Dagh Dehlvi: A Musical Tribute

Mirza  Nawab Mirza Khan or Dagh Dehlavi  (Dagh means stain) was born on 25 May 1831. His father was the nawab of Loharu in today’s Punjab and his mother is said to be a courtesan. His father was accused of the murder of William Fraser and hanged when Dagh was just four years old. His mother Wazir Khanum married again to Mirza Mohammad Sultan, who was one of the sons of Bahadur Shah Zafar. Dagh grew up in the Red Fort in Delhi. After the Ghadar (mutiny 1857) he left Red Fort, and moved to Rampur, which is now in western UP. He was given patronage by the Nawab of Rampur where he lived for next twenty four years.

He is most admired for writing simple and evocative romantic ghazals, which have been celebrated and rendered by the best singers of our times. Many of his shers or couplets have become part of our folklore. Like:

Urdu hai jiska naam hamee jante hain Daagh
Hindostaan mein dhoom hamari zuban ki hai


Khoob parda hai ke chilman se lage bethain hain

Saaf chupte bhi nahi saamne aate bhi nai.

(Begum Akhtar has sung it in her seductive voice. The great Mehdi Hasan has also rendered it in his signature classical melody)

Dagh is also remembered for his long and intense affair with Muni Bai, a courtesan from Calcutta. This tumultuous affair with Muni Bai makes Dagh’s life colourful, somewhat like his poetry. And some kind of a caricature, a rich poet falling in love with a courtesan.

He met Muni Bai at a fair/mela in Rampur. Muni Bai was a poet herself and had a takhalus or pen name Hijab (veil). Muni Bai returned to Calcutta after the fair but they kept in touch with each other by exchanging letters which were sprinkled with poetry. In 1881, Muni Bai again returned to the Rampur Mela. This is a little sample from their poetic correspondence.

Dagh writes:

Aa gayi hijre ki ghadi sar par

Ye bala jhelni pari sar par…..

Muni Bai responds:

Jee nahi chata hai jaane ko

Par chale hain qalaq uthane ko

Hum to bhooke hain aadimyat ke

aadmiyat ke saath ulfat ke

aaise waison jee nahi milta

Dagh sa admi nahi milta

(This ghazal sung by Shobha Gutru is sublime and in many ways epitomises Dagh’s poetry. It mingles romance and eroticism. And Gutru’s voice makes it even more palatable.)

Gale mila hai woh maste-shabaab barson mein….

To cut the long story, of Dagh’s torrid affair short, Dagh travelled to Calcutta and met Muni Bai in 1883.  It is said Dagh lived in Calcutta for almost three months in a rented place opposite the famous Nakhuda mosque.

(Here Iqbal Bano sings a charming ghazal penned by Dagh. This particular couplet in this ghazal is my favourite. It might be considered blasphemous by those who nurse fragile sentiments)

di muazan ne azaan vasl ki shab pichle peher

Haae kambakht ko kis waqt khuda yaad ayaa

In 1887, the Nawab of Rampur died and Dagh returned to Delhi. He did not stay in Delhi for very long and moved to Hyderabad. The nizam of Hyderabad Mahbub Ali Khan appointed Dagh as a court poet. In 1889 Dagh accompanied the Nizam to Calcutta and discovered Muni Bai had married. Dagh left Calcutta distraught. But the story didn’t end here. In 1902 Muni Bai came to Hyderabad ready to marry Dagh. By then this courtship seemed to have run out of steam.

Dagh had many disciples, the most famous being Allama Iqbal. He inspired a whole new genre of romantic poetry, that was simple and direct, frisky and playful and tantalisingly romantic and musical.

He died in on 17 March,1905 in Hyderabad. He is buried in the Yousufain Dargah complex.

Below Farida Khanam sings the beautiful ghazal…..

Na rawa kahiye na sazaa kahiye,

Kahiye kahiye mujhe bura kahiye

Below Malika Pukhraj sings

zahid na kah buri ki ye mastane aadmi hain

tujh ko lipat padenge diwane aadmi hain

Kharabaat (suspending morality/hypocrisy) & this lovely Qawaali.

This is a beautiful qawaali, sung by Subhan Ahmad Nizami. It invokes the Persian word/concept of  Kharabaat. It is combination of two opposite spiritual yet coherent emotions. Kharab and aabad. The former (kharab) means self- destructive, and (abaad) stands for well being. In line with that it invokes tavern which gives you comfort because that is where you are at ease with your hypocrisies.

The Ghazal ends with the couplet or maqtaa, the poet’s, that is Jami’s nom de plume.

Een tauba-o-taqwa shud az Jami-e-be-deene
Dar koo-e-Malamaati, hairaan-e-Kharabaatam

All this piety and this supplication, from the heretic Jami
Living in a den of Malaamatis, I am wonderstruck in Kharabaat.

The Malaamatis referred here were kind of mystics, who believed that religion/rituals should be matter of personal. The Malamaatis were humble and never boasted or made public demonstration of their knowledge. They were self-reflective and wanted to identify their own hypocrisies. It is said to be one of the common strands of Sufism. Surrender, inward looking search for truth, are considered as spiritual practice in Sufism

The author of this beautiful poem is Nuruddin Jami, a celebrated Turkish poet of the 15th Century.

Afghan Peace Accord: A Minefield of Contradictions

Afghanistan Peace Talks: A Minefield of Contradictions

Published in Mainstream, VOL LIX No 14, March 20, 2021

In the backdrop of the May 1 deadline for the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, two documents being referred to as ‘moonshot’(unrealistic) have been ‘leaked’ by Afghanistan’s Tolo news channel. [1]

What has added to the complexity created by these developments is US President Biden’s interview, aired by ABC news on 17 March [2]. In the interview Biden says it will be ‘tough’ to meet the 1 May deadline, but the complete drawdown will not take much longer.

Getting back to the ‘leaked’ documents, the first is a letter written by the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to the Afghan president Ashraf Ghani. Related to that is a second draft proposal called the Afghan Peace Agreement dated 28th Feb 2021, or a road map for peace in Afghanistan. The proposal is addressed to the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Zalmay Khalilzad, Special US Envoy to Afghanistan, is the diplomat who is negotiating with the Afghan government and the Taliban. The tone of the letter is harsh. It states “The United States has not ruled out any option,” But it adds, “I am making this clear to you so that you understand the urgency of my tone.” The Biden administration is clearly telling Ghani to get ready for a US withdrawal and be prepared to face the consequences of a Taliban assault for a takeover.

The second document is in the form of a proposal. It is a more detailed document comprising three sections. The first section states the guiding principles for reforming Afghanistan’s constitution. The second addresses issues related to the transition period: governance and security matters. The third section is on managing the ceasefire during the transition.

Until these undated documents were leaked, it was widely accepted that the new Biden administration had three options in Afghanistan.

First, it could adhere to the peace agreement arrived at in February 2020, between the previous Trump administration and the Taliban, under which the remaining 2500 US troops stationed in Afghanistan would be withdrawn. However now the New York Times has revealed, contrary to the US claim, that there are 3500 US troops in Afghanistan. This has created doubts about the extent of US infrastructure presently in Afghanistan. [3]

Second, it could extend the stay of these remaining troops until the US was able to convince the Taliban to give up violence and come to some kind of agreement that could address the security concerns of the US.

And third, it could completely scrap the agreement, which would have meant that the US did not withdraw its troops, while at the same time keeping its option of increasing their numbers as and when needed. And until democracy stabilised, it would continue to provide political, logistical and military support to Ashraf Ghani and any other democratically elected governments in the future. 

The documents indicate that the US administration has run out of ideas to find an honourable exit from Afghanistan. The US is getting impatient because talks that the US initiated between the Taliban and Afghan government are at a standstill.  One of the key elements of the agreement between the Taliban and the US government was that the Taliban will eschew violence [4]. That clearly hasn’t happened. In fact, a number of judges, journalists and civil society members, many of whom are women, have been killed in targeted attacks in the last couple of months [5].

Both the Afghan government and the Taliban have been direct in condemning the documents. This indicates that very little ground work was done by the Biden administration in preparing these proposals. Amrulah Saleh, vice president of Afghanistan, has been quoted by the BBC saying Afghanistan would “never accept a bossy and imposed peace. They can make decisions on their troops, not the people of Afghanistan”. In an interview to the AFP, the Afghanistan’s Interior Minister Masoud Andarabi also warned against the US troop withdrawal [6]. He claimed that Taliban’s ties to al-Qaeda remain intact and any pullout would worsen global counterterrorism efforts.

On their part the Taliban have not made any formal comment on the proposal but have clearly indicated that they expect the US to stick to its commitment of leaving Afghanistan on 1 May. The same BBC news quotes a Taliban spokesperson, Zabiullah Mujahid, saying they are `still studying’ the draft agreement. Another Taliban representative, Mohammad Naeem, who is in Doha, Qatar, for peace talks, was quoted in The Washington Post. “Pressure from the United States never works,” said Naeem. He added, “there will be problems, and they will be responsible for that’’, clearly indicating if the US walks away from 2020 peace deal the ensuing chaos will be of their making. Once again, this indicates that the Taliban expects the US to withdraw its troops by 1 May [7].

Given these strong reactions, it is unlikely that the peace proposal will be accepted by the two sides. In fact, let alone the chance of acceptance, the ‘leak’ itself has ignited deeply ideological fault lines lying dormant since the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001.

These rifts are a mix of ethnicity, tribal loyalties and rivalries, religion and sub-nationalism, the cold war and regional military and strategic manipulations. These fissures get even murkier because they are, more often than not, dictated by narrow interests and the nexus between criminals and members of the political and security establishment. Warlords, drug trafficking, the truck mafia and extortion of different types are deeply entrenched in the everyday social and political architecture of Afghanistan.

It is in this background that the key elements of the proposal need to be analysed and dissected. These will have a long lasting impact on the future of not just Afghanistan but South Asia as a whole.

First, the central premise of the proposal is that an interim government will be formed on the principle of power sharing between different groups. The interim government will make the present Afghan constitution, adopted in 2004, the basis for drafting a new constitution. In other words, it means that the government will comprise of both the Taliban and representatives of the present Afghan regime. Such an arrangement is bound to include individuals who have indulged in brutal violence and massacres in the past [8] [9]. Both Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek warlord and former Afghan president Gulbuddin Hekmatyar have always staked claim to rule Afghanistan. They will certainly be included in the interim government, to make it look legitimate and representative of Afghanistan’s ethnic and regional diversity.

Such an initiative is destined to be a non-starter. The Taliban have always considered Ashraf Ghani an illegitimate authority and have refused to talk to him. Ghani’s hostility to the Taliban has also been well-known. He has been seen as someone who has obstructed the peace process and talks with the Taliban. His own vice president, Amrullah Saleh, has consistently accused the Taliban of the recent assassinations of judges and journalists. [10]

Ashraf Ghani, on the other hand, will himself lose authority if such an interim government is formed. He, too, has deep challenges from within his own administration. He became president in 2019 after defeating Abdullah Abdullah in an election that many believe was rigged.  Abdullah Abdullah was made the head of the High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR), a body mandated to lead intra-Afghan peace talk with the Taliban. Abdullah Abdullah [11] was a close confidant of Ahamd Shah Massoud, who was assassinated by the Al Qaaeda and Taliban, just days before the bombing of the WTC. These individuals and their pasts represent deep contradictions and thus any attempt to form an interim government with these individuals is destined to fail.

It is proposed that the interim government will prepare the ground for free and fair elections for a democratically elected government. There is no time-line mentioned for such an election. But more importantly, the Taliban have always maintained that democracy is a `western’ concept. They have always maintained that they will only implement Islamic law as enshrined in the Sharia.

Second, any equally contentious proposal is related to Islam, governance and jurisprudence. According to the peace plan, ‘Afghanistan’s official religion will be the holy religion of Islam. A new High Council for Islamic Jurisprudence shall be established to provide Islamic guidance and advice to all national and local government structures’.

In the next paragraph it states that ‘the protection of their civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights – including the rights to free speech and to choose their political leaders – will be respected and enshrined in the future Afghan Constitution’. And it goes on to state that ‘the future Afghan state will respect and uphold the will of the people, Islamic values’.

Afghan’s multi-ethnic tribal society has several sects and beliefs. There are multiple interpretations of Islam. They are not limited to the Shia-Sunni version of Islam, but within these larger religious paradigms, there is great diversity of sub-ethnic, tribal and regional diversities.  There are Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and different sects of Pasthuns. Many of these communities have been in conflict with each other, and their leaders, many of them warlords, have indulged in mass killings of the other communities. These massacres conducted by Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Lion of Panjshir, the late Ahmad Masoud, the Taliban and others are still fresh in the memory of the Afghan people.

The Taliban, born and trained in vast networks of Madarsas in Pakistan during the Soviet occupation, believe in what is called the Deobandi-Wahabi version of Islam and its jurisprudence. They are intolerant and violent to any version that propagates a liberal interpretation of Islam.  Concepts such as civil rights, women’s rights, freedom of expression and other such matters will be alien to the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam. The Taliban, in any form of government, elected or nominated, transitional or permanent, will be hostile to these values.

 The protection of women’s rights has been emphasised in the proposal. In the past few months, as I mentioned earlier, several women public figures, judges, journalists, members of the civil society have been killed in bomb attacks. In most cases, the Taliban have not claimed responsibility for the attacks.  It is, however, widely believed that these attacks were orchestrated by the Taliban, or by other radical groups inspired by a Taliban-like ideology. Whoever is responsible for these attacks, the message is clear. Whether the US withdraws its troops or decides to stay, it will be the Taliban-like worldview that will guide everyday life and governance matters in Afghanistan.

According to the New York Times, which has been closely following the peace talks, `Taliban negotiators have said they support women’s rights within the strictures of Islamic law — the same strictures the militants cited to ban women from schools and workplaces.’

Another somewhat intriguing clause in the proposal states that `The Taliban agrees to remove their military structures and offices from neighbouring countries, and they agree to end military relations with foreign countries. Also, the Taliban commit that they will not expand their force configurations nor recruit new fighters.’  Without taking any names, the reference to the neighbouring country is obviously Pakistan.

It is no secret, and no one knows this better than the US, that Pakistan has provided political, financial and military support to the Taliban since its inception. In fact, the Taliban were created and nurtured by the Pakistani deep-state and its ISI to fight the Soviet occupation.  They were financed by the CIA and Saudis. The Taliban finally took over Kabul and established their brutal role in 1996, until the 9/11 bombings.

The US invaded Afghanistan and Pakistan was forced to withdraw its support to Taliban, when the then US president George W Bush famously said, ‘you are either with us, or with the terrorists’.

After a short period of isolation, Pakistan not only helped Taliban to regroup, but it has also provided sanctuary to the top leadership of Taliban. These leaders, who include Mullah Baradar, a close associate of Taliban founder Mullah Omar, are negotiating the peace deal with the US in Doha.

 The Taliban are seen as a crucial strategic asset in the region by the Pakistani military establishment. The US itself considers Pakistan a crucial ally in establishing peace in Afghanistan. This demand that the Taliban and Pakistan break their long-standing alliance might sound morally correct, but to put it mildly, the advice is untenable and unrealistic.

Finally, the letter has opened a Pandora’s box of regional fault lines among the different neighbours of Afghanistan. It says that ‘we intend to ask the United Nations to convene Foreign Ministers and envoys from Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, United States and India to discuss a unified approach to supporting peace in Afghanistan’. 

It then separately identifies Turkey to host intra-Afghanistan talks between Afghanistan administration, the Taliban and other groups of Afghanistan. Within days of this letter, Russia has started a parallel process of negotiations which it calls ‘Troika’ plus one. That is Russia, China and the US (the Troika) and Pakistan. It will also invite Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Abdullah Abdullah and former Afghan president Hamid Karzai.

India has not been invited to the meeting and the US has not confirmed its participation. According to reports in the press, Iran was also invited but it refused to accept the invitation. [12]

All these neighbours have a stand-alone unresolved conflict on matters of strategic interests. By drawing them in formally in negotiating the peace process, the US is making Afghanistan a battlefield for these countries to settle their dispute.

Pakistan does not want India’s presence in Afghanistan. Pakistan has been propping up the Taliban, while India has had a long history of supporting groups opposed to the Taliban, like the Northern Alliance, once led by Ahmad Shah Masoud, and whose protégé Abdullah Abdullah is now heading HCNR.

Hostility between Iran and Pakistan is well-known. Iran has time and again accused Taliban of atrocities against the Shia’s of Afghanistan. Its population has also been the victims of drug trafficking and its economy has suffered from the smuggling of goods by the Taliban with aid from Pakistan. China and US hostilities are well known and both India and Pakistan are implicated . The Russians want their own control over Afghanistan and through it have access and control over gas in central Asia. They do not trust either the US, Pakistan or India.

 Afghanistan has time and again reinforced the saying, that ‘those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it’. Empires have come and gone trying to control and establish their power in Afghanistan. The Russians and the British fought the Great Game in Afghanistan and both the empires failed. The Russians again invaded in 1979 and had to leave Afghanistan after a decade, deeply humiliated. The US invaded Afghanistan in 2001, bombed it mercilessly to kill the terrorists and Taliban. Now they are negotiating with the same Taliban for a face saving exit.

This is not the place to discuss what lies ahead for Afghanistan. That we will do another time. However, one lesson that the great powers can learn from their meddling in Afghanistan is that democracy, socialism and women and human rights have to be made tangible.

These concepts will only become sustainable and meaningful if the people have a sense of ownership over them. They cannot be imposed by force and intimidation. That is what the Russian tried to do in the 20th century, and the US attempted in the 21st Century. 15000 Russian soldiers died and over 35000 were injured. Nearly 2500 US soldiers have died in Afghanistan since the invasion of 2001.

The Russians left and the American are now leaving Afghanistan, bruised and battered. Clearly more trouble, diplomatic and certainly  military, lies ahead.


[1] The leaked U.S. plan to end the war in Afghanistan – The Washington Post

[2] Biden calls Afghanistan withdrawal deadline of May 1 ‘tough’ (apnews.com)

[3] U.S. Has 1,000 More Troops in Afghanistan Than It Disclosed – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

[4] US and Taliban sign deal to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan | Afghanistan | The Guardian

[5] Two female judges shot dead in Kabul as wave of killings continues | Afghanistan | The Guardian

[6] Afghanistan’s Interior Minister Masoud Andarabi warns U.S. against hasty retreat – The Hindu

[7] United States appears poised to postpone troop withdrawal from Afghanistan – The Washington Post

[8] Abdul Rashid Dostum (globalsecurity.org)

[9] A new warlord in town – The Hindu

[10] Saleh Blames Released Taliban for Violence, No More ‘Blind Trust’ | TOLOnews

[11] Who is Afghanistan’s Abdullah Abdullah? | Abdullah Abdullah News | Al Jazeera

[12] India not part of Russian meet on Afghanistan – The Hindu

My five decades in Jamia

Published in March 2021 Issue of Seminar https://www.india-seminar.com/semframe.html

THIS may sound like a cliché, but one has to revisit the past to make sense of the present. When I try to understand the Jamia of todayandI look back at the last fifty years or so, I am inclined to divide its history into two broad phases. The first begins when I was growing up and ends sometimes in the late 1980s, and the second when I joined Jamia as a student for an MA in 1990 and this continues to the present. This piece is a sketch of growing up in what is typically referred to in Jamia as the Jamia biradari, looselytranslated as theJamia fraternity. Isaylooselybecause this is like an extended community comprising those who have any association with Jamia. They could be members of its faculty, student or staff, or a relative of any of them, or just happen to be living in the region surrounding Jamia.

Jamia is now a hundred years old and I have lived here for more than fifty of those years. My paternal grandfather, Shafiq Ur Rahman Kidwai, was one of the founders of Jamia and my paternal grandmother Siddiqa Kidwai established the Balak Mata (mother-child) centre, an extension of Jamia in the walled city of old Delhi. My grandfather was part of the freedom struggle and was in and out of prison. Thus, to quote my father, Sadiq Ur Rahman Kidwai, his parents ‘deposited’ him in Jamia school hostel when he was in class two. He studied in Jamia School until class ten before moving to Aligarh for further studies. He then went on to teach at Delhi University and J.N.U., but continued to stay in Jamia, where we still live.

It would not be till the mid-1980s that Jamia would be shaken out of a somewhat idyllic existence. Until then Jamia and its biradari lived in a relatively isolated manner, untouched by the larger political and social upheavals happenings in the world outside; content, in fact revelling in what is now nostalgically described as the Idea of India. The biradari was largely Muslim yet it had fairly large number of non-Muslims. The physical and social boundary of the university was fluid; it comfortably and unknowingly intermingled with the rest of the biradari in everyday life. Holy Family hospital, on the western end and thus the main entrance to Jamia, was the most prominent landmark and the nearest chemist was five kilometres away, in Jangpura. When returning to Jamia in a DTC bus, once you crossed Holy Family, it was rare to spot a passenger who was not familiar to the others in the bus.

The infrastructure of the university could be described as what in environment studies is called a commons, a space where resources are shared and which belong to everyone. It was a small cosy biradari, comprising of students and staff and faculty of the university as well as of the small Okhla village. The most visible members of the residents surrounding the university were those who lived in what is still called the Panjabiyon ki Gali, mostly comprising of Hindu refugees who had arrived and settled there after partition. They were grocers, sweetmeat shop owners, and petty traders supplying goods to the larger biradari.

There were also Muslim milkmen, who were called by their sub-caste name, ghosis. The ghosi neighbourhood (opposite the entrance to Batla House, where the alleged encounter took place in 2008) had an akhaada (wrestling pit) that would host regular bouts of wrestling competitions. The spectators largely comprised of Jamia students and kids from the biradari, each of who had their own favourite wrestler. In the summer, every morning and evening was taken over by herds of cattle that the ghosis took to bathe in the Yamuna river.

The Yamuna river and the Agra Canal, built by the British in 1874, were the impromptu picnic and socializing space for the biradari. Hoards of university students and residents would come to swim in the river, to learn diving and to just sit around. My father learnt to swim, like all his other schoolmates, in the Yamuna. There were occasional drowning; the legendary swimmer Mumtaz bhai, who himself was a student, was called upon as a lifesaver. I still bump into him when he is returning home from his early morning walks.

Another attraction for the students at the Yamuna was that it housed the Sailing Club, run by the Indian Navy. Students who wanted a day picnic would walk to the Raite ka Tila (the Sand dune) at the eastern edge of Yamuna. The tila still exists, and the according to local folklore, it is a natural sand dune that existed from time immemorial. The dune supplied sand to large parts of south Delhi. Just next to the dune there was a Khachar basti (mule herder’s colony). The fisher folk from the surrounding areas would come to catch fish in the fresh waters of Yamuna and there were a few stores in the Punjabiyon ki Gali that stocked fishing nets and rods. In the evening they would sell fresh fish near the Okhla bus stand on their bicycles. The Yamuna was almost an extension of the habitats that comprised Jamia.

The only TV that existed in the entire neighbourhood used to be in the residence of the hostel warden. I recall one of the long serving boys hostel wardens was a well known educationist, Prof Salamat Ullah. Those days there was no live telecast of test cricket on TV. Only half hour highlights were shown on the day following the test match. During the test series in which India was playing, Salamat Sahab would lend his TV to the students so that they could watch the matches. The neighbourhood children were always welcome to the party.

As children we had full access to the playground of the university, Bhopal Ground (now known as Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi Stadium), and what was considered to be the hockey field in the teachers training college or as it is still called, the TTI (now part of the Faculty of Education). The children had a sense of entitlement over the playgrounds, we would demand that the keepers and gardeners occasionally repair the cricket pitch, we would organize local cricket tournaments and invite university professors to inaugurate them. We would use the space under the staircase next to the playground in the college building to leave our kits, to be picked up for another day’s game. The TTI also housed the only Boys Hostel of the university. It had a common room with a carom board and table tennis tables. Like the playground, the children of the neighbourhood had full and equal access to the common room.

To the south of the ground in TTI were slush pits and sprawling wetlands. If our cricket ball happened to fall there it would be impossible to retrieve it because our feet would get stuck in the slush. There were horror stories, perhaps apocryphal, of children who, trying to retrieve their cricket balls, died by drowning in the slush. The wetlands have now been reclaimed by the Jamia authorities and sprawling structures, concrete buildings, have come up in their place which house several new faculty and administrative buildings.

In this sense the story of Jamia’s ‘development’ is not different from the rest of Delhi’s. Bhopal Ground has become a modern floodlit cricket stadium, where international cricket tournaments are held. TTI grounds are swanky, manicured lawns and gardens have come up where there used to be fields. But like the rest of Delhi, the Jamia campus, too, has become gated, and ‘outsiders’ are not allowed entry.

A cluster of shops and restaurant opposite the Jamia school was called the Store. That was the hub of political and social activity until it was demolished sometime in 2001. It is believed that the place was called the Store because it was here that the first grocery store on the university campus was established, way back in the 1940s. Subsequently, other shops came into existence.

The hub consisted of several eating joints, many of them named after their owners. There was Mualana’s car workshop, Nagina general store, Mumtaz paan wala, Baban ki dukaan, Shakir’s dhaba, Babu Ram cholewala and others. It also had the post office, Shafiq Club, a club of the non-teaching staff, and the books and stationery shop of the in-house Jamia publication, the Maktaba Jamia. Just down the road was the only bank, the Central Bank that ran the accounts of faculty, staff and students of the university and of the biradari. Habib Tanveer, the famous playwright and actor, held the initial rehearsals and shows of his iconic play ‘Agra Bazar’ in Jamia. Some shopkeepers from the store and faculty members acted in it.

The Store was centre of all the political activity. The student’s union elections were occasions for hectic political gatherings and speeches. Until the 1980s, all the prominent student union leaders belonged to the majority Hindu community, a numerical minority within the university. The old timers of the biradari still fondly remember these student leaders. This nostalgia is so heady because now one cannot imagine a non-Muslim union leader in Jamia. There was Ramesh Chand Tongar, the late Rohtas Bhardwaj, Subhash Sharma and some others. They were all residents of the localities and villages around Jamia. Some of them, because of their flamboyance and popularity, became household names.

As children who were growing up in the biradari, and had no formal association with the Jamia school and had never met these characters, their names were still very familiar to us. So much so that I vividly recall thinking that Subhash Tongar was one individual. I met Rohtas and Tongar briefly three years ago, just before Rohtas died an untimely death. I met them during a mushaira that was part of the annual celebrations. It was a large gathering and no one had noticed them until a few of us joined them. We stood there quietly; one of them said that Jamia had changed so much from their days. The other half-heartedly agreed, and responded that many things were still the same. They both smiled and glanced at the students indulgently.

Maulana’s canteen, next to the Bhopal ground, a few hundred meters west of the Store, was in many ways was an extension of the Store. It was part of the physical structures that were called ‘Dumpo’. They had circular barrel like asbestos roofs and, along with the canteen, they housed several classrooms and administrative offices. Maulana, who died a few years ago, ran the canteen, but it has always remained a mystery to me why he was called Maulana. He was a drunk and freely threw the choicest of curses at the students. His andaaz (mannerisms), diction and the style of delivery of his four-letter curses has remained a part of folklore among the old timers.

Maulana was popular and loved because of his generosity to students. Several students bought snacks and tea from him on credit, but he never noted their dues. When in a rage, however, Maulana would launch into a series of abuses and ask the students to settle their accounts.

An annual, somewhat carnivalesque, ritual in Jamia used to be Maulana’s birthday celebrations. On any given day of the year, the students would decide to celebrate Maulana’s birthday. He was presented with a new set of clothes, garlanded and taken on a procession around the Jamia campus in a vintage car with drums beating and wild dancing. The other Mualana at the car workshop located in the Store arranged the vintage car. The procession would end with Maulana cutting a cake, sometimes accompanied by a drink. A stick doubling up as a mike was arranged, and Maulana was asked to name and ‘shame’ the students who had not settled their accounts. Others would also give speeches in honour of the Maulana.

Continuity and change have a tangible resonance in the daily lives of individual and institutions. In the case of Jamia, there was a sense of calm continuity until the mid-1980s. It was in the 1980s that change started to challenge the comfort and the ostensibly seamless continuity of Jamia’s past. At this point the larger political climate in the rest of the country started to resonate in the everyday life of the university community.

A large number of students in Jamia came or had family connections with the towns and villages of the North Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. There were numerous incidents of communal violence spread across UP and Bihar, the most infamous being Moradabad (1980), Merrut-Malliana (1987) and Bhagalpur (1989). There was also the Nellie massacre in Assam (1983). These shook the conscience of the Jamia biradari. There was the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi; a large number of shops and residences were burnt to ashes in the neighbouring localities of New Friends Colony and Taimur Nagar.

It was also the time when the Ram Janambhoomi movement was gathering momentum and the Mandal Commission recommendations had been accepted. The students of Delhi University were agitating on the streets. Jamia students were, however, indifferent to the Mandal recommendations. It would be much later, in 2011, that the then ruling UPA government at the centre, led by the Congress, granted minority institution status to Jamia. This bought in 50 per cent reservation for Muslims students. Quite correctly, this was seen as a cynical move by the Congress government at the centre to lure the Muslims voters of Uttar Pradesh to vote for it in the state elections of 2012.

The mid 1980s-90s, though, saw a drastic transformation of the demography of Jamia. Delhi was being urbanized rapidly and Jamia too experienced a sudden expansion of populations. New localities like Abu Fazal Enclave, Ghafar Manzil, Zakir Nagar and Shaheen Bagh emerged, inhabited by Muslim migrants. The vast majority of them came from UP and Bihar. Jamia became part of mainstream Delhi, while simultaneously being labelled a Muslim-majority area. The term ghetto was now freely used to characterize Jamia, which further stereotyped the area.

It was in this communally atmosphere of the late eighties, amid a growing sense of insecurity amongst the Muslims of North India, that two events took place one after the other that created turmoil in the secular and inclusive soul of Jamia. First, it was the judgement related to Shah Bano that was overturned by Parliament (1986) under the pressure of a certain section of the Muslim clergy and politicians. That was soon followed by the controversy over the demand to ban Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses (1988). Liberal commentators accused the then Rajiv Gandhi government of bowing down under the pressure of sections of the Muslim clergy to curtail the rights of women and freedom of speech.

Jamia, being a predominantly Muslim institution, felt the reverberations. On the issue of the Shah Bano case the faculty of Jamia was divided down the middle. There were meetings and gatherings within the university by the two opposing groups; students were also not untouched by this. Until this point the left groups who were integral to student’s politics, became vocal in their opposition to the scrapping of the Shah Bano judgement. Not surprisingly, a right wing group, the Students Islamic Movement (SIM), which suddenly gained traction among a large section of the students, challenged them. There was no violence but the tension was apparent in the air. The cosy and friendly nature of student politics suddenly seemed a thing of the distant past. The Store and other places didn’t remain untouched by this tension. Now groups would gather there and talk in hushed tones, which was absolutely alien to the culture of the Store.

Soon after the Shah Bano episode, the well known historian, the late Mushirul Hasan, Jamia’s pro-vice chancellor in 1998, gave a statement condemning the ban on Satanic Verses. He argued that the ban went against the spirit of freedom of speech. A very vocal sections of students and faculty condemned Hasan for making this statement, arguing that what he said was anti-Islamic. They demanded his immediate resignation from the post of pro-vice chancellor and was assaulted when he arrived at the campus. He never resigned but did not enter the campus for the next four years.

In many ways, the controversy that erupted after Hasan statement was a watershed moment in Jamia’s history. The Store was converted into a site of protest. For the first time there was an atmosphere of anger and hostility amongst the students. They adopted different modes of protest to demand Hasan’s resignation. The student union president and other office bearers led the movement, a tent was pitched at the Store and there were rallies, speeches, hunger strikes and gheraos.

I was a student of Jamia at that time. Like me, those who disagreed with the protestors were isolated. Arguments with fellow-students, even friends and comrades, became bitter. Some of us were threatened with violence. Three of my friends, who were vocal in their opposition to the movement, were chased and beaten up by ‘unknown’ students. When they decided to file a complaint with the authorities, they were advised to ‘forget and forgive’. This was by their ‘well-wishers’ in the university administration. The police upped the ante when they entered the campus, beat up and arrested student leaders. The situation limped back to normal but it had become, in today’s parlance, the new normal. Mushirul Hasan returned to the campus four years later – on 3 December 1992. As he entered his office a flower pot was thrown at him; luckily he escaped unhurt. Three days later a Hindutva mob demolished the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, UP.

Hasan would go on to become one of the most popular vice-chancellor’s of Jamia (2004-2009). Besides aiding the academic and intellectual climate in the university, he also stood by those students who were vilified as terrorists after the infamous Batla House encounter (2008). Many saw this anti-Mushir movement as that moment in Jamia’s history when the dominant discourse of secular and inclusion was challenged by that of identity and exclusion.

Both the Shah Bano judgement and the controversy around the Satanic Verses were, in a way, a challenge to the Constitution through the prism of Muslim identity. There may be an element of truth in this argument, but as mentioned earlier, we must not forget that this rage and fury among Jamia students had surfaced at moment when North India was beginning to be increasingly polarized. As in the case of the Meerut-Maliana violence, the police was accused of playing a partisan role, and communal violence had become a regular feature of life in North India. The much touted phrase, the Idea of India, of which secularism and religious tolerance are the cornerstones, was itself being challenged in the larger polity.

Speaking of watershed moments in Jamia’s history, the non-violent nature of the anti-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) protests, and the coming together of Jamia and Shaheen Bagh protestors, albeit in different locations, created a biradari like atmosphere. What stood out was the participation of women, many wearing their hijab with pride and confidence. Protest art, music and poetry added spice, making the agitation joyous and diverse. The protesters reassertion of faith in the Constitution of India and in a nationalism that is inclusive and tolerant rekindled memories of Jamia’s role in India’s struggle for independence. The subsequent brutal police crackdown on the student agitators, the erasure of paintings and murals, the creative symbols of the protest, and the subsequent arrests of students for their alleged involvement in the communal violence in North East Delhi is still horrifyingly fresh in our memories.

However, I am reminded of the late Prof Mohammad Mujeeb, who was one of the founders and the longest serving vice chancellor of Jamia. He also wrote that path-breaking book, The Indian Muslims, published in 1967. While he was the VC, a Jan Sangh member stating that undue preference was being given to Muslim students in the admission process raised a question in Parliament. Mujeeb was asked to respond to this allegation by the government. He replied by saying that he was not aware of any such discrimination. A query came back asking him to look at the section on religion in the admission forms and send the data about the break up of religious identity of the students. To this Mujeeb replied that he could not send the data because there was no column in the admission form where students were required to declare their religious identity.

Those enquiring, however, were relentless. They asked Prof Mujeeb to guess the religion of the students by looking at their names. Prof Mujeeb sent the forms in cartons to Parliament with a note saying that he didn’t have time for such matters; those who were so keen to discover the religion of the students by reading their names could do it themselves.

Some of these events recounted above have been shaped by political and social forces on which Jamia has had no control, like the communal polarization that began in the 1980s, the recent amendments to the Citizenship Acts, and the insecurities created by so-called love jihad and cow vigilantism. There were times when the wounds were self-inflicted, as in the case of the anti-Mushirul Hasan agitation.

My own education in politics began in Jamia in 1984, when I was still in school. I would accompany Jamia students, teachers and biraadari to volunteer in the relief camps set up for the survivors of the 1984 massacre of Sikhs in Delhi. Then in 1993, soon after the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the Mumbai riots, members of right wing groups decided to invade Jamia and empty it of ‘illegal Bangladeshi immigrants’. There was a massive counter mobilization in Jamia. Students, teachers and large sections of the non-Muslim members of the biraadari formed a human chain near Holy Family Hospital, at the entrance of the university. The mob came, but went back when it saw the determination of the human chain.

1984, 1993 and the more recent anti-CAA protests (2019), are moments in history that define Jamia’s resilience, inclusivity and determination. It makes me proud to be both witness and participant in this journey.


Published in kafila.online 11 Aug 2020 https://kafila.online/2020/08/11/agha-ashraf-ali-the-flamboyant-kashmiri-story-teller-jamal-kidwai/

Agha Sahab ( Agha Ashraf Ali), passed away at the age of 94 on the 7th of  August, 2020.

I was lucky to know Agha Sahab closely because of his intimate connection with Jamia Millia Islamia and our long standing family friendship. He would come down to Delhi in the winter and spend a lot of time at my parents home, drinking tea in the winter sun. But I got to know him as a friend when I started visiting Srinagar from 1999 onwards, for programmes being conducted being by the  NGO I worked with . My trips would remain incomplete if I did not visit him.

When I first went to his Rajbagh home in Srinagar, curfew would  be imposed in Srinagar after 5 pm, and there used to be lot of fear and insecurity in the town. (Things don’t seem to have changed two decades later).

The first time he was surprised to see me and in his typical loud voice, asked me what the hell I was doing in Srinagar.  I told him I had come to explore some ‘development’ work for an NGO. He laughed cynically, and retorted ‘tum hindustaani Kashmir ka peecha nahi chhodo ge’ (you Indians will never leave Kashmir to Kashmiris). But soon he insisted, Maghrib ki azaan ho jaye phir drink peete hain. Mein tumhe pandito waala khana khilaunga, in kambakht Muslamaano ko khaana banana ka salika nahi hai (let the muzzien finish giving his call for prayers, we will have a drink and I will treat you to Kashmiri pandit cuisine, these Muslims do not know how to cook). Then he looked at my late colleague Sajad Hussain, who was accompanying me.  He asked him “Are you a Shia?”. Sajjad was a bit taken aback but said yes. Agha Sahab said replied, “Your greetings are typically Shia. I wish I could get rid of them myself, but we can’t. Like you, we Shia’s are very stubborn”. They both  laughed boisterously at this.

My only brief encounter with the ‘professional’/educationist side of Agha Sahab happened when he came to address members of a committee of which I was a member, in Srinagar, sometime in 2013, on the status of education in Kashmir. At that time he was already in his late 80s but he enthralled all of us with his speech. I remember the word had spread that he had agreed to address the team, and in a very short time there were requests from many academics and activists seeking permission to attend his talk.

In his signature style, Agha Sahab gave a free-flowing talk, and did not mince his words when he spoke on politics. He was fearless when he condemned Indian government and army, but at the same time he accused separatist groups of factionalism and narrow-minded identity politics, as well as castigating mainstream parties for being sold out to Delhi, and so on.

At the end of the lecture he was mobbed. And in hushed tones people said ‘It’s only Agha Sahab who can speak his mind freely in Kashmir. He is the only man left in Kashmir who is respected by all’.

Agha Sahab would often recall the October 2, 1941, when he was in his late teens, and sitting in the audience when Zakir Hussain, who later went on to become the President of India, addressed a gathering of All Jammu and Kashmir Students Conference. He would fondly remember that speech, verbatim, and in his loud dramatic manner declare that it was at that moment he found the purpose of his life. Young Agha Sahab decided to follow Zakir Hussain to Delhi, where he and his other comrades were involved in setting up a nationalist, progressive university for Indian Muslims, the Jamia Millia Islamia. When he arrived in Jamia, he met the other founders and activists, which included , among others,  Abid Hussain, Shafiq ur Rahman Kidwai and Mohd Mujeeb. He was a student of history and was particularly influenced by Mohd Mujeeb. He wanted to contribute and wanted to be part of the movement. So he was given the responsibility of teaching students of the primary school. Like Mohd Mujeeb, Zakir Hussain and others, he became a volunteer-teacher.  Agha Sahab would often say those were his best days and it was people like Zakir Hussain and Mohd Mujeeb who shaped his intellect and personality.

He was clearly endowed with wit and style from the beginning. While young Agha Sahab was in Jamia, he heard that Gandhiji was coming to Okhla Mod, some 2 kms west of Jamia, to address a gathering. Agha Sahab went to attend the event. He immediately got Gandhi ji’s attention and invited him to Jamia. It was in the middle of the night that Gandhi ji and Agha Sahab walked to Jamia. They sat in the lawns that are next to what is now the school building.

Soon he was surrounded by a large number of students and residents. Those were the days just preceding the partition and communal violence had flared up all around. A largely Muslim gathering asked Gandhi ji why Muslims were being killed and what could be done to protect them. Gandhi ji replied, I just met some Hindu refugees who have arrived in Karol Bagh from Pakistan, and they told me horrible tales of atrocities committed by Muslims.  My only advice to them was to not take revenge and do what was done to them. I give you the same advice.

He also met his to be wife, Sufia, in Jamia. She was from Ruduali, a small kasba near Lucknow in Awadh.

Agha Sahab went back to Kashmir and in 1951, at the young age of 28, he was appointed  inspector of schools by Shiekh Abdullah. Abdullah gave him a free hand to reform school education in Kashmir. But Abdullah was soon after arrested, in 1953, and before the new administration could sack Agha Sahab, he resigned himself. He was later appointed as Principal, teachers training college, from 1955-60.

Agha Sahab  encouraged  Kashmiri Muslim girls to study and take up the profession of teaching. He would boast that when he became principal, there were just four Muslim girls training to become teachers, but by 1960, there were countless girls in the college. He sent a group of teachers belonging   to the Pandit community to the United Kingdom for training and he set up the first school for girls in Leh.  These are just some of his many contributions in the field of education in Kashmir.

In 1960 he received a  Fulbright scholarship and went to America to do his Phd. On his return from America, he was appointed Professor at the Department of Education in Kashmir University. He also became the chairman of the Board of School Education. He introduced the subjects of mathematics and science in the girl’s school, who until then only had an option to study home sciences. He also helped students to get scholarships in western and American universities, so that they could come back better equipped and improve the standard of education in Kashmir. One of his contributions is building libraries in Kashmir. He would proudly say that I would always spend ten times the funds that were originally allocated for buying books. But I always managed to convince the authorities.

Amongst his many other traits, his memory is part of folklore. He was an encyclopaedia of literature and poetry. He could recite long passages from books of literature ranging from English to Russian translations.  Let alone couplets, he could recite the entire dewan of his favourite poet Allama Iqbal. He was a great host.  Several leading political figures would stay at his home including Mohd Mujeeb, Zakir Hussain and other. He had a diary in which he made them write one page about themselves. I hope that precious document is preserved.

He was proud of his celebrated poet-son Agha Shahid Ali, who passed away early, of cancer. He got his poems translated into Kashmiri and invited my father, Sadiq Kidwai, to release the book at a function in Srinagar. It was a large gathering, attended by people belonging to mainstream political parties, academics, journalists and activists sympathetic to separatist cause and many others.  At the end of the function he greeted me warmly in presence of the gathering. That provided me legitimacy and social capital amongst many who otherwise always saw me as an outsider in Kashmir.

I last met him some two-three years ago. He saw me and in his usual flamboyant style greeted me by the name of my younger brother Saif. I told him you have forgotten my name. He smiled sheepishly and looked a bit awkward. As always he was looking dapper and soon took on being the boisterous dastango, raconteur, and began showering me and my colleagues with all his charm and affection. But for the first time I was reminded of his age and I became aware that he was having trouble with his legendary memory.  He promised had said that he would treat me to the Kashmiri dish Harissa  the next time I visited him.

He died exactly one year and two days after the abrogation of article 370. I wish I had met him once since then. As they say, choti-muh, badi-baat (How can I even attempt to pay tribute to him) but I am sure I speak on behalf of many.

Without Agha Sahab Srinagar will never be the same again.

What’s the Way Forward for Priyanka Gandhi and Congress in UP?

Published in thewire, 4 July, 2020 https://thewire.in/politics/whats-the-way-forward-for-priyanka-gandhi-and-congress-in-up

ith the UP Assembly elections less than two years away, the Congress, led by Priyanka Gandhi, is for the first time in many decades beginning to show a sense of political purpose and urgency.

After the Centre asked the UP Congress in charge to vacate her bungalow in Lutyens’ Delhi, news reports suggest she has decided to shift to Lucknow, perhaps to be in the thick of things. Even before this incident, Priyanka Gandhi has been a ‘trending’ topic for months in the state.

She has had a spat with Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) supremo Mayawati on social media. In the context of the migrant crisis, Mayawati accused the Congress of doing little for the development of the weaker sections. In an obvious reference to Mayawati, Priyanka Gandhi hit back by saying ‘some opposition leaders’ in UP are acting like spokespersons of the BJP.

Mass politics

Most importantly, what currently separates the Congress from other opposition parties is that the activists of the former have taken to the streets several times to agitate and confront the UP police.

Several of the Congress’s local level activists, led by its state president Ajay Kumar Lallu, have been arrested. Lallu was arrested earlier when he was protesting against the UP police’s decision to deny entry to buses provided by Priyanka Gandhi for migrant workers who were walking home. Earlier this week, he was arrested while protesting the arrest of Shanawaz Alam, head of the minority cell of the UP Congress.

All this is happening at a time when the lockdown is yet to be fully lifted and mandatory social distancing norms are still in place.Can, therefore, the Congress revive its political fortunes in UP during the 2022 assembly elections? And what should be its strategy if it has to emerge as a serious electoral force in the state?

Congress in UP: past and present

Before going further, it will be useful to briefly map the recent political trajectory of the Congress in UP and locate it in relation to other parties it will be up against.

The Congress was decimated after the Mandal and kamandal agitations in the late 1980s. Since then, the engine of UP politics has been driven by the identity politics of caste (OBCs-Dalits) and community (Hindu-Muslim). Until the 1980s, the Congress’s electoral base comprised of a social coalition of Dalits-Muslims-Brahmins. This vote base shifted to the BSP and Samajwadi Party (SP), and since then the Congress has never been able to regain its political foothold in UP.

The BJP, riding on Narendra Modi’s popularity, Hindu-Muslim polarisation and aggressive nationalism, emerged as the top player post the 2014 Lok Sabha elections when it won 71 Lok Sabha seats. Three years later, in 2017 it won a landslide victory in the UP assembly elections. And it scored a knock-out victory in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Since then, CM Yogi Adityanath has run the state administration in a highly personalised manner, much like the government at the Centre.

The lockdown has created immense distress. Many have lost their jobs and also face mental and physical trauma. The poor, who are mostly Dalits, OBCs and Muslims, are hardest hit. Lakhs have left cities and have returned to their villages across the state.

In UP, the Congress is the only party that has been highlighting the misery of the migrants. Can it carry this momentum all the way to the 2022 assembly elections? The Congress’s leadership must acknowledge that it is handicapped on two fronts that are essential for electoral success in India. One, it lacks a social coalition of caste and communities that translate into votes and two, its party organisation is broken and non-existent in most districts of UP.

The way forward 

Thus the Congress needs to make moves that will help it overcome the fundamental organisational and social coalition challenges that it faces.

First, Priyanka Gandhi must lead from the front and the Congress should declare her as the chief ministerial candidate sooner rather than later. In the last few months, the manner in which Yogi Adityanath has focussed his attack on Priyanka Gandhi, a perception has been created that the Congress is the main opposition party in the state.

If Priyanka Gandhi does relocate to Lucknow, it will create further unease for the BJP. Besides, such a move will send a message to the electorate at large and also instil much-required energy and confidence in the moribund Congress cadre.

Second, the Congress must inspire its cadre to take to the streets, mobilise and campaign to the masses. It needs to expose the Yogi Adityanath’s crumbling administration and his mishandling of the law and order and governance. It cannot simply depend on large sections of compliant vernacular media, social media and occasional press conferences. The Congress will never be able to match the resources of the BJP and its influence in the media. It must raise the pitch of agitational politics, initiated by local leaders like Lallu. But it will have to be Priyanka Gandhi who leads from the front.

Third, assembly polls are two years away. That is still a lot of time to identify and build local level party organisation of cadres and leaders who come from Dalit, backward and minority communities. Lakhs of labourers who have returned to the villages of UP come from this social background. Their distress is only going to get exaggerated in the coming months and years. They will get more restless and angry. Many of these people formed the political base of Akhilesh and Mayawati, the former is in a stupor and the later is clearly trying to patch up with the BJP. That has created a political vacuum, ideal for the Congress to capitalise upon.

Fourth, the Congress’s strategy for the 2022 assembly polls should be realistic and it must work with a modest plan. It got just about 6.3% of the votes in the 2019 Lok Sabha and 2017 assembly elections. As the old cliché goes, politics in India is full of surprises, but as things stand today, the Congress should not have ambitions of forming a government in the state on its own. It should try and set itself achievable targets of increasing its vote share to 20% and target a high two-digit tally of seats. That will allow it to regain its foothold in UP politics and also create much-needed momentum to have a decisive impact in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

Finally, the BJP’s most potent political asset is polarisation and nationalism. The BJP would like the Congress to bat on a pitch that suits the googlies of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), Ayodhya, Kashmir and Pakistan. The Congress must prepare its own track where it can challenge the BJP with bouncers of a crumbling economy, unemployment, lawlessness and the collapse of public infrastructure in UP. That is an uphill task, but entirely possible.


Published in Kafilaonline, 15 June 2020 https://kafila.online/2020/06/15/remembering-ibn-e-insha-poet-and-satirist-jamal-kidwai/

Ibn-e-Insha (15 June 1927 – 11 January 1978) would have turned 93 today. We celebrate his birthday by curating some of his best poetry, sung by leading vocalists from India and Pakistan.

Born in Jalandhar, Punjab, on 15 June 1927, he was named Sher Mohammad Khan by his parents. Ibn-e-Insha was his pen- name; loosely translated it means Ibn, son of Insha, referring to a famous 18th century classical poet, Inshallah Khan Insha.

Insha also means, simply, writing, or expression.

He did his schooling in Punjab and then migrated to Pakistan. He got his MA degree from Karachi University in 1953. He held several positions in different institutions of the Pakistan government like Radio Pakistan and the National Book Trust of Pakistan, and then went on to serve in the UN. That gave him an opportunity to visit several countries.

But Insha is best known for his poetry, razor sharp satire, prose and travelogues. Consider this provocative verse:

haq achha par us ke liye koi aur mare toh aur achha,

tum bhi koi Mansur ho jo sooli pe chadho, khamosh raho

(It’s great that we fight for our rights,

but it’s better if someone else dies fighting on our behalf,

You don’t have the guts to go to the gallows like Mansur did, so better keep quiet)

Mansur refers to a rebel who challenged the orthodoxy and declaimed Anal Haq (I am the truth). This was considered blasphemy and he was hanged. Anal Haq is now celebrated as a slogan after it finds mention in Faiz’s iconic nazm “Hum dekhenge…” first sung by Iqbal Bano.

Insha was a contemporary of some of the most celebrated Urdu poets of the sub-continent like Faiz, Sardar Jafri, Habib Jalib and others. I am told that at some point Faiz and Insha were colleagues in a newspaper, perhaps Dawn.

Here is a lovely tongue-and-cheek tribute that Insha wrote for Faiz, recited by well-known theatre personality Zia Muhiuddin, in a delightful Panjabi diction, imitating Faiz.

Insha stood out and made a mark for himself because his poetry had the earthiness of everyday conversation, an organic blend of Hindi-Urdu, which was very accessible, yet thought provoking. As many writers have pointed out, the diction and friskiness of Insha’s poetry reminds us of the 13th century poet Amir Khusro.

Like this verse, from his widely sung and immortal ghazal “Kal chaudhavi ki raat thi…”

We post a playful rendition of it below, sung by Jagjit Singh.

Kuche ko tere chodh kar jogi hi ban jaaen magar

Jangal tere parbat tere basti teri sahra tera

(I want to leave your doorstep and become a hermit,

But where do I go, you (your thoughts) are present everywhere,

forests, mountains, settlements, desert – all are yours)

Another example of his signature style is this teasingly romantic couplet:

Farz karo tumhein khush karney kay dhoonday humne bahanay ho,

Insha was part of the Progressive Writes Association, a collective of left-wing writers, poets and artists, and knew Sahir Ludhianavi well. Like many of them, he too invoked the interplay of the personal and the political, as well as using the beloved as a metaphor of romance and revolution. However, as Raza Naeem quotes him:

But I have chosen to fight separately on the fronts of love and non-love. With me there is neither the mixture of ‘come my love the revolution’ nor do I like the gesture of turning the veil into a banner.

His poems have been published in collections titled Chand NagarDil-e-Vehshi, Is Basti ke Ik Kooche Men.

One of his most celebrated poems is Insha ji Utho aur Kuch Karo which is sung by well-known Patiala Gharana vocalist Amanat Ali Khan.

Insha wrote extensive bodies of prose and satire. Of all his prose, Urdu Ki Akhari Kitab is considered to be a masterpiece of literature, political commentary and satire. It is prose, but it reminds you of the famous Urdu poet Akbar Allahabaadi. Well known daastango and dramatist Danish Hussain has adapted the book into a play. Here Danish tells you what inspired him to do the adaptation.

Insha, like some of his contemporaries Majaz and Manto died at a very young age, merely 50. He left us wondering, as we do about them, about the directions their work would have taken over the decades, had they lived.

You can read the entire collection of Ibn-e-Inshah’s poetry and prose on Rekhta.

Farz karo yeh nain tumhare sach much kay maykhaane ho

(Imagine how irresistible are my ways to lure you

Imagine if I tell you your eyes are the taverns of my world)

This nazm has been evocatively sung by Chhaya Ganguli

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