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Urdu Poetry, The Soviet Union And India’s Right-Wing Government

By Gargi Binju.

When Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee went to Lahore on a bus in 1999, he carried with him a rather curious gift for his Pakistani counterpart. It was an audio-cassette, titled Sarhad (Frontier); the last collection of poetry of Ali Sardar Jafri sung by Seema Sehgal commonly known as Bulbul-e-Kashmir (Nightingale of Kashmir). It was a tense moment in Indo-Pak relations; both countries were at the brink of the war. Till this point, three Indo-Pak wars had already been fought. The Siachen conflict was not resolved.

Moreover, the year before the trip, India had conducted Pokhran-II nuclear bomb test explosions. Following this the United Nations issued a condemnation and the United States threatened sanctions. The aim of Vajpayee’s trip to Lahore was to take off some steam from the strained relations between the two neighbours, and to show to the world that all was well in the subcontinent.

As South Asia again finds itself amidst nationalist clamour, we are presented with a unique opportunity to revisit the work and life of Ali Sardar Jafri, humble poet who has time and again brought together the political giants of the Subcontinent, but is alas, hardly remembered elsewhere.


‘Bagawat mera mazhab hai’

Ali Sardar Jafri was born in Balrampur in modern-day Uttar Pradesh on the 29th of November 1913. He studied at Aligarh Muslim University and was expelled for his participation in “political protests” against the Muslim League and the British government. After his B.A, he studied law at Lucknow University and was jailed for organizing a protest against Sir Maurice Gwyer, visiting Chief Justice of India.

bagawat mera mazhab hai, bagawat deevta mera
bagawat mera paighabar, bagawat hai khuda mera (1937)

Rebellion is my religion, my deity Rebellion
Rebellion my messiah, Rebellion is my God.

From the very beginning, his writings were political; they sought to bring together the romanticism of Urdu poetry and the ugliness of the dispossessed in the country. In this movement, he was not alone. He was a Progressive; with him were the big names of South Asian Literature such as Mulk Raj Anand, Premchand, and Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Inspired by the ideals of the Russian Revolution and the Marxists’ opposition to colonialism in India, the Progressives questioned prevailing aesthetics and argued that art is not devoid of purpose. They claimed that the wrinkles of an old widow toiling in the farm were beautiful, not the costly objects of those who looted her. Under the pen name Hazin, Sardar wrote poems on the 1857 rebellion against the British, on wars fought in Europe, and on the Russian revolution. He wrote against India’s participation in the second world war. He was sent to jail again by the British Government.

Independence in 1947 was the realization of his ideals. It was the utopia he had dreamed of. He published many collections of poetry brimming with optimism such as  Nai Duniya Ko Salam (Greeting to the New World), Asia Jaag Utha (Asia has arisen).


Indo-Pak War of 1965

Every writer has a moment of crisis in his career; where the gap between the reality in front of him and his ideals is too big to contend with. The war of 1965 was just one of the armed conflicts that Ali Sardar Jafri witnessed, but it deeply changed his literary ideals. I want to recreate here the year of 1965 because the experience of the sixties buried the utopian hopes of Sardar for good.

Less than twenty years into Independence, India and Pakistan were involved in several border conflicts. In the middle of the decade, the situation was at its worst. On the 25th of January 1965, tracks of Pakistani military vehicles were found 1.5 miles inside India’s claimed territory in the south of Rann of Kutch. On April 28, 1965, Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri addressed the Parliament about the territories at the South-West of the border. He claimed that the Pakistani action is an act of naked aggression. He accepted that the “Kutch-Sindh border was not demarcated” but the available maps were ample proof of India’s claims.

For Indians, the incident brought back the painful memories of 1962 when India lost the war against China on the Himalayan border. Military posts were established by both countries on the Gujarat-Rajasthan border. In March of the same year, Pakistani President Ayub Khan had signed the border protocol with Chinese Premier Zhou En Lai to demarcate the border between Pakistan’s Northern Areas and Tibet.

Harold Wilson, British Prime Minister, wanted to stabilize the situation. The Americans were non-committal; they were under attack for the war in Vietnam. In July, Harold Wilson managed to negotiate a formal ceasefire. Ayub Khan publicly stated that he had ordered the withdrawal of Pakistani troops. In India, the opposition leaders were miffed. But Ayub Khan was ecstatic. For Indians this was a model: to attack and then to fall back on Britain and other countries to manage the situation.

On the 5th of August, Ayub Khan launched Operation Gibraltar. Pakistan soldiers were seen crossing the border in Kashmir. Local farmers and shepherds tipped the Indian Army and the operation failed from the beginning. To salvage the situation, Ayub Khan launched Operation Grand Slam on the 1st of September 1965. The plan was for regular Pakistani units to open fire across the border in Kashmir. On the 6th of September, India declared war. Indian army crossed the border in Pakistani Punjab. It relieved the pressure on Kashmir. On the 23rd of the same month, a ceasefire was signed. The war ended. Both countries claimed victory.

Nothing changed but everything changed. China did not want to fight Pakistan’s war but increased pressure on the India-China border when Pakistan was under attack. India arrested many Kashmiri leaders such as Sheikh Abdullah, Maulana Masudi, and G. M. Karra. Masudi had resisted the Pakistani infiltration in 1947. Masudi and Karra had attempted to calm the crowd the previous year when the relic controversy had erupted in Kashmir. They criticized the Hindu fanatics in India and the Muslim fanatics in the then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). The Indian government did not wish to trust its allies in the State of Jammu and Kashmir.

As real border walls were being put up, so were metaphorical borders. The Urdu writers had been published freely in both countries until this point. There were hardly any Urdu literary journals at the time in India because Indian Urdu writers had published in Pakistan where the readership was larger; Urdu being Pakistan’s national language. The war changed that. New Urdu journals arose in India, most notably Shabkhoon launched by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi in Allahabad. Writers, Urdu or not, wanted to address the crisis of the war. They criticized the Progressives because their answers were old and dated. Marxists and Socialists were under attack in both Pakistan and India. In Pakistan, there was a call of national cultural unity, with Urdu at its center. Before this year, Bhasha Poetry, which freely took words from Indian languages other than Urdu was popular in Pakistan. After, the form quietly died.

Ye tank, top, ye bambar, aag banduken
Kahan se laye ho, kis ki taraf hai rukh in ka
Diyar-e-Waris-o-Iqbal ka ye tohfa hai
Jaga ke jang ke tufan zameen-e-Nanak se
Uthe ho barq karane kabir ke ghar par (Kaun Dushman Hai)

These tanks and cannons, bombers and fire guns
Where have you got them from? Who are they for?
Are they a gift for the land of Waris and Iqbal?
After storming Nanak’s Land,
You now rise to burn the home of Kabir. (Who Is The Enemy)


“Blatantly confused motives”

An interesting controversy raged in India. Faiz Ahmed Faiz had returned to Pakistan from exile the previous year. He had stood against the crass nationalism, but Faiz was close to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who gave him an honorary position in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in Pakistan. At that time, Radio Pakistan blared emotionally charged patriotic poetry against India. For this, he was hated on this side of the border. Much ink was spilled in the magazine Dharamayug. C.M. Naim, Emeritus Professor at the University of Chicago, studied the archives of the magazine Dharmayug and concluded that many Indian writers and commentators believed that Faiz’s work can only be interpreted within the position he had taken during the Indo-Pak war: the honorary head of Radio Pakistan. So why should Indians take any interest in his poetry?

Sardar was struggling with the same debate. He wanted to criticize the Pakistani authors for the flaring anger against India and yet he wanted to defend their art, their poetry. He did not want to turn a blind eye against Faiz’s criticism of imposing Urdu in Pakistan, or the times when Faiz was jailed for being a communist. Sadar chose to defend Faiz’s work and yet commented against his “role” in the war. C.M. Naim argued that Sardar’s article in the magazine has “blatantly confused motives”[1].

Confused or not, Sardar had accepted the conundrum of being a literary intellectual. Politics divided, poetry united. He had to respond to both the exigencies. To criticize Faiz was to fall into a trap of patriotic zeal, to not criticize was pure dishonesty. The crisis was not only of understanding; it was also of expression, of language. When every word becomes loaded with ideological significance, what could the poet do?

The next year, Sardar met Faiz in Cairo in 1966 and wrote Guftagoo (Conversation). The most remarkable aspect of this work is that it is neither naively hopeful nor hopelessly pessimistic about the possibility of dialogue between two countries.

Hon jo alfaz ke hathon mein hain sang-e-dushman
Tanz chhalkae to chhalkaya kare zahr ke jaam
Tikhi nazren hon tursh abru-e-khamdar rahen
Ban pade jaise bhi dil sinon mein bedar rahen
Bebasi harf ko zanjir-ba-pa kar na sake
Koi qatil ho magar qatl-e-navaa kar na sake

Let the words be, the stones of abuse in hands
Let sarcasm spill as tumbles the wine of poison
Let there be slanted glances, let remain the arched eyebrows
Let the mind awake, how it so desires
Helplessness may not chain the word
May the murderer not slay the voice

Faiz would have to leave Pakistan again when Bhutto was overthrown in 1979. In the great game of India and Pakistan, poets were merely pieces to be used and then thrown away. Sardar had understood that, earlier than most others.


A New Aesthetic

After the sixties, the world of Sardar’s formative years had crumbled. The defiant new world of nationalism was emerging. His support for the Soviet Union was being questioned; both Ali Sardar Jafri and Faiz Ahmed Faiz had received awards from the Soviet Union. In the new world, it was not enough to declare himself on the side of peace; he had to define what peace was. What was his role as a poet in society? Was it to serve the nation? Was it to serve the truth?

In this decade, Sardar edited and published bilingual editions of the canons of Indian Literature—Kabir, Meerabai, Mir, and Ghalib. He wrote long forewords. In the context of the war, the forewords offer an insight into the preoccupations of Sardar. In the classics, Sardar looked for ways in which the poets aimed to overcome the exigencies of their time. He wanted to know how the poet not only expressed his troubles but how he created language and concepts to question the society of his time.

In the Preface of Diwan-e-Ghalib, he exalted Ghalib by stating that “[his] greatness not only lies in the fact that he expressed himself in interior struggles but also in the fact that he created new one”. Put simply, the poet problematizes, he offers a whole new perspective to the world. He questions what is given and offers insight. The poet’s task was not to classify himself into pre-existing categories that exist but to create new possibilities.

Farogh-e-dida lala-e-sahar ki tarah
Ujala ban ke raho sham-e-rahguzar ki tarah
Payambaron ki tarah se jiyo zamane mein
Payam-e-shauq bano daulat-e-hunar ki tarah
Ye zindagi bhi koi zindagi hai hum-nafaso
Sitara ban ke jale bujh gae sharar ki tarah

Illuminate the eyes and hearts like the tulips of dawn
Remain like the light, be the lamp of the journey
Be the Messiahs of the world
Become the message of love, as the wealth of your skill
What is this life, friends?
We burned like stars and extinguished like sparks.

More importantly, a shift was not only noticed in his work. He analyzed the importance of the Progressives because “they provided the first secular platform for writers from different languages to come together and share their views.” (Interview to Vidyadhar Date on Dec 26, 1993, published in The Times of India). He was not a convinced communist litterateur. In another interview in 1997, he claimed that his poetry was inspired by “‘the breeze of a new morning’ rather than the harangue on dialectical materialism.” He admitted that the Progressives “took a very sectarian view of all that was happening around.” (Interview to Ambarish Mishra published on June 1, 1997, in The Times of India)

Interestingly, this coincided with the rise of conservatism and right-wing politics in India. The right-wing Janta Party was formed in 1977. It later became Bhartiya Janta Party (the current ruling party in India) in 1980 with Atal Bihari Vajpayee as its first President. The continuous tension with Pakistan gave them ample space to counter the left-of-center Congress Party.

In this tumultuous period, Sardar thought of the poetic form, and the poet’s power to change the world. Poetry was no longer simply an expression of his circumstances. Ideas could, and did, make the difference. “The total poet” was somewhere between the courage of the poet’s idea and his circumstances. Despite the new aesthetics, Sardar’s poetry remained militant. When India was developing nuclear weapons, he challenged the decision in his poetry.

He hosted Pakistani poets, most notably Ahmad Faraz, and talked of peace. He wrote songs for movies, he talked of the new humanity, a more peaceful one. In 1991, when he was seventy-eight, he wrote and produced a TV series called Kahkashan (The Galaxy) to popularise Urdu poets on TV. In the six-part series, he introduced the poets himself, sitting on the chair, his palms crossed files and books behind him that leave no inch of the table empty. I am sure he had attempted to give some order to the table a few minutes before the video was shot. Another popular series was called Phir Bolo Ae Sant Kabir (Speak Again Saint Kabir).

In 1998, he won the highest literary award of India—the Jnanpith award. The Jnanpith citation said, ”The main theme of Ali Sardar Jafri’s poetry is compassion, love, and sensitivity, surviving among the callous inhumanity prevailing in our times. Avoiding the sophisticated aloofness and middle-class inertia, his poems are a living and provocative document, steeped in relationships and alienations, as well as the joy and the sadness of life. With his marvelous artistry, he has depicted poetically the survival of the human spirit in the face of sorrow and oppression.”

The ceremony was not without controversy. Sardar had publicly opposed the development of nuclear weapons in his acceptance speech in front of the Prime Minister. He said, “Mera naara, roti aur kitab”. (My slogan: bread and book.) Prime Minister Vajpayee had to defend the government’s decision. He announced that India will never use the weapons to attack.

The next year, under great international pressure, when P.M. Vajpayee met Nawaz Sharif, he found ironically an appropriate political space for Ali Sardar Jafri. He even invited Sardar to join. Sardar had to refuse; his health was failing him. So, Sardar sent him the audio-cassette, a token of his hope for friendship with Pakistan. Vajpayee carried with him Sarhad, Sardar’s last work, to Nawaz Sharif.

Sharif and Vajpayee’s meeting was too dramatic, too congratulatory. Sharif came to the frontier and asked the gate at the Indian side to be opened. He bent down to touch India’s ground. At the Lahore declaration, he remarked that Vajpayee could win the election in Pakistan.

Not even two days passed before the volatile situation in Kashmir occupied the headlines again. Twenty people, belonging to the minority Hindu community in Jammu and Kashmir were slain by the separatists. All the optimism was lost. Less than two months later, the Kargil War began.

Ye sarhad sarhad judte hain aur mulkon mulkon jate hein
Baahon mein baanhein dalte hain aur dil se dil ko milate hein
Phir zulm-o-sitam ke pairon ki zanjir-e-giran ban jaate hein (Haathon Ka Tarana)

They join the frontiers, they travel countries
They join hands, they talk of love
Then they become the chains of tyranny


*All translations by the author
[1] https://www.jstor.org/stable/2943002 p. 273

Gargi Binju is a writer and critic based in New Delhi.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, October 8th, 2020.