Poets of Partition

Jan 2016

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To be sure, Partition itself was the product of a utopic plan enacting Enlightenment notions about the rational ordering of society. It promised to produce order out of a religiously and linguistically mixed society. It promised a homeland to those out-of-place in nationalist India. Many who moved did so out of faith in this project, out of conviction, at times against the wishes of their families (most famously, Jinnah’s only daughter did not move). Indeed, the deliberate sacrifice of home and bonds was the price that made the result — participation in the creation of a new nation-state — all the more sacred.1 The poet credited with launching the Pakistan movement, Iqbal, was shaped by education in Germany and Britain. Among his closest friends in Lahore from 1932 was Muhamed Asad, the Austro-Hungarian Jew who opposed Zionism but supported the creation of a Muslim state in South Asia. He had been an advisor to Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud in the 1920s—one of that world of European “spies in Arabia” I described in my first book. Like them, he collapsed the tasks of reinventing the Middle East and himself. He would go on to shape Pakistan’s constitution and head the Middle East Division of its Ministry of Foreign Affairs. My point in invoking Asad is to highlight the cosmopolitan intellectual context in which the idea of Pakistan took shape, however much it was also about the local mission of saving Muslims from domination by non-Muslims. Enlightenment and Romantic notions are dialectically related in this intellectual history. I am merely skimming the surface here, focusing on the chain of influences and sociological bonds to offer a sense of the global production and payoff of these ideas over time, up to our present, as we shall see.


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In promising a national homeland for South Asia’s Muslims, Iqbal’s Pakistan also tried to move beyond nationalism. It was utopic in that ambition, too. Like Tagore, Iqbal denounced the European “modernity” exposed on the Western Front, the way competitive nationalism produced militarism, imperialism, and indifference to religion. His call for Pakistan was intended as a critique of nationalism and an important first step towards a post-nationalistic postwar world. Muslim political autonomy would foster in one place a less divided and exploitative society on the basis of an Islamic moral system that would serve Muslims and non-Muslims alike.2 (His notions of the unity of Islam were authentically his but also shaped by Romantic Orientalist notions he absorbed in Europe.) Indeed, although we take Partition as synonymous with the mass migration it entailed, mass migration was not part of the plan, even as late as the early 1940s. The idea was rather to create autonomous Muslim-majority areas in which Hindus and Sikhs would remain, while Muslims would remain in areas in which they were minorities. Then came the idea of splitting Muslim-majority provinces. The idea of mass eviction and migration only came in March 1947 when riots in Rawalpindi enforced the notion that minorities did not belong in the lands that had now been designated Muslim or non-Muslim.3 In the 1930s, Iqbal was thinking outside the box of nationalism, whatever the ironic appropriation of his goal for nationalistic purposes.

The India that was to result from the creation of Pakistan was also imagined through the lens of modern rationality. Even Indians who regret Partition speak approvingly of a purer nation formed through the sacrifice of dismemberment. The journalist Alpana Kishore argues that without Partition, India would have gone on wrestling with an unresolved demand for a Muslim nation-state; it would have been haunted by the specter of partition and the very different vision of national development embraced by Pakistan’s founders.4 This recalls B. R. Ambedkar’s views on Pakistan. He too was an anti-colonial thinker who was simultaneously critical of the nation-state. Yet, he saw Partition as unavoidable once the demand had been raised (and given his own notions of Muslim difference); to refuse it would simply endanger the new republic with the constant threat of civil war.5 (Arguably, in the end, Partition has haunted India anyway.)

But besides these rationalist-idealist visions of a postcolonial Pakistan and India, other utopic visions were also available, for a time. Some saw an equally post-nationalist utopic prospect in the challenge of unifying a subcontinent that, they acknowledged, was divided. The poet Mohamed Ali Jauhar emerged as a leader of the Khilafat movement. As president of the Congress party in 1923, he said:

I had long been convinced that here in this Country of hundreds of millions of human beings, intensely attached to religion, and yet infinitely split up into communities, sects and denominations, Providence had created for us the mission of solving a unique problem and working out a new synthesis, which was nothing low than a Federation of Faiths… For more than twenty years I have dreamed the dream of a federation, grander, nobler and infinitely more spiritual than the United States of America, and today when many a political Cassandra prophesies a return to the bad old days of Hindu-Muslim dissensions I still dream that old dream of “United Faiths of India.”6 

Like Mohani and Bismil, he became disillusioned with Congress and Gandhi’s leadership in the early 1920s. He attended the First Round Table Conference in London in 1930-31 (Gandhi attended the one later in 1931, visiting the Thompsons while there). He died in England and was buried in Jerusalem, at his own request. Would he have remained in India or moved to Pakistan in 1947? Or later? Or would his survival have made his utopic dream a more viable possibility?

Others perceived a different utopia: the idea of an India that possessed an inherent unity even in its diversity, that was a single nation, which Partition violated. Husain Ahmad Madani saw imperialism as the disrupter of religiously plural societies that had their own integrity (Iqbal argued that it severed ethnically distinct Muslims who might otherwise have been united around their shared religion).7 Much Indian historical writing is in this vein and has found it difficult to escape the obligation to demonstrate that oneness. This is partly because, apart from the Ambedkar approach, it was difficult for Indians to read Partition as anything but loss; Pakistanis, however nostalgic, could at least pin hope on the strength of having created something new. To some Pakistanis, India is a dreamlike homeland, an origin story more than a land from which they are exiled.8 Still, many survivors of Partition on both sides recall untroubled pre-Partition times marked by inter-communal harmony. At times for elites from cosmopolitan settings nostalgia for the Raj is part of this mix; at times joint resistance to it. At times the Unionist Party’s popularity under Sir Sikander Hyat Khan, a close associate of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, in the 1930s is recalled as proof of the existence of a culturally and politically unified Punjab betrayed by higher politicians (at other times its social conservatism and loyalty to the Raj recalled as liabilities), even though the pressure of maintaining that unity against the competing forces of the League, Congress, and the British was probably what killed Sikander Hyat Khan in December 1946. We have no way of gauging the accuracy of memories untroubled pre-Partition harmony, but as Anam Zakaria and other collectors of oral histories note, “memory and how people choose to remember certain events is as important as historical facts themselves.”9 Indeed, some memories were shaped by dismay at the violent change Partition wrought. Even those who did not move witnessed destruction of their communities and the arrival of new, tormented faces, a transformation that made some see the struggle as a waste. At the same time that the Pakistani state whitewashes Sikh history in Punjab — literally in the case of the frescoes at the entrance of the Dera Sahab complex in Lahore10 — we hear of Pakistanis who miss Diwali and Eastern Punjabis who miss Eid. It is true that many communities have coexisted in India and that Partition included many acts of inter-communal kindness. But equally true is the fact that in the end, Congress wanted partition, and that, since 1947, community has again and again been constituted through violence in India—impossible facts for those committed to the notion of an eternally unified India betrayed only by Jinnah and the League.11 

But apart from nostalgia for a lost utopia, even after Partition, many imagined the possibility for a unique international friendship between the two nations, in which the border was in fact a bridge permitting connection and communication. Deferrals or reversals of the decision to stay or move, indicated by late departure or ongoing maintenance of bi-national existence for business and family reasons, are perhaps most symptomatic of this outlook. They represent a willful and wishful belief in the prerogative to remain locally and privately rather than nationally embedded as long as it was practicable. It was certainly not obvious that Partition would mean total severance of connection. And in fact, many crossed legally without much obstruction until the 1965 war; border communities continued to engage in common celebrations of Baisakhi. Others crossed illegally between bordering villages, like Germans in the early years of the Cold War. Zakaria’s collection of oral histories includes the poignant case of Muhammad Boota who repeatedly crossed from his adopted village in Pakistan into his old village in Indian Punjab to search for a Sikh girl he had loved. As in the great qissas (romantic epics like Waris Shah’s), he never found her but remained devoted to her.12 The border became more clearly demarcated and impassable after the wars of 1965 and 1971, but even then, through 1986 no line or wire demarcated the border near Kasur villages, and people crossed accidentally.13 


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Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there was the utopic belief that borders did not change anything, even when they became impassable, that an un-severable regional unity transcends the experience and fact of Partition. Here it is crucial to remember that the Indian and Pakistani dream for nation-statehood was fulfilled in a moment in which the entire system of nation-states was in severe crisis, with displaced minorities emerging in the Middle East and Europe.14 This context shaped calls to rise above both nationalism and borders. Maulana Azad (who tried his hand at poetry too in his younger days) insisted even after Partition on the existence of a “composite culture,” shared among all and possessing secular and cosmopolitan dimensions. He was a nationalist, in the sense of believing in the reality of an Indian nation that could stand independently of British rule, but also grasped the dangers nationalism produced for minorities. His solution was to refuse a politics based on fear—to refuse to fear for the fate of a Muslim minority in independent India and to refuse the very notion of a Muslim “minority.” This “leap of faith” marks the “secularism of Azad’s public life,” explains Amir Mufti.15 He articulated this complex vision in a speech in October 1947 in Jama Masjid in Delhi, which persuaded many Muslims there to stay, just when nationalism was violently reorganizing the region into new nation-states.

Those who articulated such visions at once perceived their vulnerability, their increasingly outdated utopian nature. They knew that refusing nationalism’s disruption of pluralism was its own kind of madness, reminiscent of Bishan Singh’s stubborn attachment to the no man’s land of Toba Tek Singh. But while Manto’s story encapsulated that madness in a dark, Chekhovian manner, such madness found a different kind of sanction in the Urdu poetic tradition, where it seemed less the breakdown of reason than the typically hopeless (but no longer melancholic or politically passive) idealism of the poetic subject, the lover. They were the farzaane (learned, wise men) who double as deewane (mad, inspired men) in Jagannath Azad’s ghazal titled, “15 August 1947”: “Na puchho jab bahar aayi to deewanon pe kya guzari/ Zara dekho ki is mausam mein farzaanon pe kya guzari” (“Don’t ask what befell the mad (the lovers) when spring came/ Just look at what befell the wise in this season”). With the plural “deewane,” the sher (verse) embraces the world of Azad’s fellow poets, his friends, as the losers of this history. And indeed the friendship among poets was one critical way in which the border was rendered meaningless, at least for some, especially those who chose to see it as a temporary inconvenience on the way to a future goal that they knew would transcend all borders. While Faiz continued his political and poetic pursuits in Pakistan, his friend Makhdoom Mohiuddin of Hyderabad pursued poetry, lyric-writing for the film industry, labor activism, CPI leadership, trades union activism, and activities with the PWA and Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) and was a primary leader of the Telangana Rebellion from 1946-50, the rebellion of peasants against Telangana landlords and the Nizam of Hyderabad. He also inaugurated the short-lived Paritala Republic. Jailed in 1951 — like Faiz in Pakistan — he wrote the poem, “Qaid” (“Imprisonment”). On his release, he fought elections and joined parliament, participating in the national political process as a member of the CPI. For these poet-activists, Partition was a tragic yet transient event in a longer struggle for far more radical ends. It was inconclusive. And their agreement on that across the border, their continued solidarity, was a mutual affirmation. When Makhdoom died in 1969, Faiz composed a poetic homage adapting his friend’s celebrated ghazal, “Aap ki yaad aati rahi raat bhar” (“Your memory came to me all the night long”). Both versions can be read on multiple levels, as all ghazals, but let me offer a suggestive reading of the maqta (last verse) in each. Makhdoom’s ended, “Koi deewaana galiyon mein phirta raha/ Koi awaaz aati rahi raat bhar” (“Some madman (lover) wandered in the streets/ Some sound came all the night long”), evoking the eternal beckoning of some ideal in the darkness, towards which the poet-as-agent-of-history fumbles, perhaps never reaching it. It is at once near yet out of reach. Faiz’s version ended, “Ek umeed se dil behelta raha/ Ek tamanna sataati rahi raat bhar” (“The heart amused itself with a hope/ A wish tormented (me) all the night long”), evoking the desire for communion with a friend who is now impossibly far, in classic Sufi fashion, but also perhaps a memory of their shared, incomplete pursuit: the soothingly idealistic hope for a more humane future that is simultaneously agitating, despite our knowledge that it is an ideal and thus unachievable. For those entangled in this border-transgressing literary and political community, Partition was not a stopping ground; it could not be allowed to become a stopping ground. As Faiz wrote, reflecting on 1947 in 1951, “Chale chalo ki woh manzil abhi nahi aayi” (“Let us keep going, for that destination has not yet come”). To be sure, the notion of a long, joint journey ahead, despite borders, was also a mechanism for coping with the actual trauma of Partition, which Faiz genuinely felt; he considered it “too Big” to cope with in poetry apart from his attempt in that 1951 poem, “Subah-e-Azadi” (“Freedom’s Dawn”) (although in allusive ways he did in other works too, I believe).16 

One might reasonably interpret this indifference to borders as a form of denial, as fantasy. Arguably works like “Toba Tek Singh” engaged in precisely such fantasy, as literary form, whatever Manto’s commitments to social realism. Fantasy is a “departure from consensus reality,” in the words of one literary scholar,17 and belief in the immateriality of the border was a departure from the consensus reality of Pakistani and Indian nation-statehood. More than fantasy, however, it was romance, as articulated clearly in Faiz and Makhdoom’s couplets above. The unattainable end – utopia itself – was a reworking of birha in its own way, as was the experience of Partition itself.

Poets’ aloofness from Partition helps explain why post-Partition Urdu poetry continued to invoke an extra-national geography: the Leftist Pakistani poet Ibn-e-Insha (born in Jalandar in 1927), composed “Tu Kahan Chali Gayi Thi” (“Where Had You Gone”) in the 1950s, gesturing with equal ease towards Karachi and Delhi. Nazir Qaiser’s poetry is as ecumenical in its geography. Shiv Kumar Batalvi (often referred to as Punjab’s Byron) drew on the ancient epic about Puran Bhagat of Sialkot for his epic verse play, Loona in 1965. Jagannath Azad came to India, but his poetry dwelled on memories of his homeland, his lost chaman (garden). While in Pakistan on his first post-Partition visit in 1948, he wrote the celebrated couplet, “Main apne ghar mein aaya hoon magar andaaz to dekho/ Ke apne aap ko manind-e-mehman leke aaya hoon” (I have come into my own home, but look in what manner/ For I have brought myself like a guest”). It remained his home. Alienated as he was, he was still not a guest but guest-like. He was split into both host and guest, at once at home and not at home, desi and pardesi. Pakistani poets also continued to reach for the non-Islamic but (idol) and puja (worship, implying idol worship) on which the ironic idiom of Urdu poetry depends, despite the vanishing, ghostlike presence of such things in their midst. Indeed, in a sense the entire Indo-Islamic poetic tradition presumes a world of Muslims coexisting with non-Muslims to dramatize the ironies of worldly and unworldly faith at its core. (Sikh identity markers similarly presume a mixed social context; else why the need for distinguishing markers?) This literary transcendence of Partition mirrored socio-cultural continuities such as the celebrations of “Indian” festivals among Pakistanis near the border.18 As Zakaria notes, even those who left out of conviction felt a bond with the “home” they abandoned because of ongoing relationships and memories: “There is not clear line for these people; it is difficult to decipher what they love more, where they belong more. This confusion is the only truth for them.”19 If the goal was a coherent national self, the result was a population of divided selves. The exile, the refugee, the orphaned, the converted, the abducted-and-reclaimed — all these survivors were in different ways split — in many cases violently split, even shredded selves. Permit me a metaphor from physics: In quantum theory, the uncertain, non-deterministic, smeared nature of electrons helps explain the stability of atoms; similarly, the stability of South Asian identity depends on a kind of indeterminacy. Punjabis in particular seem smeared through space. Nations are like the impossibly rigid atomic structures of classical mechanics; they cannot contain such uncertainty: Makhdoom and Faiz were both literally in captivity in independent India and Pakistan in 1951. Read on >  | Single page >


  1. See oral histories in Zakaria, Footprints of Partition, 81, 118. On Pakistan as a utopian ideal, see also Pandey, Remembering Partition, 27-30. []
  2. Barbara Metcalf, Husain Ahmad Madani: The Jihad for Islam and India’s Freedom (Oxford, 2009), 114. []
  3. Pandey, Remembering Partition, 26-32. []
  4. Zakaria, Footprints of Partition, 169. []
  5. Ambedkar, Thoughts on Pakistan, 1941; Pakistan, or Partition of India, 1944; Aishwary Kumar, Radical Equality: Ambedkar, Gandhi, and the Risk of Democracy (Stanford, 2015), 242-7. []
  6. Mohamed Ali Jauhar, 1923, reproduced in Sources of Indian Tradition: Modern India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, ed. Rachel Fell McDermott (New York, 2013), 409. []
  7. Mufti, Enlightenment in the Colony, 164, 175-6; Metcalf, Husain Ahmad Madani, 114, 118. []
  8. Zakaria, Footprints of Partition, 95, 105, 124. []
  9. Zakaria, Footprints of Partition, 79. []
  10. Nadhra Khan, “Lahore Revisited: The City and Its Nineteenth Century Guidebook,” lecture, August 30, 2015, Indian Community Center, Milpitas, CA. []
  11. As Pandey notes, violence did not “accompany” Partition; it was constitutive of it. Pandey, Remembering Partition, 3-4, 48, 52, 64. See also Mufti, Enlightenment in the Colony, 175. []
  12. Zakaria, Footprints of Partition, 18. See also story of Ghulam Ali in Zamindar, Long Partition, 1-2. []
  13. Zakaria, Footprints of Partition, 27-8. []
  14. Mufti notes that nationalism has historically been “a great disrupter of social and cultural relations,” setting forth “an entire dynamic of inclusion and exclusion within the very social formation that it claims as uniquely its own and with which it declares itself identical.” By rendering some part of that formation as “minority,” it renders that group potentially movable. Thus, it has historically been a force for violent displacement. Enlightenment in the Colony, 13. []
  15. Mufti, Enlightenment in the Colony, 165. []
  16. Jalil, Liking Progress, 276n74. Faiz did not think he wrote about Partition beyond this 1951 poem. Jalil, Liking Progress, 276n74. On the CPI’s shifting views of Partition, see 348-50. []
  17. Kathryn Hume, Fantasy and Mimesis: Responses to Reality in Western Literature (New York, 1984), 21, quoted in Karline McLain, “The Fantastic as Frontier: Realism, the Fantastic, and Transgression in Mid-Twentieth Century Urdu Fiction,” Annual of Urdu Studies 16 (2001): 139-165. []
  18. Riyaz Wani, interview with Anam Zakaria, Tehelka.com, Sept. 5, 2015, available at:  http://www.tehelka.com/2015/08/i-hope-my-stories-can-challenge-the-perception-of-india-pakistan-relations-anam-zakaria/. []
  19. Zakaria, Footprints of Partition, 84. []

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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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