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Feb 27, 2023

Congress Plenary: Omitting Maulana Azad’s Picture Was More Than Just a ‘Slip-Up'

Is it conceivable to think that a photo of leaders from the Nehru-Gandhi family would be missing from a Congress party ad? Maulana Azad's contributions to the party were just as important.
Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. Photo: Wikipedia

On Sunday, the last day of the 85th Plenary Session of the Indian National Congress in Raipur, the party issued a full-page advertisement which was published in national as well as regional dailies across states like Delhi, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Chhattisgarh. The advertisement had pictures of several Congress leaders and one non-Congress leader, with the tagline that the party’s “137-year journey of ideas continues”.

It had pictures of past Congress leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, Subhash Chandra Bose, Sarojini Naidu, Lal Bahadur Shashtri, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and P.V. Narasimha Rao. It also featured a picture of B.R. Ambedkar, who was never associated with the Congress. In fact, he was one of the foremost critics of the party and its politics. From the collage, it was evident that the collage was the result of thoughtful consideration – as leaders representing different geographies, religions, social locations and gender were present. Perhaps it was an attempt to show that the party believes in inclusiveness and its leaders came from different backgrounds.

However, there was one Congress leader whose picture was missing from the advertisement. That was of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. After much uproar and criticism on social media, Jairam Ramesh, General Secretary in charge of Communication of the Congress party tweeted an apology in English as well as in Hindi, saying it was “an inexcusable slip-up. Responsibility for it is being fixed & action will be taken. Meanwhile this is a most sincere apology from us. He will always remain an iconic & inspiring figure for us & India.”

On the face of it, the apology seems a sincere effort. But it is disingenuous to call the omission a slip-up. Even if we set aside the fact that omitting Maulana’s picture made the Congress’s projection of being inclusive ring hollow, one should also remember that he was not just another leader of Congress. Is it conceivable to think that the pictures of leaders from the Nehru-Gandhi family would go missing from an important advertisement, poster, banner or hoarding of Congress? One can argue that there can’t be a comparison between the two because the Nehru-Gandhi family’s contribution to the Congress is immense.

This line of argument can be only presented by those who are neither aware of the Congress’s history nor Maulana Azad’s contribution to the party. The fact of the matter is, the party’s 137-year journey of ideas can not be complete without taking into account the contribution made by Maulana Azad. His contribution was no less than the Nehru-Gandhi family, if not more.

It can be recalled that Azad served as the president of the Congress for two terms. He first became president in 1923 and again in 1940. Both these periods were very crucial in the history of the party as well as the Indian freedom struggle. Professor S. Irfan Habib in his recently published book, Maulana Azad: A Life informs us that Maulana’s role as Congress president on both these occasions was challenging.

“The Congress party was on the verge of a split on the issue of council entry, the two groups were ‘No-Changers’ and ‘Pro-Changers’ and the senior Congress leadership was divided on the issue. Azad was asked to chair the special session of the Congress in Delhi on 15 December 1923,” writes Prof Habib adding “This speaks volumes about Azad’s stature, as he was accepted by all despite being just thirty-five years old. He did succeed in reconciling the two Congress factions, thus preventing the catastrophic split.”

During his second term of presidentship (1940-46), he had to deal with both the Britishers as well as those who wanted a separate nation for Muslims. Azad, who was the longest-serving president of the party in pre-Independent India, “remained steadfast in his role as the president of the Congress during these turbulent political times, which finally led to the historic Quit India resolution during the AICC meeting in Bombay during August 7-9, 1942.”

According to Professor Habib, Mahatma Gandhi “declared that the Quit India Movement had to be based on non-violence, just as his previous movements had been. In a last bid to quell dissent, all senior leaders of the Congress were arrested soon after this by colonial authorities, including Maulana Azad, who was sent to the Ahmednagar Fort prison.” He was released after three years in June 1945 and during his incarceration, lost his wife.

Also Read: In Plenary Sessions, Congress Vows to ‘Go All Out to Mobilise Like-Minded Secular Forces’

Congress should show commitment to ideas

How can a party miss the name or picture of such a great leader in one of its most important communication materials? That too after his photo was part of posters used in the plenary session. It only points towards two possibilities, if we rule out the likelihood of him being ignored because of religious background: either the party office bearers are not aware of the contribution of Maulana Azad; or they are just not paying attention to their work. The Congress party can’t afford to commit blunders like the one it did on Sunday, as enough efforts have been made by the Congress’s rivals to make Maulana’s thoughts and legacy irrelevant and invisible.

In the last few years, there have been concentrated efforts to sideline Maulana Azad and downplay India’s Muslim heritage. If the Congress party fails to stand up in these circumstances and show that it is committed to the inclusive idea of India for which leaders like Maulana Azad fought till their last breath, it will be understood that the party is on the same path as Hindutva forces for electoral gains. The only difference is, while Hindutva forces are doing this by actively targeting Muslims and other minority religious communities, the Congress is doing it by ignoring and sidelining the concerns and members of minority communities.

Congress leader Jairam Ramesh has promised that responsibility for the omission “is being fixed and action will be taken”. While one waits for the action taken report, the party will do a great favour to itself by immediately starting efforts to sensitise office bearers and cadres about the ideas and legacies of leaders like Maulana Azad.

Edited by Amrit B.L.S.

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