Rise and fall of PWM

Print edition : July 11, 2014

At a conference in Lucknow convened to form the Progressive Writers' Association. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Sajjad Zaheer. He redrafted a manifesto for the establishment of progressive writers' organisations.

Firaq Gorakhpuri. He was of the view that Urdu literature drew its inspiration mainly from the Islamic past and traditions.

Saadat Hasan Manto. "If we are to view Manto's relationship with the progressives, it can be said that the progressives had an ideology, while he had a world view."

Rakhshanda Jalil’s book offers valuable insights into the emergence of a consciously progressive, almost left-wing, literary and cultural movement.

THIS is one of the most detailed and valuable studies of the Progressive Writers’ Movement (PWM) and the All India Progressive Writers’ Association, the organisation through which the movement expressed itself. At the outset, Rakhshanda Jalil makes it clear that even though “the PWM penetrated into different Indian languages, most notably, Urdu, Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, and Telugu”, her interest will be in the Urdu writers. This is an unexceptionable choice as every writer is free to define his/her area of interest. However, when she says that “the PWA, while in its inception, did indeed have mostly Urdu and some Hindi writers in its fold, I have chosen to use and interpret only Urdu writers...” (emphasis added), one is not entirely convinced.

The PWA held its inaugural session on April 9, 1936, in Lucknow. Premchand, perhaps the most celebrated short story writer and novelist of his time who wrote both in Urdu and Hindi, presided over the session and delivered his historic presidential address entitled “Sahitya ka Uddeshya” (The aim of literature), exhorting fellow writers to evolve a new aesthetics and to change the measure of beauty. His Hindi literary journal Hans had started functioning as the unofficial organ of the PWA, and very soon, most of the well-known Hindi poets and writers became directly or indirectly associated with the fledgling movement and the organisation that was spearheading it.

Suryakant Tripathi ‘Nirala’, Sumitranandan Pant, Amritlal Nagar, Shivmangal Singh ‘Suman’, Ramdhari Singh ‘Dinkar’, Narendra Sharma, Rameshwar Shukla ‘Anchal’, Nemichandra Jain, Bharat Bhushan Agrawal, Girija Kumar Mathur, Shamsher Bahadur Singh, Ramvilas Sharma, Upendra Nath ‘Ashk’, Balraj Sahni, Sheel, Shankar Shailendra, Chandra Kunwar Barathwal, Rahul Sankrityayan, Narottam Nagar, Kedarnath Agrawal, Sripat Rai, Shivdan Singh Chauhan, Ramvriksh Benipuri and a host of other prominent Hindi writers joined the PWM as well as the PWA within a year or two of its launch.

It could not have been otherwise because on the one hand the national and international situation was forcing them to take a progressive stand, and, on the other, the PWA had the full support of a literary giant like Premchand. As Rakhshanda Jalil informs us on the very first page of the introduction, even stalwarts like Rabindranath Tagore, Mohammad Iqbal, Acharya Narendra Dev and Sarojini Naidu had sent their blessings to the movement. She also draws our attention to the fact that the word “progressive” changes its meaning with time and what is today progressive may not be considered so tomorrow. She is right in pointing out that Ghalib was a progressive when he criticised Syed Ahmad Khan for wasting his efforts on Abul Fazl’s Ain-e-Akbari, but Syed Ahmad Khan was a progressive when he along with others founded the Aligarh school of thought.

However, one is a little intrigued to read about “Syed Ahmad Khan’s laudatory history of the Mughals, Ain-e-Akbari”. The fact is that Syed Ahmad Khan had prepared a critical edition of Ain-e-Akbari, which is not a history of the Mughals but a treatise on the system of Mughal administration. Maulana Altaf Hussain Hali, in his Yadgar-e-Ghalib, explains that Ghalib considered the system of administration, which Ain-e-Akbari described, beneath all comparison with those of modern times.

Similarly, Syed Ahmad Khan was a progressive when he, along with his friends, founded the Aligarh school of thought and emphasised the need for Muslims to embrace modern education. Rakhshanda Jalil reminds us that Syed Ahmad Khan and his associates invited “vitriol and invective in much the same measure as Rashid Jahan ‘Angarewali’ and her fellow writers half a century later”. In contrast to many left-wing liberals who place unduly great emphasis on the fact that both Hindus and Muslims contributed to the growth of Urdu language and literature, and assert that Urdu should not be associated or identified with Muslims alone, Rakhshanda Jalil is candidly realistic in recognising that Urdu literature is “in most cases the literature of the Indian Muslims”.

Although non-Muslim writers too enriched it, “the bulk of Urdu literature, however, remained not just about the Muslims, and where not coloured by a quintessentially religious sensibility was, at the very least, influenced by Islamic culture ( Islami ikhlaq)”.

One cannot help mention here that even Firaq Gorakhpuri was of the view that Urdu literature had not been able to express many facets of the Indian reality that had to do with the lives and belief systems of Hindus and drew its inspiration mainly from the Islamic past and traditions.

As Rakhshanda Jalil explains, the focus of the book is on the Urdu literature produced in upper India, and in India and Pakistan from 1947 up to the 1950s. Instead of beginning her story with the 1930s, she goes back to the First War of Indian Independence and examines the process as well as the nature of the formation of political consciousness that arose as a result of the events of 1857 and influenced literary production. This historical background and her excellent analysis offer the reader many valuable insights into the process of the emergence of a consciously progressive, almost left-wing, literary and cultural movement.

Response to 1857 revolt

Urdu litterateurs’ responses to the revolt of 1857 were varied and often contradictory. Some supported it while others did not. Similarly, the Muslim community, too, was divided in its reaction and gradually two mutually opposing camps emerged. Those who had suffered the brutality of the British also were not united in their response. Some turned to traditional learning based on religion and established new institutions for the purpose of imparting education while others lived in the hope that some miracle would happen and their lost glory would be restored.

The other group felt that bridges should be built with the British whose rule seemed to be firmly established and advantage must be taken of Western education as it would bring employment to the community. Ghalib, Syed Ahmad Khan, Hali and Maulavi Zakaullah belonged to this group, while Maulana Nanotawi, the founder of the Deoband’s Darul Uloom, his successor Maulana Rashid Ahmad Gangohi and Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanawi were in the camp of the traditionalists. In fact, as the historian K.M. Ashraf later wrote, the Wahhabi revivalist trend was a major contributing factor behind the 1857 uprising as Wahhabis had a well-organised pan-Indian network and exercised moral influence over the Muslim masses.

The events of the subsequent decades prepared fertile ground for a new political as well as literary consciousness that was broadly socialist. The Russo-Japanese War, the First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, the Khilafat Movement and the growth of revolutionary movements and nationalist politics made it possible for radical ideas to take root.

Urdu writers were not unaffected by these developments. Rakhshanda Jalil informs one that a significant fallout of the Khilafat Movement was the emergence of Muslim socialist leaders who were adept at working among the masses and influencing public opinion. As they could feel the pulse of the people, they could invoke the principles of Islam and socialism with equal ease and make out a case in favour of social justice. Leaders and writers such as Hasrat Mohani and Azad Subhani acquired national prominence through this process.

Shia consciousness

Rakhshanda Jalil makes an interesting observation that among Muslim socialists, Shias were in a “disproportionately large” number. She quotes Sajjad Zaheer, who said in an interview to Hari Dev Sharma that Shias by and large remained aloof from the Khilafat Movement and thus did not take part in the first Non-Cooperation Movement. The author makes a perceptive argument to explain this phenomenon, saying Shias, who as the followers of the party of Ali, were the earliest organised group of dissenters who opposed a political stalemate. Therefore, it is not surprising that one would see a large number of Muslims in the PWM as well as the PWA. “Perhaps,” she says, “it has something to do with the Shia consciousness of being a minority within a minority.”

The author makes another illuminating observation that in the 1930s, while Urdu literature was reflecting both national as well as international concerns, the Muslim community remained anaemic and listless as both the deendar (religious) Deoband and duniyadar (worldly-wise) Aligarh failed as institutions to provide intellectual leadership.

“The progressives gave them, quite literally, a shot in the arm,” she says. However, she also holds the progressives guilty of not understanding the fears of the Muslim community as a whole as it was contending with its own duality of being Indian and Muslim at the same time with its tendency to stress one or the other rather than both.

Before discussing the formation of the PWA, Rakhshanda Jalil devotes two chapters to the celebrated collection of 10 short stories entitled Angarey (Live Embers), which was proscribed soon after its publication in December 1932. The collection consisted of five short stories by Zaheer, two by Ahmed Ali, one by Mahmuduzzafar, and a story and a play by Rashid Jahan. Zaheer and Mahmuduzzafar came from highly privileged backgrounds while the other two were from the upper middle class. The collection, which was a precursor of progressive writing, soon became famous for its boldness and novelty of themes, attracting fatwas and torrents of abuse. The printing press was raided in February 1933 and the owner apologised in writing for insulting the feelings of the Muslim community. All but five copies were destroyed by the police. Only a few people had actually read the book but it hardly mattered.

One is reminded of the way Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses was attacked by Muslim religious leaders as well as politicians such as Syed Shahabuddin in 1988 for being “blasphemous”. Syed Shahabuddin in fact admitted that he had not read, and would never read, the book although he was in the forefront of those who demanded a ban on it.

Angarey was banned in March 1933, and on April 5, its authors published an eloquent defence in The Leader proposing the immediate formation of a League of Progressive Authors, which would bring out similar books from time to time both in English and in Indian languages. Three years later, the PWA was formed and held its inaugural session in Lucknow with Premchand in the chair.

However, before that, a manifesto was drafted by a group of students who used to meet at Zaheer’s room in London. The group included Mulk Raj Anand, M.D. Taseer, Jyotrimoy Ghosh and Promod Sengupta. Anand and Ghosh drafted the manifesto. The British communist Ralph Fox, who died a hero’s death in the Spanish Civil War which he had joined to fight the fascists, met them regularly and impressed upon them the need to establish an organisation of progressive writers who would bring intellectuals and workers together.

Zaheer redrafted the manifesto and the group finally approved, in 1935, a final version, which is now available only in the intelligence files of the India Office Library, London. Among the salient features of the manifesto listed by Rakhshanda Jalil, one finds a resolve to establish writers’ organisations in various “linguistic zones” of India and to coordinate with other like-minded organisations to produce and translate progressive literature, to strive for the acceptance of a common language (Hindustani) and a common script (Indo-Roman) for India, to protect the interests of authors and help those who need assistance for the publication of their work and to fight for the right of free expression of thought and opinion.

One may mention that despite the existence of several successor organisations such as the AIPWA, the Janvadi Lekhak Sangh and the Jan Sanskriti Manch, no institutional mechanism is in place even now to help needy writers and protect their interests.

The manifesto was approved at a meeting held in a room at a Chinese restaurant and was published in The Left Review in February 1936, and Premchand was so impressed with it that he published a slightly diluted version in Hans in October 1935. At the second PWA conference held in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in December 1938, its final version was approved. Both the versions talked about radical changes taking place in Indian society, old ideas, beliefs and social and political institutions being challenged and a new society arising out of the turmoil and conflict. Rakhshanda Jalil has appended all the three versions as annexures at the end of the book.

The first AIPWA conference in Lucknow was a resounding success and the talk of socialism and a new renaissance was in the air. Well-known Urdu writers such as Firaq Gorakhpuri (who read a paper), Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Mian Iftikharuddin and Saghar Nizami and the Hindi writer Jainendra Kumar were among those who attended it.

There was no looking back, and the PWM as well as the PWA went from strength to strength between 1936 and 1947, the years Rakhshanda Jalil describes as the glory days. She quotes Ralph Russell who, while travelling in India for the first time in 1949, observed that almost every Urdu writer of any note was a progressive.

The author has provided detailed profiles of prominent poets such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Asrarul Haq ‘Majaz’, Makhdoom Mohiuddin, Miraji, Ali Sardar Jafri, Sahir Ludhianavi, Kaifi Azmi, Saadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chughtai, Rajinder Singh Bedi and Krishan Chander in two chapters on progressive poetry and progressive prose. These are very fine critical essays that deal with the life and works of these prominent writers associated with the PWM.

Although Manto was never accepted as a progressive writer in his lifetime, Rakhshanda Jalil has done well to include him in her book. She also makes a perceptive comment about him: “If we are to view Manto’s relationship with the progressives, it can be said that the progressives had an ideology, while he had a world view; both had their roots in the Russian Revolution.”

While the author has pondered over the possible reasons for Manto’s decision to leave Bombay (now Mumbai) and migrate to Pakistan, she has not come up with any answer. It also remains a mystery why Manto chose to live a life of penury in Lahore when the option of returning to India was available in those days and his city, Amritsar, was so close to Lahore.

The fact that a genius like Manto was shunned by the progressives tells us a lot about their rigid attitude which ultimately proved to be the nemesis of the PWM and accelerated the process of the weakening of its organisational expression, the PWA. While initially there was a creative as well as organisational synergy among PWA and other allied organisations such as the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), gradually the Communist Party of India’s (CPI) influence became stronger and writers were expected to write in accordance with the tenets of socialist realism. The CPI’s stand during the Quit India Movement and later its support for the Pakistan demand alienated people from it.

In the concluding chapter on the decline of the PWM, Rakhshanda Jalil offers a fascinating account of the “Pakistan Operation” entrusted to Zaheer by the CPI—a stupendous task by all means in view of the aversion of the Muslim masses for the atheistic communism and of the middle classes for the Russia-centric approach of the communists.

Rakhshanda Jalil has rendered a great service by writing this extremely informative book at a time when the successors of the PWA are gasping for breath.

The book will become compulsory reading for those who are interested in understanding the phenomenon of the PWM. She has done extensive research, which has enabled her to present a fascinating account of the PWM’s rise and decline.

It refutes the allegation that the PWM was a foreign plant grafted on to Indian soil by a group of London-based leftists and delineates the process of its growth in all its richness.

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