Amidst the recent debates on Bharat Ratna, I would like to discuss and bring out the personality of another Bharat Ratna awardee, who was a true son of Bharat. I want to discuss about the journey of a truly remarkable man. It is important for us to do so because we otherwise miss out on India’s heritage, on what truly gigantic personalities the Indian independence movement had produced. Any biographical essay on Zakir Saheb— and there is an excellent one in the book edited by Lokendra Malik and Salman Khurshid—should be a must read for every school student on how to model ones life on role models like Dr Zakir Hussain. His life is an incisive depiction of what outstanding qualities of head and heart he possessed; and his writings are a priceless compilation on a humongously diverse set of topics, including unparalleled vignettes about personalities, communal frenzy & nationalism.
The values he exemplified are eternal and cherished all the more because they are so conspicuous by their absence in contemporary society. Why was Dr Zakir Husain so remarkable? Given his scintillating array of multifaceted accomplishments, I can do no more than a poor imitation of a fan dancer by touching upon a very small number without really covering any of them.
Firstly, he was an institution builder. To build, nurture and embellish institutions like Jamia and AMU in those difficult times is no mean achievement. It came about only because of his passion, selfless devotion, and preparedness to put the institution above self. As Halide Edib puts it “He gives all his time and energy to educational problems…..He has an almost self hypnotized look—the look of those with a single aim..”. What a contrast from contemporary India, where appointees put self aggrandizement above institutions and forget that undermining an institution is a thousand times easier than building one. When I hear puny pygmies assail everything so called Nehruvian, I pity them for they do not realize that the only thing which distinguishes us from each of the countries which emerged from the yoke of imperialism in the 20th century, none except India has remained a vibrant democracy, mainly because the Gandhi Nehru Patel troika built institutions which have stood the test of time, be it the non political army, the judiciary, Parliamentary traditions, the Election Commission and so on. This nation building became possible only because of the conjoint institution building of their many eminent colleagues like Dr Hussain.
Secondly, the episode of Dr Zakir Hussain completing his education and being a lecturer at AMU and then defecting to join the freedom movement and later establishing Jamia led me to draw a loose analogy about how, without the departure of a few disgruntled students and teachers in 1209 from Oxford, Cambridge University would not have been established in that year. In this case the analogy breaks down in future years since the Cambridge/ Jamia founder Dr Zakir Hussain returned to rebuild a deteriorating Oxford/ AMU in 1948 and did so successfully.
Thirdly, Dr Zakir Hussain firmly believed and proved that education is perhaps the only sector neutral, subject neutral, religion neutral, community neutral, caste neutral, and adversity neutral equalizer. He proved it by pulling himself up with that tool, having lost a father at 9 and both parents by 14, being only one of three surviving children from a pool of seven. Imagine his motivation to have thought out of the box and pursued higher studies in those English centric days at Berlin, the ability to be different and to act differently. As perhaps India’s longest serving Vice Chancellor for over 22 years at Jamia, there was no aspect of education he did not touch and, in a sense literally, because he is the only case I know of of having started as a teacher of children at nursery level in the same institution that he headed later as VC! He did this entirely by dint of backbreaking hard work and diligence and an unshakable belief that value based education is the answer to almost all ills of humanity. As he put it “Our sweat is the answer to all our problems, and the tiller, the artisan and the teacher are the three agents who feed the body, mind and soul.”
Fourthly, that is also why his philosophy always anchored educational initiatives to Gandhiji’s last man in the last row in the last village. As Dr Zakir Hussain put it :”Our country does not need warm blood oozing out from our necks, but it needs the sweat of our brow that would flow twelve months in a year. The need is great for work, serious work. Our future would be made or marred by the broken hut of the farmer, by the dark roof of the artisan, and by the straw school of a village. It is possible to settle the disputes of a day or two in political strife, in conferences and congresses, but those places which I have indicated have been for centuries the centers of our destiny.
Fifthly, people like him are the best exemplars present day India can have for understanding true nationalism and patriotism, and, indeed, distinguish its false, fake & hypocritical versions. Only a true patriot can speak as he did on 2/10/47, Gandhiji’s birthday, addressing a gathering at Jamia, with death, destruction, despair and depression all around, “It is easy to address rallies or speak from the pulpit or shower rhetoric but ask yourselves, how many people could speak like this to their own community on that day in those times?”
Sixthly, lessons of secularism, syncretism & pluralism cannot be exemplified in words more than what by deeds Dr Zakir Hussain achieved at the Silver Jubilee of Jamia in Nov 1946. Only his moral authority could get together on the same stage at the same time in that dangerous month in the year 1946 the likes of Nehru, Maulana, Rajagopalachari, Jinnah, Liaquat Ali Khan, Fatima Jinnah and many other stalwarts whose only binding thread was Dr Zakir Hussain. Sometimes I feel that if God had given more time to people like Maulana and Dr Hussain in those climactic years, Partition and many of its nightmares may have been avoided.
Seventhly, vignettes of his life suggest that he was a true karamayogi, exemplifying Gita’s detachment and the distance of a Drashta. How else except by recourse to Gita’s “karmanyavadhika raste, maa phaleshu kadacahan” can you explain Dr Zakir Hussain’s presence at a Michigan University convocation address and return to India three days before the first seriously contested Indian Presidential election (his own against former CJI Subba Rao) alongwith his equanamous and delightful quip ” We in India only stand and do not run.” How else can you explain his dedication to his dharma–at that time of talking to his child students– that he did not flinch or betray emotion on receiving news of his daughter’s death while addressing children and left only after completing his duties at the function.
Eightly, in 1948, in spite of Pandit Nehru’s request, he did not accept the Vice-Chancellorship of the Aligarh Muslim University unless the university Court chose him unanimously. Again in 1957, when offered Governorship of Bihar, his first reaction was to decline. It was on Pandit Nehru’s insistence that he finally accepted it. During his election for the President of India also, he kept himself above all sorts of political controversy.
Ninthly, Dr Hussain’s persona and life journey brings out the true hallmark of a Renaissance man. A Renaissance man is defined as a person who cannot be confined within the narrow walls of specialization, as we do now, but one who is not a jack but a master of many fields. A great Speaker and orator, multilingual in Urdu, Hindi, English and German, an educationist par excellence, a teacher of children, a writer of children’s books, a keen gardener & rose cultivator but also VC, Governor, Rajya Sabha nominee, Vice President and President. Everything he touched, he embellished and left it more lustrous & illumined than before.
Tenthly, no wonder he was chosen to present the Abhinandan Granth to another multifaceted personality, Dr Kanhiaya Lal Munshi. On a personal touch, Dr Munshi also happened to be my father’s Guru and used to effortlessly compose poetry while simultaneously taking notes for a case being argued by his opponent in the Supreme Court. My father complained to me after Dr Munshi’s demise that there was no one with whom he could converse in Sanskrit.
Even otherwise my father had very close interactions with Dr Zakir Hussain and as a child I distinctly remember how highly he talked about his learning and dignified bearing. Till the age of about 12 years I have seen my father mostly in Sherwanis and achkans, a self protective practice since he found that that was the only way he would be treated seriously in Lok Sabha, which he entered at age 30 in 1962, the same year Dr Zakir Hussain became Vice President of India. Dr Hussain popularized that form of dress more than anyone else. My father also invited him to deliver lectures at the Institute of Constitutional and Parliamentary Studies which my father had founded and which in those days was a premier institution on that subject.
Eleventhly, there was nothing closer to his heart than education, his first and last love. In 1941, at the Second Educational Conference at Jamia, which was presided over by Dr.Rajendra Prasad, the educationist in him fearlessly and earnestly warned the politicians. He said, “Rajen Babu! How long may we plough on in these political sands, how long shall we see the education gasping in the smoke of suspicions and misgivings; how long shall we tremble with the fear that our life’s labor and love will be destroyed by some political stupidity or foolhardiness? Our work is not a bed of roses. Disappointments assail us and often one is heart-broken. Then, if our steps falter where may we find succor. Shall we seek it in this society where brothers do not appear of one mind and no value is absolute, where there is no song which we can sing together, no holiday we can celebrate jointly, no wedding we can solemnize in common, no sorrow we can share. Please remove these difficulties and remove them early, we are already short of time. No one can tell what evil further delay may bring.”
Twelfthly, though he rubbed shoulders all his life with the top political leaders and rose to the top position in the gift of this country, he always practiced a detachment which was visible and left no one in doubt about his priorities and preferences. In one of his speeches he said —“Politics, especially in our country, is like a mountain stream which suddenly overflows and soon recedes, while educational work flows not only during monsoon but also in the summer by melting the hearts of mountains.
Lastly, though there are several other facets of the persona of this great man, Dr Zakir Hussain, time does not permit me to dwell on them. That was a different age, a different era. It’s hallmarks were an absence of the all pervading pettiness which we find today. Magnanimity was another feature conspicuous then by its presence and now by its absence. Humility was a third: the genuine kind and not the false variety. Compassion was a fourth. Simple living living and high thinking was a fifth. We have had 14 Presidents, including the incumbent. 8 VPs who did not become Presidents and six who did. Only one repeated office and two, including Dr Zakir Hussain, died in office. Interestingly, for a state like UP which gave us so many Prime Ministers, he was, till recently, the only President from that state and the current President is only the second from that state. Is it an irony or pure coincidence that perhaps some of the best Presidents we have had have all been non politicians? Two teacher Presidents, Radhakrishnan & Zakir Hussain and one scientist, Dr Abdul Kalam. ( An exception from the political class has been Pranab Mukherjee). Perhaps history is trying to beckon to us. If there was one President, along with a few, very few others, who deserved to repeat his term, it was Zakir Saheb but fate intervened cruelly within two years of his becoming Head of State and he died at the relatively young age of 70.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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