The Muslim Presidents of the Indian Republic

2002, the Gujarat genocidal carnage happened when India’s President was RK Narayan, a Dalit, a man who was bitterly shaken by the happenings in the western Indian state. He had expressed his anguish to then prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and had even expressed his desire to visit the state and the relief camps with the hapless victim survivors. He however did not visit Gujarat, and, in 2002, the NDA I reeling from national and world criticism over the seven month long anti minority violence in Gujarat in 2002, pulled out their surprise nomination for the post of India’s President. India’s Missile Man, APJ Abul Kalam, a man with a humble background and a darling of aspirational youth was the name that compelled the opposition, Congress to back the move. The left fielded Lakshmi Sehgal as its nominee.


APJ Abdul Kalam he 11th president of India.There have been 13 presidents of India since the introduction of the post in 1950. Pratibha Patil was the 12th and first woman president of the republic.

Though for the Sangh Parivar, Abdul Kalam has been portrayed and promoted with specific zeal—given their obsession with a militarised mind-set—APJ Abul Kalam’s contribution should be seen in the context of at least two other Muslim presidents of India have left their reflections — Dr Zakir Husain (1897-1969) and Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed (1905-1977). [Justice Mohammed Hidayatullah, who was acting president when Dr Zakir Husain died in office in 1969.]

The trajectories are a stark contrast, while Dr Zakir Hussain will be remembered for his lasting contribution to education and the lasting message of peace and communal harmony, post-partition, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed’s tenure is ignominiously linked to Indira Gandhi’s declaration of internal emergency and attendant repression of civil liberties and press freedom.

Of those Indian Presidents who also happened to be Muslim, arguably Dr Zakir Husain’s contributions, especially in the field of education stand out. In 1920, when he was just 23, he became one of the founders — along with Maulana Muhammad Ali and Hakim Ajmal Khan — of what later developed as a great centre of learning  in India i.e. Jamia Millia Islamia (National Islamic University). [It was at behest of Gandhi and other senior leaders from the Congress that Zakir Husain left the MAO College and established in Aligarh a new college that was later shifted to Delhi with Maulana Muhammad Ali as its first vice-chancellor and Hakim Ajmal as the first chancellor. Husain completed his PhD in economics in Germany at the age of 29 and in 1926 came back to become Jamia’s vice chancellor, a position he occupied for more than two decades.]

It was Zakir Hussain’s contribution in the area of basic and primary education that made it’s most lasting mark. He presided over a National Committee on Basic Education established by Gandhi at the advice of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad who was to later become the first education minister of India. After independence, Aligarh Muslim University faced tremendous problems, because most Muslim teachers who were supporters of Pakistan migrated, and the university was seen as a stronghold of the Muslim League, opposed to the INC. Some elements in Congress even saw Aligarh University as a hotbed of pro-Pakistan sentiments and a threat to secular India.

That was the time when Dr Zakir Husain was asked by the union education minister, Maulana Azad, to take over Aligarh University and he remained it’s vice chancellor from 1948 to 1956; then in 1957 Nehru appointed him the governor of Bihar, where he remained till 1962. In Bihar when the state government tried to curtail the independence of universities through a bill in the legislative assembly, he threatened to resign rather than sign an act that was to be a blow to intellectual freedom of universities. The state government had to backtrack, and no such law saw the light of the day.

In 1962, Dr. Radhakrishnan, then vice-president was elected as the second president of India. This was after the completion of Dr Rajendra Prasad’s second term as the first president of India after Independence. Dr Zakir Husain was then elected the vice-president and ex-officio chairman of the upper house, the Rajya Sabha. In 1967, when Indira Gandhi had taken over as the prime minister and wanted Dr Husain to become the president, which he did. Though his tenure as President was short –he died in office in 1969, Dr Zakir Hussain’s seminal contribution in bringing sanity and harmony to an India still reeling from the after effects of partition, was significant.

It is also a tribute to the political leadership in post-Independence India that a man of his stature could and was considered for the top post, President of the Republic. Dr Zakir Husain’s books, especially Dynamic University, outline his ideas about education that is free from prejudice and indoctrination. His translations of Plato in Urdu still critical reading. He possessed doctoral degrees in various disciplines.

Unfortunately, history will remember India’s second Muslim president as being acquiescent to the declaration of emergency by Indira Gandhi in 1975. Indira Gandhi was known for her manipulation of institutions and over-centralisation of power, and Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed allowed himself to be used as a rubberstamp to impose the state of emergency in his name. Officially issued by the president, the emergency remained in force for 21 months from June 1975 to March 1977. This allowed Indira Gandhi to rule by executive decree, and authorised her to suspend elections and curb civil liberties.

The year before, in 1974, opposition led strikes had caused political disenchantment at various levels. On June 25, 1975, Indira Gandhi declared the Eemrgency, rubber stamped by then Indian President, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed. By this declaration, elections were delayed, press was censored, non-Congress governments were dismissed and several freedom fighters like Jivatram Kripalani and Jaya Prakash Narayan were arrested.

Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed remained silent when most of the political opponents of Congress were put behind bars, the press was censored and a compulsory, mass-sterilisation campaign was launched by Indira’s son Sanjay Gandhi in September 1976. One of the worst atrocities of the emergency apart from the compulsory mass sterilization programme, was, when Sanjay Gandhi accompanied by Jagmophan, the vice-chairman of the Delhi Development Authority, brutally bull-dozed, on April 13, 1976, residential tenements at Turkman Gate. Brutal police firing resulted in 150 deaths and over 70,000 persons were displaced by the episode. The internally displaced were moved to the Trans Jamuna area.
He died in February 1977, in the same bathroom of the President House where Dr Zakir Husain had collapsed eight years earlier.



Related Articles