was no Hindu-Muslim angle behind his mission. He had rallied Hindus and Muslims together in his opposition to politics. For long he stood for Hindu-Muslim unity and condemned all divisive tactics. In his speeches he reiterated figuratively that Hindus and Muslims represent the two eyes of Mother India. Any defect in either will disfigure her whole face.
As to Sir Syed’s stance on Indian nationalism, it may be grasped better in the light of his perception of the term, “Hindu.” While addressing the members of a Hindu association in Lahore, he said: “I find it regrettable that you have narrowed down the meaning of the term, Hindu. You apply this to a particular faith community. In my opinion, this definition is not sound. I consider all inhabitants of India as Hindu, irrespective of their ethnicity or religion. This is why I take great pleasure and pride in considering myself a Hindu.”
Had Hindus and Muslims appreciated and followed the underlying spirit of Sir Syed’s above statement, our history would have taken a totally different turn.
In establishing this educational institution Sir Syed had in mind a lofty objective. He had studied in depth the British educational system. And he had discovered this truth that education alone is not its hallmark. Its main characteristic is its training system which moulds the conduct of the young. The British system provides a strong, inflexible scaffolding for students’ moral and mental growth. He realized the need for the provision of religious education for Muslims, along with imparting them modern education. He knew that without this provision modern education will not take roots among Muslims. This called for establishing a special educational institution. He devoted the rest of his life to this mission. Let us not forget that Aligarh College was the first of its kind in India.
It is common knowledge that his initial plan was to establish a residential university, after the pattern of the University of Cambridge. However, he had to rest content with only a College. It was nonetheless a big achievement in the face of the constraints of the day. The movement for the University, as a memorial to him, gained momentum after his demise and gained success after twenty years of struggle.
Sir Syed and his associates set up not only a College at Aligarh, they created a new, modern platform for academic and literary pursuits. While Sir Syed held the pivotal position, the best minds of the country had gathered around him. His journal Tahzibul Akhlaq stands out above all other periodicals of the day in having influenced so deeply the intellectual currents. He had brought it out after his voyage to England. Articles by his associates regularly appeared in it. The foundation of modern Urdu literature and its concomitant repository of knowledge were laid down by Tahzibul Akhlaq. This periodical enriched Urdu language so well that it is now possible and easy to articulate intellectual discourse in Urdu. Almost every notable Urdu writer of the period felt the impact of the Aligarh School. Leading Muslim writers of modern India owe much to this School. It also paved the way for innovative study of Islam. Although modern Urdu poetry has its origin in Lahore, it blossomed under the care of the Aligarh School. A new variety of poems were recited at the annual sessions of the Muhammadan Educational Conference. Aligarh turned out to be the training ground for Urdu oratory. All eminent Muslim orators were associated with Aligarh. Though some of them were not Aligarh graduates, Aligarh did provide a platform to them.
The later half of 19th century in India, as in other Eastern countries, was a period of transition. The old intellectual mould was in tatters and was being replaced with a new one. The old India was giving birth to a new India. A new era was in the offing. This period of transition galvanized the Indian Muslims most. Amid others, the Aligarh School was to the fore in the evolution of a new India. This was the era of Renaissance which revitalized intellectual currents. Aligarh was the epicenter of this Renaissance.
However, after Sir Syed’s demise, Aligarh lost much of what was special to it. The College grew into a University. Yet the old, glorious traditions of the early days of the College could never be restored. These traditions are nonetheless your legacy and you, their proud inheritors. The names on the plaques adorning Stratchey Hall may fade with the passage of time. However, the imprint cast by your institution on history is indelible. The accomplishments of Aligarh are ever-lasting and will serve as the primary source material for historians in future.
An educational institution endowed with such glorious legacy should naturally look forward to an equally bright future. I am not sure about your future expectations. Are you apprehensive about a bleak future or sanguine about new opportunities? I cannot hazard any guess about your vision and perception. However, I can certainly share with you my vision of future. You might be ruing over the loss of some old, familiar avenues. On the contrary, I foresee numerous opportunities knocking at your door.
I would like to express my views frankly, without any mental reservation. I hope you would like me to be forthright and candid. Had I noted the shadows of the pre-1947 communal, divisive politics lurking in Aligarh, I would have plainly warned you against your dim future. As an Indian Muslim I am very keen on your bright future after 15 August 1947. It is, however, gratifying for me that a fresh breeze is now palpable on the campus and it has been gaining strength by the day. You have perceived well how your institution should adapt to the changed times. You are aware what kind of graduates should now come out. You have responded readily to the new challenges and adjusted well, without any dithering. I have no hesitation in remarking that your timely adjustment has served laudably not only this educational institution but also all the Muslims of India. I heartily congratulate you on this.
Let me briefly present before you an outline of the national education policy envisaged by your central government and its underpinnings. It will give you an idea of the role your University will enjoy in the new system. You recognize that a secular state must have a secular education system, imparting identical education to all citizens, without any discrimination. This education system must have a particular temperament and national outlook. It must be wedded to the goal of human progress and happiness. The Union of India is committed to the educational vision which admits no bias or divisiveness. Notwithstanding its commitment to the above educational system for all, it does not rule out a place for such institutions which are devoted to specialist studies on certain facets of national history, culture and civilization. The doors of such institutions should be open to all those who are interested in these studies. It is in this particular sphere of national educational system in which you can carve out a niche for yourselves. You will thus fit in with the larger picture. While occupying a special place you will not be isolated from the general system of education. Rather, you will cater to its special needs. This special place should not, however, be reserved for any particular group. There should be an open door policy, catering to all those pursuing these specialist studies. It is stated about Plato that the following banner hung at his institution: “There is no place here for one who is not acquainted with geometry.” You do not need any such restrictive banner. Rather, your banner should read: “There is a place here for everyone; those who are acquainted with geometry or not.”
I know this has been the feature of your institution since its inception. In the early days of your institution, there were Hindu students along with Muslims in its first batch. Teachers at your institutions have represented all communities. Names of some eminent Hindu Professors of Aligarh have been part of history. Your glorious track record will come into sharper light now and will bring about better understanding.
Islamic Studies and Islamic History and research in these branches of knowledge have been the glorious tradition of your institution. However, I regret to say that since the days of Sir Syed the pace of these studies has slowed down and the academic standard has also deteriorated. After the AMU was established, it must have set new academic trends. This expectation is still unfulfilled. It is binding upon you to revive the good old traditions of your institution and set a new bench mark of studies and research.
At the outset I mentioned the pivotal role of Aligarh in the evolution and development of modern Urdu literature and language. You may be legitimately proud of this rich legacy. However, it is your duty to preserve and enrich this tradition. I will nonetheless add that your literary pursuits should now identify new fields. You should also take full interest in the study of Hindi literature and language. Throughout history Muslims have been heirs to knowledge. Indian Muslims have the same claim over Hindi literature which Hindus have. Hindus and Muslims together developed Hindi literature. In the medieval India Braj Bhasha attained new heights. This was owing to both the generous patronage of Akbar and Jahangir and the lasting contribution of such poets as Muhammad Jaisi, Khankhanan and Abdul Jaleel Bilgrami. There were several Muslim poets of Braj Bhasha up to the end of 18th century. It is time to revive this legacy. I would love to see many of your graduates who are equally proficient in both Urdu and Hindi.
Script is another burning issue of the day. I am sure you know Gandhiji’s stance on this. It was his ardent desire that every Indian be versed in both the scripts – Urdu and Devnagri. He had established Hindustani Sabha. It was mandatory for members of this Sabha to be adept in both the scripts. For years I have subscribed to the same view. In my opinion this is the only solution to the problem in the present circumstances. I would like the Urdu-speaking people not to wait for the response of the Hindi-speaking people in this regard. They should unhesitatingly opt for what they consider as vital for the country. In the domain of knowledge we cannot afford to wait for others to move before we do. Those who move first turn out to be leaders. In contrast, those who linger miss an opportunity to excel. If others know only one script, we should be proud of being good at two scripts. This is my sincere wish that every Indian Muslim should learn both Urdu and Devnagri scripts and be a role model. This was the very mission of Mahatama Gandhi. I am sure Muslims will actively realize his mission.
It pleases me to note that there has been a growing awareness of the above mission. Many Urdu periodicals have been appearing in both the scripts which would facilitate learning Devnagri script and Hindi literature for the Urdu reading public. Some institutions have come up in various parts of the country with the same objectives. They have launched a range of activities. I understand you too, have taken note of this need. I hope Aligarh would prove to be an important institution on this count.
In conclusion I would like to address in particular the young fellows who have now completed their studies and are set to embark upon a new phase of their lives. I am sure you are not ignorant of the transformation of your country during your student days. When you were enrolled first in this university, you were the subjects, ruled over by others. As you leave the campus now, you are citizens of an independent country. Now the future of your country is in your own hands. I am not sure whether you have realized fully the long term consequences of this radical change. As subjects of a foreign ruler, your ambit of thought and action was too restricted and narrow. Accordingly your duty and accountability was also limited. However, this new political change has opened for your doors for success and prosperity. At the same time, you now have a new bond and loyalty with state. Your loyalty to foreign rulers was a matter of expediency. However, it is now your basic duty to be faithful to your own government. Now your path is clear of all obstacles and deprivation. The chances of your success are boundless. Your have access to all that a citizen of an independent country can get. However, it is worth-remembering that as citizens of an independent country you have certain obligations which you must fulfil.
You are citizens of a secular democracy that is committed to running the political, collective affairs in a secular, democratic vein. It is the essence of a secular democracy that it ensures equal opportunities for all of its citizens. It admits no distinction on the basis of caste, colour or creed. As citizens of this state you should legitimately look forward to equal opportunities. No door of public life will be shut on you, be it governance, administration business and trade, industry or any profession. With all seriousness I assure you that no door will be slammed on you now onwards. The doors for nation building are wide open for you, provided you have merit, hard work, and above all, excellent character and conduct. So far you had been tethered to a narrow academic goal. The graduates of this University so far had a limited target of securing a big or small government job. In the wake of Independence, however, you should set your eyes on something higher. You should now grow more ambitious and more spirited. You must break the mental shackles of old India. You have to carve out a niche for yourselves, depending upon your talent and potentials. There are new heights for you to scale. The domain for your action is now vastly expansive. Your former aspirations have now turned obsolete. You have to set new targets for self actualization. You must march forward with lofty ambitions. You must utilize the skills gained at this institution for taking your country to new heights. I have no doubt in my mind that if you imbibe the spirit of forward looking nationalism, which is the mission statement of your secular, democratic government, you will have access to the highest position in the country and you will be blessed with success and prosperity.
               
                  

With regards,  

Sincerely,

Abdur Raheem Kidwai

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