May Day and Mazdoors: How Urdu Poets Have Portrayed the Plight of the Workers

There have been many Urdu poets who dreamt of a red tide that would wash over all ills and oppressions.

5 min read
Hindi Female

1 May, known as Workers’ Day or May Day, has been set aside as a day to mark the struggles and gains of the international labour movements.

Halfway between the spring equinox and summer solstice, another and entirely unrelated May Day is also celebrated in some parts of the world; this has its roots in an ancient European tradition that celebrates the coming of summer with a May Queen, floral garlands and dancing around a May Pole.

There is also the Mayday distress signal used in emergencies aboard a plane or ship (deriving from the phonetic equivalent of ‘M'aidez”, French for ‘Help me’!).

Instead, let us look at the May Day that derives its name from the workers uprising in Chicago on 1 May 1886 asking for an eight-hour work day and is still, a century and a half later, acknowledged as a day to commemorate workers’ struggles worldwide. In many countries, the day is a public holiday.

'Mazdoor' Through the Lens of Urdu Poetry

As always in this series, let us view the worker and labourer through the prism of Urdu poetry and see how the Urdu poet has viewed the mazdoor and paid tribute to his unstinting and unacknowledged labour.

A vast amount of poetry written on 1 May, traditionally, has the poet repeatedly identifying with the workers and making common cause with their oppression such as here in Mazdoor ki Bansuri by Jameel Mazhari:

Mazdoor hain hum, mazdoor hain hum, majboor thhe hum, majboor hain hum

We are labourers, we are labourers, we were oppressed, we are oppressed

There were many who dreamt of a red tide that would wash over all ills and oppressions, removing injustices and inequalities when the Red Flag would herald a new morning, such as here by Ali Sardar Jafri:

Phutne wali hai mazdoor ke maathe se kiran

Surḳh parcham ufuq-e-subh pe lahrate hain

A beam of light is about to burst forth from the worker’s forehead

The Red Flags are billowing in the horizon of the morning


A great deal of Urdu poetry contained a prophecy, that one day the mazdoor would arise from his centuries’ old slumber and demand his rightful share, such as here in Majaz’s Mazdooron ka Geet:

Jis roz baġhavat kar denge

Duniya men qayamat kar denge

Khwvabon ko haqiqat kar denge

Mazdoor hain hum mazdoor hain hum

The day we shall revolt

We shall bring catastrophe to the world

We shall make dreams come true

We are the workers, we are the workers

In the years leading up to and immediately after independence, the powerful literary grouping known as the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA) became a self-appointed custodian of peasants’ and workers’ rights and vast amounts of poetry and fiction came to be written on the dehqaan (peasant) and mazdoor.

Much was expected from the coming of independence, not least being the safeguarding of farmers’ and workers’ rights. While the abolition of zamindari and land reforms were put into effect almost immediately by the Nehru government, the rosy future predicted by some failed to materialise.

Josh Malihabadi, for instance, had hoped:

Banaaenge nai duniyaa kisaan aur mazdoor

Yahin sajaaenge diwan-e-aam-e-aazaadi

The workers and farmers will create a new world

Together they will decorate the free Hall of Public


Labour and the Hindi Film Industry

The film lyricists in the Bombay film industry, many of whom were either inspired by the Progressive Movement or were full-time members of the PWA, too were watchful of the interests of the farmers and agricultural labour.

As late as the 1960s, when India found itself facing acute food shortages, mainstream masala movies of the Manoj ‘Bharat’ Kumar brand such as ‘Upkar’ interpreted Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s slogan of ‘Jai Jawan Jai Kisaan’ with songs such as ‘Mere desh ki dharti sona ugle ugle hire moti...’ The motif of the farmer and the labourer was taken up all through the 1980s in films such as Mazdoor:

Hum mehnatkash iss duniya se

Jab apna hissa mangengey

Ek bagh nahii ek khet nahii

Hum saari duniya mangengey

When labourers such as us

Ask for our share of the world

We will not ask for an orchard or a field

We will ask for the entire world


But possibly no one could have captured the irony of the labourers who build homes yet have no roof over their own head such as this by an unknown poet:

Shahr men mazdoor jaisa dar-ba-dar koi nahin

Jis ne sab ke ghar banae us ka ghar koi nahin

There is no one as homeless as a labourer in a city

He who has made everyone’s homes, has no home of his own

Broadly speaking, poetry on the mazdoor and the kisaan remained eulogistic painting the worker in impossibly glowing colours and making him a veritable hero or an angel such as this by Munawwar Rana:

Farishte aa kar un ke jism par ḳhushbu lagate hain

Woh bachche rail ke dibbon mein jo jhadu lagate hain

The angels come to dab fragrance on the bodies

Of those children who sweep the floor of trains

Elsewhere, the mazdoor is pitted in a binary against the capitalist who is wicked and clever whereas the worker is invariably simple and innocent, as in this verse by Muhammad Iqbal from his poem Khizr-e Rah:

Makr ki chaalon se baazi le gayaa sarmaaya-daar

Intihaa-e-saadgii se khaa gayaa mazdoor maat

The capitalist wins the game with his wily tricks

The labourer loses due to his extreme innocence

And the same Iqbal, addressing God in his poem ‘Lenin’, also writes:

Tu qadir-o aadil hai magar tere jahan mein

Hain talḳh bahut banda-e-mazdoor ke auqat

Yes, You are Powerful and Just but in Your world

The state of the labourers and workers is bitter indeed


Is the Mazdoor a Blot on 'Shining India'? 

The idea that workers live relatively simple lives compared to the complicated lives of others better endowed than them is also a recurring motif in a great deal of Urdu poetry that romanticises the life of the labourer, such as this by Munawwar Rana:

So jaate hain footpath pe aḳhbaar bichha kar

Mazdoor kabhi niind ki goli nahin khate

They sleep on the footpath on a newspaper

The labourers never need a sleeping pill

Regrettably, even the Hindi film industry, ostensibly with its finger to the pulse of the nation, has stopped making films on the mazdoor and the kisaan. There hasn’t been anything along the lines of Namak Haraam, Mazdoor, Kala Patthar, or Deevar in recent times.

Yes, there is a Kapil Sharma playing a food delivery man or a Ranbir Kapoor playing a salesman but given that industry accounts for 26 percent of India’s GDP and employs 22 percent of the total workforce why is the worker absent from the public consciousness? Is it because – despite all the talk of “Make in India” -- he is considered neither hip nor cool? Or because if he stands up and asks for his rights it would be seen as an unseemly blot on 'Shining India'? Or because a restive workforce flies in the face of the narrative of development and progress?

(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 at @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.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Read Latest News and Breaking News at The Quint, browse for more from opinion

Topics:  Urdu poetry   Labour   Labour Day 

Speaking truth to power requires allies like you.
Become a Member
3 months
12 months
12 months
Check Member Benefits
Read More