Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2015 > Defending Conviction, Discussing Progress

Mainstream, VOL LIII No 9, February 21, 2015

Defending Conviction, Discussing Progress

Monday 23 February 2015


by Noor Zaheer

Liking Progress, Loving Change by Rakshanda Jalil; Oxford University Press; 2014; pages 482 + 29 pages Introduction; Rs 1495.

“........the arrangements might have lacked finesse, but they more than made up in the dynamism of its organisers and the sheer magnetic appeal of the message that was being conveyed from the Rafah-e-Aam Hall. For, after Gandhiji’s call for Satyagrah, the most important mass movement unfurled from within its portals. A literary movement, unlike any other in the history of this country [actually the world], came into being, a movement that was to shape the responses of a whole generation of Indian intelligentsia, one that would continue to influence creative writing, in one form or the other, long after those who put it together had fallen apart.”

This is the description of the formation and inaugural conference of the All India Progressive Writers Association as given in Rakhshanda Jalil’s book, Liking Progress, Loving Change. Published by the Oxford University Press, this is a history of the Progressive Writers’ Movement [PWM] in Urdu and covers the period from 1936, when it was formally launched in Lucknow’s Rafah-e-Aam Hall, to the end of the 1950s. The contribution of the progressive writers needs to be analysed, especially in the present times; they were the ones who wrote the anthems of resistance, they created what promised a new morning where there would be hope for a brighter future and justice for all, they showed that the shackles of tradition are fragile, can be and have to be broken so that one would be free to walk the path that led to a new and changing world order. One looks back with mixed feelings of awe, pride, regret and sometimes exasperation because what has been available of its history was by word of mouth rather than as a documented account. The only record we have is Roshnai by Sajjad Zaheer, that pens down the journey of the first 15 years of the All India Progressive Writers Association.

Rakhshanda Jalil’s book looks at the reasons for the formation, development, growth and decline of the PWM. Her focus is Urdu where the rise of the Progressive Writers Movement was meteoric; its decline slow, long-drawn-out and perhaps inevitable.

Every time the progressives are discussed, I am in a catch-twentytwo situation: if I praise their contribution my ears buzz with ‘what else!’; if I recount their shortcomings I am treated like a ‘traitor’. To review this book, I try to find the balance as always.

The book deals with progressive literature, writers and PWA activities in Urdu and rightly points out that the land where Urdu flourished was fertile ground for the emergence of such a movement since questioning of religion, tradition, belief, rituals had already begun as an aftermath to 1857. To quote Ismat Chughtai, “When the first man in the history of mankind groaned under the oppression and injustice, the usurpation of rights, exploitation, inequality and tyranny, it was then that the foundation for Progressive Movement was laid.” A pleasant surprise is that right in the beginning this book acknowledges that the PWM was not only a literary organisation but also a social and political one and quotes Nehru speaking at a PWA conference: “.....unless a writer has connection with reality, with actual life, his work cannot prove enduring”; and from Rabindranath Tagore’s message to the PWA: “......literature that is not in harmony with mankind is destined for failure.” Jalil points out that the PWM and its proponents were a powerful and inescapable force commandeering a space for themselves on the political, social and literary canvas of India, that they influenced debates on imperialism and decolonisation and post-independence they were at the centre of discourses on the nature of state and society.

The book details the influence, range and the panorama that has never been recorded, much less analysed and in hindsight establishes that the political and social consciousness released by the events of 1857 were reflected in Urdu literature. Tracing the new literary trends between 1857 and the 1920s the book includes Muslim responses to 1857, a war fought by Hindus and Muslims together but from whose history the Muslim role seems to have been wiped out.

The demands on literature had changed much before the PWM but though there were individual efforts to meet these challenges by poets like Hali, Shibli, there was no organised effort by writers to be the voice of discontent and suspicion against the colonial rulers.

Jalil counts the publication of Angaarey, a collection of nine short stories and a drama in Urdu by four young writers, as more a comment on social malpractices than great literature. With Angaarey as base, Jalil explores the social, political background to the PWM, analysing the feudal discontent, alienation of the elite, growth of socialist thought and geographical changes that influenced social thinking like the opening of the Suez Canal bringing in all kinds of books, introduction of modern education, new technology that ushered in magazines, journals, newspapers etc. It is in this atmosphere that these young men and a woman embarked on a new trail. They saw the plight of the country and masses looted by the feudal lords, plundered by the colonial rulers; this became the cause of the PWM and they attacked both. The difference with earlier writers was that the man hungry in the streets represented India for them and not the nawab or rajah deprived of his feudal state. While earlier it was a jehad with pen and paper, with the PWM it became a people’s war for justice and equality.

Jalil gives a brief historical account of the happenings in the Arab, Turkish and Iranian worlds that were influencing the Muslims in India and also writings in Urdu, the Russian Revolution of 1917, victories of Japan, division of the Indian National Congress, Rowlatt Act and the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, introduction of socialist thought and the establishment of the CPI in 1925, counting all these as the basis and background in which the need for the PWM grew and the AIPWA was finally formed in 1936.

While the reformists stuck to the comforting confines of religion and seemed afraid of changes in the social, political and economic order, the PWM opted right from its inception for a socialist, equal society. The appearance of socially engaging literature brought awareness and sharpness to writing, the Angaarey group of Communists showed that there was no romanticism about poverty, illiteracy and back-wardness, and poets like Hasrat Mohani condemned reforms calling them ‘kaghaz ke phool’ [paper flowers].

Jalil however insists that there was an iron-clad ideology right from the beginning, hints without proof that Sajjad Zaheer had vanished for some months from London before arriving in India in 1935, that he might have gone to the USSR for ‘instruction’ and that later the triangle formed between the CPI-USSR-PWM was the undoing of the PWM. Most writers in the PWM were Communists, but then it has always been the Marxists who have hankered for change and who have been the voice of dissent. Jalil admits that the strength and contribution of the PWM was its ability to find common cause with a host of issues such as feminism, secularism, anti-imperialism, anti-fascism and nationalism and that the writings that emerged from this movement carried the influence of Gandhi, Russian revolution and discussed social reforms, caste, landless labourers, communalism etc.

One cannot help but notice the emphasis on Indian Muslims in the book making it seem as if it was only they who were contributing to Urdu progressive writing conveniently for-getting that it was Premchand who initiated the concept of ‘people’s epic writing’ and so many others like Firaq, Upendranath Ashk, Jagganath Azad who helped define the course of the movement. The Indian Muslims were an intellectually aneamic, listless community and the progressives gave them a shot in the arm but the aim was to address entire India.

Angaarey has been visited time and again by various scholars and been translated to Hindi and English. One can understand a Ph.D thesis’ demand for bulk but 80 pages, two whole chapters, to ‘Angaarey’, synopsis and analysis of each story, even though the four writers formed the core of PWA in 1936, seems like an effort to increase the weight of the book. Tracing the movement against Angaarey is interesting though irrelevant and only goes to prove that there were repressive forces working against any form of ‘questioning’.

Then there is a synopsis of London ki ek Raat, again by Sajjad Zaheer, but nothing on Rashid Jahan’s later stories and, more importantly, her plays that began the process of progressive writing for stage, or of Ahmed Ali’s novels and short stories.

”.....travelling to India for the first time in 1949, Ralph Russell observed that almost every Urdu writer of any note was a ‘progressive’,” she writes and then contradicts herself, does a population count, trying to show that more Urdu writers stayed away. And the reader is left wondering where is the dissent that she was talking about? Anyway what makes a movement, a huge membership or the ideas it throws up that are then taken up by others who continue to preserve and nurture them? There is a fundamental difference between an organisation and a movement and the longevity of both cannot be measured by the same scale.

More pages have been devoted to the decline of the PWM rather than on its formation and rise which has been summarily dismissed. In recounting the first few conferences her ‘worry’ is about the importance being given to organisational matters and not enough papers being presented. But then these were not conferences organised by universities, funded by the UGC, where the organisers had to please certain academicians and flatter a few bureaucrats. This was a movement that was gathering momentum and this had to be done in an organised manner. The progressives were planning a long-term engagement with writing.

The writer refers to the All India Urdu Progressive Writers’ Conference of 1945, Hyderabad and Dr Alim’s tabling of the resolution against obscenity which was discussed, debated and rejected with Hasrat Mohani defending ‘lateef havasnigari’ [havasnaki as spelt in the book]; This incident is often cited as the dictatorial attitude of the PWA but only goes to prove that the PWA was a democratic set-up that allowed debate and discussion and accepted or rejected a resolution through a democratic process. Why is this used time and again as a point for condemning the PWA? Miraji, an important name cited as a dissenter, was an Urdu poet writing openly on sexuality and desire and was himself uncomfortable in an atmosphere that talked of poverty, oppression, illiteracy and sexual desire in the same breath. And then there are some people who like to exist alone and some maintain a network.

She quotes Carlo Coppola [1974], Ahmed Ali and Dr Gopichand Narang and goes on to hang the blame for the decline of the PWM on the Left connection of the leadership but skips the fact that post-independence both the Central and the State governments made a concerted effort to sideline Urdu and to propagate it as the language of the Muslims, and hence Pakistan. In its own region Urdu became an outcaste and the Urdu-speaking population in India was denied the right to primary education in their mother tongue. The popularity and mass base that Urdu once enjoyed waned. Literature perhaps was the most affected as fewer writers now used it as a means of expression and the readership of Urdu magazines, journals and books dropped [which had a direct bearing on the economics of the print media]. Meanwhile the Madrasas used the language as a means of self-preservation. Though the most important writers of Urdu did belong to the elite they had been the voice of the people. Even Mir Taqi Mir wrote:

“Sher mere hain go khawaspasand

Guftugu par mujhe awaam se hai.”

[Though my poetry is appreciated by the select

Nevertheless it is the people whom I address.]

All this while it was the progressives who were protesting the communalisation of what was essentially the language of the masses and of it being turned into the language of the elite. Firaq, Upendranath Ashk, Kamaleshwar, Mohan Rakesh, Sahir Ludhianvi and Dr Mulk Raj Anand wrote, spoke and campaigned against the government policies. When the government decided to reverse its policy it supported the Madrasas that had been till then teaching and for all practical purposes preserving the language but were hardly the place where progressive, liberal and revolutionary concepts would be propagated.

An important factor for the decline was the lack of will in the leadership to counter the religious reassertion among Muslims even while countering communalism; this is one of the main reasons for the PWM losing ground slowly. The growth of fundamentalism was not challenged.

What the book neglects to discuss is the role of women writers in the organisation. The PWM claimed that women be given equal status and pre-PWA works had highlighted the woman’s role as the wife, mother, sister etc. The PWM acknowledged her status as a fellow-worker and fighter; yet seldom were women made office-bearers or head of the State units and absolutely never a part of the Central body. Why, when they were sensitive writers, writing effectively and more than proved their capability as organisers like Dr Rasheed Jahan and Hajrah Begum? Were they too tough, strong, independent to handle?

The PWM focused on social as well as political concerns and looked at socialism as an answer to immediate problems and sustainable changes. Was this perhaps its undoing? A number of writers identified only with the freedom struggle and not with the socialist concept of equality which was the long-term goal of its leadership. Then, of course, everything does have an age, a longevity; we want movements to change shape and survive, but the fact is that they do die. Looking back from the present and asking why the leadership did not have the foresight is like asking why the son of god did not know that the earth was round.

The book makes a big deal about the writers of the manifesto being Communists. They never hid the fact. Ralph Fox had impressed upon Sajjad Zaheer the need for intellectuals and workers coming together like never before. The manifesto was circulated for a year; she says that the manifesto became a ‘Bible’ for the times. I would say: thankfully not the ‘Quran’ that one cannot even discuss

One would say that those keeping away were at liberty to initiate their own movements or organisations. They didn’t or couldn’t but expected to change the tide with their isolated criticisms. The AIPWM was not a college teaching writing, it was a movement to give a sense of confidence, security and congregation to those alienated but with similar thoughts: there are others like you. It is to be noted that the fascist, Rightist, racist world was very well organised, through churches, madrasas, sabhas etc.; it was important to organise the liberal, plural, secular world. As Andre Maraux has said, It is in the nature of fascism to be a nation; it is ours to be a world.

After reading the book one finds that the researcher is working with a pre-conceived design and belief, systematically takes away the credit given to the founders, assumes that Sajjad Zaheer had dictates from Moscow. The book through quotes says that the PWA and IPTA maintained an avowedly non-political stance, proves the fear of these organisations in British Secret reports and documents but does not accede that imperialists and and their secret agencies were active to kill these movements. According to the author, the movement declined because of its inner disagreements and inter-ference from the CPI. Incidentally she doesn’t write about the suggestion of ‘disbanding’ the PWA by the Party leadership in 1953. The writers had unanimously served a strong reply saying: ”Since we are not part of the CPI, it has no authority to disband us.”

The writer insists on separating literature and politics and seems to have an issue with Sajjad Zaheer being both a writer and a politician, yet the book harps on the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case and gives a political commentary on it, again pointing to Zaheer’s mistakes. She believes that it was Sajjad Zaheer who wanted a progressive-minded young woman; so he roped in Hajrah Begum in London and in India Rasheed Jahan [a very vocal, Leftist writer with a mind of her own who would have never let anyone influence her into getting ‘roped in’], invited S.A. Dange to deliver the inaugural speech at the Mumbai conference which proved that the PWM was political. She has a problem with folk literature being given a platform and a conference being held of peasant writers that Sajjad Zaheer hailed as a step in the right direction since the PWM believed that life cannot be divided into pigeon-holes: separating writers from politicians, from painters, singers, theatre artistes, workers, farmers. It questioned the concept of a ‘purely literary association’. Literature for the founders of the PWM was a wide panaroma that included the reader. And this the PWM was successful in achieving. Sajjad Zaheer maintained that this was a ‘swadeshi movement’ as well. The fact that in 1938 a peasants conference of folk literature was held in Faridabad—where folk literature was recited, sung, performed and where well-known writers were the audience goes to prove that through the PWM literature was becoming inclusive and expanding its horizon. The rift that she talks of only goes to show that some writers like Ahmed Ali, though in the PWM, continued to consider writing exclusive. Strangely enough, Ahmed Ali wrote a positive report of this conference for New Age. In fact she has the usual problems of someone researching with pre-decided conclusions. Facts get jumbled up.

For being a Communist and the one holding the steering wheel of the PWM, Sajjad Zaheer is held responsible for writers leaving the organisation, timing of the conferences, changes in the manifesto and failure to understand the mood of the masses during the ‘Quit India’ Movement and World War II, for being short- sighted and impractical, belonging to a feudal family and obeying the party mandate and leaving for Pakistan. Whether in India, the PWA or in Pakistan, the target is Sajjad Zaheer and one wonders whether he is being zeroed down on for not naming Ale Ahmed Suroor as an important member of the PWA in Roshnai, a fact categorically mentioned by the writer.

However, the book elaborates the early years of formation and, most importantly, quotes intelligence reports on the PWA London, something that has not been highlighted or discussed in India as its history and it also informs of the continued activities in London led by Dr Mulk Raj Anand till late 1941.The book is well written and readable with simple language and a direct approach. Each chapter has an introduction that gives it an entity of its own allowing the reader to make a personal reading schedule. More importantly, it contains biographical notes of important writers whom the English reader might not know even though some facts about noted authors like Niaz Haider are wrong. Short-term journals and magazines—that were high on content but low on funds and closed down after short runs—are well documented.

The couplets quoted in support of her arguments are sometimes in original, at others translated and sometimes both. The book has many proof errors and repetition of phrases and sentences and does not take into account that those who had differences with the PWA could have formed a platform, as they can now. But they didn’t because they were travelling the same road and had been misunderstood by their comrades. As an example there is George Orwell; for long his play Animal Farm was popular as a satire on Communist USSR; now we know it is one on Capitalist USA.

To put it logically, everything has a longevity and movements, ideas end just as people die, often without a reason, though death does persuade those affected to hunt for reasons and to hook the blame on something.

I quote Sajjad Zaheer on the inclusiveness of the PWM: “.....those who stayed away or have moved away but are producing good literature are also doing our work.”

The book is a step in the right direction and the author in a manner accepts that the book should not be taken as the last word on the subject and that further research on the time and subject is required and necessary because it is the people’s history that helps us understand our past and prepare for the future. Investigation and research into the growth of the PWM in the pre-independence period in such languages as Marathi, Bengali, Tamil and Malayalam are esssential in order to fully comprehend the rich heritage of the Moverment. As the world in the new century sees the rise of fascism and racism resurfaces, communalism becomes something to be ‘tolerated’! The challenges before the progressive writers’ movement are multi-dimensional as they were in its inception. Free economy, free market, globalisation on one hand, and communalism, regionalism, sectarianism, authoritarianism and fascism on the other are all symptoms of the battles that have to be fought and won if progressivism, pluralism, and mutual co-existence are to survive.

The reviewer is a writer, researcher and the President of the Delhi State IPTA.