Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Maratha Invasion of Bengal

Road names often have a story to tell. In Calcutta, given its long continuous history, even more so (New Delhi, in contrast, although nominally a part of ‘Delhi’ does not really have a history continuous with the old city).  One of those is the curiously named Marhatta Ditch Lane in Baghbazar in North Calcutta.

The lane refers to an actual ditch built in the 1740s along what was then the northern extremity of Calcutta. Its purpose? To stop the marauding bands of Maratha cavalry who were pillaging Bengal at the time.

In 1741, the cavalry of Raghoji Bhosle, the Maratha ruler of Nagpur, started to pillage western Bengal under the command of Bhaskar Pandit. Bengalis called these Marathas “Bargis” which is a corruption of the Marathi word, "bargir" (etymology: Persian) which means “light cavalry”. Malik Ambar, the celebrated Prime Minister of Ahmadnagar Sultanate, had instituted the Deccan practice of guerrilla warfare, which at that time took the name bargir-giri1. These swift hit-and-run guerrilla tactics became a part of the military heritage of the Deccan, being used to great effect by Shivaji and, eventually, by the Marathas against the hapless residents of Bengal.

In the 1740s, the bargir-giri of Bhosle’s army confounded the forces of Nawab Alivardi Khan, the ruler of Bengal. While the Bengali army tried its best and even defeated the Marathas in the few times they fought head-to-head, most of the time, the Marathas cavalry would simply skirt the Khan’s slow-moving infantry, being interested only in looting.

In the 10 years that they plundered Bengal, their effect was devastating, causing great human hardship as well as economic privation. In the Maharashtra Purana, a poem in Bengali written by Gangaram, the poet describes the destruction caused by the raiders in great detail:

“This time none escaped,
Brahmanas, and Vaisnavas, Sannyasis, and householders,
all had the same fate, and cows were massacred along with men.”

So great was the terror of the Bargi that, in a Gabbar-esque twist, lullabies were composed in which mothers would use the fear of a Maratha raid to get their children to go to sleep. These poems are still popular amongst Bengalis even today. One of them went something like this:

Chhele ghumalo, paada judaalo bargi elo deshe 
Bulbulite dhaan kheyechhe, khaajnaa debo kishe?
Dhaan phurolo, paan phurolo, khaajnaar opay ki?
Aar kotaa din shobur koro, roshoon boonechhi 

(A very inelegent translation:

When the children fall asleep, silence sets in, the Bargis come to our country
Birds have eaten the grains, how shall I pay the rent (to the Bargi)?
All our food and drink is over, how shall I pay the rent?
Wait for a few days, I have sown garlic)

Not only did the Bargis loot the countryside, but in a sign of their effectiveness, managed to raid the capital, Murshidabad and even sack the house of one of the richest Indians at the time, the Marwari banker, Jagat Seth.

In spite of this, the Marathas never did attack Calcutta, in all probability being paid off by the British. The ditch, though, did serve to provide citizens with a nickname: ditchers, i.e everyone who lived south of the ditch, in "proper" Calcutta. Eventually the ditch was filled up and was made into what is now Upper Circular Road. A concrete architectural record of British efforts to guard against Bargi raids, though, remains in the existence of Semaphore towers which dot the countryside of Bengal, Bihar and Jharkhand. A system of communication which predated the telegraph, it consisted of towers which basically sent out smoke signals to the next tower and so on and served to warn off an impending Bargi raid.

After a decade of pillage, the Marathas eventually stopped their raids after the harried Nawab, accepting defeat, handed over Orissa to Raghoji Bhosle.

1 "-giri" is a common suffix in Marathi and Dakhni which converts a concrete noun to an abstract one. Analogous in some ways to "-ism" in English. Given the fact that the Bollywood is located in the Dakhni-speaking city of Bombay, the suffix has been made comprehensible to most standard Hindi-Urdu speakers. Some common examples being "dādāgirī" (gunda-gardi) and, most recently, "Gandhi-giri".

Monday, March 24, 2014

A Short History of the 1962 War and its Lessons

On Tuesday, Nevile Maxwell, a former journalist with The Times, posted in Delhi, published sections of the Henderson Brooks–Bhagat Report on his personal website. The report was an investigation into the 1962 military debacle and is still classified as ‘Top Secret’ by the Government of India. Maxwell wrote that he was publishing the report on his website after efforts to release it to the Indian press had failed with editors backing out. “So my dilemma continued,” he wrote. “Although with the albatross hung, so to speak, on Indian necks as well as my own. As I see it now I have no option but, rather than leave the dilemma to my heirs, to put the Report on the internet myself.”

The release of the document, by itself, is no great addition to our understanding of 1962. Maxwell has had the report with him for many decades and uses it as one of the principal sources for his book, India’s China War. His account, already widely disseminated, would now be open to be scrutinised alongside its principal primary source thus adding more weight to his narrative. Till now, the report being classified, we had to take Maxwell’s word for it.

Nevertheless, the release of the report does raise some important points.

The first thing it does is lay bare the almost autocratic way in which the government in our country functions. The lifeblood of any democracy is information, on the basis of which the electorate can make decisions. This level of secrecy—the Henderson Report has been under wraps for more than 5 decades now—is odd for a country that calls itself a democracy. Most Western countries, even organisations such as the CIA, declassify documents after more than 30 years. This is just one example of the paternalism which the Indian state has inherited seamlessly from the Raj. Our government still has a tendency to rule rather than govern which is why it can so easily keep this report away from the prying eyes of its own citizens. With regard to 1962, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that communist China has been more open than democratic India.

The other thing this hullabaloo does is bring 1962 back into the spotlight. The renewed interest in India’s greatest military debacle would help shape India’s response to further conflicts, hopefully in the correct manner. Till now, with very little information available (and Maxwell’s views under heavy criticism), the debate around 1962 has been severely hampered. One half of the efforts have been spent in proving Nehru’s contention that China “stabbed us in the back”—the official Indian view of the war. The other half, critical of Nehru, have blamed his appeasement of China for the defeat. Surprisingly, even this half unquestioningly accepts Nehru’s version of Chinese perfidy, only berating Panditji for letting down his guard.  As luck would have it, both stances are largely incorrect.

In 1947, as India emerged as a free country, it saw that its borders with its largest neighbour, China, had been left largely undefined by the British. In the eastern sector (now Arunachal Pradesh), the border was demarcated by the McMahon Line, an agreement formalised between British and Tibetan representatives at the Simla Conference of 1914. The Chinese do not formally recognise this line. They argue that the Tibetans were not sovereign in 1914 and hence did not have the authority to decide a border. In the western sector, things were even fuzzier. As late as 1950, India itself had produced maps marking the border in this sector as “undefined”.

Initially, this ambiguous border wasn’t an issue. China emerged from World War II a broken country torn apart by civil war. The power equation between the two countries can be judged from the fact that for the Bandung Conference, Nehru sent over an Air-India aeroplane to fly Zhou Enlai (China’s first premier) to Jakarta. This unusual aircraft lending was done because at the time, strife-torn China did not even have an airline.

However, in 1950, China invaded Tibet, bringing itself to India’s doorstep and very soon built itself up as a stable power. Around the same time as India and China committed themselves to the lofty (but, as time would tell, hollow) principles of Panchsheel, friction emerged between the two countries with regard to the border. Matters were more or less settled on the eastern sector. Even though China did not formally accept the McMohan line (and still does not), the area had been under Indian control for some time and Zhou Enlai had stated that “now that it is an accomplished fact, we should accept it”. In the western sector though, India, curiously, used a shaky treaty from 1842 to unilaterally claim a fixed boundary (the Kashmir-China boundary shown in Indian maps today). This is an area that the British has never really had any jurisdiction over, neither de facto nor de jure. China, on the other hand, claimed it had controlled the area for over two centuries and, most importantly, it had certainly been under Chinese control since 1950, ever since it invaded Tibet. When India first drew a definite border for Aksai Chin (articulated in Nehru’s letter to Zhou in 1959) China was already in control of Aksai China for almost a decade (roughly mapping to its present area of control).

This maximalist claim by India, the weaker side, might strike one as odd but starts to make more sense when taken to be a bargaining counter. India wanted China to formally accept its claims in the east in return for which it would accept China’s claims to Aksai Chin. This claim was therefore never meant to be an actual military posture—just a diplomatic bluff. The logic of democracy married with jingoism, though, put paid to Nehru’s strategy. Once the border in the west had been demarcated and put on a map, it took a life of its own. Public opinion staunchly opposed the idea of a barter, or even the ceding of an inch of Indian land—which now included Aksai Chin, a region which had never been in India’s control but was now a part of the country by the occult powers of cartography. Nehru himself acknowledged this pressure lamenting that “if I give them that I shall no longer be Prime Minister of India”. President Radhakrishnan also warned that the maps could not be changed “if only because public opinion will not tolerate this”.

The end result was that when Zhou Enlai flew to India in January 1960 (this time, presumably, in his own aircraft) he was ready to negotiate the border but Nehru was in no position to cede land from areas that had already been demarcated by his government as India’s. To further press home the public opposition to any ‘concessions’ to China, Zhou’s visit was marked by protests and demonstrations including a massive dharnaa staged by the Jan Sangh outside Nehru’s residence (it is therefore, ironic, that today the BJP criticises Nehru for 1962—a mistake he committed partially by giving in to pressure from the Hindutva wing). The east-west ‘barter’ first thought up to solve the problem—the ‘logical solution’ as per Neville Maxwell—was a nonstarter. India would not, could not, shift from its claims either in the east or the west.

In spite of these reverses, it still did not mean conflict was inevitable. In fact, the situation in 1960 is also the situation today—India holds the McMohan line and China holds Aksai Chin.

What eventually lead to war was something known as Nehru’s Forward Policy.

In November 1961, the Government, under massive public pressure, issued instructions to the Army to set up posts all along India’s claim lines and "especially in such places as might be disputed". This bizarre strategy, known as the Forward Policy was based on completely misplaced intelligence from the IB that the Chinese were unlikely to use military force against India even if they were in a position to do so. NB Mullick, part of Nehru’s coterie, supplied this fantastic assessment. At Army HQ, Nehru’s other two acolytes, Lt General BM Kaul and Army Commander, Thapar accepted this order rather than, as should have been done, protest it from a military point of view.  Valid and urgent objections from the Western Command (in-charge of operations in Aksai Chin) stating that it severely lacked forces to carry out the task (much less face the Chinese should they retaliate) were summarily overruled by Army HQ.

Matters reached a head in June 1962 as India established a post in the eastern sector at Dhola, which lay around 1.5 kms north of the McMohan line. As explained by Brigadier John Dalvi in his seminal war memorial, Himalayan Blunder, “the Thagla-Dhola area was not strictly territory that we should have been convinced was ours as directed by the Prime Minister, Mr Nehru, and someone is guilty of exceeding the limits prescribed by him.”

By September, China had attacked and taken over the post. Political compulsions now forced the government to act and attempt to evict the Chinese from Dhola—a move not short of suicide given the strength of the Chinese, the climate and the harsh geography of the area. When the army resisted this move, the government promptly replaced the intransigent General Umrao Singh (XXXIII Corps) with General Kaul, sweeping aside all opposition to its plans. The Indian force that was eventually sent to evict the Chinese from Dhola was heavily attacked by some 800 Chinese troops supported by heavy mortars. For the first time, the fiction the IB had spun, that the Chinese would not retaliate with force, came crumbling down. General Kaul’s first shocked reaction to the Chinese action is said to have been “Oh my God! You are right, they mean business.”

By 20 October, the Chinese had launched major offensives in the west as well as the east, citing “self-defence” against India’s aggression; ironic because India’s Army was in no possession to defend itself much less be aggressive. The false bravado of the Forward Policy had collapsed.

Within a month, the Chinese had swept through the west and east and, having achieved their war aims, declared a unilateral ceasefire. They withdrew to the Line of Actual Control as it existed in 1959 (and still more-or-less exists today), which maintained the McMohan line in the east but also firmly kept Aksai Chin with them. As might be noted, this is a compromise that, at one time, the Chinese were willing to do at the negotiating table. India’s Forward Policy had achieved nothing other than a humiliating defeat for its army. While 1962 laid bare the army top brass and political leadership, it must be pointed out that most Indian Army units showed exceptional courage in the face of almost impossible odds, fighting a far-more well equipped enemy as well as their own bumbling leadership.

India has a lot of lessons to learn from this debacle. One is the double-edged sword that media attention is in a democracy. Media and public pressure plays a remarkably important role most of the time but in 1962 it also forced Nehru’s hand, compelling him to take unsound decisions such as the Forward Policy. This lesson is as valid today as it was in ’62, maybe even more so given how much more stronger the media is as compared to 5 decades back. The 2013 Daulat Beg Oldi incident is a case in point. Defence minister AK Antony protested the media reaction, insinuating that television news media overplayed the face-off by showing old footage of Chinese “incursions” on what is still an undemarcated boundary—a situation similar to 1962.

It also calls for a reappraisal of Nehru—something both his supporters as well as critics need to do. In 1962, Nehru’s position of being “stabbed in the back” was clearly a bit misleading. During the war, he flatly contradicted a lot of the qualities he is admired for: Third World solidarity, non-alignment (Nehru appealed fervently for US support in 1962 and was turned down) and democracy (removed all opposition to his 1962 policies, staffing every level with ‘yes men’). His critics, mainly from the Right, also seem to have gotten the wrong end of the stick. For example, in his book Are We Deceiving Ourselves Again? Lessons the Chinese Taught Pandit Nehru But Which We Still Refuse to Learn,  Arun Shourie paints Nehru as a Sinophile, a Kumbaya-singing peacenik who was fooled by the wily Chinese, thus, ironically, buying into the Government’s excuse of being “stabbed in the back”. Of course, as we see, Nehru was hardly fooled by his own rhetoric of Hindi-Chini bhai bhai. Nehru understood realpolitik very well, thank you, and could, be aggressive (in this case, over-aggressive) as and when needed.

But of course, given our ostrich-like attitude towards history—will the Henderson Report ever be declassified?—it remains to be seen how much we learn from this incident.

First published on NewsYaps

Har Har Mahatma

As this tweet shows, the popularity of Modi is reaching heavenly proportions. Fans of the man have edited the popular Shiv bhakti chant, “Har Har Mahadev” to reflect their support for Modi, a fact that left the Gujarat CM a bit embarrassed.

To be fair to his supports, though, over-enthusiastic hero worship in India of political leaders is not uncommon nor is deification unprecedented. Dr Ambedkar had warned about this particular Indian trait in his famous Grammarof Anarchy speech delivered to the Constituent Assembly, on 25th November 1949:

“The second thing we must do is to observe the caution which John Stuart Mill has given to all who are interested in the maintenance of democracy, namely, not "to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with power which enable him to subvert their institutions". There is nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered life-long services to the country. But there are limits to gratefulness. As has been well said by the Irish Patriot Daniel O'Connel, no man can be grateful at the cost of his honour, no woman can be grateful at the cost of her chastity and no nation can be grateful at the cost of its liberty. This caution is far more necessary in the case of India than in the case of any other country. For in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.”

This was, at the time, largely interpreted to be a warning against the sort of deification Gandhi had been an object of. As is well known, Ambedkar did not take too kindly to Gandhi and his role in perpetuating the institution of caste. The fact that Gandhi was deified in India must have made Ambedkar’s role all the more difficult. The quasi-religious status of Gandhi can be attested to by his honorific of Mahatma. It literally means “great soul”, of course, but is a title used in Hinduism for sages and saints (The Buddha, for example is also a Mahatma). Interestingly, much like Modi, Gandhi was uncomfortable with this deification. In the absence of Twitter, this is what Gandhi wrote in his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth:

“My experiments in the political field are now known, not only to India, but to a certain extent to the ‘civilized’ world. For me, they have not much value; and the title of ‘Mahatma’ that they have won for me has, therefore, even less. Often the title has deeply pained me; and there is not a moment I can recall when it may be said to have tickled me.”

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Bhagat Singh’s Last Petition

Yesterday was Comrade Bhagat Singh’s death anniversary, an apt time to point you to his last petition written to the governor of Punjab before he was executed.

Bhagat Singh’s trial had created a furore. So much so that the British Government had to promulgate an ordinance which dispensed with the need for a defence counsel, defence witnesses and even the presence of the accused during the trial. To quote that brave crusader, Shri Rahul Gandhi, on another ordinance, this rendered the trial to be “complete nonsense” and little more than a farce. It was recently described by the Supreme Court as “contrary to the fundamental doctrine of criminal jurisprudence" because there was no opportunity for the accused to even defend themselves.

In spite of this obvious injustice (the technical term for it is, I believe, a British sense of fair play), Singh refused to ask for any sort of clemency or concession. In fact, the tone of his final letter—this is after he had been sentenced to death—is a cocky mixture of defiance and sarcasm. He mocks the British Government by actually requesting to be shot dead as behoves a man who has been held guilty of waging war against the government. The last line in his petition reads:

“We request and hope that you will very kindly order the military department to send its detachment to perform our execution.

Notice the “kindly order”. I mean, wow. This man is on death row and he’s not above requesting for a kind order to shoot him dead.

The only time bitterness creeps in is when he’s discussing the activities of the Congress. Gandhi, who was in discussions with the British at the time (which would eventually lead to what would be called the Gandhi-Irwin Pact), comes in for criticism for doing nothing to help “even the homeless, friendless and penniless of female workers who are alleged to be belonging to the vanguard and whom the leaders consider to be enemies of their utopian non-violent cult (ouch!)  which has already become a thing of the past”.

And, of course, let me highlight parts of the letter in which Bhagat Singh strives to point out the fact that his vision for India is that of a ”Socialist Republic” since it’s amazing and bewildering how comrade Bhagat Singh of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association has become a right-wing hero, of all things:

Let us declare that the state of war does exist and shall exist so long as the Indian toiling masses and the natural resources are being exploited by a handful of parasites. They may be purely British Capitalist or mixed British and Indian or even purely Indian. They may be carrying on their insidious exploitation through mixed or even on purely Indian bureaucratic apparatus. All these things make no difference...But that war shall be incessantly waged without taking into consideration the petty (illegible) and the meaningless ethical ideologies. It shall be waged ever with new vigour, greater audacity and unflinching determination till the Socialist Republic is established and the present social order is completely replaced by a new social order, based on social prosperity and thus every sort of exploitation is put an end to and the humanity is ushered into the era of genuine and permanent peace. 

In case this is not strong enough, please also note that Bhagat Singh sent this telegram to the Third International while in prison:

On Lenin Day we send hearty greetings to all who are doing something for carrying forward the ideas of the great Lenin. We wish success to the great experiment Russia is carrying out. We join our voice to that of the international working class movement. The proletariat will win. Capitalism will be defeated. Death to Imperialism. 

Of course, the fact that there is an organisation called the Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena which takes up solidly Leninist causes such as protesting against the shortening of the duration of the Amarnath Yatra would have surely warmed the cockles of Singh’s heart were he alive. As will the fact that Narendra “Hindu Nationalist” Modi invokes his memory without having the faintest idea of what he died for.

This corruption of Bhagat Singh’s ideals does not stop at Socialism but extends even into his personal faith (or the lack of it). Singh was an avowed atheist and his pamphlet Why I am an Atheist, written a few months before he was murdered, is a crisp read which ends with a guarantee that he will remain a non-believer till the day he dies.

“One of my friends asked me to pray. When informed of my atheism, he said, “When your last days come, you will begin to believe.” I said, “No, dear sir, Never shall it happen. I consider it to be an act of degradation and demoralisation. For such petty selfish motives, I shall never pray.”

By all accounts, he lived up to his promise. And ever since he seriously entered politics he had given up even the external vestiges of his original Sikh faith. He didn’t wear a turban or sport facial hair. Yet, so many stylised drawings of Singh today have him both wearing a dastaar as well with a beard. It’s like modern India is uncomfortable with the idea of an irreligious man, so it’s trying so hard to make Singh into something he was not; a rather unfortunate state of affairs. You might not agree with Bhagat Singh’s irreligiosity, his Socialism or any of his the other ideals that he died for, but given the extreme bravery and sacrifice that he displayed, the least you can do is to not distort his life.

First published on NewsYaps

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Resignation of Pakistan's First Law Minister, Joginder Nath Mandal

Arundhati Roy has an interesting piece on Gandhi and Ambedkar up on Caravan. Most of it has been common knowledge to anyone with an interest in Indian history and I take issue with black and white, almost naive view of Gandhi as a "villain" that Roy has presented. But nevertheless given how in India we’ve collectively forgotten just how conservative the Mahatma was, it’s an important read.

What might be even more surprising for some is her throwaway line that Ambedkar endorsed the Muslim League’s case for Pakistan, an argument he makes in his book Pakistan or the Partition of India (which is a must read)1.

A good case study, as it were, of the Ambedkarite position on Pakistan and its experiences with the movement/country can be found in the person of Joginder Nath Mandal, a Dalit leader of United Bengal who belonged to the largest Dalit caste in Bengal, the Namasudras. Mandal was made Pakistan’s first Minister of Law and Labour but resigned within 3 years of Independence in protest against the treatment of Dalits (and Hindus in general) in Pakistan.

His resignation letter addressed to Pakistan’s first Prime Minister Liaqat Ai Khan is a good place to start with learning about him as well as the Dalit movement in Bengal.

The document describes his motivations for allying himself with the League in Bengal arguing that the “economic interests of the Muslim in Bengal generally were identical with those of the Scheduled Castes” and taking care to point out that the final permission for such an alliance has come from Ambedkar himself. He also points out, à la Ayesha Jalal, that the Partition of the country surprised him since he “always considered the demand of Pakistan by the Muslim League as a bargaining counter”. The main thrust of the letter though is the raw deal that the Dalits of East Pakistan had gotten, “particularly after the death of Qaid-e-Azam” (Jinnah had died two years ago). He raises the Lahore Resolution (which had no mention of an Islamic state) as well as Jinnah’s August 11 speech and says that “every one of these pledges is being flagrantly violated apparently to your [Khan’s] knowledge and with your approval in complete disregard of the Qaid-e-Azam's wishes and sentiments and to the detriment and humiliation of the minorities.”

The letter then goes on to list specific atrocities on the Hindus of Pakistan—a country he calls “accursed for Hindus”—which makes for some extremely depressing reading.

You can read the entire letter here.

Further Reading:

An informative resource about the state of Dalits in Bangladesh today can be found here. As the website points out “even in a Muslim country like Bangladesh caste discrimination is pervasive, having infiltrated the texture of culture and thus having become common practice in any religious community, Christians included”. As the popular Hindi saying puns, "jaati woh cheez hai jo kabhi nahin jaati". Caste in the sub-continent is a marker of discrimination which cuts clean across religious lines.

A short background of Namasudra politics in West Bengal and a description of the mostly forgotten Marichjhapi Massacre of the community in 1979 by the Communist-led West Bengal government.

1Yasser Hamdani has also written on this and, in my opinion, overstates the support of Ambedkar to Jinnah's position. Ambedkar did support Pakistan but his reasons for supporting it were somewhat removed from Jinnah's. In fact, they were more similar to the Congress' and Hindu Mahasabha's position when they eventually pushed for Partition in 1947. Most obviously, Ambedkar made it clear that Pakistan entailed a Partition of Bengal and Punjab, something Jinnah never agreed with.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Faiz is Beautiful but Can You Really Call Him a People's Poet?

I recently came across a short debate I had with Mr Sohail Hashmi on Kafila. I found rereading it quite interesting so thought I’d post it up here for posterity.

Mr Hashmi, of course, is a writer I much admire and I have, especially, read his writings on the architectural heritage of Delhi with great interest. In this instance he wrote a lovely piece on Faiz, Urdu’s greatest poet of the modern era. What I took issue with, though, is Mr Hashmi’s characterisation of Faiz as a “people centric” poet and one whose “ideas glisten with the truth and democratic ideals that enlighten the hearts of the overwhelming majority of our people”

My first comment on the article was:

“Thanks for this fascinating account Mr Hashmi.

Although, personally, I’ve always battled with the notion that Faiz’s poetry was “people centric”. If it was, it was in a very top-down, almost patronising sort of way. Can any poetry, written in Rekhta (and here I make a very stark distinction between Urdu and Rekhta as should be done) ever be truly “people centric”? Are “people centric” themes enough to award Faiz with the honour of the subcontinent’s most imprtant poet, this hardly a handful people in the sub-continent could actually understand his overtly Persianised Urdu? You must admit, to claim to talk on behalf of the people, when the people can’t even understand you is a bit rich.

Urdu is one of the few languages which exhibits such extreme literary diglossia that the literary form (at least in poetry) is almost incomprehensible to its native speakers. Bengali is another sub-continental language which did exhibit a similar trait with an artificially sanskritised form of the language (shadhubhasha: cholit bhasha :: Rekhta:Urdu) but thankfully, that elitist trend has died out and almost all literature in Bengali today is in cholit bhasa (i.e. the normal spoken language).”

To which Mr Hashmi replied:

“You have touched upon some very complex issues and no simple explanations are possible.

Between the time that Faiz began writing to the time that he died, Urdu ceased to be a language of public discourse in large parts of the subcontinent, at least in the parts where it was born as Hindavi, that is the Ganga Jamuna doab and in the parts where it grew into a full fledged language that is Deccani .

The language became a victim of the divisive politics of language equals religion that began with the Fort Williams college in 1825 and culminated with the adoption of the resolution to make Sanskritised Hindi as the national language of India instead of Hindustani written in both the Nagri and the Persian scripts, the latter had the backing of Gandhi but the constituent assembly went against the old man’s wishes and voted against Hindustani.

URDU became the official language of Pakistan where it was the mother tongue only of the Muhajirs and was banished from the land where it was the language of Prem Chand, Kanhaiyalal Kapoor, Krishan Chand, Ram Lal, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Tilok Chand Mehroom, Firaq, Arsh Malsiyani and also of Josh,Sahir, Shakeel, Jazbi, Majaz, Majrooh and Kaifi. Faiz could only write in the language that he was comfortable in, his mother tongue might have been Sialkoti Punjabi but all his initial education was in Urdu, Persian and Arabic and this is the linguistic discourse that he was familiar with.

The other issue is do you have to , of necessity, write in the language of the people if you are writing about issues that concern them? I don’t know how many blacks had access to the English in which Langston Hughes wrote his anti racist poems, how many Russians understood Yevtushenko or Maykovsky, when they wrote on issues that concerned the working class of Russia.

We had a literacy rate of 13% when we became independent, so 87% of our population was illiterate in all languages, which language should the writers have written in. Tulsi’s Ram Charit Manas written in Awadhi,because he wanted the image of the ideal being to be presented before the people, has had to explained to Awadhis for the last 400 years, the same is true of Jaisi’s Padmavat and Rahim’s Dohas.

some of what a great poet writes about the people is understood by them immediately, some takes a while to be understood and some is understood after a couple of generations. it is this that makes him/her a great poet. the only way a poet can be understood totally by the people is for the poet to write not only in the language of the people but also write only about the here and now. This way lies 15 minutes of glory and impermanence and an absence of literature that speaks to generations. you can not demand that literature that lives beyond its time and deals with issues that go beyond the immediacy of now must also be understood totally, fully and completely by those who live at the moment of the creation of that literature.

Faiz has fortunately written both kinds of poetry, the time bound and the time less and that is one of the reasons of his being recognised as the greatest poet of the 20th century. He has written BOL, he has written Tarana, he has written Hum Dekhengegy, all three have become slogans of our times, he has also written hazar karo merey tan se, Nisar mein teri galiyon pe, Do aawaazen etc that need to be understood gradually. Why do you want all political poets to be political activists too. Let the political activist do what he is good at and allow the poet to do what he is good at.“


“Thanks for that detailed reply. Couple of points:

I should have done this earlier, but let me define the term Urdu (since the term means so many things). From my first post, I used ‘Urdu’ to mean the common spoken language of the urban people of much of North India. What you might call baazaari Hindustani. The term ‘Hindustani’ when used to mean a sort of middle language between High Hindi and High Urdu is fairly new. The term Hindustani was coined by the British and throughout the Raj the term was used as a synonym for what we call Urdu today. For example, John T Platts dictionary calls qaaf the “twenty-seventh letter of the Urdu or Hindustani alphabet”. In most of modern India, Hindi is also used as a synonym for Urdu. For example, Hindi Movies etc.

The language became a victim of the divisive politics of language equals religion that began with the Fort Williams college in 1825 and culminated with the adoption of the resolution to make Sanskritised Hindi as the national language of India instead of Hindustani written in both the Nagri and the Persian scripts, the latter had the backing of Gandhi but the constituent assembly went against the old man’s wishes and voted against Hindustani.

I fail to grasp how this is relevant to getting Faiz to write in a register which is widely understood but, for what it’s worth, the GoI’s attempts to invent a new standard (sanskirtised) register of Hindi-Urdu have failed rather miserably. That Gandhi anecdote is nice but only half true. Gandhi oscillated quite a bit on the language question (which was typical of him) between Hindustani in both scripts as well as only using the Devanagri script.

Faiz could only write in the language that he was comfortable in, his mother tongue might have been Sialkoti Punjabi but all his initial education was in Urdu, Persian and Arabic and this is the linguistic discourse that he was familiar with.

That might be one reason. Or it just might be that he wanted to occupy a literary space that only Urdu could provide. Either way, Faiz is not at fault. What I am wondering is whether applying labels such as ‘people centric’ etc to his poetry is not misleading.

We had a literacy rate of 13% when we became independent, so 87% of our population was illiterate in all languages, which language should the writers have written in. Tulsi’s Ram Charit Manas…

Uh-oh. ‘Literacy rate’ refers to written not spoken language, Hashmi sahib. Jaahil bhi bol aur sun paate hain. If recite Bidrohi by Nojrul to an illiterate Bengali he will understand it. Prem chand would be understood by all Dehlavis; even Krishan Chandar. I doubt that the same could be said of say ‘Aaj Bazar Mein’.

The other issue is do you have to , of necessity, write in the language of the people if you are writing about issues that concern them?

IMO, it would be crushingly patronising to not do so; reminds me of Gandhi’s pledge to not allow Harijians to run the Harijan Sabha but for it to be run by upper castes and Ambedkar’s rage at this.

Why do you want all political poets to be political activists too. Let the political activist do what he is good at and allow the poet to do what he is good at

Exactly my point; let us admire the beauty of Faiz without clouding his appraisal with terms that take his poetry beyond poetry into political activism. Art for art’s sake and all that; because as soon as we start assigning it some utilitarian function, say, we state that his poetry, to, quote Zaheer from your piece, carries “democratic ideals that enlighten the hearts of the overwhelming majority of our people” when the only a microscopic minority can even understand what he’s saying, that we start sounding rather hollow.”

Sohail Hashmi:

“you are absolutely right in using the term Urdu for the spoken language of much of North India, Urdu was the language of this region till a little after 1947, with the selection, on paper, of Hindi as The Official Language the spoken language of much of north India has undergone drastic changes in the post 1947 period and Urdu has by and large been replaced with a strange mixture of what you call the Bazaari Hindustani and the Sanskritised Hindi constructed by the Rahtra Bhasha Samitis in the post independence India.

The term Urdu, used for the language that was commonly spoken in the north Indian plains itself is also a rather recent development, the prose of Ghalib when it was first published was given the name Oud-e-Hindi by Ghalib, and Rekhta that Meer and Ghalib wrote their poetry in was derisively called Rekhta – mixed Language by the Persian Ustads of the immediate post wali period. So Urdu that was known as Hindi/Rekhta written in the Persian script by and large till the time of Ghalib and a little later was transformed at Fort Williams into Hindustani/ Urdu if written in the Persian script and Hindi if written in the Nagri Script
My reference to the divisive politics that created the language equals religion discourse was to the process, initiated at the fort williams and carried forward by the votaries of Hindi/ Hindu/ Hindustan and Urdu/Muslim/Pakistan that changed the very nature of the language that was commonly spoken and understood till the immediate pre independence period. It is this changed nature of the language that has created the situation in which most of Faiz’s poetry and also the poetry of Sahir, Majrooh and Kaifi and others begins to sound unfamiliar to those whose grandparents would have had no problem in understanding it.

As for literacy and illiteracy the point that I am making is that there is a difference between the vocabulary of the illiterate and the literate and therefore written language is always a little if not very different from the spoken add to that the difference that has always existed between the language of Poetry and that of Prose, Meer in his time and Firaq much later were two poets who wrote in a language that was closest to the spoken Hindi/ Hindustani/ Rekhta/ Urdu and still there is much in their writing that an illiterate will not understand.

Faiz was writing in a language whose literary traditions and style he was more familiar with and could therefore express himself better in. to my mind He wrote in a language that he thought he could best express himself in, that was a language he inherited as the language of literary discourse and he wrote on issues that were dear to him or he felt strongly about, issues that he grew up with and held dear I think he wrote poetry with a strong political message, you might not think so. So be it.”