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Vestiges of Nehruvian Nationalism: Reading Sahir Ludhianvi’s songs today

By Sania Hashmi

Justice Pratibha Rani of the Delhi High Court began her judgement on the sedition case against Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union President, Kanhaiya Kumar, with the Bollywood song ‘Mere desh ki dharti sona ugle, ugle heere moti, mere desh ki dharti’ (My motherland churns out diamonds and pearls) in an attempt to highlight why Kumar should have stopped any ‘anti-national’ activity from happening in the campus. To the uninitiated, this may come across as bizarre, but to those of us who have grown up in independent India, it is common knowledge that patriotic Bollywood songs are amongst the greatest testimonials to Indian nationalism, resounding from neigbourhood corners on every national holiday. Just like there are the likes of Kumar, who choose to question the dominant Hindutva ideology of the present government, which seeks to kill all forms of dissent, there have also been songwriters in Bollywood, albeit few, who have questioned dominant narratives of India’s vacuously undefined nationalism. Leading this motley group of dissenters was Sahir Ludhianvi, known for his courage to question the totalizing narrative of Indian nationalism.

I remember brimming with pride while discussing the beauty of the seventh wonder of the world with my father when I was all but eleven years of age, who then recited the following lines from Sahir’s ‘Taj Mahal’ to me:

Ek Shehenshah ne daulat ka sahara lekar
Hum gareebo ki mohabbat ka udaaya hai mazaak! 

(An Emperor in his greatness used up all his wealth
In showing to us how worthless our own love stories were!)

Right from the time one enters primary school, one finds the Taj Mahal in all its grandeur spread across book covers of almost all social science books. Most Bollywood movies would have a customary romantic song shot against the proud Mahal dominating the backdrop. Who can forget Dilip Kumar’s Vijay in Leader crooning to Rafi’s ‘Ek shehenshah ne banva ke hansi Taj Mahal, sari duniya ko mohabbat ki nishaani di hai.’ (An emperor, in building the Taj Mahal, has immortalised love till the end of time.) Consequently, we may never have visited the Taj Mahal personally, but we can vouch for its beauty, and driven by our patriotism, even claim that it is the most exquisite architectural creation of this world. It is a cause we are ready to live, fight, and die for. However, in Sahir I found someone who did not even find it beautiful. In Sahir, I found someone who viewed it as an icon, which symbolised the greatness of arrogant kings. In Sahir, I found someone who thought the love stories of those thousands of workers who actually built the Taj Mahal to be far more interesting than the pompous advertisement of a wealthy king. In Sahir, I found someone who called out the incongruity between love and royalty and the complete absence of any relation therein. In Sahir, I saw someone who was more affected by the blood-soaked pathways than the gem-studded walls they led to. In Sahir, I found a dissenter. In Sahir, I found a rebel.

One of the main concerns that emergees in his oeuvre with respect to fidelity is an individual’s relationship with the society, with questions of patriotism and the sentimentality attached therein. Sahir bemoans this blind sentimentality that conveniently shuts its eyes against rampant misuse of power and the general misery of the country’s citizens. In one of his poems, for instance, he says:

Hai jinhe sabse zyaada daava-e-hubbul-vatan
Aaj un ki wajah se hubb-e-vatan rusva to hai. 

(These self-appointed torchbearers of patriotism
Are the same people who have today rendered it a slur.)

Debates around and claims to patriotism are not new to the Indian state. Ever since its birth in 1947, there have been numerous attempts to establish ‘correct’ ethics to nationalism and patriotism. One of the pioneers who dreamed of and later formed the modern State of India was Jawaharlal Nehru. In common parlance, a Nehruvian is someone who grew up during the time when Nehru was the unquestioned leader of the masses, and therefore imbibed the values of tolerance that Nehru stood for. While crediting himself for coining the phrase ‘Nehruvian Indian’, Ramachandra Guha defines them as people who “transcended the divisions of race and religion, caste and class, gender and geography” and displayed a “conspicuous lack of parochialism”. Sahir, in my opinion, is one of the strongest ideologues of the Nehruvian school of thought, an important aspect of which is the freedom to critique the government and its policies, something that Sahir made the most of. Nehru’s famous appeal, “Don’t spare me, Shankar”, to the cartoonist Keshav Shankar Pillai, perhaps encapsulates this Nehruvian understanding of liberty and freedom of expression that one cannot dare to engage with today.

Jingoism in TV studios decide what course nationalist policy-makers are going to take even in something as commercial and brazenly neutral as the Hindi film industry. One of the most frightening consequences of these draconian pronouncements was recently witnessed when Arnab Goswami started #BoycottPakistaniArtists on social media as a directive to movie producers to stop employing artists from the neighbouring country in their projects. Karan Johar, who found himself in the eye of the storm, had to come out with a video proving his nationalism to the country with the promise that he would never cast Pakistani artistes in his movies again. That he buckled under pressure did not come as a surprise to many since anyone who chooses to not fall in line is pronounced to be anti-national.

At this juncture, one is reminded of Sahir’s fearless interrogation, “Jinhe naaz hai Hind par woh kahan hain?” (Where are the patriots now?), which focuses on the state of the poor in general and the miserable conditions of life of prostitutes in particular. While he was an ardent believer in Nehru’s secular socialism, it did not stop Sahir from pointing out everything that was amiss, including the constant delay and deferral in Nehru’s deliverance of the promise, and his critique of the war. It was for Nehru that Sahir composed the famous elegy:

Jism ki maut koi maut nahi hoti!
Jism mit jaane se insan nahi mit jaate,
Dhadkane rukne se armaan nahi mit jaate,
Honth jam jaane se farmaan nahi mit jaate,
Saans tham jaane se ailaan nahi mar jaate,
Jism ki maut koi maut nahi hoti!

(Death of the body is no death at all!
The body will perish, the soul will not,
The heart may stop beating, desires will not,
The lips may freeze, the words will not,
The breathing may end, the legacy will not,
Death of the body is no death at all!)

With the slow descent of the Indian National Congress in the popular imagination, being called a Nehruvian is not an aspiration anymore. With the rise of the Hindutva forces, being called secular is not a compliment anymore. And this is precisely why Sahir is as relevant today as he was in his lifetime. It is not only because of his ideology but also because of his oeuvre, which destabilises all aspects of different regimes of power that compromise on humanitarianism while governing the lives of common people. It is the base and not the superstructure that Sahir invests in.

In Pakistan Or Partition of India, Ambedkar records the contemporary discourse on the idea of India as a nation and the contestations therein. He writes that while the Anglo-Indian would argue that there was no India that could be reinstated, the Hindu went out of his way to establish its existence, and that the Hindu reformers who knew that this was a ‘dangerous delusion’ could not openly say anything to the contrary for fear of being called an ‘enemy of the country’. One can observe how the times have changed but the discourse has not. The history of postcolonial India is replete with these contestations from different sects as to who belongs to the country and its culture authentically. In the 1974 movie, Chowkidar, Sahir provided an answer to all such questions with the following lines:

Ye watan teri meri nasl ki jaageer nahi,
Saikdon naslon ki mehnat ne savaara hai isey.

Teri takhleeq nahi hai, meri takhleeq nahi hai,
Hum agar zidd bhi karein uspe toh tasdeeq nahi hai.

Unka virsa ho khandar, ye sitam ijaad na kar,
Teri takhleeq nahi, jo usey barbaad na kar.

(Our lineage does not entitle us to this country
A hundred lines perished in making it what it is.

This is neither your creation nor mine
And no amount of polemics will ever change that.

Do not even scheme to dismantle their heritage,
When you could not create it, you have right to destroy it.)

It would be apt to end with these lines, which are perhaps even more applicable today than they were when they were first written. This makes Sahir and his legacy more relevant than ever. [1]

[1] All translations are mine.

Sania Hashmi
is an MPhil Research Scholar at the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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