Nehru and Hindi, Urdu Writers: How They Enriched Each Other

‘Don’t allow among yourself politicians like me’ - How Nehru preferred writers over politicians in cultural matters.

6 min read
Jawahar Lal Nehru preferred writers over politicians in cultural matters. He clearly warned the writer community, ‘Don’t allow among yourself politicians like me’.

My mother paints a vivid picture ... of her father glued to the radio waiting for the daily despatches on Nehru’s health. Like countless others across the country, her father would sit beside the radio and wait for news on the dearly beloved, ailing prime minister’s health. The radio was playing Mat ro mata, laal tere bahutere....

Suddenly he let out a wail and began to cry like a baby. The entire family joined in that collective outpouring of grief. A funerary gloom descended on the family. The cooking fire was not lit that day for no one could think of eating a morsel. It was as though a family elder had passed away. Such was the grief and the profound sense of loss.

In hindsight, the loss was indeed irreparable. Nehru’s death on 27th May 1964 marked the end of an age of innocence – in life as in politics.

Nehru’s India lingered on, feeble and emaciated for a while but the man who had infused the idea with vim and vigour was gone. With the passing of years, wars were won, the country developed, the closed economy opened up, nuclear tests were successfully conducted but the secular spirit that Nehru embodied through thought and deed slowly began to leech out. The ‘secular socialist republic’ that Nehru had helped fashion began to change colours.

Nehru’s Cross-Continental Collaborations

But on his birth anniversary let us not mourn his passing; let us, instead, celebrate his legacy. Let us look at the spell Nehru cast over the writers and thinkers of his age and the effect he had on the Indian literary scene, especially the progressive writers’ movement. Quick to align himself with the writers’ fraternity – be it domestic or international – Nehru was known to extend a hand of solidarity to a good cause.

As a gesture of solidarity with the beleaguered people of Spain in their fight against fascist forces, Nehru joined the intellectual fraternity that had descended from different parts of the world. When Andre Malraux, Stephen Spender, W. H. Auden, Ernest Hemingway, and John Dos Passos leant their weight to the Spanish War, Nehru too visited the trenches of Spain.

In India, he was among the first to extend support to the fledgling All India Progressive Writers’ Association in April 1936. In November 1937, he addressed the PWA session in Allahabad. In an informal but heart-felt speech, he stressed the role of the progressive writer in society.


Nehru Preferred Writers over Politicians in Matters of Culture

He also touched upon the Hindi-Urdu debate by saying an academic discussion was more likely to find a solution than politicians who can be relied upon to generate more heat and distrust rather than genuine debate! He urged the association to include only writers and not ‘allow among yourself politicians like me’ or else the creative and artistic side of their work would suffer, Nehru warned.

Emphasising his point about keeping politicians at bay, he gave the example of European and American associations of progressive writers and writers like Voltaire whose writings influenced not just the French Revolution but the whole world for over a hundred years. Stating that a writer must contribute to the progress of a nation, Nehru showed his clear support for socialism and communism insofar as the liberty it allowed for individualism:

‘When everyone is given an opportunity to think, read and write, then how can individualism be prevented from developing? It is therefore a mistaken belief that individualism gets suppressed under a socialist or communist set-up. Everybody should have an opportunity to rise and that is possible when the basis of society is socialist or communist. Progressive writers should, therefore, show to the people the way to reach ideals.’

Perhaps, Nehru saw groupings such as the PWA as furthering the cause of nationalism, the cause dearest to his heart. Such gestures of support and solidarity were not overlooked by the intelligence agencies working under the colonial apparatus.


Did Nehru Encourage Communists’ Activities?

Nehru had been active among the youth organizations from the late 1920s, and was known to talk of the Russian revolution where ‘a very few men and women had worked a miracle, and converted this very wretched human material into a hardworking and virile race. I am sure this can be done here despite our leaders.’ An intelligence report of 8 January 1938 attributes the increased activity in the ‘left wing direction’ to the Lucknow session of the Congress in 1936 and Nehru’s open patronage of some of the known communists such as Sajjad Zaheer and Mahmuduzzafr, both of whom also worked in his Secretariat in Allahabad and were active in the PWA.

With time, however, he grew disenchanted with organised communism and impatient of the young comrades in his party going so far as to expel them from the Congress. Nehru was also at pains to make a distinction between Communism and Socialism and making his preference for the latter known in a statement made to the press on 9 June 1936:

‘… I prefer to use the word socialism to communalism because the latter has come to signify Soviet Russia…I am not afraid of the word communism. Constituted as I am, all my sympathies go to the underdog and to him who is persecuted most. That in itself would be sufficient to incline me towards communism when all the power of the state and of vested interest tries to crush it.’

Nehru’s Continued Support to the Writer Community

Regardless of Nehru’s waxing and waning views on the more ideologically-driven among the progressives, his respect for the writers’ community and regard for writers never diminished. Under his personal directive, the central government set up the Sahitya Akademi with various state units under its umbrella, to look seriously into the question of translations from and into regional languages and truly make bhasha literatures intelligible to a national audience.

The Sahitya Akademi was set up in 1954 with one of the staunchest Hindi progressives, Prabhakar Machwe, as its first Secretary.

Nehruvian socialism that hailed schools, colleges, dams and factories as the ‘temples of modern India’ continued to inspire the progressives in many ways. It found expression in film lyrics such as this rousing song by IPTA lyricist Prem Dhawan written to response to Nehru’s call to forget the differences of the past and join the nation-building project:

Chhorho kal ki baatein, Kal ki baat puranii
Naye daur mein likhenge hum milkar nayi kahani,
Hum Hindustani, Hum Hindustani...


Cinema’s Tribute to Nehru’s Life

The cinema of the late 1940s and all through the 1950s and the mid-60s continued to reflect the ‘idea’ of India that Nehru was at pains to imprint on the national consciousness. In this, the progressive lyricists did a yeoman’s service in spreading this idea to the nooks and crannies of the popular imagination through hugely popular film songs. In B R Chopra’s Naya Daur, Sahir is exhorting his fellow countrymen and women to join hands, put their shoulder to the wheel and build a new and prosperous India:

Saathi haath badhana saathi re
Ek akela thak jayega, milkar bojh uthana...

And in Dhool ke Phool, Sahir is again urging people to put communal ill will aside and, in true Nehruvian style, become a liberal humanist:

Tu Hindu banega na Musalman banega
Insaan kii aulad hai insaan banega

In Naunihal, Kaifi Azmi celebrates the enduring legacy of Nehru whom he has long admired with this ode to Nehru’s liberal humanism which he believes is a balm that a country scarred from post-partition desperately needs:

Meri awaaz suno, pyaar ka saaz suno...
Kyun sajaii hai yeh chandan ki chita mere liye
Mai koi jism nahiin hoon ke jala dogey mujhey
Raakh ke saath bikhar jaaoonga mai duniya mein
Tum jahaan khaaoge thokar wahiin paogey mujhey


When Nehru Died...

When Nehru dies, the shock and grief among the progressive writers is near-palpable. They have already come to his defence when he found himself beleaguered after the debacle of the Indo-China war. Writing about the sick and ailing Nehru in Boorha Majhi, Anand Narain Mulla makes a plea to the young and ruthless waiting to seize power:

Mujh ko dhaare se hataane ki yeh koshish na karo...

When the terrible news comes of his death, a vast amount of poetry is written in a near-spontaneous outpouring of grief. Some among the progressives draw solace that Nehru’s tired body may have given up, but his spirit will live on. Sahir writes:

Jism ki maut koi maut nahi hoti
Jism mitt jaane se insaan nahi mar jaate

In much the same vein, in Dil Tang Na Ho, Ravish Siddiqui writes:

Wadi-e ishq se jab baad-e saba aayegi
Dil-e Nehru ke dhadakne ki sada aayegiin

But Makhdoom Mohiuddin knows the loss is irreplaceable for there may be many like him but there’s only one Nehru:

Hazaar pairahan aaiyenge zamane mein
Magar woh sandal-o gul ka ghubar, musht-e bahar...


In Khwabon ka Masiha, Aijaz Siddiqui too is lamenting the breaking of dreams that will never be dreamt again, just as Salaam Machlishehri in Surkh Gulabon ne Kaha is invoking the metaphor of the garden for the country Nehru has single-handed led in the tumultuous years after independence. Rafat Sarosh, a young progressive at that time, holds out hope in his Jawahar Jyoti, of the ‘light’ of Nehru that will burn on:

Shola-e amn-o muhabbat hai Jawahar jyoti
Is ski lau hai ke Tabassum hai lab-e Nehru ka..

(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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