What is the poet’s role in history? For a historian of Britain like myself, this question calls to mind the work of EP Thompson, who read the history of the English working class with one eye on the Romantic poets who sensitively captured the social and cultural transformations of the revolutionary late 18th century.

Their notions of place, people and conflict were also shaped by the imperial expansion unfolding in precisely the same moment, and they waxed orientalists even in their defences of freedom. Thompson’s favourite among the Romantics was the prophetic William Blake, partly for his consistent anti-imperialism. He disapproved of William Wordsworth’s eventual disenchantment with the revolutionary spirit.

As an activist and aspiring poet himself, Thompson saw poetry and politics as related pursuits. For him, poetry stood for “deeply inspired action…The poet was crucial to revolutionary politics, for he could articulate the longings that, along with practical programs, inspired men to act”. Blake “embodied the possibility of poetry and politics, romantic yearning and rational resistance in a single movement”. (Joan Scott, Gender and the Politics of History, citing Henry Abelove.)

This understanding shaped Thompson’s sense of purpose as a historian as he set out to recover the creative – poetic – radical capacity of 18th-century English workers. His faith in creativity also made him allergic to the rigid “scientific” materialism of the British Communist Party in his own time, and his discovery of the imaginative play in earlier British socialist movements gave him some hope for the endurance of those values in his time.

The political poet

In 1960, as Thompson wrote his landmark work, The Making of the English Working Class, he criticised WH Auden for retreating from the political engagement that had once taken him as far as risking his life in the Spanish Civil War – Auden repeating Wordsworth’s fall. A few years later, Auden ventured into political terrain just enough to pen a satirical poem about Sir Cyril Radcliffe’s role in partitioning India “Between two peoples fanatically at odds / With their different diets and incompatible gods.”

Partition was nearly 20 years old by then. But, India remained on the minds of 20th century Britons, not least the Thompson family: Thompson’s father was the poet and historian Edward John Thompson, whose friendship for Indian nationalists and nationalism earned him the title “India’s prisoner.”

British historian Edward Palmer Thompson. Photo credit: Kim Traynor, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This elder Thompson also loved the romantics and was particularly inspired by the heroics of Lord Byron, who died fighting for Greek liberation from the Turks in 1824. This is perhaps why he himself displayed such heroic force in ministering to the wounded under fire during the British Indian conquest of Iraq during World War I, for which he was decorated.

Indeed, Byron, the poet who sacrificed for a beloved enslaved people and redeemed the sins of British imperial power, was an iconic figure to his entire generation, although few had the chance to enact such heroism in their mass war of attrition. Among Thompson’s nationalist Indian poet friends, whom he perhaps saw as modern incarnations of the Romantics he so admired, were Rabindranath Tagore and Mohamed Iqbal, both also deeply knowledgeable about Western Romantic poetry (the latter particularly influenced by Goethe).

EP Thompson recalled cadging stamps from the Indian “poets and political agitators” who visited their home in Oxford in the 1930s and his knowledge that these were the “most important visitors” to their home. (Thompson, Writing by Candlelight). One senses that for both father and son it was as much the life that such poets lived on the frontlines of history as the poetry they wrote that made them so admirable.

Largely because of his father’s influence, the younger Thompson, whatever his preference for Blake, took on a Byronic role in his attempts as a writer and activist to lead the British working classes out of the darkness of his own time. (Priya Satia, “Byron, Gandhi, and the Thompsons: The Making of British Social History and Unmaking of Indian History”, History Workshop Journal)

In other words, politically engaged anti-colonial Indian poets of the 1930s helped produce the iconic British notions of the poet’s place in history – and helped shape the work of arguably the most important social historian of the last century. But more importantly, for the purposes of this essay, they articulated alternative, if impossible, visions of the subcontinent’s future during the period of nationalist struggle ending in the Partition of India.

Their diverse visions of social equality, communal harmony, internationalist nationalism and so on might have been utopian, but recovery of them may yet light a way forward in our time of social inequality, communal strife and chauvinistic nationalism.

In writing history, Thompson urged, “Our only criterion for judgment should not be whether or not a man’s actions are justified in the light of subsequent evolution. After all, we are not at the end of social evolution ourselves.” The “lost causes” of the past might yield “insights into social evils which we have yet to cure”. (Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class).

Poetry and Partition

My attempt at excavating Urdu poets’ lost causes here is far from exhaustive. I will leave out major writers and thinkers, I will fail to distinguish between “Urdu” and “Punjabi”, I will wax personal in places. (I am painfully aware that I write cursorily here about subjects that others have researched at great length. See for instance the work of Veena Das, Ashish Nandy, Ravinder Kaur, Bhaskar Sarkar, Gyanendra Pandey, Mushirul Hasan, Yasmin Khan, Neeti Nair, Jisha Menon, Faisal Devji, Lucy Chester, David Gilmartin and Vazira Zamindar, to name just a few – not to mention the vast corpus of work on Kashmir and the Bengal side of Partition.)

Indeed, I focus entirely on Punjab without scruple although an enormous Bengali story runs parallel to and intersects with it, which I have neither space nor skill to address. But still, the exercise of recovery, however uneven and admittedly self-indulgent, is useful precisely insofar as it raises the possibility of countless alternatives, on which more at the end of this essay.

The late historian of British India Christopher Bayly was slightly disappointed when I told him several years ago that I was planning a book on Partition. Too many people were working on it, to the exclusion of other urgent topics, he said. It had become a “cottage industry”.

This concentration was despite the fact that the collection of evidence and testimony about the event has been a belated project (now rigorously pursued by organisations like the Berkeley-based Partition Archive and the Citizens Archive of Pakistan). But, this stubborn preoccupation with Partition tells us something: wherein lies the unending appeal of this story?

I think the answer is that Partition resonates at an almost visceral level as a moral narrative, a moral tragedy. It appeals in the same way that the Western Front does for the British, an event in which all the folly of human history was briefly and tragically on flagrant display.

This is why poetry remains a primary recourse in remembering and understanding the Western Front and why Partition is a similar poetic mine. And the paths of poets from these two related worlds crossed here and there. World War I was the subject of my first book, and the period of the romantics the subject of my second. Now I turn to Partition and find many of the characters in both those works haunting its unfolding.

Partition is poetically irresistible partly because of its resonance – not accidental I think – with older cultural commitments to ideas of “division” in the region where it occurred. Among Punjabis (like myself), it plays on culturally deep, mystical-poetic notions of birha (the longing for union with the divine) that morphs over time into the pardesi’s nostalgia for an increasingly imaginary watan (homeland, country). (Literally, “pardesi” means someone from another land but poetically it also indicates someone simply away from home.)

Indeed, I have found it difficult to extricate these inherited layers of nostalgia in my own psyche. Hence perhaps my dilatory approach to the subject of Partition, which I have in various ways attempted to work on since I was 19 years old. What I offer here builds on that dawning personal insight and is more speculative and hypothetical than rigorously empirical. It is the fruit of long reflection but short research, a beginning for thought.

Emergency trains crowded with desperate refugees during the Partition. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)

Stories of displacement

I do not think my family is unusual in reading its history through the lens of nostalgia and loss, even as it embraces the future as the path of “progress.” The Satias were a solidly Congress family from Muktsar in Ferozepur district (now on the border with Pakistan). My great-grandfather was jailed for nationalist activities.

In 1947, they were not sure which side the town would fall in. I heard flattering stories of efforts to protect terrified Muslims. I wondered about the masjid opposite our house – “Angooran Wali Maseet” (“Grape Mosque”), which gave the town its romantic skyline, a dignified yet ghostlike centrepiece of a town famous for gurdwaras marking Guru Gobind Singh’s battle against the Mughals in 1705, a monument to an absent people.

My father left Muktsar for the United States like many Indian doctors in the late 1960s. (His first roommate in Chicago was a Pakistani doctor.) All but one of his brothers also left Muktsar, settling in Rajasthan, New Delhi and Haryana. Their father distributed them thus because of the partitions of Indian Punjab in 1967 that produced the new states of Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. He knew from experience that Partition meant uncertainty and sent his sons abroad to insure against that uncertainty, making them pardesis cherishing memories of Muktsar.

Punjabi history took a turn for the worse in the 1980s as Indira Gandhi drove Sikhs into a militant separatist movement. When my grandfather died in 1983, his sons and brother engaged in a property dispute that turned violent against that backdrop. The rent familial bonds added more pathos to the nostalgia of those long since dispatched from Muktsar. The home they longed for grew increasingly imaginary, and longing itself became a permanent part of their identity as Punjabis.

My mother’s family hailed from Multan in West Punjab. Perfumers, they determined to stay in Pakistan, but circumstances forced their departure sometime in 1948. Those “circumstances” remain cloudy – a kidnapping, a fire, a murder, a disguised escape.

In India, they landed in the empty homes of departed Muslims in Old Delhi, eventually moving to New Rajinder Nagar. More embittered than the Satias, they were less nostalgic, and gravitated to the Hindutva Right, blaming Congress for causing Partition. Still, my grandmother let fall nuggets of wistful memories, of her father’s fabulous serais (caravansaries) outside Multan where she spent her childhood.

Uncles drew maps of a lost city in which their house once stood and may still stand today. In Darya Ganj, surrounded by the remnants of Muslim Old Delhi, my mother grew up with “Hai Allah” on her lips more readily than “Hey Ram”, whatever the family’s antipathy for Islam.

These are just my personal stories. The 1940s, 1960s, 1980s, 2000s produced countless stories of displacement among Punjabis, not to mention those who left even earlier, during colonial times, in the service of the British Indian Army or to escape British rule and poverty by becoming farmers in North America, especially California.

Heavy military recruitment from the second half of the 19th century and emigration to North American farmlands from the early 20th century fuelled the poetic tradition around the pardesi and the cult of nostalgia for a homeland that the British transformed into a “resource for supporting a security regime in northwest India”. (James Hevia)

Punjabi identity

Poetry seems an obvious recourse to expressing the loss and grief experienced by those affected by the redrawing of international borders, as it was in Bengal, Germany, Palestine, Ireland and elsewhere. In Punjabi and Urdu poetry, Partition already existed as a theme, through mystical traditions and earlier emigrations.

Displacement became central to Punjabi identity as it is to Jewish and Armenian identity, but it is distinct in the Punjabi’s awareness of his own role in his tragic severance from his home and repeated division of his homeland. His (and I do mean “his” here) is a self-imposed exile guiltily justified by one or another promise of modernity – personal prosperity, for economic migrants and national prosperity for Partition refugees.

He self-consciously sacrifices the homeland for the progress of its children, secure that in dutifully pursuing his worldly ends he nevertheless maintains a timeless bond with it, a bond made more transcendently spiritual at each remove from the geopolitical reality of a place called Punjab. (Alpana Kishore told Anam Zakaria that certain Punjabi cultural traits, like irreverence, help explain why they do not take Partition “seriously” and instead push it aside. Their grandparents had moved abruptly beyond it, and a long history of invasions through the region also desensitised them. The Footprints of Partition: Narratives of Four Generations of Pakistanis and Indians. But the sensitivity captured in volumes of oral histories Zakaria and the Partition Archive have collected belie this suggestion. The cavalierness towards Partition is more complex. It is certainly rooted in the sense of a long history of displacement, but there is “baggage” aplenty.)

Of course, this is a stereotype. There is too much variety across sub-region, caste, class, nation and gender, for this style of Punjabi identity to be true across the board. And yet it is a stereotype we all recognise, quite apart from Punjabi folk traditions, partly thanks to the Indian film industry. The Punjabi lyricist Prem Dhawan immortalised the vision of the northwestern Indian carrying his homeland in his heart wherever he may be in the patriotic anthem, “Ae mere pyaare watan,” (“Oh my beloved homeland,”) sung by the Pashtun selling fruit in Calcutta in the 1961 film Kabuliwala\ that was based on a Tagore story.

Refugees in crowded trains during the Partition. Photo credit: Photo Division, Government of India, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The films of a Partition refugee from Lahore, Yash Chopra, also made that Punjabi “type” iconic. In his last, posthumously released film, Jab Tak Hai Jaan (2012), the Kashmir that figures as a heavenly abode in his romances of the 1970s and 80s (Kabhi Kabhi and Silsila) is the site of bomb-removal for a broken-hearted hero, a son of Indian Punjab with the requisite Pakistani “brother” in London, who determinedly tests fate and cheats death by engaging in ungloved bomb removal because his beloved Meera has put her love of god above her love for him – arguably what many Punjabis did during Partition, putting religious bonds above social ones.

“Meera” is of course named for the medieval poetess who expressed her longing for spiritual union with Lord Krishna. The separation of Meera and Samar and their undying mutual longing represents the summit of worldly love made divine. (On Partition in Indian cinema, see Bhaskar Sarkar, Mourning the Nation: Indian Cinema in the Wake of Partition.)

Through such translations of Punjabi experience, Bollywood tells us love lies in separation. Pardesi – the one gone from home – is a name for the beloved.

Gender politics

I owe my understanding of the place of poetry in EP Thompson’s work to the historian Joan Scott, who sensitively teased out its significance in the course of criticising Thompson’s gender blindness in his work on the English working class. She noted that he included the art he so admired in “the masculine, in opposition to a set of unacceptable excluded terms – the domestic, the spiritual, the expressive, the religious, the undisciplined and the irrational – all of which are coded as feminine”. (Scott.)

The gender politics of poetry in Punjab are perhaps not dramatically different, but the layering of social and political content on often highly gendered motifs of spiritual and worldly love in the poetry of Punjabis who wrestled with revolutionary change just when Thompson was writing about 18th-century activism suggests a more complex gender story. Themes of love and society were more separate in most romantic English poetry.

In Urdu poetry, the vocabulary of birha comprises vasl and hijr (union and separation), eliding romantic or erotic allusion with religious devotion. Articulation of love of homeland through the religiously syncretic cultural heritage of birha collapsed art and the spiritual, masculine and feminine.

This poetic universe itself is highly gendered, in those erotic connotations, but also un-gendered in its often ambiguously gendered first-person subject. Fully grasping its gender politics would require close examination of the poetry well beyond the reach of this essay. For present purposes, I simply want to highlight the centrality of bodily gendered worldly love as an allegory in even the most politically engaged poetic work of the period, as we shall see further below.

Bollywood films packaging our stereotypical Punjabi-who-transcends-Punjab also play on that gendered Sufi idiom: the centuries-old poetic romances of sundered yet mystically united pairs: Heer-Ranjha, Sohni-Mahiwal, Sassi-Punnu, Mirza-Sahiba.

There are others – Shirin Farhad, Laila Majnun – inherited from further northwest. The most famous narration of Heer Ranjha is Waris Shah’s from 1766, based on a true story that transpired some two centuries earlier in Jhang. The tragic ending depicting the two lovers, dead before the chance at union, at once sought to express divine love, in which the most intense experience of union with the divine lies in interminable longing.

Is it coincidence or destiny that a region that for so long depicted love through Partition should have been the site of violent Partition itself? Or is the intense Punjabi preoccupation with these romances a cultural legacy of 1947?

The Punjabi poet Amrita Pritam, who left Lahore in 1947, explicitly invoked this cultural coincidence to express her anguish over Partition, particularly the violence done to women, in her much-loved poem “Ajj Aakhaan Waris Shah Nu” (“Ode to Waris Shah”). Her sentiments and those gestating in the film industry were connected. Many of the poets of the world I want to describe were part of the Progressive Writers’ Association that was closely tied to the Indian People’s Theatre Association and actors and writers in these groups were tied to Bombay’s film industry.

Indeed, Partition brought an influx of displaced artistic people there (some migrating to Pakistan but then returning to India), including the object of Pritam’s love, Sahir Ludhianvi, as well as Majrooh Sultanpuri, Ismat Chugtai, Bhisham Sahni, Sajjad Zaheer and others. After a detour through this artistic universe, I will return to the plight of Heer that Pritam invoked.

Amrita Pritam’s poem appeared in Preet Lari, a literary magazine founded by Gurbaksh Singh, a Michigan-trained engineer, in 1933. Before turning to radical literature, Singh served with the railways. In that capacity, he accompanied the Simon Commission in 1928, when the leader of protests at Lahore Lala Lajpat Rai was beaten by police, likely causing his death months later.

The events around that commission, followed by the execution of Bhagat Singh in 1931, radicalised Gurbaksh Singh. He quit his job and turned to literature. (Poonam Singh, editor of Preet Lari, personal communication.) He also founded the artist colony Preet Nagar, where the paths of many Punjabi Leftist writers crossed. Its location halfway between Lahore and Amritsar made the colony’s fate unclear in 1947, although it ultimately fell within India.

Preet Lari was also popular among California’s Punjabis. (Gurbaksh Singh had visited California while studying in the United States and was watched by British intelligence but showed few signs of his later radicalism then. Personal communication from Pashaura Singh.) Some of these Punjabis had ties to the 1857 rebellion and had founded the revolutionary nationalist movement known as the Ghadar Party in 1913 in California. Many Ghadar members had returned to Punjab during World War I to start an armed rebellion but were hanged or imprisoned. (Notably, the pamphlets they dropped on Indian soldiers in France with German help were in Urdu and Punjabi.)

From prison in the Andaman Islands, they wrote poetry in Punjabi that also lapsed into love poetry in which the motherland from which they were exiled stood in for the beloved. (Akshaya Kumar, Poetry, Politics and Culture: Essays on Indian Texts and Contexts; Rakhshanda Jalil, Liking Progress, Loving Change. The Ghadar Party split between communist and anti-communist factions after the war. I also thank Bikramjit Singh for his personal memories on this subject. Preet Lari remains in print today, with its headquarters still at Preet Nagar. Note that further northwest too, the Left offered an alternative vision: In 1930, the Red Shirt Movement began in the North West Frontier Province, joining forces with Congress’s non-violence.)

A similar idiom appeared in the work of other poets of this period. Many of them, like Pritam and others who visited Preet Nagar, were part of the Progressive Writers’ movement that first coalesced among Indian students in England – just when the Thompsons were mixing with Robert Graves and other poets of their time dealing with the war and the elder Thompson began to write voluminously in the cause of Indian freedom himself.

These overlapping poetic worlds were shaped by similar modernist and socialist trends. Two Oxford-returned students, the Marxist Sajjad Zaheer and Mahmuduzzafar, joined with two other writers in India, Ahmed Ali and Rashid Jahan, to publish Angare, a collection of short stories, in Lucknow in 1932.

This collection, which effectively launched the Progressive Writers’ movement, drew inspiration from James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, DH Lawrence (whose work was itself shaped by orientalist trends), and Russian authors like Chekhov and Gogol.

It unleashed a storm: many were dismayed by the book’s call for reform in the shape of a new secularism rather than within the existing religious praxis. (Geeta Patel, Lyrical Movements, Historical Hauntings: On Gender, Colonialism, and Desire in Miraji’s Urdu Poetry; Rakshanda Jalil, Liking Progress.) It touched the same nerve as Macaulayite reformism of the previous century, even though it emerged less from British liberalism than a mix of cosmopolitan and indigenous currents of socialist thought.

In any case, the backlash against its alleged blasphemy was validated by the paternalistic colonial state: the Government of the United Provinces banned the book in 1933. It was in denouncing this gagging that the authors determined to form a league of like-minded thinkers in the form of a Progressive Writers’ Association which met in London, Calcutta, and Lucknow from 1935-1936 (notably, on the heels of the creation of the Union of Soviet Writers).

Tagore and Iqbal gave it their blessing. Nehru was part of the initial association. In his address to the second Allahabad conference in 1938, he urged the association to include writers exclusively, not politicians like him. (Shabana Mahmud, “Angare and the Founding of the Progressive Writers’ Association,” Modern Asian Studies; Jalil.)

This paternalistic guidance betrays either Nehru’s shrewd awareness of the group’s disruptive potential or a naïve misreading of the political possibilities of poetry (and other writing). Many in the group also had ties to the Communist Party of India. When the British declared India at war in 1939, the Progressive Writers were among those who protested. Edward Thompson was deployed on an official British mission to appease various parties in India, not least because of his friendships with such literary-nationalist figures.

Nationalist stance

In this essay, I am tabling, unjustly, the entire matter of linguistic preference, the history of Urdu-Hindi and Punjabi (On Urdu-Hindi, see Alok Rai, Hindi Nationalism; Amrit Rai, A House Divided: The Origin and Development of Hindi/Hindavi; Christopher King, One Language, Two Scripts: The Hindi Movement in Nineteenth Century North India; Kavita Datla, The Language of Secular Islam: Urdu Nationalism and Colonial India; Aamir Mufti, Enlightenment in the Colony; Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, Early Urdu Literary Culture and History and Ajmal Kamal, “A Critique of Language Snobs: Urdu and the Politics of Identity”. The abandonment of Punjabi among Hindus in India and Muslims in Pakistan is an enormous question bound up with partitions of the twentieth century. On the related matter of the languages lost as a result of Partition, see this.) But it is important to note that Urdu writers took the lead in the formation of this all-India association, wielding a disproportionate influence on its affairs at the national level, even beyond 1947. Indeed, at times the Urdu branch was conflated with the entire organisation.

In this sense, Urdu literary culture took an “aggressively ‘national’ stance”. (Mufti.) Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Sahir Ludhianvi were part of its network in Punjab, as were Bombay-based Urdu writers like Sadat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chugtai. Hasrat Mohani joined too. Experiment with form was one part of their modernism.

Sahir Ludhianvi's picture on a commemorative postal stamp. Photo credit: India Post, Government of India, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The nazm came into its own in their hands in this period. (Faiz, incidentally, admired Auden, who was then at the peak of his political engagement.) But older Western influences were also at work: Wordsworthian ideas about “natural poetry” had become quaint in Europe but were highly influential among Urdu Progressive poets, with their nationalist and proletarian sympathies.

Major Urdu reformers of the late 19th century like Maulana Khawaja Hali had been steeped in romantic English works, including Wordsworth and Byron. He and Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, founder of Aligarh, had worked to fulfil Thomas Macaulay’s task of producing an Indian class in the British image, but their 20th-century heirs complicated that mission by invoking a particularly South Asian way of being idiosyncratically modern, drawing on this heritage in their immediate context in new ways. (Frances Pritchett, Nets of Awareness: Urdu Poetry and Its Critics. The historian and parliamentarian Thomas Macaulay served in the supreme council of the East India Company from 1834 to 1838, overseeing major educational and legal reforms. His 1835 “Minute on Indian Education” was a rebuttal to council members who believed that Indian students should continue to be educated in Sanskrit and Arabic as well as English; his view won.)

Many were fiercely anti-colonial and yet not nationalistic in the manner of the mainstream Indian National Congress and Muslim League movements, often because their internationalist sympathies with communism prohibited parochialist nationalism. Iqbal’s early patriotism, expressed in his 1902 poem “Lab Pe Aati Hai Dua” (“A Prayer Comes to the Lips”) referred vaguely enough to a “watan” that it remains sing-able in schools in both Pakistan and India. His 1904 “Tarana-i-Hind” (“Indian Anthem”) conjured the Hindustani abroad, carrying his homeland in his heart.

Indeed, so many of India’s nationalist leaders studied in universities abroad that this “pardesi” sentiment runs like a red thread through their evocations of patriotism, despite their varying politics. Faiz’s poems were also consistently patriotic without specifying the nation-state they attached themselves to even after Partition.

These evocations of homeland built on poetic traditions expressing nostalgia for a lost place, coupled with a critique of empire, that had shaped Urdu poetry in the 19th century. Iqbal may have criticised the Sufi tradition for privileging mystical over worldly experiences and producing political passivity, but in fact, Urdu poets had long engaged such issues through that Sufi vein.

Colonialism and culture

Modern Urdu poetry had evolved in the context of the worldly problem of colonialism and the crises of culture and identity it produced, and the concept of birha had long merged worldly with unworldly concerns. (See also Jalil, Liking Progress.)

In 1835, the four-year-old Daagh Dehlvi was orphaned when his father was hanged for ordering the assassination of the commissioner of the Delhi Territory, Sir William Fraser, under the last Mughal emperor (and poet) Bahadur Shah Zafar in 1835. After the death of Daagh’s stepfather (the Mughal prince Fakhroo) in 1856, he lived a life of exile from Delhi, in government service in Rampur and Hyderabad.

Jigar Moradabadi and Iqbal were among his disciples. The naming conventions of these poets –Moradabadi, Dehlvi, Ludhianvi, Batalvi – root them in place while also implying their immersion in cosmopolitan and mobile networks in which identification of roots was necessary. Loss of homeland was intrinsic to their meditations. Mirza Ghalib’s and Zafar’s broken-hearted response to the British destruction of Delhi in 1857-1858 fed that melancholic anti-colonial strain.

Ghalib’s concern for patronage limited his capacity for ideological rebellion, but socially conscious yet worldly 20th-century Indian poets proved more willing to experiment with leftist radicalism. An Arya Samaji from Uttar Pradesh, Ram Prasad Bismil, author of Bhagat Singh’s favourite poem, “Mera Rang de Basanti Chola” (“Color My Clothes in the Color of Spring”), was with Hasrat Mohani at the 1921 Ahmedabad Congress where the Purna Swaraj (complete self-rule) proposal passed, against Gandhi’s opposition.

Immersed in Communist literature, he and Bhagat Singh joined the radical Hindustan Republican Association. He was hanged soon after for his participation in the Kakori conspiracy, in which a group of men planned to loot a government treasury from a train in 1925.

The British Raj worked hard to crush such revolutionary activity: the Communist Party of India was formed in 1925, but banned in 1934. But poets associated with it addressed all the earthshaking events of their time, from the Rowlatt Act to Partition, and their words spread through an embattled yet burgeoning network of publishers and presses. (Jalil, Liking Progress, chapter 2.)

The British were exceedingly anxious about Muslims on the Left, imagining them as the progenitors of the Islamic-Bolshevik conspiracy that would threaten the entire world order, as I have written about elsewhere. (Priya Satia, Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain’s Covert Empire in the Middle East.)

Certainly, Partition polarised poets active in politics, the Communist Party of India and the Progressive Writers’ Association, but they were too idealistic in too many ways for that polarisation to be neatly discernible or explicable. There were the revolutionaries mentioned above. There was the Marxist Faiz, who married Alys George, a British Communist poet and supporter of Indian nationalism, in 1941. He was arguably the leading progressive voice in Urdu poetry but never spoke for the group or for the Communist Party.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz was one of the most celebrated Urdu writers. Photo credit: BpldxbCrop by Titodutta, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Nehru urged Progressive Writers to prioritise the nationalist movement during the war, and some obliged, but not all. Disagreeing with the “Quit India” strategy, Faiz prioritised the fight against Fascism and for the Soviet Union. Seeing it as a revolutionary rather than imperialistic war, he served in the army from 1942-’47 in the welfare department in charge of publicity, earning an MBE (membership of the most excellent order of the British Empire). (See Hafeez Malik, “The Marxist Literary Movement in India and Pakistan,” Association for Asian Studies. Makhdoom Mohiuddin felt similarly.)

These poets did not toe any Progressive Writers’ Movement line any more than they toed a single national line, nor were they all uniformly wedded to the notion of purposive art versus art for art’s sake. In this too they followed divergent paths. More importantly, in our understandable but nevertheless obstructive preoccupation with Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah and the Mountbattens, we have neglected the political visions of these poets who were also political actors, we have fulfilled Nehru’s admonition that they stay meekly by the sidelines of political history while he occupies centre-stage.

But in their poignant diversity of thought and style lurks a fascinating intellectual history and a generation of creative ideas about South Asian identity and politics. To be sure, some were ideologues, but most were not. Each seemed to nurture his or her own ideas of nation, religion, gender, community, language and genre. All ultimately constrained those anarchic thoughts within the national frames in which they were forced to act, yielding to the dominant, if not quite an irresistible narrative of a nation-state.

The decade after Partition

Individuals of infinite complexity and diversity, invested in an array of social, political and cultural causes, subordinated all pursuits to the simple question of being Pakistani or Indian. And yet, this is not what they did at first: in the decade after Partition, their (often tormented) movements reveal that both bins of history – Pakistan and India – still held many possibilities.

When those movements stopped and alternative visions were foreclosed, historians settled down to a half-century of analysing the winners – the Nehrus and Jinnahs. Here I want to at least momentarily peer beyond the horizon at the other roads imagined but not taken.

Sahir Ludhianvi left Ludhiana for Lahore after expulsion from college in 1943. His communist views made him a target of the new Government of Pakistan, so, in 1949, he left for Delhi, and then Bombay, where he fed the film industry’s iconography of love and homeland. Saghar Siddiqui of Ambala went to Lahore in 1947 but took to a life on the streets.

Manto was endlessly tormented even after he decided to move – calling his nationalist and secularist commitments into doubt for Chugtai, who did not move. (I thank Sadaf Jaffer for this observation.) He dramatised the absurdity of the choice before him in his famed story, “Toba Tek Singh,” which closes with the image of the deranged Bishan Singh refusing to choose and dying in the no man’s land between the two new countries, their respective lunatics contained within barbed wire borders. (Mufti.)

Saadat Hasan Manto. Photo credit: Penguin Books/ Wikimedia Commons

Like Siddiqui, Manto struggled with depression and addiction. His family committed him to a mental asylum, but alcoholism killed him in 1955. Meanwhile, Zaheer had formed the Communist Party of Pakistan, of which he was the secretary-general. He was jailed in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case in 1951 but was extradited to India in 1954.

Part of the problem is that the choices were not real (the limiting case being that of women who “chose” to jump into wells). Even elites were given only the “illusion of choice”. This forces us to rethink the meaning we ascribe to the choice to move. (Gyanendra Pandey, Remembering Partition: Violence, Nationalism and History in India. There are also non-writerly examples of artistic wavering on nation: Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan moved to Pakistan, but then returned to India. I will leave for another essay an analysis of Indian Punjabi musicians of this era, from Madan Mohan to Jagjit Singh to Ayushman Khurana and how their particular paths shaped their articulation of Punjabiyat.)

Anjum Roomani, from Sultanpur Lodhi, whose father used to make him recite English poems in mushairas (poetic gatherings) as a boy, left for Pakistan in July 1947: what does this mean? What does it mean that Jagannath Azad of Rawalpindi, a poet and Persian scholar and voice for Hindu-Muslim unity, yielded to the fears of his friends and family and migrated to India in September? Was his later devotion to the scholarly study of Iqbal a way of at once atoning for departure, superseding Partition, and understanding its origins? (Azad did not meet Iqbal himself. His father the poet Trilok Chand Mahroom was a friend of Iqbal. When the latter returned to India from Europe in 1918, Mehroom wrote him a letter including a poem, Aana tera mubarak Europe se aane waale, incorporating references to Tarana-i-Hind. Hamida Chopra, lecture, mushaira, India Community Center, Milpitas.)

In Delhi, he and his family occupied the old home of the progressive poet Josh Malihabadi when Josh received official accommodation. Josh too was tormented, going back and forth several times in an endless search of belonging. He had already been banished from Hyderabad for criticising the Nizam. Finally, he left for Pakistan in 1958 but continued to pine for India.

Apart from Josh, several Urdu poets with roots in the United Provinces did not move or moved late. Professor Hamid Kamal Narvi left Allahabad for Lahore in 1952. Jazib Qureshi was seven at Partition, but his family stayed in Lucknow until 1950. The Communist Jaun Elia left for Karachi in 1957.

Shakeb Jalali left for Rawalpindi in 1950 at age sixteen. His father remained in India. For him, Partition seems to have offered an opportunity to evade the father who had inexplicably pushed his mother under a train six years earlier. But even this personal tragedy may not be unconnected to the larger political drama: his father was disturbed by the conflict between Hindus and Muslims, and so was Shakeb who turned poet in 1947.

Departure proved no balm: he threw himself in front of a train at Sargodha in 1966. Mohani died in 1951. Would he have moved if he had lived longer? Jigar Moradabadi steadfastly stayed but wrote his last volume of poetry about the violence of Partition, criticising Indians’ role in it with “Bhaag musafir mere watan se mere chaman se bhaag” (“Run traveller, run from my country, my garden”). He died in 1960. (All translations in this essay are my own. For poetry, I have tried to give literal translations preserving the syntax rather than literary translations conveying deeper meanings.)

Why did he not move? Would he have, had he lived longer? Or was his love of country also encapsulated in his line, “Yeh ishq nahin aasaan bus itna samajh leejay/ Ik aag ka dariya hai aur doob ke jaana hai” (“This love is not easy, just understand this much/ it is a river of fire and one must drown to cross”)?

A mix of personal and public, mundane and principled considerations figured in these decisions. But these deferrals and confusions also reveal the existence of an intriguing window of possibility, a span of a few years in which the meaning and future of India and Pakistan were as yet unformed.

Incomplete departures

The confusion and hesitation represent a refusal of Partition, even though poetry’s long grasp of birha as the path to a more meaningful union might have made such poets temperamentally more amenable to the notion. Nor were they alone in their tardy and equivocal acceptance of Partition. Oral histories collected by the Citizens Archive of Pakistan and the Partition Archive testify to many belated and incomplete departures.

Many who did move thought their displacement would only be temporary; they buried jewellery in walls and floors to be retrieved later. Indeed, my own family in Multan stayed put until 1948. Mundane factors figured in that hesitation, but implicit in their consideration of those factors were alternative visions of what Partition was.

What broken hopes did belated departure embody? Were these reluctantly Partitioned people “indifferent to the nation” in the manner of the border peoples of eastern and southern Europe in the same period? (Peter Judson, Guardians of the Nation: Activists on the Language Frontiers of Imperial Austria; Pamela Ballinger, History in Exile: Memory and Identity at the Borders of the Balkans.)

As Edith Sheffer asks with respect to the division of Germany, the question is not only when the border on the ground was drawn but when the border in the mind was created. (Edith Sheffer, Burned Bridge: How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain. Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali Zamindar has analyzed the making of the western Indo-Pak border in response to the refugee crisis and the way national difference was constructed there, in that space of most blurred identity, over time. The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia: Refugees, Boundaries, Histories.)

Breaking bonds takes time. The Pakistani Progressive Writers’ journals continued to include works by Hindu and Sikh writers in Urdu until the group was declared illegal in 1954 (although descendants of it remain active today).

Is it one of those farces of history that Leftist Muslims poets like Elia gave up on India and left for Pakistan just when the Pakistani state began to crack down on the Left? Faiz was already there, but persecution by the Pakistani state from 1951 drove him into temporary exile in Beirut. (Ahmed Faraz, perhaps the most well-known Communist poet of the next generation, would also try exile before returning to Pakistan.)

What alternative visions of South Asian modernity did this collection of latecomers, exiles, and destroyed souls abandon in the 1950s? It is worth recovering those visions for whatever inspiration they may still yield. As Joan Scott observed of EP Thompson’s thought, “utopias that permit critical assessment of the present in terms of some deep moral commitment and unleash imaginative longing for a particular kind of future are compatible with, indeed necessary for, practical politics”. (Scott.)

Read the second part of this essay here.

Priya Satia is the Raymond A Spruance Professor of International History at Stanford University and the award-winning author of Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain’s Covert Empire in the Middle East (OUP, 2008) and Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution (Penguin, 2018).

The ideas in this 2016 essay helped shape her latest book, Time’s Monster: History, Conscience and Britain’s Empire (Penguin, 2020).

This essay has benefited from conversations with countless individuals over time, but the author would like to thank here particularly Guneeta Singh Bhalla, Hamida Chopra, Arie Dubnov, Sadaf Jaffer, Aishwary Kumar, Aprajit Mahajan, Ana Minian, Ishmeet Narula, Nazir Qaiser, Jazib Qureshi, Jagat and Indira Satia, Sudipta Sen, Nishita Sharma, Edith Sheffer, Bikramjit Singh, Pashaura Singh, Poonam Singh, Tashie and Naheed Zaheer, Anam Zakaria, and the editors at Tanqeed.

This article first appeared on Tanqeed.