When Did Poets Stop Singing the Songs of Our ‘Majboor Mazdoor’?

There was a time when poets sang rousing songs about workers’ rights, films eulogised their labour and skill.

Published
Opinion
4 min read
Migrant Workers, Urdu Poets and Revolution (Image used for representation purposes)
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A goods train trundled past a railway track early one morning in Maharashtra killing 16 men. Many, on social media, reacted with shock and wonder: But why were they sleeping on the tracks? Why not beside the track or anywhere else? This, to my mind, encapsulates the distance between those who have homes, beds and a roof over their head and those who don’t.

Over the past few weeks, lakhs of men, women and children have undertaken the long walk home in the sweltering Indian summer carrying nothing with them save the ‘idea’ of a home that they have left behind in their villages.

Migration is Old, Apathy is New

The exodus of migrant workers has triggered memories of other mass migrations of human populations over the years triggered by Acts of God such as drought, famine, floods or other man-made disasters such as, most notably, the Partition of 1947 or other more localised communal outrages and riots such as the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley.

But the spontaneous, unplanned mass migration of migrant workers during the COVID-19 pandemic stands out from all others. It is fuelled by a host of socio-economic factors such as loss of livelihood, inability of pay rentals or buy food or maintain social distancing and observe basic hygiene by those who are the most disenfranchised and marginalised. That they are vital in keeping the very same socio-economic machinery propped up and working that has discarded them at this time is both ironic and tragic.

This blithe disregard for workers is grotesque and inhuman, and far more tragic than the casualties of the CVID-19 coronavirus. It is also new.

When Poets Sang Songs for and of the ‘Mazdoor’

There was a time when poets sang rousing songs about workers’ rights, films eulogised their labour and skill, writers—especially those affiliated with the influential literary grouping known as the Progressive Writers’ Association—wrote stories about mill workers and labourers. Popular culture was aware and sensitive to the ‘working class’. When and how did we change? When did the worker and labourer leach out of our creative imagination? When did we yoke the word ‘migrant’ to the ‘worker’ thus robbing them of the dignity of a home and a life in our midst in our cities? When did we de-legitimise their very existence forcing them to flee?

That it wasn’t always so is borne out by the vast amount of poetry, especially in Urdu, celebrating the worker and the farmer. It is true that much of it is hagiographical and 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

How Poets Have Idealised the Workers

Pitted in a binary with the capitalist who is wicked and clever, 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, also wrote:

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

The idea that the 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

Poets and the Promise of Working Class Revolution

A vast amount of poetry written on the 1st of May, celebrated as Workers’ Day 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

Of course, there have been 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 this 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

Others such as Firaq Gorakhpuri thought Independence would bring in a new morning for the working classes:

Banaaenge nai duniyaa kisan 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

Hunger and Homelessness of the Migrant Worker

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

Today, seeing the images of the hopeless, hungry, tired men and women carrying the old and the infirm as well as the very young, exhaustion and despair writ large on their faces, robbed of dignity and pride, one wonders if the tipping point has come for the prophecy contained 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

(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 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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