Colonialism, politics of language and partition of Bengal PART XXXIby Nurul Kabir
KAZI Nazrul Islam (1899-1976) appeared in the scene of Bangla language and literature in Kolkata as ‘a blazing comet’ in 1920, immediately after he left the Indian Army that he had served for some three years since 1917. The Kazi earned his literary reputation as the ‘rebel eternal’ with the publication of his ever-famous poem, Bidrohi (the rebel) in 1922. The issues that he consistently fought for throughout his active literary life included freedom from English colonial rule, equality of citizens, women’s emancipation and Hindu-Muslim unity.
In the process of his literary activism against British colonialism, Nazrul faced arrest as well as imprisonment; many of his literary works were also banned. He was first arrested while editing the biweekly magazine Dhumketu in 1922. His Anondomoyeer Agomone, an anti-colonial poem published in Dhumketu in September 1922, led to a police raid on the magazine’s office, and he was arrested and accused of sedition against the colonial administration immediately. During the hearing of the sedition charge, Nazrul made a long statement before the court. He argued: ‘I have been accused of sedition. That is why I am now confined in the prison. On the one side is the crown, on the other the flames of the comet. One is the king, sceptre in hand; the other Truth worth the mace of justice. To plead for me, the king of all kings, the judge of all judges, the eternal truth the living God... His laws emerged out of the realisation of a universal truth about mankind. They are for and by a sovereign God. The king is supported by an infinitesimal creature; I by its eternal and indivisible Creator. I am a poet; I have been sent by God to express the unexpressed, to portray the un-portrayed. It is God who is heard through the voice of the poet... My voice is but a medium for Truth, the message of God... I am the instrument of that eternal self-evident truth, an instrument that voices forth the message of the ever-true. I am an instrument of God. The instrument is not unbreakable, but who is there to break God?’ [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kazi_Nazrul_Islam, accessed on August 28, 2013] The colonial court sentenced him to prison; he was released in December 1923. The Kazi composed a large number of poems and songs in jail; many of his works were banned in the 1920s by the British authorities.
In terms of literary spirit, Kazi Nazrul Islam ‘was deeply influenced by Rabindranath Tagore and Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay as well as Persian poets Hafez, Rumi and Omar Khayyam’. [ibid] However, in terms of activism, both cultural and political, he went much beyond their influences. Nazrul actively participated in the independence movement of India and, in the process, associated himself with political parties like the Indian National Congress and Sramik Praja Swaraj Dal. A close associate of Muzaffar Ahmed, a founding leader of the Indian Communist Party, Nazrul would attend and address rallies and conferences of different oppressed sections of the people such as the peasants, workers, fishermen, women and so on. He also composed dozens of poems and songs for these communities, which he never missed any opportunity to recite and sing out to their gatherings.
About Nazrul’s ability to transform serious socio-political issues into materials of poetry, Abdul Mannan Syed (1943-2010), a reputed litterateur and literary critic in Bangla language, writes: ‘Issues like aspiration for freedom, Hindu-Muslim unity, emancipation of oppressed people, etc are the subjects of essays, polemics and critiques in prose. Nazrul’s matchless credit is that he has successfully transformed such socio-political issues and events of everyday life into the materials of poetical works and composed unique poems.’ [Abdul Mannan Syed (ed.), Prabeshika (introduction) to Otit Diner Smriti (Memories of the past), Nazrul Institute, Dhaka, 2004, p 4]
The Kazi was a staunch secularist in his own way, which would regularly find expression in all kinds of human activities — social, cultural, political, familial and personal. He was a Congressite for many years but would criticise the Indian National Congress ‘for not embracing outright political independence from the British empire’ in the 1920s and 1930s. However, he did not support the Khilafat Movement of Pan-Islamist Indians, even when Karamchand Gandhi and his Congress supported it, for Nazrul found the movement nothing but an expression of ‘religious fundamentalism’. [ibid]
He was married to a Hindu woman, Pramila Devi, and their children were brought up with secular attitudes towards life. Kazi Sabyasachi, aka Sunny, Nazrul Islam’s elder son, recollecting his childhood memories, says that as a child he once fainted while watching a movie at the Rupabani cinema in Kolkata. He regained consciousness a little while later, with his father tending him. However, he was still feeling dizzy as they were returning by a rickshaw. Anxious, Nazrul told him: ‘Sunny, call Durga, call Allah, He would help you recover.’ [Kazi Sabyasachi, ‘Shaishaber Smriti’ (Childhood memories) in Abdul Mannan Syed (ed.), Otit Diner Smriti (Memories of the past), Nazrul Institute, Dhaka, 2004, p 20]
Nazrul believed in a united Bengal on the basis of ‘Bengali nationalism’, which, he believed, could only be materialised by removing religious animosity between Hindu and Muslim communities of Bengal. He wrote in an article in Nabajug in 1942, ‘Bengalis would be able to achieve the unachievable the day they would be able to claim in unison that Bengal belongs to the Bengalis.’ [Kazi Nazrul Islam, ‘Bangalir Bangla’, Nazrul Rachanabali (Collected works of Kazi Nazrul Islam), Volume VII, Nazrul Birth Centenary edition, Bangla Academy, Dhaka, 2012, p 56] He, therefore, devoted his literary ability to forge a pervasive unity between the two religious communities. In the process, the Kazi ruthlessly criticised the communalist leaders of various religious communities contributing to the widening of the gap between the ordinary people belonging to different faiths. Referring to communal clashes in Bengal, he wrote: ‘I saw at a place that 49 Hindus, comprising high- and low-caste ones, ruthlessly beating up a lean and thin Muslim worker; In another place, I saw a similar number of Muslims beating up a weak Hindu like a beast. The hapless innocent people are being beaten up by the two beasts. They are beating up human beings the way uncivilised savages pierce pigs to death. I found every face of the attackers more dangerous than that of the Satan and uglier than that of wild pigs. In their envy and ugliness, they smell rotten like hell. [Kazi Nazrul Islam, ‘Mandir O Masjid’, Nazrul Rachanabali (Collected works of Kazi Nazrul Islam), Volume II, Nazrul Birth Centenary edition, Bangla Academy, Dhaka, 2012, p 432]
Nazrul argues in the article that such communal clashes have nothing to do with religiosity. He, therefore, goes on to say: ‘The two [feuding] groups have the same leader — Satan. Wearing a cap on the head and false beard on the cheek, he sometimes provokes Muslims [against Hindus] and sometimes tying a false tiki with hairs on head, provokes Hindus [against Muslims]. Again, in the guise of a soldier, Gora or Gurkha, the same Satan fires shots on both Hindus and Muslims! His tale has reached the shore of the sea, his red face resembles with that of wild monkeys of the seashore.’ [ibid]
In another article, Nazrul argues, ‘None of the prophets has ever made any such claim that “I have come for the Hindus”, or “I have come for the Muslims”, or “I have come for the Christians”. They have rather said, “we have come for human beings — like lights that belong to all and everybody”. But Krishna’s admirers claim that Krishna belongs to Hindus, Muhammad’s admirers claim that Muhammad belongs to Muslims and Christ’s admirers claim that Jesus belongs to Christians. Thus Krishna, Muhammad, and Christ got “nationalised”, which created all sorts of problems. [Kazi Nazrul Islam, ‘Hindu-Mussalman’, Nazrul Rachanabali (Collected works of Kazi Nazrul Islam), Volume II, Nazrul Birth Centenary edition, Bangla Academy, Dhaka, 2012, p 437]
The Kazi, therefore, used his literary abilities to fight against all kinds of religious sectarianism, and those Hindu and Muslim communalists standing in the way of forging a harmonious relationship between the two religious communities. His criticism against the obscurantist mullahs is well known, but he was equally critical of the parochial Hindu practices. Referring to the Hindu Chuntmarga, the social practice of ‘untouchability’ in other words, the Kazi wrote: If a Muslim touches a Hindu, the latter has to take a bath for purification, Muslim touch to any food makes it impure for a Hindu, if a Muslim steps in a Hindu house the latter has to purify the place by smearing it with cow dung (!), a Hindu has to throw out the water of his hukka if a Muslim touches the seat where the former smokes the hukka sitting on. This is a grave insult to humanity.’ [Kazi Nazrul Islam, ‘Chuntmarga’, Nazrul Rachanabali (Collected works of Kazi Nazrul Islam), Volume I, Nazrul Birth Centenary edition, Bangla Academy, Dhaka, 2012, pp 393-394]
The Kazi then exposes the Hindu hypocrisy of the call of unity between the two communities. He says that with such practice of untouchability is in vogue, the Hindu call to the Muslims from the political platform for unity, and their claim that ‘Muslims and Hindus are brothers’ and that they have ‘one indivisible address’ and that there is ‘no difference’ between the two brothers, is nothing but ‘dangerous cheating’, a ‘dirty lie’, on which the idea of creating an ‘indivisible nationhood’ sounds ‘funny’.
The solution rather lies somewhere else: ‘Remaining committed to own religious faith, one has to acquire the strength to welcome, with the arms wide open, to embrace all and everybody.’ [ibid, p 392]
The Kazi then urges upon Hindus and Muslims of Bengal alike: ‘Let a Hindu remain Hindu, a Muslim Muslim, but say, say for once, standing in the midst of the unlimited freedom under the open sky, that “I am a human being, humanity is my religion.”’ [ibid. p 393]
To be continued
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