A few days ago, a professor who taught my wife in a university in Delhi sent her the image of a news item published in The Hindu. It was a story about Mamata Banerjee, West Bengal’s chief minister, wanting to honour one of Urdu’s greatest poets, Allama Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938).

The message had arrived overnight. When I woke up that morning, my wife showed me the report on her phone. The news was interesting, I thought, but I also smelled some politics in it. For decades, India had found Iqbal a pariah, and had happily allowed Pakistan to claim him wholesale as their national poet. What had suddenly changed? I know that elections in West Bengal are due soon and Mamata is facing a tough electoral challenge from the ultra-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. Is Mamata, then, trying to get traction among the minorities by invoking Iqbal? That was the first thought that came to me.

Why did your professor send you this story, I asked my wife. He might have thought, she conjectured, the news would interest us because in last November we had gifted him a copy of your book on Iqbal. Maybe, I nodded in agreement.

Iqbal in Bengal

Soon after reading the report in The Hindu, many news stories on Mamata’s programme of honouring of Iqbal in Bengal followed. Rabindranath Tagore’s (1861-1941) name came into the picture too. Mamata is honouring both Iqbal and Tagore, two of India’s greatest poetic talents of the 20th century, at Jashn-e-Iqbal (celebration of Iqbal), the news reports said. This is getting interesting. Only a few days earlier, in a public reading organised by India Club in Singapore, I had announced that I wanted to do a play on Iqbal and Tagore – they admired and critiqued each other like true intellectuals when they were alive. Was someone reading my mind in India?

Then came the news that Iqbal’s grandson Waleed Iqbal was coming to India for the Jashn-e-Iqbal on May 29, organised by the Bengal government’s Urdu Academy. To its credit, the Modi government approved in record time visa to Waleed and two Pakistani scholars to attend a celebration in Kolkata of the poet.

According to the same news report, the Urdu Academy had initially hoped to host the poet’s son, Javed Iqbal, 90, a retired Supreme Court judge in Pakistan, but he is too old to travel.

A bold move

Politics or no politics, invoking Iqbal in Bengal is a bold and timely move by Mamata, and associating him with Tagore, the iconic poet of India, sends a powerful message to the people of Bengal and India. At least, by honouring Iqbal publicly, that image of Iqbal being a pariah (beyond the Urdu-speaking circle) will be banished from the Indian consciousness.

What is fascinating about this event is not just the acceptance of Iqbal as one of undivided India’s greatest poets, on par with Tagore, but also the celebration of the fact that our history is a shared heritage. Iqbal wrote the national song, Saare Jahan se Achha Hindoositan Hamara, which is still sung lovingly in India (it was Azad Hind Fauj’s Qaumi Tarana or national song). But India’s adopted national anthem, Jana Gana Mana, was penned by the great Tagore, who also gave Bangladesh its national anthem, Amar Shonar Bangla, and provided the lyrics and music for Sri Lanka’s old national anthem.

The rebel and the conformist

This event is a great opportunity for us to learn more about Iqbal and Tagore, who shared their love for humankind and who questioned the excessive invocation of nationalism for they saw it as anti-humanity. Both played a great role in raising India’s profile in the world and in shaping the Asian consciousness when much of Asia was yoked to British colonialism. Both were inspired by the German poet Goethe (they were called ‘Indian Goethe’ in turn). Both were knighted by the British government – Tagore received it in 1915, after receiving the Nobel Prize in 1913. And while Tagore renounced his knighthood in the wake of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919 (perhaps it didn’t matter much to him after having received the Nobel Prize), Iqbal accepted it three years after Tagore had renounced the honour (For Iqbal, who never received the Nobel Prize, this was to be the highest honour for a Muslim in the colonial times).

Some of Iqbal’s acolytes hold that he too would have received a Nobel Prize if he had influential friends in the West like YB Yeats who had lionised Tagore’s work, leading him to win the Nobel in 1913. But conjectures aside, both believed in self-help and education and both had very specific worldviews.

Though there are some similarities between Iqbal and Tagore, they differed in temperament. Iqbal talked about action and revolution (he was a rebel, according to Dr Rafiq Zakaria, because “he believed in creating turbulence so that he could build anew”), while Tagore was a votary of peace and calm – a conformist “who looked for harmony than discord in life”. Tagore was a world traveller whereas Iqbal had a comparably calm and lazy nature (“he loathed practical work”). Taking a jibe at the dichotomy between their action and philosophy, Iqbal once observed: “Tagore preaches rest but practices action; Iqbal preaches action but practices rest.”

While Iqbal and Tagore admired each other, they had some genuine disagreements too. Tagore thought that Iqbal, being a Punjabi, should have written in Punjabi, instead of Urdu and Persian. When Tagore’s wanderlust took him to Persia in 1932 at the ripe age of 71, Iqbal criticised his mission: “… [Tagore] travelled to Persia in order to develop Aryan affiliations between Hindus and Persians… coupled with the propaganda that Persia is inclined to embrace Zoroastrianism and the anti-Islamic attitude of those writers in whose writings one finds subtle insinuations of these things.” He wrote this in a letter to Ghulam Abbas Aram, an Iranian diplomat, on June 27, 1932.

Iqbal was also unhappy with Tagore’s statements in Mesopotamia that Muslims were not cooperating with Hindus in India in the freedom movement. “Tagore did another injustice to the Indian Muslims,” he wrote to Aram. “He told the Muslims of Mesopotamia to persuade the Indian Muslims to cooperate with the Hindus for the freedom of India. The informed student of the politics of India knows that ‘complete freedom’ is not, and, in the present circumstances, could not be the demand of the Hindus. His sole aim is to secure complete control over the destinies of the Indian minorities and to retain the British bayonets for his own protection. That is what he means by freedom. And this freedom means only a change of masters for the minorities of India.”

According to M Ikram Chughtai, Iqbal’s criticism of Tagore’s political speeches in Iran and Iraq do not coincide with Tagore’s real speeches and statements made in those countries, and perhaps Iqbal was reacting to misleading press reports. (Iqbal and Tagore by M Ikram Chughtai; 2003).

Myths about Iqbal

There has been so much silence about Iqbal in India that many myths have taken root about him. Was he a communal person? Was he anti-Hindu? Did he spawn the idea of Pakistan?

Iqbal was not communal but he believed in “higher communalism”, which he referred to in his famous Allahabad address of 1931. In simple words, it means allowing each community to develop along the lines of its culture and religion. In today’s parlance, it would be called multiculturalism.

Iqbal was not anti-Hindu. His best friends included Sikhs and Hindus. Iqbal was very proud of his Kashmiri Brahmin descent and he called Lord Ram “Imam-e Hind” (leader of India). A scholar of Arabic and Persian, he took lessons in Sanskrit from Pandit Ramtirath, and when the learned priest died by drowning in a river, Iqbal paid him tribute through his poetry. Iqbal had also translated the Gayatri Mantra into a poem in Urdu (Aftaab). One of his earlier poems, Naya Shivala, talks about building a new Shivala (a temple), which will be a symbol of love, communal harmony and bhakti (devotion) which could only be built by demolishing the walls of communal hatred and enmity. A doctor of philosophy, Iqbal once said that reading Hindu philosophy revealed to him the true meaning of shanti (peace).

Iqbal did not hatch the idea of Pakistan, even though he is called the Spiritual Father of Pakistan. In the 1920s and 1930s, Iqbal saw the fire of communalism spreading fast in India. Hundreds of riots followed. That convinced him that in a free India, when the one-person-one-vote system will work, Muslims will be outnumbered by Hindus and they will become subservient to the majority. Once in power, Hindu majoritarianism will destroy the Muslim identity and culture in India which had developed over the centuries. Fearing this, he advised Muslims of India to have separate Muslim majority states in the northwest of India and in Bengal, but this was to be within the Indian federation, protecting the borders of India (within or outside the British Commonwealth). Later in life, there is evidence that he regretted suggesting this.

Iqbal was a bold reformist. He wanted reforms in Islam in the light of major scientific developments in the 20th century – reforms that did not take place, and a result, the Muslims are paying a price of it today.

If this event of commemorating Iqbal in Mamata’s Bengal could dispel some of these myths about Iqbal, it would really do justice to the great India that he was.

Zafar Anjum (@zafaranjum) is a Singapore-based writer and is the author of half a dozen books, including Iqbal: The Life of a Poet, Philosopher and Politician, Random House India, 2014.