Poets of Partition

Jan 2016

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Amrita Pritam’s poem appeared in Preet Lari, a literary magazine founded by Gurbaksh Singh, a Michigan-trained engineer, in 1933. Before turning to radical literature, Singh served with the railways. In that capacity he accompanied the Simon Commission in 1928, when the leader of protests at Lahore Lala Lajpat Rai was beaten by police, likely causing his death months later. The events around that commission, followed by the execution of Bhagat Singh in 1931, radicalized Singh. He quit his job and turned to literature.1 He also founded the artist colony Preet Nagar, where the paths of many Punjabi Leftist writers crossed. Its location halfway between Lahore and Amritsar made the colony’s fate unclear in 1947, although it ultimately fell within India. Preet Lari was also popular among California’s Punjabis.2 Some of these Punjabis had ties to the 1857 rebellion and had founded the revolutionary nationalist movement known as the Ghadar Party in 1913 in California. Many Ghadar members had returned to Punjab during World War I to start an armed rebellion but were hanged or imprisoned. (Notably, the pamphlets they dropped on Indian soldiers in France with German help were in Urdu and Punjabi.) From prison in the Andaman Islands, they wrote poetry in Punjabi, which also lapsed into love poetry in which the motherland from which they were exiled stood in for the beloved.3 


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A similar idiom appeared in the work of other poets of this period. Many of them, like Pritam and others who visited Preet Nagar, were part of the Progressive Writers’ movement, which first coalesced among Indian students in England—just when the Thompsons were mixing with Robert Graves and other poets of their time dealing with the war and the elder Thompson began to write voluminously in the cause of Indian freedom himself. These overlapping poetic worlds were shaped by similar modernist and socialist trends. Two Oxford-returned students, the Marxist Sajjad Zaheer and Mahmuduzzafar, joined with two other writers in India, Ahmed Ali and Rashid Jahan, to publish Angare, a collection of short stories, in Lucknow in 1932. This collection, which effectively launched the Progressive Writers’ movement, drew inspiration from James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence (whose work was itself shaped by orientalist trends), and Russian authors like Chekhov and Gogol. It unleashed a storm: many were dismayed by the book’s call for reform in the shape of a new secularism rather than within the existing religious praxis.4 It touched the same nerve as Macaulayite reformism of the previous century,5 even though it emerged less from British liberalism than a mix of cosmopolitan and indigenous currents of socialist thought. In any case, the backlash against its alleged blasphemy was validated by the paternalistic colonial state: the Government of the United Provinces banned the book in 1933. It was in denouncing this gagging that the authors determined to form a league of like-minded thinkers in the form of a Progressive Writers’ Association which met in London, Calcutta, and Lucknow from 1935-1936 (notably, on the heels of the creation of the Union of Soviet Writers). Tagore and Iqbal gave it their blessing; Nehru was part of the initial association. In his address to the second Allahabad conference in 1938, he urged the association to include writers exclusively, not politicians like him.6 This paternalistic guidance betrays either Nehru’s shrewd awareness of the group’s disruptive potential or a naïve misreading of the political possibilities of poetry (and other writing). Many in the group also had ties to the Communist Party of India (CPI). When the British declared India at war in 1939, the Progressive Writers were among those who protested. Edward Thompson was deployed on an official British mission to appease various parties in India, not least because of his friendships with such literary-nationalist figures.

In this essay I am tabling, unjustly, the entire matter of linguistic preference, the history of Urdu-Hindi and Punjabi.7 But it is important to note that Urdu writers took the lead in the formation of this All-India association, wielding a disproportionate influence on its affairs at the national level, even beyond 1947; indeed, at times the Urdu branch was conflated with the entire organization. In this sense, Urdu literary culture took an “aggressively ‘national’ stance.”8 Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Sahir Ludhianvi were part of its network in Punjab, as were Bombay-based Urdu writers like Sadat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chugtai. Hasrat Mohani joined too. Experiment with form was one part of their modernism; the nazm came into its own in their hands in this period. (Faiz, incidentally, admired Auden, who was then at the peak of his political engagement.) But older Western influences were also at work: Wordsworthian ideas about “natural poetry” had become quaint in Europe but were highly influential among Urdu Progressive poets, with their nationalist and proletarian sympathies. Major Urdu reformers of the late nineteenth century like Maulana Khawaja Hali had been steeped in Romantic English works, including Wordsworth and Byron. He and Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, founder of Aligarh, had worked to fulfill Thomas Macaulay’s task of producing an Indian class in the British image,9 but their twentieth-century heirs complicated that mission by invoking a particularly South Asian way of being idiosyncratically modern, drawing on this heritage in their immediate context in new ways.

Many were fiercely anticolonial and yet not nationalistic in the manner of the mainstream Indian National Congress and Muslim League movements, often because their internationalist sympathies with communism prohibited parochialist nationalism. Allama Iqbal’s early patriotism, expressed in his 1902 poem “Lab Pe Aati Hai Dua” (“A Prayer Comes to the Lips”) referred vaguely enough to a “watan” that it remains sing-able in schools in both Pakistan and India. His 1904 “Tarana-i-Hind” (“Indian Anthem”) conjured the Hindustani abroad, carrying his homeland in his heart. Indeed, so many of India’s nationalist leaders studied in universities abroad that this “pardesi” sentiment runs like a red thread through their evocations of patriotism, despite their varying politics. Faiz’s poems were also consistently patriotic without specifying the nation-state they attached themselves to even after Partition. These evocations of homeland built on poetic traditions expressing nostalgia for a lost place, coupled with a critique of empire, that had shaped Urdu poetry in the nineteenth century. Iqbal may have criticized the Sufi tradition for privileging mystical over worldly experiences and producing political passivity, but in fact Urdu poets had long engaged such issues through that Sufi vein. Modern Urdu poetry had evolved in the context of the worldly problem of colonialism and the crises of culture and identity it produced, and the concept of birha had long merged worldly with unworldly concerns.10 In 1835, the four-year-old Daagh Dehlvi was orphaned when his father was hanged for ordering the assassination of Sir William Fraser, Commissioner of the Delhi Territory under the last Mughal emperor (and poet) Bahadur Shah Zafar in 1835. After the death of Daagh’s stepfather (the Mughal prince Fakhroo) in 1856, he lived a life of exile from Delhi, in government service in Rampur and Hyderabad. Jigar Moradabadi and Iqbal were among his disciples. The naming conventions of these poets–Moradabadi, Dehlvi, Ludhianvi, Batalvi—root them in place while also implying their immersion in cosmopolitan and mobile networks in which identification of roots was necessary; loss of homeland was intrinsic to their meditations. Mirza Ghalib’s and Zafar’s broken-hearted response to the British destruction of Delhi in 1857-8 fed that melancholic anti-colonial strain.


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Ghalib’s concern for patronage limited his capacity for ideological rebellion, but socially conscious yet worldly twentieth-century Indian poets proved more willing to experiment with Leftist radicalism.11 The Arya Samaji from UP, Ram Prasad Bismil, author of Bhagat Singh’s favorite poem, “Mera Rang de Basanti Chola” (“Color My Clothes in the Color of Spring”), was with Hasrat Mohani at the 1921 Ahmedabad Congress where the Purna Swaraj (complete self-rule) proposal passed, against Gandhi’s opposition. Immersed in communist literature, he and Bhagat Singh joined the radical Hindustan Republican Association. He was hanged soon after for his participation in the Kakori conspiracy, in which a group of men planned to loot a government treasury from a train in 1925. The British Raj worked hard to crush such revolutionary activity: the Communist Party of India was formed in 1925, but banned in 1934. But poets associated with it addressed all the earthshaking events of their time, from the Rowlatt Act to Partition, and their words spread through an embattled yet burgeoning network of publishers and presses.12 The British were exceedingly anxious about Muslims on the Left, imagining them as the progenitors of Islamic-Bolshevik conspiracy that would threaten the entire world order, as I have written about elsewhere.13 

Certainly, Partition polarized poets active in politics, the CPI, and the Progressive Writers’ Association, but they were too idealistic in too many ways for that polarization to be neatly discernible or explicable. There were the revolutionaries mentioned above. There was the Marxist Faiz, who married the British communist, poet, and supporter of Indian nationalism Alys George in 1941. He was arguably the leading progressive voice in Urdu poetry but never spoke for the group or for the Communist Party. Nehru urged Progressive Writers to prioritize the nationalist movement during the war, and some obliged, but not all. Disagreeing with the “Quit India” strategy, Faiz prioritized the fight against fascism and for the Soviet Union. Seeing it as a revolutionary rather than imperialistic war, he served in the army from 1942-47 in the welfare department in charge of publicity, earning an MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire).14 These poets did not toe any PWA line any more than they toed a single national line; nor were they all uniformly wedded to the notion of purposive art versus art for art’s sake. In this too they followed divergent paths. More importantly, in our understandable but nevertheless obstructive preoccupation with Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah, and the Mountbattens, we have neglected the political visions of these poets who were also political actors; we have fulfilled Nehru’s admonition that they stay meekly by the sidelines of political history while he occupies center-stage. But in their poignant diversity of thought and style lurks a fascinating intellectual history and a generation of creative ideas about South Asian identity and politics. To be sure, some were ideologues, but most were not. Each seemed to nurture his or her own ideas of nation, religion, gender, community, language, genre; all ultimately constrained those anarchic thoughts within the national frames in which they were forced to act, yielding to the dominant, if not quite irresistible narrative of nation-state. Individuals of infinite complexity and diversity, invested in an array of social, political, and cultural causes, subordinated all pursuits to the simple question of being Pakistani or Indian. And yet, this is not what they did at first: in the decade after Partition, their (often tormented) movements reveal that both bins of history—Pakistan and India—still held many possibilities. When those movements stopped and alternative visions were foreclosed, historians settled down to a half-century of analyzing the winners—the Nehrus and Jinnahs. Here I want to at least momentarily peer beyond the horizon at the other roads imagined but not taken.

Some examples: Sahir Ludhianvi left Ludhiana for Lahore after expulsion from college in 1943. His communist views made him a target of the new Government of Pakistan, so, in 1949, he left for Delhi, and then Bombay, where he fed the film industry’s iconography of love and homeland. Saghar Siddiqui of Ambala went to Lahore in 1947, but took to a life on the streets. Manto was endlessly tormented even after he decided to move (calling his nationalist and secularist commitments into doubt for Chugtai, who did not move15 ). He dramatized the absurdity of the choice before him in his famed story, “Toba Tek Singh,” which closes with the image of the deranged Bishan Singh refusing to choose and dying in the no man’s land between the two new countries, their respective lunatics contained within barbed wire borders.16 Like Siddiqui, Manto struggled with depression and addiction; his family committed him to a mental asylum, but alcoholism killed him in 1955. Meanwhile, Zaheer had formed the Communist Party of Pakistan, of which he was Secretary General. He was jailed in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case in 1951 but was extradited to India in 1954. Part of the problem is that the choices were not real (the limiting case being that of women who “chose” to jump into wells); even elites were given only the “illusion of choice.”17 This forces us to rethink the meaning we ascribe to the choice to move. Anjum Roomani, from Sultanpur Lodhi, whose father used to make him recite English poems in mushairas (poetic gatherings) as a boy, left for Pakistan in July 1947: what does this mean? What does it mean that Jagannath Azad of Rawalpindi, a poet and Persian scholar and voice for Hindu-Muslim unity, (allegedly) penned Pakistan’s first national anthem at Jinnah’s special request in August 1947 and then yielded to the fears of his friends and family and migrated to India in September? (Whether Azad wrote an anthem or song for Pakistan and whether he did so at Jinnah’s request remains a controversial issue — as the author learned late in the editing process. See, for instance, C. M. Naim, “Contested Verses: Was Pakistan’s first national anthem written by a Lahore-based Hindu?” July 19, 2015, Scroll.in.) Was his later devotion to scholarly study of Iqbal a way of at once atoning for departure, superseding Partition, and understanding its origins?18 In Delhi, he and his family occupied the old home of the Progressive poet Josh Malihabadi when Josh received official accommodation. Josh too was tormented, going back and forth several times in endless search of belonging. He had already been banished from Hyderabad for criticizing the Nizam. Finally he left for Pakistan in 1958 but continued to pine for India.

Apart from Josh, several Urdu poets with roots in the United Provinces did not move or moved late. Professor Hamid Kamal Narvi left Ilahabad for Lahore in 1952. Jazib Qureshi was seven at Partition, but his family stayed in Lucknow until 1950. The communist Jaun Elia left for Karachi in 1957. Shakeb Jalali left for Rawalpindi in 1950 at age sixteen; his father remained in India. For him, Partition seems to have offered an opportunity to evade the father who had inexplicably pushed his mother under a train six years earlier. But even this personal tragedy may not be unconnected to the larger political drama: his father was disturbed by conflict between Hindus and Muslims, and so was Shakeb who turned poet in 1947. Departure proved no balm: At Sargodha in 1966, he threw himself in front of a train. Mohani died in 1951; would he have moved if he had lived longer? Jigar Moradabadi steadfastly stayed but wrote his last volume of poetry about the violence of Partition, criticizing Indians’ role in it with “Bhaag musafir mere watan se mere chaman se bhaag” (“Run stranger, run from my country, my garden”).19 He died in 1960. Why did he not move? Would he have, had he lived longer? Or was his love of country also encapsulated in his line, “Yeh ishq nahin aasaan bus itna samajh leejay/ Ik aag ka dariya hai aur doob ke jaana hai” (“This love is not easy, just understand this much/ it is a river of fire and one must drown to cross”)?

A mix of personal and public, mundane and principled considerations figured in these decisions. But these deferrals and confusions also reveal the existence of an intriguing window of possibility, a span of a few years in which the meaning and future of India and Pakistan were as yet unformed. The confusion and hesitation represent a refusal of Partition, even though poetry’s long grasp of birha as the path to more meaningful union might have made such poets temperamentally more amenable to the notion. Nor were they alone in their tardy and equivocal acceptance of Partition. Oral histories collected by the CAP and the Partition Archive testify to many belated and incomplete departures. Many who did move thought their displacement would only be temporary; they buried jewelry in walls and floors to be retrieved later. Indeed, my own family in Multan stayed put until 1948. Mundane factors figured in that hesitation, but implicit in their consideration of those factors were alternative visions of what Partition was. What broken hopes did belated departure embody? Were these reluctantly partitioned people “indifferent to nation” in the manner of the border peoples of eastern and southern Europe in the same period?20 As my colleague Edith Sheffer asks with respect to the division of Germany, the question is not only when the border on the ground was drawn but when the border in the mind was created.21 Breaking bonds takes time; the Pakistani Progressive Writers’ journals continued to include works by Hindu and Sikh writers in Urdu, until the group was declared illegal in 1954 (although descendants of it remain active today). Is it one of those farces of history that Leftist Muslims poets like Elia gave up on India and left for Pakistan just when the Pakistani state began to crack down on the Left? Faiz was already there, but persecution by the Pakistani state from 1951 drove him into temporary exile in Beirut. (Ahmed Faraz, perhaps the most well-known Communist poet of the next generation, would also try exile before returning to Pakistan.) What alternative visions of South Asian modernity did this collection of latecomers, exiles, and destroyed souls abandon in the 1950s? It is worth recovering those visions for whatever inspiration they may still yield. As Joan Scott observed of E. P. Thompson’s thought, “utopias that permit critical assessment of the present in terms of some deep moral commitment and unleash imaginative longing for a particular kind of future are compatible with, indeed necessary for, practical politics.”22 Read on > | Single page >


  1. Poonam Singh, editor of Preet Lari, personal communication, Oct. 27, 2015. []
  2. Gurbaksh Singh had visited California while studying in the United States and was watched by British intelligence, but showed few signs of his later radicalism then. Personal communication from Pashaura Singh. []
  3. Akshaya Kumar, Poetry, Politics and Culture: Essays on Indian Texts and Contexts (Delhi, 2009), 214-8; Rakhshanda Jalil, Liking Progress, Loving Change (Delhi, 2014), 75. The Ghadar Party split between communist and anti-communist factions after the war. I also thank Bikramjit Singh for his personal memories on this subject. Preet Lari remains in print today, with its headquarters still at Preet Nagar. Note that further northwest too, the Left offered an alternative vision: In 1930, the Red Shirt Movement began in the North West Frontier Province, joining forces with Congress’s non-violence. []
  4. Geeta Patel, Lyrical Movements, Historical Hauntings: On Gender, Colonialism, and Desire in Miraji’s Urdu Poetry (Stanford, 2002), 98; Jalil, Liking Progress, chapt. 4. For more on the way their time in Europe shaped Zaheer and Mahmuduzzafar, see Jalil, Liking Progress, 109-112. []
  5. See note 19 below. []
  6. Shabana Mahmud, “Angare and the Founding of the Progressive Writers’ Association,” Modern Asian Studies 30:2 (1996): 447-467; Jalil, Liking Progress, 247. Only five copies of the book survived, two making their way to the Oriental Library in London. In 2014 Penguin India and Rupa Publications brought out an English translation. []
  7. On Urdu-Hindi, see Alok Rai, Hindi Nationalism (2001); Amrit Rai, A House Divided: The Origin and Development of Hindi/Hindavi (1985); Christopher King, One Language, Two Scripts: The Hindi Movement in Nineteenth Century North India (1999); Kavita Datla, The Language of Secular Islam: Urdu Nationalism and Colonial India (2013); Mufti, Enlightenment in the Colony, 140-153; Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, Early Urdu Literary Culture and History (2001); Ajmal Kamal, “A Critique of Language Snobs: Urdu and the Politics of Identity,” Tanqeed.org, Feb. 2015, available at http://www.tanqeed.org/2015/02/the-uses-and-abuses-of-language-snobs-urdu-and-the-politics-of-identity/.The abandonment of Punjabi among Hindus in India and Muslims in Pakistan is an enormous question bound up with partitions of the twentieth century. On the related matter of the languages lost as a result of Partition, see: http://www.business-standard.com/article/news-ians/partition-impacted-on-several-languages-114042600817_1.html []
  8. Amir Mufti, Enlightenment in the Colony: The Jewish Question and the Crisis of Postcolonial Culture (Princeton, 2007), 180; Patel, Lyrical Movements, 89. []
  9. Frances Pritchett, Nets of Awareness: Urdu Poetry and Its Critics (Berkeley, 1994), 146-7, 154, 167. The historian and parliamentarian Thomas Macaulay served in the supreme council of the East India Company from 1834 to 1838, overseeing major educational and legal reforms. His 1835 “Minute on Indian Education” was a rebuttal to council members who believed that Indian students should continue to be educated in Sanskrit and Arabic as well as English; his view won. []
  10. See also Jalil, Liking Progress, chapt. 1. My introduction to several of the poets mentioned in the next pages came through the Urdu Academy of the Bay Area (organized by Tashie Zaheer) and the Bay Area mushairas organized by Hamida Chopra. []
  11. An earlier version of this article identified incorrect source material on an alleged exchange between Ghalib and Marx. That has been removed. []
  12. Jalil, Liking Progress, chapt. 2. []
  13. Priya Satia, Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain’s Covert Empire in the Middle East (New York, 2008), chapt. 6. Jalil notes the British surveillance of the Progressive Writers’ Association in Liking Progress, chapt. 5. []
  14. See Hafeez Malik, “The Marxist Literary Movement in India and Pakistan,” Association for Asian Studies 26 (1967), p. 655. Makhdoom Mohiuddin felt similarly. []
  15. I thank Sadaf Jaffer for this observation. []
  16. Mufti, Enlightenment in the Colony, 201-2. []
  17. Gyanendra Pandey, Remembering Partition: Violence, Nationalism and History in India (Cambridge, 2001), 170. There are also non-writerly examples of artistic wavering on nation: Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan moved to Pakistan, but then returned to India. I will leave for another essay an analysis of Indian Punjabi musicians of this era, from Madan Mohan to Jagjit Singh to Ayushman Khurana and how their particular paths shaped their articulation of Punjabiyat. []
  18. Azad did not meet Iqbal himself. His father the poet Trilok Chand Mahroom was a friend of Iqbal. When the latter returned to India from Europe in 1918, Mehroom wrote him a letter including a poem, “Aana tera mubarak Europe se aane waale,” incorporating references to “Tarana-i-Hind.” Hamida Chopra, lecture, mushaira, India Community Center, Milpitas, CA, Aug. 23, 2015. []
  19. All translations in this essay are my own. For poetry, I have tried to give literal translations preserving the syntax rather than literary translations conveying deeper meanings. []
  20. Peter Judson, Guardians of the Nation: Activists on the Language Frontiers of Imperial Austria (Cambridge, MA, 2007); Pamela Ballinger, History in Exile: Memory and Identity at the Borders of the Balkans (Princeton, 2002). []
  21. Edith Sheffer, Burned Bridge: How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain (New York, 2011). Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali Zamindar has analyzed the making of the western Indo-Pak border in response to the refugee crisis and the way national difference was constructed there, in that space of most blurred identity, over time. The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia: Refugees, Boundaries, Histories (New York, 2007). []
  22. Scott, “Women in The Making,” 80. []

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One Response to Poets of Partition

  1. Surindar Nagpal on Jan 2016 at 3:38 PM

    Dear Sir/ Madam,
    I was born at Kasur now in Pakistan in 1934. I moved to india in 1947 at the time of partition of India at that time I was studying in 8th grade. As such I have some good memories of the partition. I am now a retired Architect. I devote my time to my hobbies photography, water color painting and urdu shayari. I post my Shayari at Yoindia.com a web site in India. One can read me on the site as Umda Shayar. I had the good fortune of having acquainted with one shayar of partition 34 years senior to me. He went by the name/ takhalus Yaktaa Alwari. He was a very educated person retired as divisional magistrate. Most of the people having moved from Pakistan settled very well and easily barring few that could not settle at all. I am writing below some poetry by him which proves my poet. Poetry is in Urdu, I am writing in roman english.
    Title: TAB
    Ey peer-e-falak yun bhi badaltaa hai zamaanaa
    Hai chaand sitaaron kee zuban pe yeh fasaanaa
    Ik chot sii lagtee hai jigar par merey Yaktaa…
    Punjaab kahan aur kahan Rajputanaa…

    Title: ABB
    Jurat wohee hai shauk rindaanaa bhi kam nahin
    Kismat kaa apnee ek paimaanaa bhi kam nahin
    Pujaab jab chutaa thaa bahut ranj thaa humein
    Abb dekhtey hain Rajputaanaa bhi kam nahin…
    Both these rubai’s were written within a span of 1 year. I had to write something as my niece/daughter included me on her essay at face book.
    Surindar Nagpal.

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