Sir Muhammad Iqbal
By Mohammed Wajihuddin
Nov 5, 2012
In The Discovery of India, Jawaharlal Nehru recollects his last meeting with poet Mohammed Iqbal a few months before the latter's death in Lahore in 1938. Nehru says that an ailing Iqbal, comparing him with Jinnah, had remarked: "Jinnah is a politician and you are a patriot."
While that should have silenced Iqbal's critics in India who continue to blame him for coming up with the idea of Pakistan, the poet who paid tribute to India's multiculturalism, called Lord Ram Imam-e-Hind (Leader of India) and celebrated its eternal beauty through numerous poems, including Sare Jahan Se Achcha, is still a pariah in India. How else does one explain the country's collective amnesia about him on his birth anniversary (November 9)? While the government has completely forgotten Iqbal, the public at large also seems to be abandoning him. Barring Dongri-based think-tank Urdu Markaz, which is planning to celebrate an Iqbal Week through lectures, Mushaira and singing of Iqbal's poetry, Mumbai too is choosing to ignore the poet's birth anniversary.
Ignorance combined with doctored history has misled even many educated Indians to believe that the once great patriot later turned fanatical and chose Islamic Pakistan over secular India. The late scholar Rafiq Zakaria was shocked when Pramod Mahajan, then general secretary of the BJP, at a seminar at Nehru Centre in 1990, said that "a great Indian Muslim like Iqbal who penned Sare Jahan Se Achcha later divided India". "I reminded Mahajan of his ignorance and decided that very day to try and set the record straight," writes Zakaria in Iqbal: The Poet And Politician. The book not only details Iqbal's love and admiration for India's iconic figures like Ram, Guru Nanak, Swami Ram Teerath and classical poets Vishwamitra and Bhartrahari but also traces the reasons for hatred against the poet.
The seed that sowed doubt about Iqbal's patriotism was in his 1930 presidential address at the Allahabad session of the Muslim League. Addressing a motley crowd at an old Haveli, Iqbal proposed the creation of a Muslim province within the Indian federation, comprising the Muslim-dominated areas of Punjab, North-West Frontier, Sindh and Balochistan. "Iqbal never demanded a separate home for Muslims outside India. He didn't include the Indians of Bengal or Central India," says Abdul Haq, Urdu scholar and professor emeritus at Delhi University. "In Independent India too, we have given special status to some north-eastern states and Jammu & Kashmir to safeguard their unique culture. Iqbal's demand should have been seen in that spirit." Haq admits that since Iqbal's formulation suited the supporters of Pakistan, they lapped it up and declared him as the "ideological father" of the country-which too made him a detested figure among many Indians.
Mumbai-based Urdu scholar Abdus Sattar Dalvi, who translated Zakaria's book on Iqbal into Urdu, argues that years before Iqbal uttered the controversial plan at Allahabad; nationalist leader Lala Lajpat Rai had written a series of articles in Tribune favouring the creation of a separate Muslim state within India, comprising the Muslim-dominated north-west provinces. "Why doesn't anyone question Lala's patriotism for his views?" asks Dalvi.
Most scholars agree that as a politician Iqbal was a big failure. But that doesn't undermine his contribution as one of India's greatest poets. Anwar Pasha, professor of Urdu at Jawaharlal Nehru University, says that even if Pakistan regards Iqbal as its founding father, India should not abandon him as he championed our struggle against foreign rule. Iqbal, says Pasha, attacked both Hindu and Muslim fanaticism, ridiculed orthodox mullahs and Pandits and exhorted not only Indians but Asians against western imperialism. Acknowledging Iqbal's contributions, poet-freedom fighter Sarojni Naidu had called Iqbal the "poet laureate of Asia".
Iqbal fought communalism-attacking fundamentalist Hindus for questioning Muslims' loyalty to India, he wrote: Patthar ki moorton mein samjha hai tu khuda hai/khak-e-watan ka mujhko har zarra devta hai (For you god is in stone's idol/To me every particle of the country's soil is a deity). Although he used Islamic metaphors extensively in his poetry, Iqbal attacked the sloth-filled Muslim masses and supremacist, narrow-minded clergy.
However, he also received flak from a section for using Islamic metaphors extensively during his later years. Many even called him "reactionary". "He did have a streak of pan-Islamism in him. But the charge that he became a poet of Islam is wrong. The poetry of Kalidas and Tulsidas is inspired by Hindu mythology. Just as we don't call them communal Hindu poets, it is unfair to call Iqbal a fundamentalist Muslim poet," says Mumbai-based Urdu critic Fuzail Jafri.
Perhaps those ignoring the poet's birth anniversary would do well to heed Tagore's words: "India just cannot afford to ignore Iqbal whose poetry has universal appeal."