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Remembering Hasrat Mohani
By Sharif al Mujahid
All said and done, Maulana Hasrat Mohani was a revolutionary par excellance. His was a life of labour, tears and toil – a veritable saga of incessant struggle, awesome tribulations and poignant suffering.
Born in a middle class Sadaat family, in a small town (Mohaan) situated between Lucknow and Kanpur, in 1880, and named as Syed Fazlul Hasan, Hasrat Mohani, as he later came to be known after his nom de plum, graduated from the M.A.O. College, Aligarh, in 1903. He belonged to the radical wing of Aligarh’s first generation. While justifying Sir Syed for his loyalist plank in his own time, this group stood for taking the political path so that the Muslims could take part in the onward march of both the community and the country.
That stance called for shunning the comforts, perks and prestige that went with a cosy government job. It called for opting for uncertain, stormy politics. Hasrat not only joined the Congres in 1904, but aligned himself with the extremist wing, headed by Bal Gangadhar Tilak. For Hasrat, the Moderates, led by Gokhale and Pherozshah Mehta, had little attraction. And along with Tilak he abandoned the Congres when the Congres split at Surat in 1907, and the Moderates became ascendant. Hasrat was among the earliest Muslims to boycott British goods and opt for indigenous cloth. Even his redoubtable wife, who cast off the veil to share the burdens of her intrepid husband, went in for swadeshi. Along with preaching the swadeshi cause in his monthly, Urdu-i-Mu'alla, he also opened a store at Aligarh to promote it.
Hasrat’s first test came in 1908 when he published an extremely critical article on the British policy in Egypt – a translation from an Arabic article. The Maulana refused stoutly to divulge the name of the writer. He was charged with sedition, sentenced to two years’ rigorous imprisonment and a fine of Rs500. And in default of its payment, the Maulana’s precious library was auctioned off for a paltry sum of Rs60 only. The lawyers’ reluctance to take up cases involving sedition in those days denuded him of any legal aid. Rigorous imprisonment for him meant grinding over 36 kilos of wheat every day. In Hasrat’s own words:
Hai mashq-i-sukhan jari, chakki ki mushaqqat bhi Ek turfa tamasha hai Hasrat ki tabiyyat bhi
And the Maulana was, perhaps, the first Muslim to undergo rigorous imprisonment for his political views. The first two decades of twentieth century saw him gaoled three more times. His father died while he was in jail and he was not informed. His only daughter’s wedding took place during his incarceration at Ahmedabad in 1915. Letters from family and friends were not allowed, nor were visitors. Thus, compared to Hasrat’s, the jail terms the other political leaders (including Gandhi, the Nehrus and the Ali brothers) had gone through since the Khilafat and Non-Cooperation and Quit-India days during the 1920s and the 1940s, were mere picnic.
By 1913, Hasrat was able to inject a streak of radicalism into Muslim politics. During the aftermath of the Kanpur Machhli Bazar Mosque affair, he along with the Ali Brothers, Maulana Azad Subhani, Maulana Abdul Bari Farangimahli, Maulana Zafar Ali Khan and others, addressed mammoth meetings.
When it comes to bold and trenchant political writings, the three names that are usually invoked are those of Muhammad Ali, Abul Kalam Azad and Zafar Ali Khan. But much earlier than these three, Hasrat had suffered incarceration for his editorial independence. His Urdu-i-Mu'alla also appeared much earlier than Comrade, Al-Balagh and Zamindar. The Mu’alla had invited British wrath for Hasrat’s writings during the agitation on the Kanpur Mosque demolition, resulting in a security demand for Rs 3,000 under the Vernacular Press Act. It was sheer tyranny to demand Rs 3,000 from a press, worth little more than Rs 50. Undeterred, however, he founded the Tazkiratush Shu'ra in place of the Urdu-i-Mu'alla.
Throughout his life, Hasrat was in dire financial straits, but he consistently refused financial assistance from everyone. And his wife was made of the same stuff. While he was being held at the Baroda jail in Puna, in 1922, she declined financial assistance from Puna Muslims, saying, “If you are such admirers of my husband, then why not purchase his books? But on no account would I accept financial help.”
Both Hasrat and his wife led a simple life. And she helped her illustrious husband in all possible ways – getting his books published, reading the proofs, looking after the press and running the Swadeshi store.
He was the first political leader to propose to define the Congres’s creed of Swaraj as “Complete independence, free from all foreign control by all possible and proper means”. This he did at its Ahmedabad session in 1921. Though rejected by the Subjects Committee of the Congres at the instance of Gandhi, he moved it in the open session. Because of Gandhi’s opposition, no one dared second his amendment to the Congres’s creed. Whereupon Begum Hasrat boldly stood up in that huge gathering and seconded it, without much ado.
Because Gandhi’s word was law in the tempestuous, emotion-laden non-cooperation days, he stood adamant in his opposition, trotting out plausible excuses for the hero-worshipping motley crowd’s consumption. The proposal, he said “in all confidence”, showed “lack of responsibility”; it raised “a false issue”; it was akin to “throwing a bombshell in midst of the Indian atmosphere”; and, above all, it was “a step which will redound not to your credit, not to your advantage, but which may cause you irreparable injury,” argued Gandhi. (The Indian Annual Register, 1922, I:65-66)
Subhas Chandra Bose, twice Congres President during 1938-39, calls Hasrat’s definition “revolutionary”, adding, “The proposition was, however, to be brought up over and over again at subsequent Congres sessions till it was accepted at the Lahore Congres in 1929, the mover on that occasion being none other than the Mahtama himself.”
Undeterred by his discomfiture at the Ahmedabad Congres, the Maulana included his proposal in his Presidential Address to the All India Muslim League on December 30, 1921. He suggested that complete independence should be announced from January 1, 1922, that India be declared a Republic, that it be named the United States of India. If Martial Law be imposed then guerrilla warfare should be launched against the British government. The Presidential Address was confiscated and Hasrat was prosecuted. The jury went for the defendant, but the Session Judge convicted the Maulana, sentencing him to two years’ rigorous imprisonment and putting him in a condemned cell. However, on a reference to the High Court, Justice Crump found that the Maulana was not “guilty of instigating and therefore abetting the waging of war”. Since the learned Judge found no incitement to violence in the Maulana’s Presidential Address, the earlier sentence was set aside and the Maulana set free.
Interestingly, it was at the instance of the Maulana that the All India Muslim League adopted “full independence” as its creed at Lucknow in 1937. The word, “complete”, had been dropped because, in view of being variously defined as Dominion Status, Purna Swaraj, etc., as the Maulana explained, its interpretation had made the word meaningless. In subsequent years, the Maulana was in the forefront of, first, the struggle for Pakistan, and, later, for the rights of the Muslims in the Indian dominion. He was the lone member of the Indian Constituent Assembly who refused to sign the Indian Constitution. And when he left for his heavenly abode on May 13, 1951, his death was widely mourned.