Some of India's Finest Urdu Poetry was Banned by the British – Here's What & Why

The British banned publications if they criticised their administrations or promoted racial/religious strife.

5 min read
Hindi Female

Writing the Preface to the catalogue of books proscribed by the Government of India, B C Bloomfield notes:

"… the British normally banned publications for two main purposes: first, they promoted criticism of the British administrations; and second, they promoted religious and/or racial strife. The proscription of publications for moral or sexual reasons seems almost never to have been the case…"

A study of the catalogue in the British Library reveals how—taken together—the books, pamphlets, periodicals, newspapers, handbills and posters in all the major Indian languages proscribed by the British government in India provide an invaluable printed archive.

There is ample material here for the study of the Indian freedom struggle during its last four decades.


Bans is How British Government Dealt With Criticism 

The collection at the British Library constitutes perhaps the largest accumulation of primary literature and ephemera relating to the Indian independence movement. There are similar, but smaller collections in the library and files of the Home (Political) Proceedings of the National Archives of India and the state archives in Kolkata. The editors of the catalogue write:

"From the establishment of a commercial publishing and newspaper industry in the 1780s up to the Mutiny of 1857, the British authorities in India fluctuated between tightening or loosening their powers restricting the production of books and newspapers…by the turn of the century the two main categories of proscribed publications had been established: criticism of the British colonial government coupled with increasing demands for self-government, and expressions of communal conflict fuelled by inter-sectarian and inter-religious controversy."

Since our frame of reference for this column is Urdu poetry let us look at the contents of three remarkable books: Azadi ki Nazmein compiled by Sibte Hasan in 1940; Zabt-Sudah Nazmein, compiled by unknown persons possibly working while ‘underground’ later revived by Khaliq Anjum and Mujtaba Husain in 1975 ; a selection from the National Archives of India edited by Rajesh Kumar Parti entitled Ashob.


Banned Poetry Dealt with Colonialism, Independence

They have poems specifically written on the subject of independence, some going back to the Revolt of 1857, their contents vary in tone from woebegone to belligerent; some are written in the melancholic shehr-ashob (‘literally meaning ‘lament of the city’. But, they often carry a political undertone) tradition.

Others adopt a more rousing tone but the current running through all three collections is clearly a desire to throw off the imperial yoke and a listing of the ills under British rule and employment of a range of metaphors from the traditional to the modern. Some poems show the way to contemporary poets by using the idiom of classical Urdu poetry for the Beloved—sitamgar, but, kafir, yaar—could be used mockingly for the British.


Urdu Poetry by the Revolutionaries, for the Revolutionaries

Now let us look at a sampling to understand what brought their contents under the imperial scanner. Let us start with Ram Prasad Bismil who was executed for his role in the Kakori Conspiracy Case:

Desh par qurban hotey jao tum ai Hindiyon

Zindagi ka raaz-e muzmar khanjar-e qatil mein hai

Keep sacrificing your life for your country, O People of Hind

The secret of Life is hidden in the murderer’s dagger

And in another oft-repeated nazm:

Sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab hamare dil mein hai

Dekhna hai zor kitna baazu-e qatil mein hai

The desire for rebellion is now in our heart

Let us test the strength in the murderer’s arms

There are several poems addressed to Bhagat Singh, his courage, his youth, his mad desire for freedom.

Many poems are by virtually unknown poets others who were relatively well known in their own time but have got lost in the mists of time such as Partap Chand Azad, Tika Ram Sukhan, Gurmukh Singh, some with just a first name to evade detection. The topics range from charkha, swadesi, khaddar/khaadi, Gandhi, Nehru, Jallianwala Bagh, baaghi jawan (rebellious youth), turmoil in the Punjab (several bearing the title ‘Punjab ka Hatyakand’), and overlaying everything a sometimes crystal clear, sometimes inchoate desire for inquilab. Several are directly addressed to topical events such as the Lahore Conspiracy Case, the Kanpur Mosque Case, Rowlat Act, Montague Reforms, Simon Commission, etc.


Urging People to Stand Against the British rule

These collections contain several poems with rousing titles such as ‘Chalo Jail-khaney, Chalo Jail-khaney’ by anonymous poets urging ordinary people to fill the imperial jails to bursting: Karo thodhi himmat, na dhoondo bahaney (‘Show some courage, don’t look for excuses’)! Others make outright calls for rebellion, for bloodshed, for sacrificing one’s own life if need be, as in: ‘Gulshan-e watan shaadaab kar de baarish-e khoon se’ (‘Make verdant the garden of your country with the rain of blood’) or this:

Hain abhi tayyar mar-mitne ko mastaane bahut

Likhe jaayengey hamare khoon se afsaane bahut

Many daredevils are ready to give up their life

Many stories are going to be written in our blood

Others adopt an angry hectoring or exasperated tone as in: Ai khasta-bakht Hindi kab tak tujhe jagayein (‘O ill-fated people of Hind, how long must we awaken you’) written on the Meerut Conspiracy Case; others admonish the firangi as here:

Baaz aa ab to jafa se ai firangi baaz aa

Phoonk daalegi hii tujhe ye teri sharar-bari teri

Desist from this oppression O firangi, desist

This playing with fire of yours will destroy you


Urdu Poetry of Change

Still others talk of how death is preferable if the country doesn’t get mukammal azaadi (poorn swaaraj or complete freedom and not the sop of Home Rule). Zafar Ali Khan in ‘Mazalim-e-Punjab’ (‘The Victims of Punjab’) mocks the excesses of the British and jestingly praises the delights of Martial Law and the brutality of men like General Dwyer. In ‘Shola-e-Fanoos-e-Hind’ (‘The Spark in the Chandelier of Hind’), he goes on to wish that all the drops of the martyrs’ blood may be used to decorate the walls of the qasr-e-azadi (‘the fort of freedom’).

Josh Malihabadi calls out British hypocrisy in unequivocal terms in ‘East India Company ke Farzandon Se’ (‘To the Children of the East India Company’) dubbing the British mere traders (saudaagaraan). Adopting a similar tone, Majaz writes in his ‘Bidesi Mehman Se’ (‘To a Foreign Guest’):

Musafir bhaag waqt-e be-kasi hai

Tere sar par ajal mandla rahi hai

Run, O guest, it’s a time of helplessness

Death is hovering over your head


In fact, almost all the major Urdu poets of the time – Majaz, Ehsan Danish, Makhdoom Mohiuddin, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Shamim Karahni, Sardar Jafri – find their poems banned; it would appear that to be proscribed is seen as a badge of honour, worn with pride and courage by these men and women. Listing his ‘Majburiyan’ (‘Compulsions’) in a short poignant poem Salam Machhlishahri says he has no problem with romantic poetry or beauty or earthly delights but he cannot enjoy any of them in Ghulamabad (Enslaved Nation) and so he must perforce write in an angry, fiery tone:

Abhi Hindostan ko aatishi naghmein sunane do

Abhi chingariyon se barg-e gul rangeen banaa ne do

Let me sing these crackling fiery songs to Hindostan

Let me colour the flower’s petals with my embers

(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.)

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Topics:  hindustani awaaz 

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