Indeed. Iqbal was an Indian, and he died Indian.Usually a disclaimer follows the text but here it’s pertinent to begin with one. I’m no expert on Allama Muhammad Iqbal nor have the depth of understanding of Urdu, Farsi and Arabic to comprehend and critique his works. I’m merely someone who’s read some of this great poet’s more popular works and have a slightly above-average interest in the history of the subcontinent. This is a personal narrative of my tryst with Iqbal and some observations - on his birth anniversary that’s commemorated in Pakistan as ‘Iqbal Day’ — to borrow from the last Mughal emperor — रस्म-ऐ-दुनिया भी है, मौका भी है, दस्तूर भी है।
As most children growing up in India in the 1980s (I haven’t the faintest idea what they’re studying in schools these days), my Delhi school introduced me to the song ‘Sare Jahan Se Accha Hindustan Humara’. At the time I knew Iqbal as the lyricist for this rather nationalistic and patriotic song that we would sing with gusto, albeit slightly out of key, at events in school to mark Republic Day (January 26) or Independence Day (August 15). Of the nine-odd couplets that the song is composed off, we would sing these four…
सारे जहाँ से अच्छा हिन्दोसिताँ हमारा
हम बुलबुलें हैं इसकी यह गुलसिताँ हमारा
परबत वह सबसे ऊँचा, हम्साया आसमाँ का वह संतरी हमारा, वह पासबाँ हमारा
गोदी में खेलती हैं इसकी हज़ारों नदियाँ गुल्शन है जिनके दम से रश्क-ए-जनाँ हमारा
मज़्हब नहीं सिखाता आपस में बैर रखना
हिंदी हैं हम, वतन है हिन्दोसिताँ हमारा
That would have been that had I not read politics, history and economics at college for an undergraduate degree.
And that was a reintroduction to Iqbal — the same man who’d penned those lines was also the ‘Spiritual Father of Pakistan’ , the man whose address at Allahabad on a balmy December afternoon in 1930 had led to the rise of the ‘two-nation theory’, a speech that would galvanise not only the Muslim League but would be taken forward by Muhammad Ali Jinnah and sever the subcontinent into a painful partition in 1947 (wounds of which are yet to heal in many cases, and the deep scars of that split haunt the history of South Asia and shapes the thought process of citizens of three nations which cumulatively house 1/6th of all humanity).
Sir Muhammad Iqbal was the President of the Muslim League when he made that speech and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, later the ‘Father of the Pakistani Nation’ and its Quaid-e-Azam was in self-imposed exile in London.
That set me off on a whirlwind of a sort that began with Iqbal and has now enriched my Urdu vocabulary and understanding of poetry — a kind of reading that most of my contemporaries from my Kolkata college wouldn’t have mustered the wherewithal for. Allama Iqbal may have moved from poet-philosopher to political ideologue, I moved down the beanpole of politics to appreciate a language that’s quintessentially Indian.
And Iqbal in 1904, when he wrote ‘Sare Jahan Se Accha’ must have been exactly that — quintessentially Indian, a man who despised his colonial identity. In the three or four verses of the song we never got around to singing, I discovered a nationalist that harked to India’s greatness as a civilisation and to its pain under British rule.
यूनान-ओ-मिस्र-ओ-रूमा सब मिट गए जहाँ से अब तक मगर है बाक़ी नाम-ओ-निशाँ हमारा
कुछ बात है कि हस्ती मिटती नहीं हमारी सदियों रहा है दुश्मन दौर-ए-ज़माँ हमारा
इक़्बाल! कोई महरम अपना नहीं जहाँ में मालूम क्या किसी को दर्द-ए-निहाँ हमारा !
I’ve never quite fathomed what set of the ‘Pan Islamism’ in Iqbal that brought about the ‘Two-Nation Theory’, why he pushed Jinnah and other Muslim League leaders of the time to push for a homeland for Muslims in the North-West of India. In his presidential address to the Muslim League on December 29, 1930, he said: “I would like to see the Punjab, North-West Frontier Province, Sindh and Baluchistan amalgamated into a single state. Self-government within the British Empire, or without the British Empire, the formation of a consolidated Northwest Indian Muslim state appears to me to be the final destiny of the Muslims, at least of Northwest India”
That idea that took seed in 1930, had flowered by his death in 1938. Months before his death, he said of Jinnah: “There is only one way out. Muslims should strengthen Jinnah's hands. They should join the Muslim League. Indian question, as is now being solved, can be countered by our united front against both the Hindus and the English. Without it, our demands are not going to be accepted. People say our demands smack of communalism. This is sheer propaganda. These demands relate to the defence of our national existence.... The united front can be formed under the leadership of the Muslim League. And the Muslim League can succeed only on account of Jinnah. Now none but Jinnah is capable of leading the Muslims.”
It has always struck me as ironical that the man who was Pakistan’s ’spiritual father’ never lived to see the idea taking shape — never saw the distress of Partition or what his idea had led to. ‘Allama’ literally means ‘learned’ — would the learned Iqbal have rescinded from his ‘Pan Islamism’ had he known of the consequences, was this the Pakistan that he envisaged, could he have possibly foreseen the controversy over Kashmir? He was after all very proud of his Kashmiri Brahmanical lineage — his forefathers from the Sapru clan had converted to Islam in the 1700s — and settled in the plains of Punjab near Sialkot.
There are many of these what-ifs that have often lifted and dropped of my thoughts and indeed some discussions that I’ve had with my friend Rahmani. Rahmani, a student of history from Aligarh, quips often what prompted Iqbal’s thought swing.
The years from 1904 to 1938 were tumultuous ones — the empires in 1904 had collapsed by 1938 and the world had witnessed the “Great War”, learned little from it and was on the cusp of another one. Iqbal had spent time in London and Cambridge — earning a tripos and being called up to the bar — and in Germany doing his doctoral thesis. In his ‘Pan Islamist’ politics perhaps he found a better anchor for all the Western influences he’d acquired - or perhaps he just felt very marginalised in an Indian political landscape where the nationalist discourse was dominated by Mahatma Gandhi, his protege Jawahar Lal Nehru and the Indian National Congress.
But be that as it may, Iqbal was an Indian. He may be buried in Pakistan and countless roads and buildings in our neighbouring country may be named after him, but that doesn’t diminish his contribution to India. Just as Kazi Nazrul Islam is Bangladesh’s national poet, but equally celebrated in West Bengal, we must find it in ourselves to celebrate the Shair-e-Mashriq (Poet of the East) in India — 70 years after partition, it may prove a salve to wipe out or diminish some old scars.
The views of the author are personal.