Urdu & secularism

Print edition : September 08, 2006

A clutch of new books focus on the progressive nationalist tradition of Urdu poetry.

PERPETRATORS of the linguistic genocide of Urdu in Uttar Pradesh and other States of the Hindi belt never tired of accusing Urdu of complicity in the partition of India. The sub-text, of course, was that it was the language of Muslims and the medium through which the demand for Pakistan was propagated. The Muslim League's stand on Urdu played into their hands.

In truth, Urdu was, until Independence, the language of Indian nationalism. Inquilab Zindabad (Long live the Revolution) was the battle cry of Indian nationalists. Prof. K.C. Kanda's judicious compilation of patriotic Urdu poetry alone serves to refute the charge of Hindu communalists and the claims of Muslim communalists. Ram Parshad Bismil, Durga Sahay Saroor, Brij Narain Chakbast, Tilok Chand Mehroom, Raghupati Sahay, Firaq Gorakhpuri and Jagannath Azad rank high among those who enriched Urdu poetry.

As Ali Sardar Jafri wrote: "Urdu poetry has recorded the major events of the last 250 years with all their concomitant joys and sorrows, tears and laughters, heart-aches and heart-breaks with extraordinary force, clarity, warmth and aesthetic excellence. No major event has gone unrecorded, be it the Battle of Plassey in 1757 and the advent of East India Company rule or 1857 rebellion, freedom struggle, Independence and Partition in 1947, events of 1962, 1965, 1971, December 6, 1992. There is a monumental body of Urdu poetry on all this - poetry that is excellent and highly charged.

"The Battle of Plassey in 1757 effectively terminated Indian sovereignty with the defeat of Siraj-ud-daulah of Bengal and marked the establishment of East India Company rule. An Urdu poet of the day, Raja Ram Narain Mauzun, recorded the physical and emotional desolation of 1757, the desolation that set in after the end of the old, indigenous dispensation and the beginning of the new rule by white aliens.

"I would quote two lines from Mauzun's poetry that is still in popular coinage. Majnoon, the love-lorn, lonesome character who used to roam the desert and wilderness looking for his beloved Laila is a familiar figure in Urdu poetry. He epitomises selfless love; he stands as a symbol of idealism, Laila is the ideal. Now see how Mauzun records the poignancy of the Plassey tragedy: Ghazala tum to waqif ho kaho Majnun ke marne ki/ Deewana mar gaya aakhir ko weeranae pe keya guzri (O deer, you must have seen Majnoon dying/ But, tell me, how the wilderness lives without him)."

Firaq Gorakhpuri, a giant in the Golden Age of Urdu poetry.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

The tradition continued. Urdu poets mourned the devastation of Delhi by Nadir Shah, the massacres of 1857, the decline that set in, and the revolts that followed. They mourned the partition of India as poignantly. Hardly a handful supported the Muslim League.

With the deaths of its three giants around the same time, the Golden Age of Urdu poetry ended. Both Firaq Gorakhpuri and Josh Malihabadi died in 1982. Faiz Ahmed Faiz passed away in 1984. All three belonged to the Progressive Writers' Association (PWA) which was launched in 1934 and in which they and other Urdu poets like Ali Sardar Jafri, Makhdoom Mohiuddin, Asrar-ul-Haq Majaz, Sahir Ludhianvi, Kaifi Azmi and Majrooh Sultanpuri played a prominent part. The movement was not Urdu-centric. Its leaders reached out to poets and writers not only in Hindi but in Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, Tamil and Kannada.

Its chief organiser was Sajjad Zaheer, a man of letters and a committed member of the Communist Party of India (CPI). In 1954 he completed writing in a jail in Balochistan a history of the movement, entitled Roshnai. Amina Azfar has produced a superb translation of the work in English. The volume carries two Introductions; one to the Urdu text by the author's colleague in the movement, Sibte Hasan, and the other to the English translation by Ahmad Ali Khan, one of the ablest editors Pakistan's leading daily Dawn has had; an upright journalist and a fine gentleman.

By a happy coincidence, a work on progressive Urdu poetry by the brothers Ali Husain Mir and Raza Mir appears at the same time. They grew up in Hyderabad on progressive poetry and are university professors in the United States. The two volumes complement each other eminently. Sajjad Zaheer's is inescapably a subjective account, detailed in some episodes, silent on others. The academics, though sympathetic to the movement, are objective in their analyses of its shortcomings.

The movement blazed like a meteor across the firmament. Ahmad Ali Khan recalls: "Fairly early in its career it had its democratic and egalitarian ideals endorsed by the greatest living poets and men of letters. These included such stalwarts as Rabindranath Tagore, Dr. Muhammad Iqbal, Maulvi Abdul Haq, Vallathol, and Maulana Hasrat Mohani. The greatest living fiction writer of the time, Munshi Premchand, was in another category. Not content with giving his blessings to the new literary movement, he became a partisan and remained involved with its work and fortunes until his last breath.

"Among leading politicians, the movement received support from Jawaharlal Nehru and Jayaprakash Narayan. Sarojini Naidu, a leading poetess, and Acharya Narendra Dev, an eminent scholar of Persian and Sanskrit - both of them leading political figures - lent their active support to it. Also, the Progressives counted among their active supporters such widely respected scholars as Dr. Tara Chand."

The group which drafted a manifesto and launched the movement in London in 1934 comprised Mulk Raj Anand, Promode Sengupta, M.D. Taseer, Jyoti Gosh and Sajjad Zaheer. It soon won an impressive array of adherents in India, including Hiren Mukherjee, Josh, Dr. Abdul Haq, Firaq, Faiz and Ahmad Nadeem Qazmi, all thanks to Sajjad Zaheer's labours and organisational skills. It faced opposition on three grounds - communist affiliation, political partisanship and purists of "art for art's sake".

A vast number of journals appeared. Partition crippled the movement as did the CPI's hardline in 1948. But the movement survives still "as a school of thought" and "its principles retain their vitality and relevance as an unfailing source of inspiration". Its leaders were worthy heirs to a fine tradition. With them ended the Golden Age of Urdu poetry that began in the 19th century and continued till Independence and beyond. Unfortunately, neither its critics nor its leaders like Sajjad Zaheer cared for nuances in their theses. Hafeez Malik, a Pakistani academic settled in the U.S., wrote a critique The Marxist Literary Movement in India and Pakistan in The Journal of Asian Studies in August 1967 during the Cold War. He linked the first All India Progressive Writers' Conference held in Lucknow on April 10, 1936, to the establishment of the Union of Soviet Writers. Sajjad Zaheer's memoir records that many of the leaders, including Faiz, lived in penury. They did not know how to organise a conference. Some of the leading lights were not Communist; Josh was foremost among them. Incidentally, it was in the Aligarh Muslim University that the young Left leaders were educated.

Munshi Premchand's presidential address is relevant still. "If you cannot see beauty in a poor woman whose perspiration flows as, laying down her sleeping child on a mound along the field, she works in the field, then, it is your own vision that is to blame. For, behind those wilted lips and withered cheeks reside sacrifice, devotion, and endurance. Youth is not the name for poetic ecstasy and sighing over the coyness, perverseness, and vanity of the fair sex; it is the name for idealism, courage, endurance, and sacrifice, it will prepare us to dig out the foundations of a culture in which thousands of human beings are subjected to the tyranny of one. Invested with dignity, our people will revolt against capitalism, militantism, and elitism, and we [the writers] will no longer be satisfied with creating on paper, but will create a system that will not be incompatible with beauty, good taste, dignity, and humanity."

He ended his address with these words: "On our touchstone, only that literature will be judged genuine which embodies thought, the desire for freedom, the essence of beauty, the spirit of progress, the light of reality; the literature that will produce movement, restlessness, and a tumult within us, that will not put us to sleep - because any more sleep can only be a precursor of death."

Nehru also addressed the conference. The movement was not out to discard the past. Sajjad Zaheer wrote: "We have received a precious inheritance of culture, skill, and language from our past. Into it we have blended, according to our means and requirements, what we have drawn from the culture, knowledge, and skill of other nations. If our present individual or collective life demands that in order to achieve material benefits, intellectual progress, and moral and spiritual exaltation we devise and adopt new and revolutionary means, then experience and common sense dictate that the true values of culture, knowledge, and morals, which are the heritage of our great and ancient nation, should be absorbed in the conscience of the new civilisation that we are erecting."

The Statesman, then British-owned, came out with an attack by "Our Special Correspondent" which was, in fact, written in the Central Intelligence Bureau. It influenced waverers but not the rest. Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru disagreed with the movement but helped it financially. Maulvi Abdul Haq (Baba-e-Urdu: Father of Urdu) was an enthusiastic supporter. In 1952 he presided over the second All Pakistan Progressive Writers' Conference in Karachi.

Much that one finds in the volume bears on our present situation. Tagore's comments on Bande Mataram and on the Hindi-Urdu conflict, for instance: "I do not at all understand this bias and narrow-mindedness. The [Congress] Working Committee was right in expurgating the portion of the lyric. Actually, Nehru had asked me for my view and I gave him this same advice. Our national anthem should be such that every one of our countrymen can sing it happily and with respect. How can Muslims, who are opposed to idol worship, ever sing a national anthem in which Kali has been addressed? The truth is that I have the same view, and I don't like it. But some people are so narrow-minded and ignorant that they don't care for other people's faith or feeling."

Tagore also said: "I can't understand this Urdu-Hindi conflict. After all, you people speak the same language, you can give it any name you like. And if you want to write for the people and want them to understand you, then the difference between the two languages becomes even less." Those who aggravated "the difference" for their own political ends harmed both the languages.

MUHAMMAD IQBAL, ONE of many great poets who endorsed the Progressive Writers' Association.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

The movement spread in Bengal, Punjab, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Sajjad Zaheer had an arresting style. "While people who knew English had some chance of finding jobs, most of the youths who had pursued Arabic, Persian and Islamic studies became even worse hit by joblessness and starvation. These young men noticed that while a small number of landed ulema [clergy] and scions of Sufi houses lived lives of luxury despite their claims to piety and Sufism, for them all highways of life were closed. Then their uncouth looks, beards that looked like wild grass on youthful faces, pajamas that stayed above their ankles in accordance with religious injunctions, their old-fashioned garments, may have commanded some respect during marriage and milad functions, and Eid and funeral prayers, but the rest of the time people saw them as odd, comical characters. Although the common people made fun of those who discarded their own ethnological characteristics and culture, and tried too hard to adopt the ways of the British Sahib, their ridicule also targeted the conservatism and antiquated proclivities of these puppets of religiosity."

Soon Bombay became the centre of the movement. Its film industry attracted poets, playwrights and novelists. It has a distinctive work culture which the Lucknavi found daunting. The author makes a telling point. "It is interesting that in this period of eight or ten years (1936 to 1947), despite the fact that communalists talked loudly about the defence of the Urdu language and Muslim culture and projected themselves as great supporters of Urdu, not a single memorable poem was written under the influence of communal concepts and thoughts and the emotions generated by them. Nor was any other form of literary excellence created" (emphasis added).

At the end of the day even critics came to admire the movement. One of them, Professor Rashid Ahmad Siddiqui, a close friend of Dr. Zakir Hussain, said in 1951: "Personally I am of the view that whatever the aims of the Progressives, there have never been in the history of Urdu as many new, successful and useful experiments in the subject matter and modes of expression, as there have been in the past fifteen or sixteen years. And although the Progressives do not love me, I believe that they have done valuable service to Urdu. In dispelling the horrors that followed, the partition of the country and in confronting the powers of reaction, the jihad that the Progressive writers waged with their pens will be remembered with gratitude, not only in Urdu literature, but also in the history of this land. Some of the works that were created during this jihad of the writers have the status of classics in Urdu literature." His daughter Salma married a short story writer Kishan Chander, one of the movement's leading lights.

The book is about the movement, not the CPI; but Sajjad Zaheer is rather coy about discussing the impact of the CPI's policies on the movement given the fact that he, Jafri and Kaifi were party activists. The CPI went into travails in 1939 when the war broke out; in 1941, when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union; and in 1942 when Communist members of the Congress did not support the All India Congress Committee's Quit India resolution. In 1948, P.C. Joshi was removed as the general secretary of the CPI and was succeeded by B.T. Ranadive, a hardliner. Sajjad Zaheer was sent to Pakistan to organise the Communist Party. He became its general secretary and resigned as general secretary of the PWA. Imprisoned in the Rawalpindi conspiracy case, he returned to India after his release in 1955. He became general secretary of the PWA once again.

The Mir brothers' book faces these facts squarely but sympathetically. "It is an attempt to retrieve the spirit of resistance that once roamed so freely in the landscape of Urdu literature during the progressive writers' movement." Unlike Light (Roshnai), which was written in prison, they reproduce important documents and provide significant details. It was in the evening of November 24, 1934, in London's Nanking Hotel that the pioneers met and launched the movement. They reproduce its manifesto, a historic document, in full.

The English version was published in London's Left Review in February 1936. "It is the duty of Indian writers to give expression to the changes taking place in Indian life and to assist in the spirit of progress in the country. Indian literature, since the breakdown of classical literature, has had the fatal tendency to escape from the actualities of life. It has tried to find a refuge from reality in spiritualism and idealism. The result has been that it has produced a rigid formalism and a banal and perverse ideology.

"Witness the mystical devotional obsession of our literature, its furtive and sentimental attitude towards sex, its emotional exhibitionism and its almost total lack of rationality. Such literature was produced particularly during the past two centuries, one of the most unfortunate periods of our history, a period of disintegrating feudalism and of acute misery and degradation for the Indian people as whole.

"It is the object of our Association to rescue literature and other arts from the priestly, academic and decadent classes in whose hands they have degenerated so long; to bring the arts into the closest touch with the people; and to make them the vital organs which will register the actualities of life, as well as lead us to the future." People who talk or write thus gain good enemies. They resolved to establish organisations of writers to correspond to the various linguistic zones of India and the co-ordinations of these organisations by holding conferences, publishing of magazines, pamphlets, and so on.

The movement grew because the soil was ready to accept its seeds. It reflected the intellectuals' restiveness and it flourished. Ali Sardar Jafri, one of its ideologues, admitted that by 1949 it was affected by extremism and narrow-mindedness. It produced the finest of 20th century Indian writing but was rent apart by schisms.

Ali Husain Mir and Raza Mir record that the 1949 manifesto, at the Bhivandi conference, "was intended to draw a line of ideological clarity, but the enthusiasm with which the leaders of the PWA went after those who appeared to cross it damaged its own cause. The process of chastising the poets and writers who were seen as guilty of abandoning their ideology had started before the new manifesto, but intensified soon after. The public disavowal of Ismat Chughatai, Saadat Hasan Manto, N.M. Rashid and Miraji for their writings on sex and sexuality is well known. Rajender Singh Bedi was taken to task for not focussing on political themes in his writing. Even Faiz came under attack, mostly for his `ambiguity' and was even accused (clearly, a ludicrous charge) of being a Muslim League sympathiser."

It was a sad turn in the movement's fortunes. Its leaders were creative but some of them were intolerant. They imparted a new turn to old themes, even religious ones, to convey a new message. They were worthy heirs to a noble tradition. Ghalib would have warmly lauded Faiz.

In India, today, Urdu languishes under many a handicap. In the Gujarat pogrom of March 2002 the grave of one of Urdu's earliest poets Wali Deccani-Gujarati was levelled. It was right outside a police station. No one speaks of its restoration, now; not even Congressmen. No one, but no one, asks for its reconstruction; it is an accurate reflection of the mood in the country.

The Mir brothers' book discusses "the deployment of Urdu poetry as a tool of Indian nationalism particularly by the poets of the Progressive Writers Association", their internationalist ethos and their performance as film lyricists. The role of Sahir Ludhianvi as "an exemplary Progressive" and the new trends in Urdu poetry are analysed. The authors tell us that Carlo Coppola's unpublished, magisterial 1975 dissertation, Urdu Poetry, 1935-1970 lies in the University of Chicago. One wishes it would be published before long.

The PWA's 30th anniversary celebration was held in New Delhi in 1966. It was its "last hurrah. The season of resistance that the movement had brought about in the field of Urdu literature was coming to an end." During the emergency it was Faiz whom the detainees in prison quoted:

Mataa-e lauh-o qalam chhin gayi to kya gham hai

Ke khoon-e dil mein duboli hain ungliyaan main ne

Zabaan pe mohr lagi hai to kya, ke rakh di hai

Har ek halqa-e zanjeer mein zabaan main ne.

Ali Sardar Jafri.He admitted that by 1949 the PWA had been affected by extremism.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

So what if my pen has been snatched away from me

I have dipped my fingers in the blood of my heart

So what if my mouth has been sealed; I have turned

Every link of my chain into a speaking tongue.

At least two of the leading lights of the movement collaborated with Indira Gandhi's regime during the Emergency.

Hostility towards Urdu among the Sangh Parivar and its neglect by very many others continue unabated. There are signs, fortunately, of serious renewal of serious concern. A collection of essays published recently reflects that (Redefining Urdu Politics in India edited by Ather Ali; Oxford University Press; pages 309, Rs.595).

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