November 11 is celebrated throughout India as National Education Day. This year (2022), the theme of the National Education Day has been “Changing Course Transforming Education”. The day has been named so as it is the birth anniversary of freedom fighter, scholar and Independent India’s first education minister Maulana Abul Kalam Azad.

Who was Maulana Abul Kalam Azad?

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was a freedom fighter, scholar and journalist born on November 11, 1888 at Mecca. The word Maulana is an honorific used for a Muslim man revered for his knowledge and learning. His parents were Muhammed Khairuddin bin Ahmed Al Hussaini and Sheikha Alia Bint Mohammed.

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Azad was born into a family with a rich literary and scholarly heritage and was himself a prodigious talent at a very young age. He mastered Arabic, Persian, Bengali, Hindustani at a very early age but also learnt English. He published a poetical journal named Nairang-e-Aalam at the age of 11. 

Azad started a newspaper named Al-Hilal in 1912 and was a firm believer in the Khilafat movement which sought to support the Ottoman Caliphate, considered by most Muslims as holy as it was the last standing Islamic empire in the twentieth century. In 1916, under the Defence of India Regulation Act, he was arrested and imprisoned for 4 years. His release coincided with the growth of the non-cooperation movement. He met Mahatma Gandhi in 1920 and developed a friendship and bonding that would last a life-time. Azad co-founded the Jamia Millia Islamia University in 1921. At the age of 34, he became the youngest man to be elected as the President of the Indian National Congress.

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Over the years, Azad developed a bond with the rising youth icon of the Congress party Jawaharlal Nehru and under his influence Azad came to regard socialism as a necessity. However, unlike his friend, he was a firm theist, and as staunch a Muslim as Gandhi was a Hindu. He supported Nehru’s presidency of the Congress in 1936. Although the Congress had a spectacular success in the 1937 provincial elections, the attraction for Mohammed Ali Jinnah of the Muslim League increased amongst the Muslims. After the failure of the Cripps’ commission, Mahatma Gandhi declared the Quit India Movement on Aug 8, 1942. On the very next day while Gandhi was arrested and imprisoned at the Aga Palace in Pune, the leaders of the Congress working committee including Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhabhai Patel, Maulana Azad, Pattabhi Seetharamaiah, Acharya Kriplani were imprisoned at the Ahmednagar fort.

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In the captivity that ensued for almost 4 years, Azad wrote Ghubbar-e-Khatir while also offering scholarly advice to Nehru in writing the Discovery of India.  After their release, the Congress leaders had to negotiate partition terms with the Muslim League which had generated tremendous support in their favour within the Muslim community. However, Azad firmly stood behind the Congress and was a major source of inspiration and strength for Muslims who stayed behind in India. While Azad was dubbed by Jinnah as a “Congress Showboy”, he was also under fire by Hindu right-wing forces who accused him of being partial to Indian Muslims. He remained a firm believer in secularism and was a staunch advocate of equal claims to inheritance of Indian heritage by Indian Muslims and Christians along with Indian Hindus.

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He was Independent India’s first Education Minister and served in the post from August 15, 1947, to February 2, 1958. Under his tenure, education was made free and compulsory for all children under the age of 14, Indian Institute of Technology was established in Kharagpur, West Bengal in 1951 and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences was established in Delhi in 1956. He was also a two-time MP in the Lok Sabha, having won on both occasions from Rampur constituency in UP. He breathed his last on February 22, 1958. The revered scholar’s seminal work India wins freedom was published in 1988.

The government of India posthumously conferred him with the Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award of India, in 1992. In 2008, the Human Resource Development Ministry decided to observe November 11 as National Education Day in memory of the great scholar and as a commemoration of his contribution to the education system of a young India.