What the experiences of Manto and Josh Malihabadi tell us about the dividing line between trust and belonging, intolerance and exile
दुखी मन मेरे, सुन मेरा कहना
जहाँ नहीं चैना, वहाँ नहीं रहना
O my sad heart, hear what I have to say/Where I find no respite, there I won’t stay
– Lyrics by Sahir Ludhianvi, Funtoosh (1956)
The Bombay film industry is a largely apolitical industry, where people stay away from politics. Politics is seen as a controversial antithesis to business, as the industry survives purely on economic fortunes. But even though people may stay away from politics, they do hold political views like the rest of the society. Many stars from the film industry are today MPs in both houses of parliament, representing the political party of their choice. On occasions, film stars have voiced their opinions on national issues.
Recently, many stars including Shahrukh Khan, spoke their concerns in the national media on the question of rising political intolerance in India. Two writers were killed this year for their critical views, challenging certain historical and religious beliefs held by Hindu nationalists. A Muslim man was lynched to death in an Uttar Pradesh village on suspicion of eating beef. This led some of the country’s most important poets, writers, artists and scientists to return their state awards and resign from official posts. Shahrukh Khan, recently honoured by the University of Edinburgh, supported the protest by writers and artists on national television, for which he was hounded by ‘patriotic’ trolls on social media. It is now the turn of Aamir Khan, another prominent star from the industry, to face the wrath of Hindu nationalists, after he aired his wife’s apprehensions about staying on in the country. Aamir said his wife, Kiran Rao, is scared for their children’s safety in the prevailing atmosphere of intimidation and violence. Such a fear, increasingly felt by those who wish to live, work and voice their opinions under liberal and secular conditions, is reminiscent of the days during – and immediately after – India’s Partition in 1947.
Saadat Hasan Manto, who has written the starkest stories of Partition, was also a scriptwriter in Bombay’s film industry in the 1940s.
When his friend, the legendary actor Ashok Kumar and his producer-partner, Suvik Wacha, took over Bombay Talkies, they offered – in a redeeming gesture that resisted the septic atmosphere of communal violence and disharmony – the most senior positions to Muslims. For this, Wacha received mails threatening arson and murder, but he and Kumar stuck to their guns. Despite such a show of solidarity by friends, the atmosphere was perhaps poisoned beyond redemption for Manto when he discovered his Hindu friend Shyam had violent feelings against him after they together heard stories of communal violence from a Sikh family who escaped from Rawalpindi. It was thus a major personal incident that fuelled Manto’s decision to leave the Bombay he loved, for Pakistan.
Another famous, left-wing writer of those times, Josh Malihabadi, much admired by Jawaharlal Nehru, finally shifted to Pakistan in 1958 despite his intense reluctance to leave India. Malihabadi, besides his growing concern about the fate of Muslims, was also deeply disturbed about the future of Urdu in India. Nehru made keen efforts to make him stay, even suggesting he travel back and forth whenever he liked, but Malihabadi was torn by the practicalities. He finally succumbed to the wisdom of his friend and chief commissioner of Karachi, Syed Abu Talib Naqvi, who told him, “Josh saheb, you can’t cross a river with your feet anchored in two boats.” In Malihabadi’s own narration, his meetings with Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad made him apprehensive about staying in India once Nehru was no more. He shared those fears with the prime minister but the “narrow-minded patriotism of the Hindus” that Nehru thought his poet-friend could ignore proved decisive for Malihabadi.
Today, some in the country appear hell-bent upon replaying the times of partition. There are no official assurances to minorities feeling insecure in the country. When a Shahrukh or an Aamir voice their concerns publicly, we get an inkling of what much less privileged Muslims are facing.
Aamir, while upholding the protest by historians and scientists against intolerance, has neatly articulated his expectations from the state: Firstly, a sense of justice and security to the common man, and secondly, a strong response by political representatives when people take law in their own hands.
It does not take much to see how it is becoming difficult for Muslims in the country to continuously answer questions on terrorist violence by Muslim organisations around the world, including in India. Every Muslim is being morally and mentally implicated in the violence unleashed by Islamist terror, which is partly thriving due to the machinations and dubious policies of Western powers. In India, since the 1992 demolition of the Babri masjid and the 2002 Gujarat riots, Muslims are a beleaguered community, with numerous cases reported in the media of young boys and families being harassed by the state on the pretext of suspicion alone. These mishandlings show a discouraging pattern of prejudice that seems to be growing against the minority community. The present situation is a snowballing of already entrenched prejudices. After the beef ban in particular, Muslims are being targeted with a justificatory zeal by Hindu vigilante groups. These impudent crimes, dismissed as “stray incidents” by important government officials, only help to trivialise the issue. The active show of disinterest by the government has been read by concerned citizens as a tacit act of encouragement.
From Manto’s and Malihabadi’s examples, it is clear that the desire to leave one’s own country does not only come from a real or perceived threat to life. It also comes from a radical breakdown of trust which contributes to an intense feeling of humiliation. When Manto, as he recounted in his memoir, asked his friend, Shyam if after hearing the stories of Muslim atrocities he wanted to kill him, Shyam replied, “Not now, but when I was listening to them… I could have killed you.” In Manto’s admission, he understood the “psychological background” of the “communal holocaust of Partition” from Shyam’s desire to kill him when he was hearing the story, but not later. It told Manto, communal feelings can cast a spell where both objectivity and friendliness are eclipsed by an overwhelming sense of hate. In that mindless moment, a person’s religious identity is implicated without moral, ethical and even affective registers of belonging. The person is stripped of all human meanings that made the friendship possible in the first place. The fact that the person who goes through that moment of intense hate calms down later proves the momentary but fatal nature of the illness. The shock of that revelation led Manto to leave.
This growing communalisation of relations today is reminiscent of what happened during Manto and Malihabadi’s time.
Along with friendships, trust at a wider level of social relations gets narrowed down under such conditions of intolerance. Aamir Khan’s statement on Kiran Rao talking about leaving the country was meant to highlight a sense of personal agony, rather than a threat or possibility. “That’s a disastrous … statement for Kiran to make,” he stressed. Yet, it was used by nationalist trolls to hurl all kinds of insults and accusations at him. The beloved star turned into a figure of hate and ridicule overnight. Trust was thrown into the cesspool of jingoism.
Those who attacked Aamir perhaps felt implicated by his comment, and ironically proved him right by trying to refute the accusation of intolerance with a fresh volley of intolerant remarks. Till yesterday, when the star was part of a preachy, patriotic campaign, he was fine in the eyes of his current detractors. It is instructive that Hindus, who accuse Indian Muslims of having their heart in Pakistan and advise them to go there at the slightest opportunity, are the ones who remain obsessed by Pakistan and their pathological discomfort with that country. For them, the clock stopped at Partition. Unfortunately, for such nationalists, the remembering of Partition is not an occasion for regret, empathy and mourning. It is simply an occasion to rake up selectively chosen wounds and return with vengeance to that moment of horror. The inability to mourn a horror is the surest way to repeat it.
Manash Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer and political science scholar. His first collection of poetry, Ghalib’s Tomb and Other Poems (2013), was published by The London Magazine. He is currently Adjunct Professor in the School of Culture and Creative Expressions at Ambedkar University, New Delhi.