Sare Jahan Se Acha: The Idea of India in Early 20th Century Urdu Poetry

In the diverse iterations of Iqbal’s iconic 'Sare jahan se achha' in Urdu poetry, varied understandings of 'Hindustan' manifest – but none are narrowly chauvinist.

Iqbal's iconic 'Sare jahan se achha' is rife with geographical references, including to the formidable Himalayas. Representational image. Credit: Wikipedia

Iqbal’s iconic ‘Sare jahan se achha’ is rife with geographical references, including to the formidable Himalayas. Representational image. Credit: Wikipedia

For many Indians, an enduring childhood memory is standing in an assembly line at school and singing Sare jahan se achha, Hindustan hamara.

But what was this idea of ‘Hindustan’, really, and did it always imply a sense of superiority to other nations?

The iconic nationalist poem, written by Muhammad Iqbal (1877 –1938), better known as “Allama” Iqbal, in 1904, at the age of 27, is rife with geographical references, from the Himalayas to the multiple rivers that flow across the country:

Parbat woh sabse uncha, hamsaya asman ka,

Woh santari hamara, woh pasban hamara.

(That highest mountain, the companion of the skies,

which is our sentry and our watchman)

Godi mein khelti hain, uski hazaron nadiyan

Gulshan hai jinke dam se rashk i jinan hamara      

(In its lap play thousands of streams,

because of them, heavens envy our gardens)

Ae ab e rood e Ganga, woh din hain yad tujhko,

utra tere kinare jab karwan hamara

(Oh the water of Ganges! Do you remember those days,

when our caravan halted on your banks?)

Muhammad Iqbal. Credit: Wikipedia

Muhammad Iqbal. Credit: Wikipedia

The third couplet reminds us that numerous caravans have halted on the banks of Ganges through the ages and that the Indian nation is defined by these continuous migrations, not by ‘original’ inhabitants of any kind or an ‘original’ culture. What Indians share, according to Iqbal, is a common geography, not a common language, culture or religion. Hence, in the next couplet, Iqbal reminds us that:

mazhab nahi sikhata apas mein bair rakhna,

hindi hain hum, watan hai hindostan hamara.

(Religion does not teach us to hate each other,

We are Hindustanis, Hindustan is our homeland)

Iqbal wrote another poem, ‘Hindustani bachhon ka qaumi geet (‘The national song of Hindustani children’), before 1904, which refers to the same idea of India being constituted by continuous migration and diverse cultures:

Chishti ne jis zameen par paigham e haq sunaya,

Nanak ne jis chaman mein wahdat ka geet gaya

(The land where Chishti delivered the true message,

the land where Nanak sang the song of unity)

Tatariyon ne jisko apna watan banaya,

jis ne hijaziyon se dasht e arab chhudaya

(the land the Tartars made their home,

for which the Arabs forgot their desert)

Mera watan wohi hai, mera watan wohi hai

(that land is my homeland, that land is my homeland)

Akbar Allahabadi

Akbar Allahabadi (1846-1921) was already an established poet when Iqbal wrote his ode to Hindustan. With typical wit, of which he was a pioneer in Urdu poetry, he responded to Iqbal in the same metre and rhyme the latter had used in sare jahan se achha:

College mein ho chuka jab imtehan hamara,

seekha zaban ne kahna Hindustan hamara

(After we finished our exams in college,

we learnt to say ‘our Hindustan’)

Raqbe ko kam samajh kar Akbar ye bol utthe,

Hindustan kaisa, sara jahan hamara

(Akbar thought the area too small, so he exclaimed,

what is Hindustan, the whole world is ours)

Lekin ye sab ghalat hai, kahna yehi hai lazim

Jo kuchh hai sab khuda ka, wahm o guman hamara

(But all this is nonsense, one should say just this much,

everything belongs to God, only illusions and doubts are ours)


Akbar Allahabadi. Credit: Youtube

In a strikingly logical reply to Iqbal’s enthusiastic ode to the nation, Allahabadi points to the parochial nationalism induced by university education. He then moves from the idea of universal human ownership of the world to the even safer grounds of mysticism, reminding his readers that words like ‘hamara’ (‘ours’) are meaningless. The only thing that humans truly own is their doubts and illusions. While Akbar did take up the challenge of defining India, he used it to question British imperialism:

Ye bat ghalat hai ke mulk e islam hai hind

ye jhooth hai ke mulk e lakshman o ram hai hind

(it is wrong to say that Hind is a Muslim nation

it is wrong to say that Hind is Ram’s or Lakshman’s nation)

Hum sab hain mutee o khair-khwah e English

Europe ke liye bas ek godam hai hind

(All of us are servants and well-wishers of the English.

Hind is but a godown for Europe)

Akbar did not hide his contempt for the advocates of religious nationalism and reduced their new-found identity to a byproduct of European economic machinations. As important protagonists of Urdu poetry in North India, these verses by Iqbal and Akbar indicate the diverse reactions to the new idea of India which was being floated in the last decades of nineteenth century.

In 1908, Iqbal returned to Punjab after a three-year stay in Europe. This led to a reconfiguration of his ideas on the nation and religion, and his poetry borrows increasingly from the repository of Islamic symbolism. This transformation is evident in ‘Tarana e Milli‘, written in 1909:

Cheen o arab hamara, Hindustan hamara

Muslim hain hum watan se, sara jahan hamara

(Central Asia/China is ours, Arabia is ours, Hindustan is ours,

We are Muslims by nation, the whole world is ours)

Dunya ke butkadon mein woh pehla ghar khuda ka

hum uske pasban hain, woh pasban hamara

(Among the idolhouses of the world,

this is the first abode of God,

This is our sentry, and we are its watchmen)

How striking is the change in Iqbal’s ideas about the nation! From the Himalayas as the sentry of a geographical nation, we jump to a nation of faith being guarded by that ‘first idol-less house of God’. It is also striking that Iqbal ends the first sher with the same words that Akbar uses: ‘sara jahan hamara’. However, what is common to both those phases is an obsession with geography. In ‘Tarana e Milli’, he refers to markers of a shared Islamic geography, such as Andalusia in Spain and the river Tigris. Later in Iqbal’s life and career, many of his couplets refer to the territorial idea of the nation as a dangerous political concept, as reflected in the poem ‘Wataniyat‘:

Is daur mein mai aur hai, jam aur hain, jam aur

saqi ne bina ki ravish e lutf o sitam aur

(In this age, the wine is new, the cup is new and the emperor is new,

The cup-bearer has invented new ways of reward and punishment)

tahzeeb ke azar ne tarashwaye sanam aur

muslim ne bhi tameer kiya apna haram aur

(The idol-maker of this age has created new idols,

even the Muslims have declared a new sacred direction]

in taza khudaon mein bada sabse watan hai

jo pairahan iska hai wo mazhab ka kafan hai

(of all these recent deities, the nation is the greatest,

and the cloth that makes its clothes is the shroud of religion)

Iqbal saw territorial nationalism as something that divided humanity and co-religionists, something that ought to be destroyed, and through this poem he urged Muslims to bury the false idol of nationalism.

This most acclaimed poet of the Urdu language, who imagined an India at one point, gave up his vision eventually, making way first for an imagined Muslim nation and then a complete rejection of territorial identity altogether. Akbar, on the other hand, was in complete disagreement with Iqbal from the start, reminding us that colonialism had an important role to play in the formation of Indian identities. It would be a worthwhile exercise to analyse the idea of India as Urdu poetry expressed it during the colonial era, and compare it with similar or parallel expressions in other vernacular literatures.

Sahir Ludhianvi

Finally, we come to the progressive Urdu poet Sahir Ludhianvi (1921-1980) and his take on this string of poems on the idea of India. In a 1958 movie Phir Subah Hogi, he gives us a new version of ‘Hindustan hamara:

Cheen o Arab hamara, Hindustan hamara,

rahne ko ghar nahi hai, sara jahan hamara

(China is ours, Arabia is ours, India is ours,

we don’t have a place to live, the whole world is ours)

jebein hain apni khali, kyon deta warna gali,

wo santari hamara, wo pasban hamara

(Our pockets are empty, otherwise why would

our sentry and our watchmen scold us)

jitni bhi buildingein theen, sethon ne bant lee hain

footpath Bambai ke hain aashyan hamara

(All the buildings have been divided among the rich,

the footpath of Bombay are our homes)

Sahir Ludhianvi. Credit: Wikipedia

Sahir Ludhianvi. Credit: Wikipedia

Although the first couplet is attributed to Majeed Lahori by the online repository Rekhta.org, the rest of the poem has been written by Sahir for the movie. In this poem, the message is strongly socialist: since the majority does not own any land, there is no question of ownership of this or that piece of land, and the whole world belongs to the downtrodden. Sahir also turns the watchman metaphor upside down: the abusive watchman who exploits the poor is far from Iqbal’s watchful and caring sentry. This third version adds to the set of diverse reactions of the Urdu poets to the idea of India, which ranges from Iqbal’s emphasis on global migration patterns, to Akbar’s and Sahir’s attention to the nuanced meaning of ownership and the economic conditions of colonial and post-colonial India.

The debates about the concept of Indianness and the Indian nation among these Urdu poets is far removed from the imagined nation of the Hindu right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which has gained immense popularity in recent times and which postulates an inherent and timeless ‘Indian’ culture and civilisation.

Sharjeel Imam is a graduate from Computer Science, IIT Bombay and is currently doing his MPhil in Modern History from JNU. His research topic is “Partition and Pogroms in Bihar in 1946”. Besides his academic and professional involvements, he is interested in Urdu poetry and literature.