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Urdu and patriotism

The language that gave the country the most popular slogan of the independence movement and produced unmatched patriotic verses during the freedom struggle suffered the most from Partition. Wrongly associated exclusively with Muslims and appropriated by Pakistan as its official language, Urduhas languished in India since Independence.

“Inquilabzindabad” or “long live the revolution,” coined by Urdu poet and freedom fighter HasratMohani in 1921, became the principal slogan of millions who marched under Mahatma Gandhi’s leadership to demand the end to British rule. Subhas Chandra Bose chose three Urdu words as the motto for his Indian National Army: ittehad, itmad, qurbani, or unity, confidence, sacrifice.

Poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal’s Ode to India, “Saarejahan se accha, Hindostanhamara”, or “Our India is unrivalled in the world”, came close to being adopted as the national anthem. During the independence movement it reverberated throughout the country with stirring verses such as “Mazhabnahisikhata, apasmeinbairrakhna; Hindi hain hum watanhaiHindostanhamara”, or “Religion does not teach us to bear malice towards one another; We are all Indians and India is our homeland.”

This poem was projected as the national anthem of the country as India neared Independence and was recited at the opening session of the Constituent Assembly in December 1946. Had Pakistan not appropriated Iqbal as the progenitor of the idea of a Muslim homeland, the poem, unparalleled for its simplicity and intensity of emotion, would have certainly been adopted as the national anthem.

Urdu poetry was a major vehicle for the expression of patriotism and defiance of British rule. RamprasadBismil’s “Sarfaroshikitamannaabhamaredilmeinhai” (“The desire for martyrdom burns in our hearts”) became extremely popular once word spread that Bhagat Singh recited it on his way to the gallows. Josh Malihabadi’s “Meranaara, inqilaab o inqilaab o inqilaab” (“My slogan: revolution, revolution, revolution”) captured the spirit of the times succinctly.

There is a gem of a poem by Iqbal titled “NayaShivala” or “New Temple,” which has not received adequate recognition. Here, Iqbal argues that Indians must shed their differences and build a temple dedicated to India rather than to a particular deity. In conversation with an imaginary Brahmin, Iqbal berates the latter for harbouring malice towards fellow countrymen. He simultaneously accuses the Muslim preacher for imbibing nothing but violence from his God. Iqbal concludes with the ringing assertion: “Finally, in disgust I have given up both the temple and the mosque; I have given up listening to the Muslim preacher’s sermons and to your tales; You think that God resides in your idols of stone and clay? To me, every particle of my country’s dust is God”.

It is time to reassert Urdu’s unique contribution to the construction of India’s inclusive national identity currently under threat from divisive forces of communalism and chauvinism.