Yet another falsity

The revolutionary Bengali poet Kazi Nazrul Islam joins the pantheon of heroes and legends the Sangh Parivar has co-opted as its own. The tag attached to him is that of a “good Hindu”.

Published : May 10, 2017 12:30 IST

Kazi Nazrul Islam. He is now being hailed as an icon by Hindutva groups.

Kazi Nazrul Islam. He is now being hailed as an icon by Hindutva groups.

HINDUTVA propagandists are at it again. This time, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) is using Goebbelsian tactics to spin a yarn about the revolutionary Bengali poet Kazi Nazrul Islam being a “good Hindu”. The Sangh Parivar claims that “Kazi Nazrul Islam practised Islam, yet he lived as a dedicated Hindu”, reinforcing the stereotypical claim made two decades ago by the then Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi of “every Indian being a Hindu, including some who were Mohammadiya Hindu and others who were Jesui Hindu”. Ahead of Nazrul’s birth anniversary on May 25, the RSS plans to get his works translated into all Indian languages.

With this new attempt at the appropriation of the “other”, the RSS has struck a blow for its relentless efforts to find national heroes for itself. Thus, Nazrul is all set to join the pantheon of B.R. Ambedkar, Vallabhbhai Patel and Bhagat Singh, who were at one time or the other co-opted by the RSS. In the run-up to the general election in 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi went out of his way to eulogise Patel and promised to build the tallest statue in the world dedicated to the leader in Gujarat. Modi’s bid apparently was to obfuscate the truth about Sardar Patel, who, as Home Minister, had banned the RSS and questioned its nationalistic credentials for trampling over the tricolour. At the time of Independence, the Sangh Parivar was upset at the choice of the tricolour for the national flag, preferring instead the Bhagwa dhwaj (saffron flag).

A decade earlier, during the prime ministership of A.B. Vajpayee, a similar attempt was made to appropriate the legacy of Bhagat Singh. In its zeal to cover him in the saffron hue, it was forgotten that Bhagat Singh, an atheist, had exposed cruelties inflicted on the poor in the name of religion. The Hindutva brigade, which was keen to find a hero of its own during the national freedom struggle, brushed this too aside. At that time, attempts were made to highlight Bhagat Singh’s Arya Samaji roots.

During the general election in 2014, posters were put up in Delhi University and Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi calling Bhagat Singh a “desh bhakt”, “rashtra bhakt” and “virat purush”. This attempt to “remind the nation” of its heroes smacked of similar words used by the Hindutva brigade for its own heroes, V.D. Savarkar, M.S. Golwalkar and K.B. Hedgewar. L.K. Advani was also hailed as loh purush (iron man) once.

Worse, a story doing the rounds on social media claimed that the execution of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru fell on February 14 when they were actually executed on March 23, 1931. This “new fact”, many believed, was the handiwork of the Sangh Parivar, whose aversion to the celebration of Valentine’s Day is well documented.

Finding heroes for itself

Sustained attempts were made to co-opt Ambedkar too, who had famously said, “I am born a Hindu. I will not die as one.” In March last year, Modi laid the foundation stone for a Dr Ambedkar National Memorial to be built at 26 Alipur Road, in Delhi, where Ambedkar breathed his last. Drawing parallels in the life of Ambedkar and Martin Luther King Jr, Modi wondered why it had taken the nation 60 years to dedicate a memorial to the architect of the Indian Constitution. He said: “Perhaps this was written in my fate. Perhaps I had the blessings of Baba Saheb on me.”

A few months earlier, he inaugurated Dr Ambedkar Memorial in London at the place where Ambedkar had stayed for two years. In 2015, the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity gave 156 full-page colour insertions in newspapers across the country to observe Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary. Also, on December 6, 2015, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment issued a full-page colour advertisement to mark the 60th Mahaparinirvan Diwas (death anniversary) of Ambedkar. These were seen as attempts to appropriate the legacy of Ambedkar.

Much earlier, the RSS had started seeing in Ambedkar a Hindu icon, and was not averse to drawing parallels between Hedgewar and Ambedkar when the anti-Mandal agitation against reservation rocked India. The refrain then was that “Dr Ambedkar wanted reform in the caste system; he was not opposed to the system”.

The latest of these devious tactics is to find a Hindu in Nazrul “who fought for Indian ethos and against the British”.

A Muslim name

“The attempt at appropriation is not new. They [the RSS bodies] lack ancestry in the national freedom struggle and have made similar attempts in the past, too,” said Prof. Aditya Mukherjee, an authority on modern India and the co-author of Indias Struggle for Independence along with Bipan Chandra. “What is new is an attempt to adopt a Muslim name,” he said. Importantly, Mukherjee refrains from calling Nazrul a Muslim, limiting himself to a “Muslim name”, as Nazrul was essentially a humanitarian person who drew happily from the founts of different faiths. He indeed wrote about Kali and Durga, as the RSS claims. He also wrote about Shyam. And he wrote about “Allah, Islam, Ramzan and Eid too”, said Soumi Roy, who has done her thesis on the revolutionary poet.

Mukherjee feels that the latest talk around Nazrul is a continuation of the RSS’ bid to present itself as the voice of the nation and not just a section of Hindus. “It is in line with the RSS’ attempt to project itself as not anti-Muslim but representative of all communities. It is in tune with their noise on triple talaq where they claim Muslim women are with them,” he said.

But would it not be antithetical to its ideological underpinning to claim that the RSS is not anti-Muslim? “Exactly, it loses its ideological moorings. Then it would have to disown all its leaders from Savarkar to Hedgewar to Golwalkar. They had nothing but venom for Muslims.”

Soumi Roy, whose work Kazi Nazrul Islam: A biography is much admired, gives a spin to the appropriation of his legacy. “Nazrul was a free spirit and was of footloose nature. He would not have liked to be appropriated by a political party, much less the government. He was seen as a rebel. He was against governmental oppression. It is both shameful and ridiculous to claim that he was a Hindu. He protested against pandits just as he spoke out against maulvis. And yes, he was all for pluralism.”

Incidentally, Nazrul started his career as a caretaker in a mosque and was soon its muezzin, calling the faithful to the daily prayers. Would he have run foul of Sonu Nigam and the attendant azaan (call to prayer) controversy today? (The singer courted controversy recently by tweeting about azaan s over loudspeakers.) “He would have,” said Soumi Roy, adding, “He was a man who wrote about Shyam just as he wrote about Islam. To confine him to an organised religion would be a travesty. Calling somebody who does or has done good work a Hindu is downright hegemonistic.”

However, this is neither new nor confined to one political party. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has scarcely wasted an opportunity to name something after Nazrul, from an airport to a railway station, because he is “considered a Muslim”. Across the border, he is the national poet of Bangladesh. “It is a relatively young country. When Bangladesh came into existence, India had taken to Rabindranath Tagore.

Pakistan had co-opted Muhammad Iqbal. So Nazrul was adopted by Bangladesh,” said Soumi Roy. But while Tagore is considered elitist by some and Iqbal’s work is classified as pre- and post-1906, Nazrul was a revolutionary poet who wrote about coolies, daily wage earners, rickshaw-pullers, and so on. He was an icon of the masses, a man who even opposed Mahatma Gandhi when he called off the Non-cooperation Movement following the Chauri Chaura incident in 1922 in which a mob set fire to a police station.

“He largely stayed away from politics. To find this kind of eagerness to involve him in the political arena is ridiculous. Nazrul lived a life of penury. His concern for the poor reflected in his works. Probably that is why even the Left identifies with him. But Nazrul defies any attempt at appropriation. The people who are trying to invoke religion to consider him one of their own have no idea of religion or what he stood for. All this is hogwash. The reality is if you have to research on Nazrul today you have to fall back on Bangladeshi sources,” quipped Soumi Roy.

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