Maharashtra

End of ordeal for Urdu writer

Print edition : September 16, 2016

Rahman Abbas. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

ELEVEN years of law courts, hardships, stress of remaining in the spotlight over serious charges, and a period of being jobless would have cowed down most people, but not Rahman Abbas. He is a writer who, in 2015, returned his Maharashtra State Urdu Sahitya Academi Award in protest against the growing intolerance of Hindu right-wing groups and the failure of the state to arrest the murderers of the rationalists Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M.M. Kalburgi.

The 44-year-old Urdu writer little imagined that his first novel ‘Nakhalistan ki Talash’ (In Search of an Oasis), published in 2004, would cause him to pass through an ordeal. When a 19-year-old student in Mumbai University’s Urdu department read the book, she found some paragraphs obscene. A complaint was lodged and Abbas was charged under Section 292 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, for the printing of “grossly indecent or scurrilous text”. He lost his job as a teacher at the Anjuman-e-Islam High School and Allana Junior College and also found that he was being pilloried in the Urdu press.

He said, “My book is about a liberal character who becomes a terrorist and joins a Kashmiri terrorist organisation after the Babri Masjid demolition. But before he became an Islamist, he was a secular person, he questioned religious systems, and he wanted to think for himself. This was the part of the book the fundamentalists did not like. Their main charge was actually this questioning of religion, but they never filed a case on this. Instead, the fundamentalists who opposed this aspect of the book supported the obscenity charge.”

Realising that fundamentalist forces were firing from the girl’s shoulder, some writers and journalists, including Sajid Rashid, approached the college principal and asked him why Abbas should lose his job because of his book. But, said Abbas, “There were too many pressures on him and I had to go. Powerful people were involved, there was even a Minister.”

Following this there was a long period of difficulty for Abbas and his family. He said: “No minority institution would employ me. Finally I got a job as a teacher in Tarapur.” It involved a commute of four hours, two either way.

Abbas said he “could never return to teaching… definitely not in a minority institution. They want to control your way of thinking; they won’t allow you to question. I feel I want to interpret things the way I want to interpret them. How can they control my thoughts?” He now works at Strategic Foresight Group as South Asia Security Research Officer. He continues to write.

While Abbas is elated at the judgment, he remains discouraged by the attitude of the Urdu media. “The Urdu media should promote secular ideas rather than religious ideas. Urdu is a liberal language. Its literature is a history of progressive thought. Then how can the media get into the hands of the Taliban? The Islamisation of the Urdu media is only about 15 or 20 years old and you can say there are geopolitical reasons for this, but the Urdu media should stop playing into the hands of fanatics and fundamentalists.”He is clear that as a writer his focus was the ethos around him. “I am a Maharashtrian Muslim from Mumbai. I will see my Mumbai, my nation and the religious ideas around me. I don’t want to believe in any given perception. I want to explore things from a common man’s perspective. Democracy and nationalism are glorified, but on the ground they don’t exist. My protagonist looks at everything from his own experience. I try to reconstruct what the real is. I saw the riots in Mumbai and they affected me. I saw how they distanced friends, how they divided people. An entire generation was influenced by those riots. It taught me to stand against those who use politics to divide people.... To that extent my books are political writings.”

The writings of Manto, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Milan Kundera, and George Orwell (“1984”) influenced him, he said and added that as a writer it was his “duty to speak for your fellow citizens”.

Asked about taking forward the fight against Article 292, he said: “Yes. Article 292 was a British imposition based on their puritanical Christian doctrines. In Indian civilisation, we don’t have these puritanical concepts. Our perceptions of looking at life, literature, art are liberal and secular. We have Khajuraho, the Kama Sutra, nude deities—they are not obscene. They are inspirational. Even British law has done away with this article. I plan to bring together writers in all the Indian languages and form a writers’ forum.”

Lyla Bavadam

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