Circles of Freedom: An immersive study of the life of Asaf Ali

Asaf Ali (centre) with Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Jawaharlal Nehru in March 1946. (Getty Images)
Asaf Ali (centre) with Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Jawaharlal Nehru in March 1946. (Getty Images)


T.C.A. Raghavan’s book is a reminder of the price people pay when they choose to live by their beliefs, come what may

Diplomat-turned-historian T.C.A. Raghavan’s fourth book, Circles of Freedom, is an immersive study of the life and legacy of the lawyer, freedom fighter and, briefly, diplomat, Asaf Ali (1888-1953). But radiating out of this robust core are other lives and other voices that tell a story of “Friendship, Love and Loyalty in the Indian National Struggle," as the subtitle puts it.

Reading this book over several weeks in the lead up to India’s recently concluded general election was a reminder that big moments in history—be it freedom from British rule or the taming of fascist politics—have always come at a cost. Not only are lives upended, as dissenters are sent to jail for speaking up against governments (as was Asaf Ali in 1942 and as has been student activist Umar Khalid since 2016), but everyday human bonds and affection are also destroyed in the process. In a piece in The Telegraph on 7 June, titled Friends and Unfriends, journalist R. Rajagopal made a similar point while surveying the many filial and friendly relations that didn’t survive the difference of political opinions in the lead up to the 2024 elections.

Raghavan’s initial intent, he tells me when I meet him in Delhi, was to write a straightforward life of Asaf Ali. But the idea fizzled out due to the paucity of primary sources that could make for “a meaty book".

And yet, as he began to look deeper, Raghavan was arrested by the convergence of a group of brilliant intellectuals around the subject of his interest in the 1930s and 1940s—namely, Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949), M.A. Jinnah (1876-1948), Syed Hossain (1888-1949) and Syed Mahmud (1889-1971), all of whom came together as allies in London during the early decades of the 20th century.

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To this constellation were added other stars, like Jawaharlal Nehru and M.K. Gandhi. But the most striking of them all was Aruna Asaf Ali, née Gangulee, who married Asaf Ali, nearly 20 years her senior, against immense personal odds and social criticism at the tender age of 19 in 1928.


Aruna Asaf Ali distinguished herself with her revolutionary zeal, eventually switching camp from the pragmatic politics of the Congress to the much more aggressive variety practised by the Communist Party of India. However, her independent mind and feminist convictions were rivalled by another woman, who had a strong hold on her husband’s, and his friends’, imagination—Sarojini Naidu, poet, orator and politician, also referred to as the Nightingale of India.

“Asaf and his friends were in their early 20s when they met Sarojini in the 1920s," Raghavan says. “They were all staggered by her." Naidu was the glue that bound together this alliance of aspiring freedom fighters with differing opinions, strategies, and even politics. She exuded charm and wit, was gregarious, always the heart and soul of the party, and loved having a court around her. In one of Raghavan’s many vivid accounts, Naidu doesn’t pause her social life even as she is admitted to a hospital in London. Visitors troop in and out, as the nurses are left overwhelmed by the bouquets sent for her.

With time, Naidu’s magnetic impact on Asaf Ali would become tempered, especially as he became embroiled in administrative roles. But the first major inflection point would come with her protégé’s unconventional marriage to a Hindu girl.

Front cover of the book.
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Front cover of the book.

In Raghavan’s account, which leans heavily on empirical facts rather than speculative history, there is very little to gauge why two people, nearly 20 years apart in age and from historically fraught religious backgrounds, would decide to get married after knowing each other for a relatively short time. The decision didn’t have the blessings of Aruna’s extended family, less so of Asaf’s friends, and least of all, of society at large.

The fact that Hindu-Muslim marriages had as much charge of a controversy nearly a century ago as today may be a reflection on the democratic ethos of India today. Shockingly, even doyens of the liberal intelligentsia like Naidu were uncomfortable with the idea.

“All her life, she was manifestly keen on Hindu-Muslim friendships," Raghavan says, “but not really comfortable with the idea of such a marriage." Even though, at the time, there were rumbles in some circles about the union being symbolic and politically opportunistic, Raghavan begs to differ. “You can’t explain the marriage between Asaf and Aruna in purely sociological terms," he says. “We know they lived in a communally supercharged atmosphere, but the explanation behind their marriage has its basis in their personal choices."


One of the abiding themes of Circles of Freedom, as it is of any narrative of rebellion and change, is that the personal is always, inevitably, political. Be it ordinary Indians sacrificing their friendships and family relations at the altar of divisive politics in 2024, or Asaf Ali and his circle being at loggerheads over strategic actions, the axiom holds true. The section on the incarceration of the Congress leadership after they passed the Quit India Resolution at Ahmednagar jail (1942-45), for instance, reveals the fissures in relationships between allies and compatriots that had been once forged in the smithy of trust and national interest.

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Raghavan gives us a lively snapshot of these tumultuous years when some of the crème-de-la-crème of the Congress, from Nehru to Maulana Azad to Syed Hossain to Asaf Ali, were imprisoned based on the flimsiest legal scaffolding—like the Bhima Koregaon 16 in 2018. Unlike the relentless State-induced cruelty experienced by the latter, which included the death of Jesuit priest and tribal rights activist Stan Swamy in 2021 due to alleged medical negligence, the former didn’t suffer as many hardships.

Life was rough within the four walls, but there was scope of taking air and exercise, even to seek medical care at most times. Badminton, gardening, birdwatching, and comparing notes on recipes from across India became pastimes for these high-profile political prisoners.


It wasn’t all hunky-dory, of course. There was as much banter and camaraderie as flaring tempers and interpersonal sparring. Within months, Asaf lapsed into depression and anxiety as reports of Aruna absconding to avoid arrest and inciting violent revolutionary activities trickled in.

All his life, he would be plagued by an enduring sense of inadequacy: as a patriot, husband, envoy to the US, and politician. In sharp contrast was Aruna, with her fearsome nonchalance, which led Nehru, at one point, to call her tactics “hysterical", Hard to browbeat, she came back with an equally cutting riposte: “I could only conclude these Pygmalion-like individuals (that is, Nehru and his bastion of male politicians) wanted to mould their wives exactly in their image."

To Gandhi’s criticism of her politics of active resistance by causing damage and disruption, as opposed to following his preferred path of non-violent satyagraha, Aruna gave an even plainer response. Ordinary Indians were not interested in the higher ethics of violence and non-violence, she said—they “just want to resist oppression". At the All India Congress Committee meeting in 1946, Aruna was direct and intrepid. Addressing Gandhi, who was in the audience, she rallied on.

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“So long we have followed your advice, now you follow ours," she said, ignoring the tittering in the gallery, “because you say you can see nothing but darkness, but we can say that we see light."

Just as the old order maketh way for the new, the tools of politics evolve with time. Nothing screams democracy as loudly as the right to dissent and disagree—whether it is through words, direct action, or the seemingly innocuous gesture of pressing a button on an electronic voting machine.

It was a tough lesson that the founding fathers and mothers of the subcontinent learnt with their lives as friendships ended, most devastatingly between Jinnah and his former friends in the Congress, and so did many other ties. Asaf Ali and Aruna drifted apart as well, even though they chose to remain married.

With its interweaving of social history with personal anecdotes, Circles of Freedom is a timely reminder of the price individuals pay when they choose to steadfastly live by their beliefs, come what may.

Somak Ghoshal is a writer based in Delhi.

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