Interview: Rahman Abbas

‘Writers and thinkers should speak up’

Print edition : April 15, 2016

Rahman Abbas: "I love my nation, but cannot be forced to blindly follow the policies of a political party." Photo: By Special Arrangement

Interview with Rahman Abbas, Urdu writer.

THE Urdu language, rather unfairly, is being associated with a particular community. Against this background, Urdu writers are aggrieved at the decision of the National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language (NCPUL) to issue an advisory to authors to refrain from criticising the government or any of its policies “in national interest” if they want their books to be approved for bulk purchase under the NCPUL’s monetary assistance scheme.

Not that they are taking it lying down. Leading the charge is the Mumbai-based author Rahman Abbas. His was among the more active voices heard during the tolerance-intolerance debate trigged by the decision of many authors to return their Sahitya Akademi awards last year. Barely a few weeks after the launch of his new book Rohzin (The Melancholy of Soul) as part of the Jashn-e-Rekhta Urdu literary festival in New Delhi, he took up the cudgels again on behalf of the authors who feel angry and helpless at the NCPUL decision. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:

The NCPUL has reportedly written to authors asking them to refrain from being critical of government policies in their works. How do you think writers can counter this?

The NCPUL has stated in its form that books submitted should not be against the policies of the government or against the interest of the nation. Nor shall it have any sign which could create enmity among different communities. If ever that is noted, the NCPUL will have the right to get back the financial help rendered to the author. Here, the phrase “book should not be against the policies of the government” is dangerous and must be defined. The NCPUL should also list the policies of the government on which writers should never comment in their books or novels. Tell us about the social milieu and situation on which stories should not be written. Tell us the names of the characters if we use in our books that might create enmity between communities. In a nutshell, these guidelines are undemocratic and an effort to curb creative writing and imagination. The question is, do people and writers of this county have the freedom to criticise a political party or not? Is forcing writers and thinkers to follow blindly the agenda and policies of the ruling party violation of human rights or not? If thinkers and writers are not free to write and take part in the democratic process, how will our democracy move forward?

I love my nation, but cannot be forced to blindly follow the policies of a political party. I request each and all to raise this concern in the media and through political platforms to ensure the freedom to criticise the policies of the government.

Away from the world of censored thoughts of the NCPUL, there seems to be a revival of Urdu in non-Urdu speaking circles, thanks to literary festivals like Jashn-e-Rekhta. How do you, as an Urdu novelist, look at the phenomenon?

The interest non-Urdu speaking people are showing in Urdu poetry, language and fiction is amazing. I have witnessed this phenomenon at festivals like Jashn-e-Rekhta. I have met many youths who have learnt the Urdu script and are now writing both poetry and prose in Urdu. In fact, this is because of the glamour of the Urdu language and its cultural heritage, and Rekhta as a neo-centre of cultural activities is promoting this with passion and vigour. The miserable condition of the Urdu education system was affecting the aesthetics of the language and it was incapable to promote talents needed for literature.

The situation of Urdu schools was alarming, and unfortunately in most places the language had fallen into the hands of religious people who were more enthusiastic towards religious values contrary to the traditions of the Urdu language and culture.

It has become fashionable to use Urdu in social circles, even grace mushairas. Yet the language remains delinked from the economy. How does one correct this anomaly?

This disgrace was caused by the political misdemeanour and the dirty communal mindset that had held the Urdu language, rather than political personalities, responsible for the partition of India. Thus, Urdu was delinked from economic activities. This was a “collective crime” against a purely Indian language, and this can only be rectified if the political class rises above communal politics and wishes to do justice to Urdu.

Last year you were among the first to return the Sahitya Akademi Award you got for your work “Khuda Ke Saye Mein…” There have been allegations since then that the award wapsi was politically motivated. And the authors and artistes who were so vocal during that phase were silent since the Bihar elections. How do you look at that criticism?

The allegation that the returning of the award was politically motivated was a “fabricated lie” spread by the spokespersons of a political party which believes in “manufactured hatred” in our society. Creative talents, writers and thinkers recognised the “fascist ideology” which was behind the political party. We know that at such times it is the duty of writers to speak the truth. The award-returning action was an effort to speak up against the tyrannical political forces and the fascist ideology. After that award returning by writers, people from different walks of life came forward and started speaking against communal politics.

More on the intolerance debate, in the given atmosphere, are you not a little scared about the consequences of what you write?

The love for the country and its people is stronger than the fear of intolerant forces. The intolerant forces are against all of us who love our country and want to stop the fascist ideology, but history shows us that it is the duty of writers and thinkers to speak up against fascism. So, the struggle against the ideology of hate must continue without paying attention to consequences. Alice Walker once said that “activism is my rent for living on this planet”. I think Indian writers are ready to pay the rent.

You are not unaccustomed to controversy. More than a decade ago you were charged under Section 292 of the Indian Penal Code for your work “Nakhlistan ki Talash”. Has there been always an uneasy relationship between the self-appointed guardians of public morality and a writer zealously guarding his creative space?

Exactly. There are forces against creative expression and there are writers who believe in the freedom of expression and struggle for it. This struggle is very old. However, we also know that in many countries writers have got complete creative freedom. The fight for the freedom of expression will yield result one day, and that day Article 292 will be removed from the IPC or amended. That day writers will breathe in peace as there will be no fear of self-appointed guardians of morality.

Given a layered social crisis that we are experiencing today, do you think the time is ripe for a new Progressive Writers Movement? Is there a need to raise one’s voice against competitive communalism, rampant casteism and the incessant flow of wealth to a handful of capitalists?

The entire JNU episode is a message, and it would be in the interest of the nation that our political class read it out, sooner than later. This country is not capable of tolerating rampant casteism, communalism and hate politics or politics in the name of religion. The writers of this country, I mean most of them, are progressive and against the politics of hate. The role they have got to play, I think, they are playing. However, it would be better if the voices against casteism, communalism and fascism unite and become rather strong.

Could you elaborate on the relevance of Urdu in an increasingly globalised world?

Urdu is a language of love, peace and harmony. The globalised world is looking for peace and coexistence, which is the ultimate goal of humanity too, and hence I think Urdu can play a larger role in bringing people and communities together and defeat the forces of hate.

What can we expect from your pen next? And when will a translation of your work be available alongside the original?

My fourth novel, Rohzin, was published during the Rekhta festival in Delhi. I am sure within the next four months the Hindi and English translations of this novel will be available. Moreover, my second novel, EK Mamnua Muhabbat Ki Kahani (Story of a Forbidden Love), has been translated into Hindi and will be published in May this year.

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