Sahir Ludhianvi – Communist and a Poet

By Saswat Pattanayak

It was more than a coincidence that Sahir Ludhianvi was born on an International Women’s Day. His concern and respect for women was as much personal as it was political. For him, no one – and nothing – was more important than his mother Sardar Begum. Resenting her husband’s feudal properties, his mother had left that household and raised Sahir on her own. And Sahir grew up as an organic revolutionary against landlords and burgeoning capitalism of that era. And more importantly, as a progressive poet deeply aware of the capitalistic exploitations of women and the working class.

An avid reader of Marx, Sahir early on was influenced by Faiz and Josh – prominent communist poets of that era. His early compositions included “Jahaan Mazdoor Rehte Hai” [Where Workers Reside]. In 1937, Sahir joined All India Students Federation (AISF), affiliated to the Communist Party of India (CPI) – committed to anti-imperialist and anti-colonial struggles. He was expelled from both the colleges (in Ludhiana and Lahore) that he attended, due to his political activisms. Sajjad Zaheer’s Progressive Writers’ Movement (PWM) would subsequently provide Sahir his cultural platform, to express himself as a socialist poet rejecting ‘art for the sake of art’.

As a revolutionary poet, Sahir wrote “Kuchh Baatein” [Some Issues]:
“Des ke adbaar ki baatein karey
Ajnabi sarkar ki baatein karey
Agli duniya ke fasaaney chhoddkar
Is jahannumzaar ki baatein karey”

[Let us talk of the nation’s tribulations
Talk of the colonial power impositions
Why bother with heaven’s splendors
Let us talk of the hell we possess]

As a communist poet, Sahir wrote the poignant verses “Aurat ne janam diya mardoen ko, mardone ne use bazaar diya” [Women gave birth to men; men made them commodities]. His analysis of feudalism/capitalism manifested itself in the splendid tribute to Taj Mahal, full of scorn borne out of a materialistic outlook that defined his work.

He wrote,
“Anginat logoen ne duniya mein mohabbat ki hai
Kaun kehta hai ke saadiq na tha un ke jazbe
Lekin un ke liye tasahir ka samaan nahin
Kyon ki woh log bhi apni hi tarah muflis the”

[Countless peoples in our world have showered love in abundance
Who can claim their heartfelt love ever lacked sincere affections
But they lacked the means of advertisement, of crude exhibitions
After all, they were like you and I: submitted by birth to cruel situations]

Sahir’s secular credentials were unmatched. An avowed atheist, he rejected the organized religions as impediments on the path to attaining a sense of humanity. Addressing an abandoned child without a social identity, Sahir wrote:

“Accha hai abhi tak tera kuchh naam nahni hai
Tujh ko kisi mazhab se koi kaam nahni hai
Jis ilm ne insaan ko taqseem kiya hai
Is ilm ka tujh par koi ilzam nahni hai”

[A bundle of joy you are, sans a given name
Disconnected from religions, that’s your gain
Religious texts have only divided humanity
My child! So far they couldn’t attack your sanity]

As a communist poet, he was not just dedicated to women’s empowerment and secular values, he also was a peacenik who refused to believe in sanctities of geographical borders that justify militarism. He wrote –

“Khoon apna ho ya paraaya ho
Nasl-e-adam ka khoon hai aakhir
Jung mashriq mein ho ki magrib mein
Amn-e-alam ka khoon hai aakhir
Bomb gharoen par giren ya sarhad par
Rooh-e-ta’amir jakhm khaati hai
Khet apne jalein ki auroen ke
Jis’t faakoen se tilmilaati hai”

[Shed our blood, or theirs
Lives lost are of human race
War on the East or against the West
Casualty is troubled peace
Bomb our land, or across the borders
Afflicted are souls under construction
Homeless our people, or theirs
Suppressed is oppressed expression]

It was his internationalism that was recognized in the Soviet Union and his commitment to humanist values remain unchanged till the end of his life. In 1961, when Patrice Lumumba was assassinated by CIA, Sahir would protest and leave behind a haunting masterpiece, like none other –

“Zulm ki baat hi kya, zulm ki aukaat hi kya
Zulm bas zulm hai aagaz se anjaam talak
Khoon phir khoon hai, sau shakl badal sakta hai
Aisi shakley ki mitao toh mitaaye na baney
Aise sholey, ki bujhao toh bujhaaye na baney
Aisey naarey ki dabaao toh dabaaye na baney”

[Injustice can only do so much
Capable of nothing much
But the blood can take many shape
Shapes that are permanent
Inextinguishable Embers
And indomitable slogans]

Sahir’s dream coincided with that of a revolutionary who is capable of imagining not just a world without borders, but also a world without prison cells – a song that is so relevant today in light of sedition charges routinely applied to silence independent thinkers of the society Sahir once had sought to liberate.

He wrote –
“Jis subah ke khaatir jug jug se hum sab mar mar kar jeete hai
Jis subah ke amrut ki dhuun mein hum zahar ke pyaale peete hai
In bhookhi pyaasi ruhoen par ek din to karam pharmayegi
woh subah kabhi toh aayegi…

Manhoos samaaji dhaancho mein jab julm na paale jaayenge
Jab haath na kaate jaayenge jab sar na uchhale jaayenge
Jailoen ke bina jab duniya ki sarkaar chalaayi jaayegi
Woh subah hum hi se aayegi”

[For the dawn, that for ages, we nurtured with sacrifices
For that morning of nectars, have we not consumed poisons
These impoverished souls will finally be rewarded
And such a dawn, shall one day be ushered in…

As crimes cease to be structural givens of societies
Justice no longer served with torture, death penalties
A new world needs no oppressive prison
We shall usher in such a new dawn!]
——

As a communist poet, like Neruda, Sahir was close to the women of his life. Since none of his relationship could be formalized, and he died shortly after his mother’s demise whom he loved endlessly, he remained much misunderstood in his personal life. Many criticized him as an egotist megalomaniac seeking attention. But Sahir remained indifferent to both adulation and brickbats.

In 1971, when he was awarded with the prestigious Padma Shri, he told his close friend and fellow progressive poet Jan Nisar Akhtar, “Yaar Jan Nisar, ab sarkar ko tumhe bhi Padma Shri se nawaazna chahiye” [Jan Nisar, the government should now honor you with a Padma Shri as well].
Jan Nisar, amused, asked Sahir, why [“Bhala aisa kyoun”]?
Sahir wryly replied, “Ab yeh zillat mujh akele se bardaasht nahni hoti.” [I cannot bear this embarrassment alone.]

———

[All translations by Saswat Pattanayak]

More translation of Sahir’s poetry –

Fellow Decent Humans

Taj Mahal

Radical Child

Giving Back

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Kanhaiya Kumar and Betrayal of Freedom Struggles

By Saswat Pattanayak

Kanhaiya Kumar’s arrest was unfortunate and so his release on bail is a great relief. But beyond that, to seek revolutionary potential in the hoopla surrounding it, is to miss the point entirely. Competing for authentic nationalism to legitimize an oppressive power structure is not what the Communists do. Quite the opposite.

Sudden excitement and pronouncement of “victory” at the news of a judge granting Kumar’s bail is a betrayal of Kashmiri peoples’ struggles, given the specific contexts of denial of antinationalism on part of these students. It is as if the left-liberals of India were hoping and praying and wishing that the judge found nothing in those tapes that were anti-India. To celebrate Maqbool Bhat and Afzal Guru and then to hope that nothing is spoken against Indian state is a mockery of social justice ethos. Outside of the campus too, no politician in the parliament condemned capital punishment and everyone hailed the court’s verdicts as eternally just. Their voice in unison across party line was “We will not spare whoever raised anti-India slogans, but Kanhaiya Kumar is innocent.” This eagerness to embrace court verdict to be tagged a nationalist should have appeared disappointing to comrade Kumar himself.

But what is disappointing is that the foremost student leader of the most progressive campus in the country, who personally was assaulted within court premises of Delhi by a group lawyers who received bails much before he did, holds a rally where he time and again reposes faith in the judiciary system and in the dominant interpretations of constitutional framework.

Kumar says he does not want Azaadi from India, but within India. Not from India, but from those who are exploiting India. How did he manage to so brilliantly make such distinctions is a puzzle. India as a nationalist construct belongs to the ruling class exploiters – it does not remain in vacuum. One single political party is not responsible for giving shape to India as a monstrously exploitative machinery that continues to “shine” at the expense of the teeming millions who despair. And if that is so, then the party to hoodwink people into believing in a public relations campaign for India is not the BJP, considering how comparatively new entrant it is into this oppressive domain. Comrade Kumar failed to note how this India came into being – on the murders and suicides of countless people who continue to remain in a state of destitute thanks to the capacity of Indian state to overlook their existence, not due to a few right-wing politicians alone. Instead he continued to shower praises and salutes on men in uniform at the borders while classifying them as working class. Of course they are the working class, but the ideology they safeguard is surely within the purview of a communist as well to critique – an option, that was left deliberately unexplored inside JNU that night, because of Kumar’s refusal to speak of Kashmiri crisis, independent of India’s crises.

If JNU protest is not about Indian state, then what was precisely the reason for organizing student assemblies on the day to commemorate Afzal Guru? Is the AISF (and CPI by extension) not aware of the collective aspirations of Kashmiri peoples? Aspirations of North-East that remain subjugated militarily? At what point the “within India” and “from India” became distinctly different notions in a freedom struggle?

Comrade Kumar knows quite well that condemning India or any other country is not about wishing ill for people who live in those territories. It is about demanding the gigantic state machinery to stop oppressions, executions, and political prosecutions of people who reside within the geographic territories that are politically demarcated to be India’s. Kanhaiya Kumar’s arrest and release are within the ambit of India’s judiciary, but what about the dissenting voices from Kashmir and Nagaland and Manipur that demand fellow Indians to reject their country’s colonial overtures precisely because the same judiciary fails them?

Kanhaiya Kumar sees Modi as his rival, and not enemy – and that is totally fine. That is about political aspirations of student leaders. Let us not mistake that for some communistic engagement with issues of colonialism and imperialism. The struggle for Kashmiri people is not a struggle to be recognized as “nationalists within India”. Indeed, their struggle is defined “without”. And that is the fundamental difference which the mainstream left parties in India have failed to grasp to this day. Sadly, JNU leads this delusion from the front.

Quite evidently, the left parties do not understand or even bother to understand the slogans associated with Kashmiri liberation movement. The official communist parties that claim to represent the oppressed working class and the marginalized, unfortunately take the same imperialist high ground of ultra nationalism when it comes to Kashmir. When it is Palestine, the leftists in India are all about anti-Israel propaganda, but when it comes to Kashmir, they hide under the umbrage of constitutional frameworks and pronounce great faith in their state judiciary, and in case of Kanhaiya Kumar, they take pretense of a student mobilization against forces that want to disintegrate India. No disintegration of India – is this the new communist mantra?

But of course, the Indian leftists also have faith in the judiciary that allows Modi to remain PM while his henchmen Kodnani and Bajrangi get bails. What about the police officer who wins gallantry medals from the Constitutional Head of the country after he tortures Soni Sori with stones? There are thousands more reasons for Indians not to get all worked up about becoming nationalists. And therefore, for progressive folks, it is clearly not sufficient to just cite injustices and sing “humein chahiye azaadi” slogans from this and from that, in order to prove political correctness, if at the same time, we refuse to wear the badge of being antinationals with utmost honor.

First of all the judicial pronouncements on JNU are not worthy of celebrations. They are ultranationalist verdicts in themselves in so many ways. Secondly, so what if Arnab Goswami was telling the truth that indeed there were tapes with anti-India slogans? So fuckin what? A country works either for the people or it works against the people. And the Indian reality is that a significant population remains under the burden of Indian militarist state and to say “Down Down India” is to say “Down with Indian colonialism”, and that condemnation of Indian state is only a right thing that decent people should do anyway. If not, then why shy away from “Bharat Maata Ki Jai” slogans? Why fight with ABVP at all, if we feel ashamed to be “antinationals”? Or is it that we just want to compete with the Savarkarites in the guise of being Marxists?

Are we to simply forget AFSPA, if sedition charges are somehow dropped against all JNU students? Is this what it is all about? People have compared Kanhaiya Kumar’s speech with Nehru’s midnight hour speech, as indicative of a second freedom struggle in India. If it is indeed a freedom struggle, then it is a freedom struggle from what, exactly? Nowhere from Comrade Kumar’s speech did it appear that the freedom struggle was from the Indian state ably represented by its ruling class. Appropriating Rohith Vemula who is no more is gross and sick. Did Rohith die because he could not fight Modi? Or because he could not fight the Indian state? Do we not know the difference? And if freedom struggle should be from Indian state, then who are we to determine the fate of Kashmir vis-a-vis indestructibility of the great Indian republic? Then why all the pretense about freedom struggle? Freedom from rising costs of petrol, maybe, but making slogans about freedom from capitalism, imperialism also entail the need to be inclusive of the most marginalized. And the most marginalized population in India do not dwell inside JNU campus, and the most marginalized residents do not see in Narendra Modi or Rahul Gandhi their rivals, but in them they see their class enemies. Comrade Kumar surely knew this.

Being a student leader of AISF, if Comrade Kumar rivals PM Modi while looking straight at the cameras, it is his privilege if not arrogance that reveals itself. There is something macho about it too which I find uncomfortable. Sure Burkha Dutt of Kargil fame is all impressed, since Comrade Kumar’s speech sounded oh so nationalist. But misappropriating the “Azaadi” slogans from Kashmiri freedom fighters, using images of their martyrs on special occasions and then when time comes to articulate a political position, bestowing all glory upon the motherland’s judges, police dudes and parliamentary party politics and sending all sympathy waves to D Raja, Sitaram Yechury, Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal? This is parliamentary politics at best. Not revolutionary student politics which recognize no boundaries and nationalist flags when it comes to fighting for justice.

Sure, ABVP got a beating which it deserved. But that could have been done without unnecessary glorification of JNU campus while using as ideological pawns, some of the most marginalized people militarily subjugated “within” the Indian territory crying freedom “from” Indian state excesses, who do not have any access to top constitutional lawyers to repose their faith in state judiciary and holy parliamentary books.

Azaadi from colonialism, Azaadi from militarism, Azaadi from nationalism, Azaadi from draconic laws, Azaadi from Indian annexations – that is what this freedom struggle is supposed to be about. Condemning anti-people laws passed in the parliament and in the courts of India which have nurtured the Indian state itself. Azaadi from India indeed, because for revolutionaries, it is always people above the nations.