Lab pe ati hai dua ban ke tamanna meri
Zindagi shamma ki surat ho khudaaya meri
In several North Indian schools, this poem written by Allama Iqbal, one of the finest scholars of the last century, has been a morning prayer for many decades. Until recently, when the emergence of right-wing forces questioned the very idea of multi-ethnic India, none could think of the controversy over these humble words of Bachche Ki Dua, as the poem is titled in Iqbal’s poetry collection Bang I Dara (Bell of the Caravan). As the UP Police filed FIR against a school principal and a shiksha mitra for making the students recite such ‘Islamic’ prayers in a Bareilly school, we are confronted with the idea of a new India where the mind is not without fear, even if the head is held high.
Notably, this is not the first time, the poem has become the centre of controversy. In October 2019, another government primary school in the Bisalpur area of Pilibhit suspended its headmaster for the recitation of the same poem by the students upon a complaint by a Viswa Hindu Parishad (VHP) functionary. Though the headmaster got back his job after some time, he was transferred to another school.
The fate of another renowned Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz has also not been different. During the anti-CAA protests, when students of IIT Kanpur sang his signature poem Hum Dekhenge, the authority decided to investigate the lyrics that allegedly has the potential to hurt the ‘Hindu sentiments’. While this controversy evoked much debates and discussions on Faiz’s poetry and made it a clarion call in the anti-CAA mobilisations, the latest move by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) to remove two excerpts of his poetries from the social science syllabus of class 10 from 2022-23 session, further questioned the intention of the authorities. Are they actually feared of the progressive and radical potential of Iqbal and Faiz’s poetries? Or is it merely the evocation of 'Allah' that makes them uncomfortable?
Iqbal’s Poetry: Beyond the calls for Partition
Bachche ki Dua written by Iqbal in 1902 represents the first phase of his poetic oeuvre that celebrates the heterogenous culture(s) and multiplicity of India. This is the time when Iqbal wrote the Urdu version of Gayatri Mantra, known as Aftab published in Makhzan with an introduction that reads,
Lift all these thicksome, hugesome veils
That God’s little earth obscure, divide.
Let’s bring together again
Our parted brethren at one place.
Let there no walls remain.
In 1904, at the request of great revolutionary Lala Hardayal, at the Young Men’s Indian Association in Lahore, Iqbal recited his famous Taranah-e-Hind- Saare-jehan se accha Hindustan Hamara. This was a phase in Iqbal’s life that imagined a beautiful united Hindustan.
It, nevertheless was followed by an ideological transformation that sharpened his critique of colonialism and western notions of modernity as he came back from Europe in 1908.
However, the poem Bacche ki Dua, which has created the recent storm doesn’t even address any of his ideological fervours. Believed to be influenced by Matilda B. Edwards’ A Child’s Prayer, it is a prayer for the children who pray to their God asking for an enlightened world where the darkness of their lives goes away. It asks for strength to help the weak and the poor. However, in one of its verses, towards the end, it says,
Mere Allah! Buraee se bachana mujhko
Naik jo raah ho us rah pe chalana mujhko
This evocation of Allah here certainly, is the key component that has offended a section of the right-wing who considers it an effort to convert innocent children to Islam. It might be possible that Allama Iqbal took up these verses from a Quranic reference to the first Surah Al Fatiha that reads,
“Siraatal-lazeena an’amta ‘alaihim ghayril-maghdoobi ‘alaihim wa lad-daaalleen” (The path of those upon whom You have bestowed favor, not of those who have evoked (Your) anger or of those who are astray.)
However, isn’t it the same message of all religions that actually calls for a ‘good life’ and asks its adherents to follow the path of the best? Iqbal is the same person, who called lord Ram Imam-e-Hind and Guru Nanak Mard-e-Kamil which means a complete man.
Iqbal as a scholar, never looked down upon other religions, even when he became dismissive of modernity and almost declared a war of words against British colonialism saying, “It is better to live for a millennia in a dangerous desert infected with scorpions, ants, venomous snakes and fiery winds than to live for a minute in servitude.”
In an interview with Bombay Chronicle, just before he left for the second round table conference in London, he said, “I have no prejudice against any community or nation in the world. All I want to see is Islam return to its pristine simplicity. I wish to see Indians living in peace and I am convinced that such a thing is possible even while every community retains its culture and individuality”.
His ideological position, notwithstanding, the very content of his poem Bachche ki Dua is nothing more than a humble and innocent prayer. The ‘democracy’ that we celebrate if cannot have the good faith to critically appreciate a poet’s work, must we not recall, what the poet himself thought of democracy?
Dev-e-istabdad jamhoori qaba me paaye koob
Tu samajhta hai ye azaadi ki hai neelampari
(The Devil of tyranny has transformed itself into democracy for sustenance.
You think that it is an angel of freedom!)
Faiz and Ambiguity: When you Fail to Appropriate
While Iqbal had been appropriated by Pakistani ruler Zia Ul Haq for his views on the ‘two nation theory’ and his support for separate Pakistan, Faiz was put under surveillance by the same military dictator. Faiz’s affiliation with the All India Progressive Writers’ Association (AIPWA) and his upholding of leftist ideals for which he was twice imprisoned in the 1950s in Pakistan, nevertheless couldn’t compartmentalise him. Faiz was vocal against any oppression perpetrated in any part of the world.
The poem Hum Dekhenge which became controversial during the anti-CAA protests was first published in Mere Dil Mere Musafir, a collection of poems that Faiz wrote while staying in Beirut. Due to his support to the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) during the rise of Zia Ul Haq, he was kept under surveillance. He left the country and took shelter in Beirut and started working as the editor of a journal namely Lotus, run by the Afro-Asian Writers Association. In this phase, he experienced the pains of the Lebanese and Palestinian people and drafted several poems that got place in Mere Dil Mere Musafir.
During this time, he also travelled to United States, England and Russia. Hum Dekhenge though has a date mark of ‘America, January 1979’, one can’t say it with with the assurance that he wrote it in the US. The poem that resonates with one of his another poem, A Song for the Mujahideen of Palestine, published in Nuskha Haye Vafa, however, got major revolutionary traction only when it was performed by Pakistani Singer Iqbal Bano on February 13, 1986, at Alhamra Arts Council, Lahore.
The festival that was celebrating the works and life of Faiz became a place of revolutionary expressions with the relentless chants of Inqilab Zindabad. Faiz’s grandson Ali Madeeh Hashmi in one of his articles recalls, “She finished the concert but the audience refused to let her leave and begged for an encore of ‘Hum Dekhenge’.”
Hashmi, the author of Faiz’s biography titled, Love and Revolution: Faiz Ahmed Faiz, adds, “Iqbal Bano had to stop repeatedly to allow the cheers and loud slogans of ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ to subside before she could carry on singing. And the loudest cheers were reserved for the verse ‘Sab taj uchalay jaaengay/sab takht giraaey jaayen gaye’.”
This poem, on one hand, became a slogan against dictatorships, on the other, it threw a challenge toward the idea of puritan Islam. Jennifer Dubrow, a professor of Urdu at the University of Washington, while deconstructing the song mentions how it had some Sufistic inclination embedded in it besides having Quranic references. When Faiz wrote, Jab zulm o sitam ke koh-i-giraan/Ru’i ki tarha urr jaaengey (When heavy mountains of tyranny and oppression/Will float away like cotton), he took it, as Professor Dubrow says, from Al-Qari’ah, Surah 101, that while referring to the Day of Judgment notes, “The Day that men shall be like scattered butterflies/And the mountains like tufted wool.” Notably, the poem also uses the concept of An ul-Haq which means “I am God” or more precisely “I am Truth” which depicts the Sufistic ideals and challenges the basic doctrine of Shariat that Zia Ul Haq was trying to impose.
This reading of Hum Dekhenge makes it clear that neither the call for uprooting all the idols from Ka’ba, nor the mere reference to Allah’s supremacy outraged the authority--- it was its revolutionary potential that denies being compartmentalised, disturbs them the most. Faiz was such a person whom they could never appropriate. On one hand, he was a leftist, on the other, he even led Namaaz. He was also buried following the Islamic rituals. So, every time, one wants to understand Faiz, one encounters what communication scholar John Fiske calls an ‘anomaly’- one listens to a certain denial to fit into a box and this is what makes the autocrats nervous.
Indian classrooms inept to realise ambiguity?
Indian classrooms in recent decades have ought to be the space where these revolutionary ideals are the last thing to be celebrated. While talking to Outlook, Sudeep Ghosh, who used to teach a course on Faiz at Aga Khan Academy Hyderabad, says, “I attribute this to sheer cultural apathy and ignorance. It is driven by malafide intent to downplay and desecrate the value of pluralism. Sadly, it gets ‘amplified’ in media (with rare exception) to gratify the ego of those who are blinded by ideological biases.”
As a scholar of poetry, he puts the blames on ‘misrepresentation’ that affects the reading of these great poets. “Faiz and Iqbal embody the value and beauty of syncretism. Paradoxically, shallow reading of their poetry coupled with ideological parochialism lends to ‘misrepresentation’. Critics have to be objective and ethical enough to interpret the nuanced and sometimes overtly direct but ironic poetic expressions of Faiz and Iqbal. This skewed interpretation is due to cultural intolerance,” Ghosh adds.
Referring to the recent controversy on Iqbal, he continues, “I recently used this recent controversy in my class about metacognition while discussing ethics of interpretation. What a hungama and what fallacious arguments! Sadly, the issue is the problem of poor interpretation and utter lack of sensibilities. If the evocation of Allah is problematic, I am afraid we have retreated into Aristotle’s cave. Time for soul-searching to stem the rot that has set in.”
Living at a time when histories are being rewritten to suit certain kind of ideals and imagination, we can at least evoke the power of poetry and art to reclaim solidarities. The power of art and literature lies in its very form, not only in the content.
In this context, one can’t help but recall the inaugural address of the first All India progressive Writers’ Conference delivered by renowned Hindi-Urdu poet and author Premchand in 1936, of which Faiz was also a part. Addressing the young bunch of ideologically motivated poets and authors, Premchand, said,
“As long as the aim of literature was only to provide entertainment, to put us to sleep … it had no need of action. … The only literature that will pass our test is that … which instils in us dynamism and restlessness, not sleep”