The renowned Urdu poet Allama Iqbal’s poem “Bacche ki dua (A child’s prayer)” has attracted several sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) after it was recited in a government school in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh.
Written in 1902, the poem, which begins “Lab pe aati hai dua ban ke tamanna meri (My heart’s desire comes to my lips as a prayer)”, encourages young people to carry the torch for change, commit their lives to education and community service, fight against poverty, and assist the elderly and the underprivileged. There are no religious allusions in the poem. The word “Allah” appears in the final couplet, where the child begs God to keep him/her from engaging in wicked deeds and guide him/her toward the path of righteousness.
On December 21, 2022, a local functionary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) filed an FIR in Faridpur Police Station against the principal and a teacher of Kamla Nehru Primary School, Bareilly.
The FIR stated: “The principal Nahid Siddiqui and a teacher Waziruddin of Kamla Nehru Primary school have forced students to carry out morning prayers in the Muslim manner with the intent of hurting the sentiments of Hindus.”
Vinay Kumar, Basic Shiksha Adhikari (education official) of Bareilly, told Frontline that the objection was raised over a line in the poem which referred to “Allah”.
Following the FIR, Sections 298 and 153 of the IPC, which deal with hurting religious sentiments and provoking with an intent to cause a riot, were imposed on the principal and the teacher. While Siddiqui was temporarily suspended, Waziruddin, a Shiksha Mitra or teaching associate under the State government, was remanded to judicial custody for 14 days. Waziruddin was granted bail on January 2 and released the following day. Siddiqui has since been transferred and Waziruddin suspended by Kamla Nehru Primary School.
Ghalib ours, Iqbal theirs
Talking about this case, Zafar Anjum, biographer of Iqbal and author of Iqbal: The Life of a Poet, Philosopher and Politician, said, “I am not surprised to read about a case like this coming from Uttar Pradesh. I have earlier read similar reports. However, I find it strange that despite passing away in 1938, much before Independence and the partition of India, Iqbal is still considered to be the spiritual father of Pakistan.”
In his Allahabad address of 1930 in British-ruled India, Iqbal presented his poetic vision of a “Muslim state” and outlined a vision of an independent state for the great Muslim-majority provinces in north-western India. According to Anjum, Iqbal is generally credited with creating the idea of Pakistan; in reality, the two-nation theory was already common currency by then.
Anjum told Frontline that while Iqbal is seen as a communal individual, this is far from the truth. He said: “Iqbal called [Lord] Ram Imam-e Hind [Leader of India], was proud of his Brahmin ancestry, and believed in multiculturalism, which precludes any feelings of ill-will against any community while still stressing the uniqueness and specific character of each community.”
He added: “A universal poet like Iqbal should have been a shared legacy of both India and Pakistan. However, while the Pakistanis adopted him as their national poet, his legacy in India dimmed over time. Thus, Ghalib became ours and Iqbal became theirs.” He added that Iqbal’s and Jinnah’s fears for Muslims have come to pass now with an unveiled assertion of Hindutva domination in today’s Indian politics.
Chander Bhan Khayal, winner of the 2021 Sahitya Akademi award for Urdu and former vice chairman of the National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language (NCPUL), said that the FIR was an attempt to evoke religious sentiments and is clearly “politically motivated”.
“Allah is just another word for God. How does it matter which language you remember God in?” he asked, adding that language is separate from religion. In the Hindi-Urdu belt in North India, he said, this poem has been sung for decades. About Iqbal, he said, “He always showed a mirror to the Muslim community through his art. In fact, he questioned the Muslim ways and so critically that there were several fatwas against him.”
Syed Abid Hussain, an Urdu poet based in Uttar Pradesh, believes that this demonisation of the Urdu language will greatly harm the secular fabric of the country. He said: “Iqbal is the same poet who penned the famous Saare jahan se achcha Hindostan hamara. Poetry and literature cannot be seen in a one-dimensional way, as they transcend the boundaries of caste, religion and race.”
Shams Ur Rahman Alavi, a senior journalist based in Madhya Pradesh who writes on issues of communal harmony, said that the process of the otherisation of the Urdu language has been ongoing for several decades. He told Frontline: “There have been times when Urdu text has been presented in court as suspicious evidence just because it was written in Urdu language. In my reporting experiences, I have seen several such cases.”
He also said that this targeting of Urdu has been institutionalised: “It is a concealed attack on the Muslim identity in the public space. In the larger public imagination, Urdu is considered to be the language of Muslims, which is factually and historically incorrect.”
A complex relationship
Uttar Pradesh has always had a complicated relationship with Urdu. In the past, there have been rows over oath-taking in Urdu in both houses of the State Assembly. Rule 282 of the Uttar Pradesh Legislative Assembly says: “Subject to the provisions of the Constitution, the business of the Assembly shall be transacted in Hindi language and Devnagari script.”
Soon after the 1996 Assembly election, Samajwadi Party legislators Alam Badi and Wasim Ahmed, who represented Nizamabad and Gopalpur in Azamgarh district, protested for several days, demanding that they be administered the oath in Urdu. They argued that because Urdu was recognised as the second official language in Uttar Pradesh, it was their constitutional right to take the oath of membership in the language of their choice.
When the then-chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Vir Bahadur Singh (1985–1988), announced that people who opted for Urdu as their second language should be forced to sit on a donkey and paraded, the renowned poet Kaifi Azmi returned his Padma Shri in protest, declaring that he had written in Urdu all his life and if his State’s Chief Minister held such views on the language, he, as a writer, must stand up for himself.
Interestingly, even as the VHP opposes Allama Iqbal’s poetry, the chief of the RSS, its parent organisation, used Iqbal’s poem in a 2020 speech in Indore, Madhya Pradesh.
In his address, Mohan Bhagwat had recited: “Kuchh baat hai ki hasti mitti nahin hamari, sadiyon raha hai dushman daur-e-zaman hamara (There is something about our existence for it doesn’t get wiped/Even though, for centuries, the time-cycle of the world has been our enemy).”
- On December 21, 2022, a local functionary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad filed an FIR in Faridpur Police Station against the principal and a teacher of Kamla Nehru Primary School, Bareilly after its students recited the Urdu poet Iqbal’s 1902 poem “Bacche ki dua (A child’s prayer)”.
- The FIR stated: “The principal Nahid Siddiqui and a teacher Waziruddin of Kamla Nehru Primary school have forced students to carry out morning prayers in the Muslim manner with the intent of hurting the sentiments of Hindus.”
- Sections 298 and 153 of the IPC, which deal with hurting religious sentiments and provoking with an intent to cause a riot, were imposed on the principal and the teacher.
- While Siddiqui was temporarily suspended, Waziruddin, a Shiksha Mitra or teaching associate under the State government, was remanded to judicial custody for 14 days. Siddiqui has since been transferred and Waziruddin suspended by Kamla Nehru Primary school.