Remembering Jawaharlal Nehru: Urdu poets saw India's first prime minister as a Christ-like figure

Recently, scholars writing about newly-independent India have described Congress as a ‘Hindu’ party.

Such narrative resonates in right-wing Muslim politics.

Scholars such as Perry Anderson, through their works, have asserted that the Congress has been engaging in ‘pseudo-secularism’ and that ‘secularism’ in Indian context is sham.

File image of Jawaharlal Nehru. IBN live

File image of Jawaharlal Nehru. IBN live

Jawaharlal Nehru, being the most recognisable face of the party, faced the brunt of the attack. Many blame Nehru for the Partition. Others hold him responsible for the socio-economic plight of Indian Muslims.

Since the government must take responsibility for the development and welfare of all its people, past Congress regimes must be held responsible for the backwardness of Indian Muslims.

However, to pass judgement now is also problematic. Thus, a more nuanced approach must be adopted to understand how Indian Muslims looked at our first prime minister.

Contrary to the belief among a few historians that Muslims held Nehru responsible for the Partition and the rioting that followed, there was an outpouring of anger and sorrow at his passing.

A large number of Muslim Urdu poets also expressed grief at his death, with almost all the prominent Urdu poets praising Nehru.

Let us now examine the works of these poets and Nehru through their eyes:

Sahir Ludhianvi:

In his poem titled ‘Jawaharlal Nehru’, Sahir likened him to an idea.

He wrote:

"Jism ki maut koi maut nahi hoti hai

Jism mit jaane se insaan nahi mit jaate”

Physical death is not the real death

Humans don’t perish with bodies.

Sahir asserted that we should not say that Nehru has died, since only his body has perished while his ideas will live on.

In another couplet he highlighted Nehru’s secular nature:

“Wo jo har diin se munkir tha, har ik dharm se duur

Phir bhi har diin, har ik dharm ka gham-khwaar raha”

He denied every religion and faith

Yet he cared for followers of every belief.

He compared Nehru with the Christ, who was crucified for his people:

“Umr bhar surat-e-Isa jo sar-e-dar raha”

Like Christ, he was always in gallows.

Interestingly this comparison, of Nehru with Christ, is a recurring theme among many Urdu poets, including Kaifi Azmi.

Sahir was a Marxist Urdu poet. For him, struggle against capitalism was a decisive test for any political leader or ideology.

He praised Nehru on this front as well:

“Jis ne zardar maishat ko gawara na kiya

Jis ko aain-e-masawat pe israr raha

He never tolerated the capitalist social order

He worked towards an equal and just society.

He reiterated that Nehru should be understood as idea and not a mortal being.

It is common knowledge that Nehru willed:

“The major portion of my ashes should, however, be disposed of otherwise. I want these to be carried high up into the air in an aeroplane and scattered from that height over the fields where the peasants of India toil, so that they might mingle with the dust and soil of India and become an indistinguishable part of India”

This wish was fulfilled on 12 June, 1964 as planes from Indian Air Force scattered his ashes on the hills, fields, rivers of the country.

Sahir used this scattering of ashes in poem to tell us:

“Rakh taqsim ki, armaan bhi taqsim karo

Us ke khwabo ki khushi, ruh ka gham le ke chalo”

We have divided his ashes; we should divide his dreams too

Move on with joys of his dreams and sorrows embodied in his soul.

In the poem, Sahir had no doubt that Nehru stood for socialism, secularism and equality.

“Hum mita dalenge sarmaya-o-mehnat ka tazaad"

We will end the inconsistency between capital and proletariat.

Kaifi Azmi:

Another famous progressive Urdu poet, Kaifi Azmi, penned a poem entitled Nehru which asserted that Nehru was far above his peers.

“Main ne tanha kabhi us ko dekha nahi

Phir bhi jab us ko dekha vo tanha mila”

Never saw him alone

Yet, he was solitary whenever I looked at him.

He likened Nehru to

“Samundar me minar-e-nuur”

A lighthouse in the sea.

Just like a lighthouse, he was providing right direction to the Indian polity:

“Khair-o-shar ki koi jang ho

Zindagi ka ho koi jihad

Vo humesha hua sab se pehle shahid”

In any war between good and evil

In any battle of life

He was the first to be martyred.

Keep in mind that Kaifi was a Marxist who championed the cause of the marginalised sections of the society.

In his view, if Nehru was martyred for a good cause, it must be for the working class, Adivasis, women and other marginalised.

Bringing out Nehru’s secular credentials, he wrote:

“Khuun me ved gunje hue

Aur jabin par farozaan azaan

Aur siine pe raqsaan saliib”

Ved echoed in his blood

Azaan illuminated forehead

A cross dancing on his chest.

He compares Nehru with Christ.

“Hath me us ke kyat ha jo deta hume

Sirf ik kiil us kiil ka ik nishan”

He had nothing in his hands to give us

But one nail and its mark.

The imagery of Christ's hands being nailed to the cross is evident.

“Sab se pehle suuli pe chadta raha”

First one to go to the gallows.

Suuli is a word commonly used by Urdu speakers for the ‘cross’ on which Christ was crucified.

“Us ne zindaan me piya tha jo zehar

Uth ke siine se baitha na iska dhuaan”

The poison he drank in the prison

Its smoke never sat down back to his chest.

Kaifi praised Nehru for his realisation that slavery never ended even after the British left India.

Although Nehru attained freedom for his country, he continued to struggle for those that lived like slaves. Nehru kept fighting for social justice and a new social order and this zeal never died.

Ali Sardar Jafri:

Ali Sardar Jafri was one of the pioneers of Progressive Writers’ Movement and a very famous Urdu poet.

He wrote two poems on Nehru’s death: ‘Rahbar ki maut’ (Death of the leader) and ‘Sandal-o-gulab ki rakh’ (Ashes of sandal and rose).

He also described Nehru as the "honour and glory" of the nation:

“Wo watan ki abru, ahl-e-watan ka iftikhar

Mahfil-e-insaan me insaniyat ka taajdar”

He was the honour of the nation and glory of its citizens

He was the king of humanity among humans.

Just like Sahir, Ali equated Nehru with ideas.

He thought that while Nehru's body perished, his ideas would continue to guide India:

“Ab humari ankh me hai us ki band ankho ka nuur

Ab humare jism me hai us ki ruh-e-beqarar

Us ka parcham le ke maidaan me nikalna hai hume

Farsh-e-gul se dur angaro pe chalna hai hume”

Now, we have in our eyes the dreams that his closed eyes have

His restless soul resides in our body now

We have to come to battlefields hoisting his flag

Instead of flowers, we have to walk on fire now.

Ali's 'Sandal-o-gulab ki rakh’ (Ashes of sandal and rose) depicts Nehru’s ashes being scattered and its significance.

“Suna hai jis ki chita se ye khaak aayi hai

Wo fasl-e-gul ka paymbar tha ahd-e-nau ka rasul

I have heard that this ash is from the pyre of

Messenger of springs and prophet of a new social order.

These poets believed that Nehru worked for socialism and a socially just Indian society.

New social order, in those times, meant nothing but throwing away capitalism.

Like Sahir and Kaifi, Ali also pointed towards Nehru’s secular credentials:

“Wo barhamin ke jise masjido ne pyar kiya

Wo but-shikan ke jo bazm-e-butaan me tha maqbul”

That priest who was loved by the mosques

that anti-idolatry who was respected among idolaters.

Waqar Ambalvi:

A lesser-known poet, but an interesting one.

After Partition, Waqar lived in Lahore. After Nehru's death, he published a poem entitled:

‘Wo Raj dulara Bharat ka har bat me sab se badhkar tha’

That beloved son of Bharat was the best in every trade.

This poem was published in a Delhi-based magazine edited by Sarvar Tonsvi.

It showed the reach of Nehru among Muslims who had to migrate in 1947.

Waqar, even though he lived in Lahore, considers Nehru the leader of the freedom movement:

“Dar dar par us ne dastak di angrez ko badh kar lalkara

Ya rail me uski baithak thi ya jail me uska bistar tha”

He knocked every door, and challenged the might of the British Empire

Either he met people on train or jailed by the British.

He pointed towards the massive programme Nehru carried out in pre-independence India to make aware people of the atrocities committed by the British and whip up public opinion in favour of freedom.

“Kuch dur to hum bhi sath chale us banke tiikhe hero ke

Lekin jab hum sath se bichde tab bhi wo ek rahbar tha”

We also walked a few steps with this charismatic hero

But after we left still he was a leader.

Interestingly Waqar claimed that he saw Nehru as the leader even after Partition.

While that sentiment may seem seditious today, it pointed to the immense love and respect for Nehru among the people who were forced to leave their homes during Partition.

“Sawraj se barso pehle hi har dil par us ka raj raha

Swaraj bhi us ke bhag se tha”

Years before the independence he ruled over the hearts of the people

Independence is because of his destiny.

Waqar believes that Nehru was the independence movement and its most prominent leader.

To have such a poem echo across the border gives us an idea of Nehru’s popularity.

All four poets were in the political Opposition to Nehru and the Congress.

Jafri was jailed just after independence by Congress government in Mumbai for being active with Revolutionary Communist Movement. Kaifi was also with him.

Sahir was also a Leftist and member of Progressive Writers’ Association.

Communists were one of the largest groups opposing Nehru.

The 1962 war with China also strained relations between the Communists and the government.

Under such circumstances, praise coming from Leftist Urdu writers shows the way Nehru was admired even by political rivals.

A close reading of contemporary Urdu poetry helps paint a nuanced view of how Muslims and the other marginalised sections viewed Nehru.

Saquib Salim is an independent socio-political commentator and a history researcher


Updated Date: Nov 13, 2017 23:33 PM

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