Rafi Ahmed Kidwai: Forgotten star of freedom movement

Asia Contributor
Rafi Ahmed Kidwai

Public amnesia is a strange disease. How, why and when it comes into effect no one can really explain. In the course of seven decades India has forgotten, for all practical purposes, some of its greatest soldiers of the freedom movement. Rafi Ahmed Kidwai is one such person.

The city I come from Kolkata, has a main thoroughfare at the heart of the city named after him. Sadly, that’s the limit of most people in Kolkata about Rafi Ahmed Kidwai. Yet till the mid-1950s Kidwai was one of the most influential Muslim political leaders of India. Along with Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, he was considered one of the closest political allies of Jawharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of the country, whose sway over the Indian polity and society was virtually unchallenged.

Kidwai and Nehru were comrade in arms in India’s struggle for freedom for many decades. Like Nehru he was a close follower of Mahatma Gandhi, and remained steadfastly with the Indian National Congress during the turbulent years that saw the first rumbles of the subcontinent’s violent division into two nations.

Rafi Ahmed Kidwai and Khilafat movement

Kidwai was born in a small village named Masauli, located in the Barabanki district of present-day Uttar Pradesh, on February 18, 1894. Soon after completing his studies in Aligarh’s famous Anglo -Oriental College, Kidwai was inspired by the ambience of his time and place to jump into the Khilafat Movement. It was essentially a pan-Islamic movement, which crystalised in 1920, demanding the restoration of the autonomy of the Ottoman Caliph and Sultan by the British government.

The British had put the Caliph’s powers under severe sanctions following the first World War. Thousands of Indian Muslims rose in support of the Caliph. Khilafat Movement quickly snowballed into a major force. However, what was of particular importance in Kidwai’s life was Gandhi’s decision to support the movement, and a resolution by the Indian National Congress to work jointly with the leaders of the Islamic movement for the independence of India as well as the Ottoman Sultan. Thus for a while the two virtually merged, and eventually brought many bright young Muslims into the Congress fold. Kidwai was one of them.

Kidwai in Swarajya Party

In 1923 the Swarajya Party was formed by a many disgruntled members of the Congress, who were temporarily unhappy with Gandhi’s decision to withdraw the non-cooperation movement following a violent incident in the United Provinces during which a mob killed several policemen. Under the leadership of the charismatic nationalist leader C.R. Das the Swarjya Party pleaded for a sharper struggle against the British. Kidwai initially joined this party and was elected to the Central Legislative Assembly in 1926. He became his party’s chief whip in the assembly.

Kidwai was known to be an ardent follower of Motilal Nehru, Jawaharlal’s father, who was the president of Swarjya Party. In time as Swarjya Party disintegrated Kidwai moved into the Congress. And by the mid-1930s he became an influential Congress leader at the state level. By the 1930s he was one of the major Congress leaders actively organizing the Civil Disobedience Movement following the Mahatma’s call. His bond with Jawharlal strengthened during these years.

After Independence in 1947, he became the Communications Minister in the first cabinet under Nehru’s leadership. Kidwai was one of the two Muslim ministers in Nehru’s cabinet, the other being Azad. He was elected a member of parliament in independent India’s first general elections in 1952. Sadly, within two years Kidwai died of cardiac arrest, on October 24, 1954.


(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)

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