Hindu-Muslim Unity: Poets Must, Once Again, Work for it Right Now

Scholar Rakhshanda Jalil wants Urdu poets to take the job of lowering Hindu-Muslim tensions in today’s charged world

6 min read
Urdu poets must get on the job of uniting the communities. 

When a militant muscular right wing forces jewellery brands to pull down advertisements showing inter-faith marriages, when the bogey of ‘love jihad’ acquires the status of gospel truth, when it is easier—and far more expeditious—to regurgitate hatred and lies than it is to talk of love and truth, it is time to peer into the mirror of poetry.

For there comes a time in the history of nations when they need their poets most; not the politicians, nor the policy-makers and publicists but the poets who are true visionaries.

For it is the poets who can remind people of the essential values that hold them together, or as the American writer Ursula K Le Guin put it so pithily, because poets are the “realists of a larger reality”. For us in India, that time is NOW lest the clamour of the strident illiberal drowns out the voices that have pointed towards the larger reality and the greater good, and the bloody tide of unreason sweeps away the India we knew and cherished.


Urdu Poetry on Hindu-Muslim Tensions

In Urdu, the poet has been the voice of optimism and hope, pointing towards a better future. When the country emerged from a bitter fratricidal war, licking the wounds inflicted by brother upon brother, neighbour upon neighbour, Majaz wrote:

Hindu Muslim Sikh Eesai aman ke moti ro lengey
Khoon ki Holi khel chukey hain rang ke dhabbe dho lengey
Hindu Muslim Sikh and Christian shall weep pearls of peace
Having played Holi with blood they’ll wash off the stains of blood

One would have thought, if nothing else, a nation so scarred by communal hatred, so battered by storms of communal frenzy, would have learnt its lesson.

If nothing else, partition should have driven home the lesson for every Indian that hate begets hate.

If nothing else, We The People should have resolved to never allow the evil within to resurface. Instead, we stoked the fire and kept its lambent flame alive while the poet kept cautioning, trying to show the way as in this sher by Anand Narain Mulla:

Main faqat insaan huun, Hindu Musalmaan kuchh nahiin
Mere dil ke dard mein tafriiq-e-iimaa.n kuchh nahiin
I am merely a human; not a Hindu or a Muslaman
The sorrow in my heart is not separated by dogma

Or, in this one by Qateel Shifai who is alluding to a force that benefits from keeping the two communities forever at loggerheads:

Hum ko aapas mein mohabbat nahin karne detey
Ik yahi aib hai iss shahr ke danaon mein
They don’t let us love each other
That is the only defect in the wise

How Urdu Poets Tried to Bring Hindus and Muslims Together

Qaumi yak-jahti (national integration), insaan-dosti (love for humanity), watan-parasti (love for the nation) remained popular themes in the years following the partition. The Urdu poet bent backwards to keep the flag of secularism flying high as in this sher by Hafeez Banarsi:

Sabhi ke deep sundar hain hamare kya tumhare kya
Ujala har taraf hai iss kinare uss kinare kya

Everyone’s lamps are pretty; not just yours or ours
The light is everywhere; not just on this shore or that

Special songs and lyrics were written especially for children to instil the “right” values from an early age, such as this geet by Shafiuddin Nayyar:

Pyaaraa Hindostan hamaaraa pyaaraa Hindostaan
Jaan fidaa hai iss par apna dil is par qurbaan

Our dear Hindustan, our dearly beloved Hindustan
We lay down our life or it sacrifice our heart for it

However, the relentless juggernaut of communalism began to drive a wedge between communities, reopening old wounds, the thread that bound diverse communities together began to unspool and the tapestry of shared living showed fresh tears despite constant darning. The poet became, by turns, hopeful and hectoring.

A victim of communal violence himself, Basheer Badr whose home in Meerut was looted and set on fire, urged his fellow countrymen to bury hatred far, far out of sight.

Saat sanduqon mein bhar kar dafn kar do nafratein
Aaj insaan ko mohabbat ki zarurat hai bahut

Stuff all the hatred in seven boxes and bury it deep
Today, humans need love more than anything else

And Nida Fazli spoke of the consequences of building the picket fences of religious identity:

Koi Hindu, koi Muslim, koi Eisaai hai
Sabne insaan na hone ki qasam khayi hai
They are a Hindu, or a Muslim or a Christian
Everyone has taken an oath not to be a human

Nida Fazli (1938 - 2016)
Nida Fazli (1938 - 2016)
(Photo courtesy: Twitter)

Bollywood’s Contribution to Hindu-Muslim Unity

Hindi cinema, too, did its best to constantly hold up models of pluralism and multiculturalism be it art-house cinema or outright masala films. From the early days of Nehruvian India film lyricists like Sahir Ludhianvi were at pains to insist:

Tu Hindu banega na Musalman banega
Insaan ki aulad hai insaan banega
You will not grow up to be a Hindu or a Musalman
You are the child of a human and you shall be a human

Kaifi Azmi was showing the pitfalls of growing religiosity, pointing the potholes that would turn into craters and eventually eat up the entire road ahead:

Basti mein apni Hindu Musalmaan jo bas gaye
Insaan ki shakl dekhne ko hum taras gaye
Ever since Hindus and Muslims have come to live in my neighbourhood
It has been an age since I saw the face of a human

 Kaifi Azmi with daughter Shabana
Kaifi Azmi with daughter Shabana

Whenever the flames rose high—after an Ayodhya or a Gujarat, a Mumbai or a Moradabad—the poet wrote a dirge to a lost time, but the subtext was always that the clock can be turned back, still, there is time, yet, to set things right as in this poignant poem by Ajmal Sultanpuri:

Musalman aur Hindu ki jaan
Kahan hai mera Hindostan
Main uss ko dhundh raha huun
The life of Hindus and Muslims alike
Where is my Hindustan?
I am searching for it

The German Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemoller wrote the confessional “First they came...” as atonement and acknowledgment of cowardice and the silence of the majority – after the fact, that is, after the silent majority in Nazi Germany had allowed unimaginable horrors to be perpetuated upon certain targeted sections of the community.

In much the same way, Javed Akhtar is reminding poets and writers—NOT Urdu writers alone, certainly NOT Muslims only—of their responsibility and exhorting them to bear witness by the very act of writing and recording before it is too late.

Lyricist Javed Akhtar.
Lyricist Javed Akhtar.
(Photo: IANS)

Jo baat kehte darte hain sab, tu woh baat likh
Itni andheri thhi na kabhi pehle raat, likh
Jin se qaseede likkhey thhay woh phenk de qalam
Phir khoon-e-dil se sachche qalam ki sifaat likh
Jo roznamon mein kahin paati nahin jagah
Jo roz har jagah ki hai, woh waardaat likh
Jitne bhi tang daire hain saarey torh de
Ab aa khuli fizaon mein ab kainat likh
Jo waqeyaat ho gaye unka to zikr hai
Lekin jo hone chaahiye, woh waqeyaat likh
Iss bagh mein jo dekhni hai tujh ko phir bahaar
Tu daal-daal de sada, tu paat-paat likh

To speak of that which everyone is fearful, of that you must write
The night was never so dark ever before, write!
Throw away the pens with which you wrote the odes
In praise of the true pen dipped in the heart’s blood, write!
The narrow circles that confine you, break all of them
Come under the open skies now, of a new creation, write!
That which finds no place in the daily newspapers
That incident which happens everywhere every day, write!
That which has happened finds mentions
But of those that should have happened, write!
If you wish to see spring return to this garden
Call out from every branch and on every leaf, write!

(Dr Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, translator and literary historian. She writes on literature, culture and society. She runs Hindustani Awaaz, an organisation devoted to the popularisation of Urdu literature. She tweets @RakhshandaJalil. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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