Wednesday May 29, 2024

Poet of the soul, thy occasional silences

Islamabad diary
Immortal poetry dedicated to the uplift of the Muslim mind, a mind sunk then in s

By Ayaz Amir
March 28, 2014
Islamabad diary
Immortal poetry dedicated to the uplift of the Muslim mind, a mind sunk then in sloth and passivity (as, alas, it seems to be even now), poetry at its most poignant capable of bringing tears to the hardest eyes – how can anyone not be moved by the lines “let me be the voice of the poor, a lover of the old and infirm and those in pain” from ‘A Child’s Prayer’?
Yet poetry at the same time silent on such a tragedy as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in which over a thousand Indians were killed when Brig-Gen Reginald Dyer ordered his British Indian troops to open fire on an Indian crowd…on April 13, 1919.
Punjab was in ferment because of the passage of the repressive Rowlatt Act, this after Punjab had done so much in the First World War, contributing 60 percent of the six and a half lakh soldiers recruited for the British war effort. Gratitude assumed the shape of repression. Demonstrations broke out in Lahore and Amritsar. There was violence too, especially in Amritsar where 4-5 Englishmen were killed and, inexcusably, a British schoolteacher, Marcella Sherwood, assaulted by an enraged crowd.
Despite martial law in Lahore and a curfew in Amritsar, a large crowd gathered at the Jallianwala Bagh to protest the arrest of two leaders of the agitation, Satyapal and Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew. The massacre followed. Earlier there was an order that anyone crossing the street in which Miss Sherwood lived had to crawl on his belly, an order enforced through flogging.
Allama Muhammad Iqbal, Poet of the East, was not only a leader of the Muslim community in Lahore but one of the leading poets of his time. Yet in all his work, so much of it transcendent, there is no mention of Jallianwala Bagh, an event which shook India. Nor did Iqbal take a public position on it. I am not saying there was a connection but scarcely three years later, in 1922, Iqbal was knighted, becoming Sir Muhammad Iqbal.
In 1931 Bhagat Singh was hanged for the murder of a British police officer. Regardless of whether anyone approved of his methods or not he was a hero and a freedom fighter, going bravely to his death, defiant till the last, faithful to his ideals. Jinnah for one spoke out strongly in his support in the Central Assembly: “I do not approve of the action of Bhagat Singh…I regret that rightly or wrongly the youth of today is stirred up…however much you deplore them and however much you say they are misguided, it is the system, this damnable system of governance, which is resented by the people.”
And of the hunger strike in Lahore Jail carried out by Bhagat Singh and his companions, Jinnah said, “the man who goes on hunger strike has a soul. He is moved by that soul, and he believes in the justice of his cause…” Stirring words indeed. From Iqbal we don’t find anything.
Now Iqbal was not a prophet of passivity. His poetry is a call to action. The image he keeps invoking, asking the Mussalman to model himself on it, is of the eagle, soaring above the clouds and making its nest on the highest mountains. Be like the eagle in flight, says he to his brethren-in-faith.
But the question which arises is: of which peaks is he talking? What is the arena, the amphitheatre, in which he places the struggle and the striving of the Muslim community? Samarkand and Bokhara, the Straits of Bosphorus, or some other kingdom of the imagination? But the land caught up in strife and tumult, and the first stirrings of freedom, was not some remote outpost in history but India itself. The land which really stood in need of the swoop of the eagle was India.
Iqbal’s presidential address at the Allahabad session of the Muslim League on December 29, 1930 is an intellectual tour de force, majestic in its sweep. But it is about Islam, the meaning of Islam, the Muslim community in India and its consciousness shaped by the culture of Islam, etc. And in it he goes on to speak of a Muslim state in “North-West India” although the address is somewhat vague about whether the state envisioned was to be totally independent or located within the larger Indian polity. There is no mention, not a passing reference, to the need first to throw off the colonial yoke.
Is any of this of relevance today? It is in the sense that the toadyism and narrow-mindedness of the ruling elite which emerged after the birth of Pakistan, especially after Jinnah had departed from the scene, was prefigured in the cautious and play-it-safe attitude of the Muslim League leadership in the decades leading up to independence and Partition.
This is not to say that the Congress leadership was made up of Bolsheviks. It wasn’t. But there were socialists and leftists in its ranks, and there was the firebrand Subhas Chandra Bose. Was there anyone we might call a ‘radical’ in the Muslim League? I can only think of Hasrat Mohani, poet and agitator. Jinnah himself was a nationalist first and anything else afterwards. For the rest we come across a pretty conservative scene – chooridar pyjamas, achkans, some of the luminaries sporting the fez on their heads.
It was Jinnah’s skill and determination to turn this unpromising material into a formidable political force. But the British, let us not forget, had also a hand in the rise of the League for their guiding principle in response to the growing strength of nationalist feeling was ‘divide and rule’.
Mention should also be made of a failure of the imagination or a failure of foresight, on Iqbal’s part as on that of the League leadership as a whole…the failure to see that if ever the demand for a north-west Muslim state was met, it would surely and inevitably entail the partition first of Punjab and then only of India. Thus when in 1947 the holocaust came which drenched Punjab in blood, the League was wholly unprepared for it, as much in the mind as in a physical sense.
So where exactly was the eagle, the shaheen of Iqbal’s poetry, meant to soar? Scarcely had the shaheen taken breath from the bloodletting of Partition before it found itself up to its eyes in the distinctly un-poetic pursuit of evacuee property. Far from soaring above the clouds, the eagle found itself ensnared in such hunting traps as first the Baghdad pact, then Cento and Seato. When the going got difficult insofar as anything was concerned the shaheen learnt to let out the shrill cry of Islam in danger.
The East Bengalis should have been part of the shaheen camaraderie too but their problems were different and they were not amused by, nor found any solace in, the frequent references to the faith. After another round of bloodletting, they went their separate ways, leaving the remaining guardians of Iqbal’s north-west state to put the best possible face on their departure.
Bangladesh has moved beyond the orbit of the old influences, the harsh steps against the Jamaat-e-Islami attesting to this approach. We in the north-west are still caught up in the Islamic debate. Iqbal talked of Islam, although with a depth of learning equalled by no one else. But then the Jamaat-e-Islami, opposed tooth and nail to Iqbal and the subsequent demand for Pakistan, also talks of Islam. Maulana Samiul Haq talks of Islam. The holy armies of the Taliban talk of Islam. Our sectarian armies justify their killings in the name of Islam. Where the shaheen is lost in all these perambulations we do not know.
If only our forefathers had been less cautious. If they had more of the rebel in them…a Muslim Udham Singh (the guy who finally killed Brig-Gen Dyer in London), a few more Hasrat Mohanis, perhaps things would have been different. Trust Ghalib to puncture such fantasies: ‘hui muddat ke Ghalib mar gaya par yaad aata hai, har aik baat pe kehna ke yun hota toh kya hota’.