Born on May 13, 1905 at Hauz Qazi area of Old Delhi with a silver spoon in his mouth, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed was one of those few Muslims who by virtue of his service to the country under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi reached the pinnacle of honour as the President of the Indian Republic, the fifth in the roll.
Shri Fakhruddin's grandfather, Shri Khaliluddin Ali Ahmed, of Kacharighat near Golaghat town in the Sibsagar district, Assam, married in one of the families who were the relics of Emperor Aurangzeb's bid to conquer Assam. Ali Ahmed's father Col. Zalnur Ali, of the Indian Medical Service, had to leave Assam while he was a bachelor doctor following an incident in Shillong. Col. Ali and one of his Assamese contemporaries, Col. Sibram Bora, were allotted seats at a function in the Shillong Club away from the European guests. The two Assamese Colonels boycotted the function in protest against the segregation meted out to them. This naturally enraged the European bosses who transferred Col. Zalnur Ali to distant North-West Province. This provided him with an opportunity to come in contact with the Nawab of Lohari in Delhi whose daughter he married. Here was born Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed.
Educated first in the Bonda Government High School in U.P., Fakhruddin matriculated from the Delhi Government High School then under the Punjab University. He was sent to England for higher education in 1923 in order to groom him for the I.C.S., though his mother was opposed to his son being sent abroad. He joined the Catherine College of Cambridge University and was called to the Bar from Inner Temple of London. He could not compete for the I.C.S. examination due to illness. On return to India he started legal practice in the Lahore High Court in 1928. In October that year, Col. Zalnur Ali, accompanied by his Barrister son, Fakhruddin, paid a visit to Gauhati ostensibly to look after his paternal property which included a few hundred acres of land in and around Gauhati. Obviously, the Ahmed family's link, snapped on the Colonel's posting in N.W.P. was thus re-established after several years. Two years later Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed revisited Gauhati and came in contact with the leaders of the Congress in Assam and in 1931 enrolled himself as its primary member. This was a turning event in the life of Ahmed.
During his stay in England he met Jawaharlal Nehru in 1925 whose progressive ideas impressed him very much; in fact, Nehru became his mentor and friend from the thirties onwards. (Lord Bulter, one of the luminaries of the Tories was a classmate of Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed). Once Ahmed joined the Indian National Congress he steadfastly adhered to it though his co-religionists in the Muslim League tried to persuade him to join the latter. As a Congressman, Ahmed Saheb actively participated in the freedom movement. To begin with, he offered individual satyagraha on 14 December, 1940 for which he was imprisoned for a year under Section 5 of the DIR. Again, in the 'Quit India Movement' he was arrested on 9 August, 1942 while he was returning after attending the historic session of theAICC meeting held at Bombay and detained as a security prisoner for three and a half years till April 1945. In the Congress organization he occupied several positions of responsibilities. He remained a member of the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee since 1936 except for a small break. He retained the membership of the AICC from 1947 till 1974. He was elected to the Assam Assembly for the first time in 1935 and became the Minister of Finance, Revenue and Labour in the Congress Coalition Ministry formed by the late Gopinath Bardoloi on 19 September, 1938. In the first spell of his Ministerial office Ali Ahmed demonstrated his acumen and ability in administrative sphere. His initiative in introducing the Assam Agricultural Income Tax Bill, the first of its kind in India, that levied taxes on tea garden lands in the Province and his pro-labour policy in the labour strike in the British-owned Assam Oil Company Ltd. At Digboi irked the European planters and their henchmen who considered that the measures of the Congress Coalition Government were revolutionary and, therefore, constituted a danger signal to the interests of the British commercial community. But Ali Ahmed did not heed to such opposition and went ahead with the measures which brought him and the Bardoloi Ministry a good deal of popular applause. However, the Bardoloi Ministry had to resign on 16 November, 1939 on the war efforts issue, but that Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed was an able administrator was established.
After Independence he was elected on Congress ticket to the Assam Assembly on two terms (1957-1962) and (1962-1967). Earlier, he was elected to the Rajya Sabha (1952-1953) and thereafter became Advocate-General of the Government of Assam. Though Ali Ahmed occupied a senior position in the Chaliha Ministry from 1957 he was asked by Jawaharlal Nehru to join his Cabinet at the Centre in January 1966. He was elected to the Lok Sabha from the Barpeta constituency in 1971. In the Central Cabinet he was given important portfolios relating to Food and Agriculture, Cooperation, Education, Industrial Development and Company Laws. His induction to the Central Cabinet was perhaps because of his close link with, and loyalty to the Nehru family and also for his acumen in administration.
In the Congress hierarchy Ali Ahmed enjoyed an enviable position being a member of the Congress Working Committee for several years. In the Great Split of the Congress (1969), Ali Ahmed remained with Indira Gandhi, may be his deep-rooted association with the Nehru family made him adhere to Indira Gandhi's leadership till his death. He was elected to the highest post of the land - the Presidentship of the Indian Republic on 29 August, 1974, but his tenure in the office was cut short (1977) by his sudden death due to a heart attack which he suffered on his return from a tour of the South-East Asian countries only a day before. In the wake of the Emergency Ali Ahmed became the target of criticism of his detractors. It was alleged that he put his signature as President to the order on promulgation of Emergency on 25 June, 1975 at the behest of the Prime Minister, though he assured at the time of his election to Presidentship that he would not be a yes-man of the Cabinet. Notwithstanding this criticism, Ali Ahmed's personality, integrity and ability in administration were never questioned.
Suave and sober, Ali Ahmed seldom allowed anger and prejudices to get better of him, at the same time, he did not compromise with unprincipled issues. These traits of his character were apparently the key to his success in the public life and enabled him to acquire a respectable position in the society. Towards the end of his political career, he was, however, accused of being communal by certain quarters, but this accusation was hardly warranted. Mention of an incident in this connection would perhaps be relevant. In 1935, when Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Liaquat Ali Khan, Nazimuddin and a few starwarts of the Muslim League came to Assam to campaign against Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed who was pitted by the Congress against a Muslim League candidate in the Assembly poll, a common friend at the instance of Sir Mohammad Saadullah suggested that Fakhruddin Saheb should pay a courtesy call to the Muslim League leaders at Gauhati. Liaquat Ali, however, reacted to the suggestion somewhat tersely saying that he would not shake hands with a Kafir meaning Ali Ahmed. Thus, the suggestion was scotched. It is apparently difficult to believe that he could be communal with a long record of service to the country under the banner of the Congress. It is, nonetheless, a fact that he tried to bring to the Congress fold a number of Aligarh Muslim University educated youths of his community whose communal outlook was a public knowledge. If this had created an impression in certain quarters that Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed was communal, that was entirely a different matter. But his love for the country and faith in secularism were profound and therefore, were not in doubt in the least.
Though politics was Ali Ahmed's forte, his deep interest in sports and other extra-mural activities was well-known. Himself a tennis player and golfer, he was elected President of the Assam Football Association and the Assam Cricket Association for several terms; he was also the Vice-President of the Assam Sports Council. In April, 1967 he was elected President of the All India Cricket Association besides being a member of the Delhi Golf Club and the Delhi Gymkhana Club since 1961. His love for music and finer arts was no less; he was deeply interested in poetical works of Ghalib. His travels in the USSR, the USA, the UK, Japan, Malaysia and many Arab countries as a Minister and afterwards as the President of India widened his urbane outlook that endeared him to all sections of the people, irrespective of caste, creed and avocation. Elegantly dressed he was always courteous but firm in what he considered to be just and fair and presented himself as a Moghul, as it were, which quality he perhaps inherited from his maternal side.
At forty Ali Ahmed married Abida (21) of a respectable family of U.P. educated in Aligarh Muslim University. When negotiations for the wedding were under way Ahmed was undergoing a jail term in Jorhat as security prisoner. At a certain stage of the negotiations Abida's family wanted to know what the prospective bride groom was doing. The answer came from one of the relatives of the would-be bridegroom: Fil hal to jail men Hai (At present he is in jail). But Destiny so ordained that Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed and Abida were happily married on 9 November, 1945. Begum Abida Saheba was elected to the Lok Sabha in 1981 from a U.P. constituency in a by-election.
Ali Ahmed passed away on 11 February, 1977 in the Rashtrapati Bhavan leaving behind wife, two sons and a daughter.