The significance of Urdu in the freedom struggle is uncontested for most commentators on the literary history of India; yet such is the politics of language and such also is the power of steady misdirection that the role played by Urdu writers in the years leading up to independence and in its immediate aftermath in what came to be called Nehru’s “nation-building project”, is often overlooked if not outright decried in the public domain.

There has always been a fringe element (now gaining ascendancy, alas) that has believed that with the taqseem or batwara of 1947, Urdu, the foreign or alien language, the language of the invaders, the language of Muslims went away to Pakistan and what stayed with us was ours: Hindi, the rashtra bhasha, the language of India. And even before the partition, it has been alleged, Urdu was content to wallow in the romantic tropes of shama-parwana and escapist fantasies in the Persian-Arabic dastaan tradition, whereas Hindi had an organic link with desh-bhakti and swaraj.

Such a wilfully-created binary is both untrue and criminally dangerous. Not only does it link language with religion but also belittles and discounts an entire literary tradition. A phalange of Urdu writers – those belonging to the powerful literary grouping known as the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA) that was most active from the 1930s to 1950s – as well as the loose cannons who did not believe in movements and associations and had no discernible ideological mooring produced a body of work that aided and abetted a growing sense of nationalism, or wataniyat as it was called in Urdu. What is more, this process started not in the years leading up to 1947, but actually in the build-up to 1857 in what is now seen as the First War of Independence.

Turmoil in verse

The decline and dismantling of the Mughal Empire was accompanied by calamitous events, each more tragic than the other – such as the rape and pillage of Delhi by Nadir Shah; the repeated attacks by Ahmed Shah Abdali, the Marathas, the Rohillas; the annexation of Awadh in 1856, the killing of Nawab Siraj-ud Daulah by the British in the Battle of Plassey in 1757; the establishment of British control in Delhi in 1803, the annexation of Awadh in 1856; and, then the final nail in the coffin, the Revolt of 1857.

The Urdu poets took note of the disarray, mismanagement and decline and wrote about each of these incidents in voluminous verse. If anything, with each fresh catastrophe, they evolved a vocabulary to express their angst, clothing their sorrow and anger in a time-honoured repertoire of images and metaphors.

Some favourite synonymns for the Beloved traditionally used in classical Urdu poetry – but (idol), sitamgar (tyrant), kafir (infidel), yaar (friend) – began to be used mockingly for the British. Poets deployed traditional images such as the gul-o-bulbul (the rose and the nightingale) to decry the wilderness that their lives had become, the desolation in Shahjanabad after the plunder and lootings, the lawlessness on the streets, the shabbiness of the once-handsome houses. Several poets were actively involved in the Uprising – such as Munir Shikohabadi, Fazl-e Haq Khairabadi and the emperor Bahadurshah Zafar himself.

And so the Urdu poet continued in this vein – drawing sustenance from the burst of political energy that was released from the events of 1857, donning the mantle of the reformer and activist, speaking in the voice of a political commentator and a social analyst, and evolving a new understanding of wataniyat. But it was only with the dawn of a new century that hubb-e watani (love for the nation) as we understand it today, can be seen as a literary phenomena in Urdu. The poets who had chosen to stay silent immediately after the ghadar began to spread their wings and a range of new emotions can be found in the turn-of-the-century poetry – from overt expressions of hostility to British rule to sarcastic references to the presence of a tyrannical alien in one’s midst.

Call for revolution

With the coming of Gandhi and the first non-cooperation movement, something changed in the Urdu poet’s psyche. Cries for revolution became more robust and a sense of nationhood stronger. Brij Naain Chakbast in Awaz-e Qaum (The Call of the Nation) is speaking for an entire generation when he is declaring:

From the ground to the skies there are cries of Home Rule
And the youthfulness of nationalism and the urge for Home Rule.

In Inquilab (Revolution), Asrar-ul Haq Majaz, the romantic-turned-revolutionary poet is predicting a bloody end to imperial rule long before 1947:

Khatm ho jaane ko hai sarmayadaron ka nizam
Rang lane ko hai mazdooron ka josh-e inteqam


Khoon hi khoon hoga nigahein jis taraf ko jayeingi

(The rule of the capitalists is about to end
The labourer’s passion for vengeance is finally coming true
There will be blood, only blood, everywhere)

A study of the proscribed poetry of this period will reveal strong, unabashedly revolutionary, almost seditious, content: Hasrat Mohani – the poet who first used the slogan Inquilab Zindabad at a trade union rally in Calcutta in 1925 – is scathing about the so-called reforms introduced by the British as mere sops in a poem called Montagu Reforms; Zafar Ali Khan is mocking the excesses of colonial rule and the brutality of men like General Dwyer in Mazalim-e Punjab (The Victims of Punjab); Hashar Kashmiri is writing a sarcastic ode to Europe Shukriya Europe (Thank You Europe); Ehsan Danish is penning a rousing anthem of revolt Tarana-e Jihad (The Anthem of Jihad), and so on.

Taken chronologically, these poems begin to reveal a certain pattern. Each successive milestone of brutality, suppression, inequality, unfairness – The Rowlatt Act, Jallianwala massacre, routine proscriptions and banning as well as imprisonments of poets and politicians alike – is producing voluminous poetry, polemics and posters in Urdu. The poets and publicists of the age are working in tandem: Urdu newspapers, journals and prose writers are echoing the call of the poets, and vice versa. The firebrand Josh Malihabadi (1898-1982), poet and editor of the influential Kaleem, jailed for his revolutionary poetry, is declaring:

Kaam hai mera taghiar naam hai mera shabab
Mera naam inquilab o inquilab o inquilab

(My work is change, my name is youth
My cry is revolution, revolution, revolution)

As we inch towards partition, when the possibility of freedom becomes clearer, poets like Sahir Ludhianvi begin to seize the immense possibilities of social transformation that an event like freedom from the imperial yoke presents:

In kali sadiyon ke sar se jab raat ka aanchal dhalkega
Jab dukh ke badal pighlenge, jab sukh ka saaghar chhalkega
Jab ambar jhoom ke naachega, jab dharti naghme gayegi
Woh subha kabhi to aayegi

(When the veil of the night will slip from the brow of these dark centuries
When the clouds of sorrow will melt and the goblet of joy will brim over
When the skies will dance with delight, when the earth will sings songs
Surely that morning will dawn some day)

Sweet freedom

All through the 1940s, several members of the PWA had been writing songs of freedom that linked the anti-colonial struggle with the freedom movement. So there was Majaz, the Keats of Urdu, expressing his longing for a better, more humane world, a world that will arise phoenix-like from the ashes of upheaval and change, in a poem using the metaphor of a train hurtling in the darkness tiled Rail where the train becomes a metaphor for change and rebellion:

Going ahead fearlessly with a typhoon-like thunder
A rebellion in each motion
Singing songs of mankind’s greatness

And even in a seemingly soft romantic poem such as Nazr-e Dil (To My Heart), Majaz cannot hide the yearning of his subversive heart:

Let us together bring about a new revolution
Spread ourselves over the world so that all eyes are on us

There was little doubt in the mind of most Urdu poets, especially the progressives, that the dawn that was awaited was going to be a red one. And, so, there was Makhdoom Mohiuddin, the poet from Hyderabad writing in Jang-e Azaadi (War of Independence):

Lo surkh savera aata hai, azaadi ka, azaadi ka
Gulnaar tarana gaata hai, azaadi ka, azaadi ka
Dekho parcham lehrata hai, azaadi ka azaadi ka

(Look, the red dawn is coming, the red dawn of independence
Singing the red anthem of independence, freedom and independence
Look, the flag is waving of liberty, freedom and independence)

And there is Kaifi Azmi, writing an ode to the new woman who must walk hand in hand with her mate, in Aurat, for independence will bring not merely freedom from foreign rule but freedom from all kinds of oppression including gender injustice:

Arise, my love, for now you must march with me
Flames of war are ablaze in our world today...
You must burn in the fire of freedom with me

But as we shall see in the poetry being written after the partition, the red storm that Majaz had predicted became the red tide of blood – not revolution – as the country plunged into a horrific bloodbath, and the dawn of freedom became a night-bitten dawn. By far the most famous comment on the partition is contained in Subah-e Azaadi by Faiz:

Yeh daagh daagh ujala yeh shab-gazida sehr
Woh intezar tha jiska yeh woh sehr to nahi

(This patchy light, this night-bitten dawn
This is not the dawn we had been waiting for)

Lines of disenchantment

For some progressive poets, especially those who were members of the Communist Party, partition and the freedom that came in its wake was a “false freedom”. Taking the Party’s line, many poets too spoke of the sense of inadequacy, the squandering of dreams that the dawn of freedom ushered in. Josh Malihabadi in a poem titled Maatam-e Azadi (The Lament for Freedom) written in 1948 strikes a sombre note:

Ai ham nafas! Fasana e Hindustan naa pooch
Apna gala kharosh-e tarranum se phat gaya
Talwar se bacha, to rag-e gul se kat gaya

(O friend, don’t ask me for the tale of Hindustan
Our throats were torn by the scratching of our songs
When we escaped the sword, we were beheaded by the veins of the rose)

Majaz too has lost some of his youthful ebullience by 1948 when he writes:

Hindu Muslim Sikh Eesai aman ke moti ro lenge
Khoon ki holi khel chuke hain rang ke dhabbe dho lenge

(Hindu Muslim Sikh and Christian will shed tears of peace
Having played Holi with blood, they will now wash off these stains)

By the time India celebrates its first Republic Day in 1950, Sahir Ludhianvi’s disenchantment with the new republic is already palpable. In a poem titled Chhabees Janwary (26 January), Sahir invokes the beautiful dreams the nation had seen, dreams of a better tomorrow and asks:

Come and let us ponder on this question
Whatever happened to all those beautiful dreams?
The helpless cannot even afford a shroud to cover their nakedness
Whatever happened to those promises of silks and brocades?

Then there is Pandrah Agust (15 August) by Akhtarul Iman:

Yahi din hai jiske liye maine kati thee in ankhon mein raatein
Yahi seeli aab-e baqa, chasma noor hai, jalwa-e toor hai?
Issi ke liye woh suhane, madhur, rasbhare geet gaye they maine?

(Was it for this day that I had spent so many sleepless nights
For this damp water of eternity, this stream of light, this mountain of miracles
Was it for this I had sung all those sweet, melodious songs...)

Decrying war

The wounds of partition were revived after every war with Pakistan. Each time, the poet cautioned against war. Sahir, the most vocal pacifist says in a nazm titled Ai Sharif Insanon:

Jung to khud hi ek masla hai
Jang kyon masalon ka hal degi?
Aag aur khoon aaj bakhshegi
Bhook aur ehtiyaj kal degi

(War itself is the problem
How can it then provide the solution?
Today it will give fire and blood
Tomorrow it will bring hunger and beggary)

It is interesting how nationalism increasingly became a leitmotif in the years immediately after partition in Urdu poetry. There was the jingoistic hyper-nationalism that came in the wake of the Indo-Pak wars (some from the pen of progressive poet-lyricists who oscillated between pacifists and ardent militants in songs for films such as Hindustan Hamara Hai) and more nuanced acknowledgements for the need for peace and harmony. From Partition came the wars, and the subsequent need for dialogue and bhaichara, maintaining brotherhood, was the popular refrain in much of Urdu poetry in the years immediately after independence. I will rest my case with Guftagu by Ali Sardar Jafri, the Jnanpith Award winning poet who wrote:

Let us keep the conversation going
One word leading to another...
Let our words not be stifled by the chains of helplessness
Let our words not be murdered