It is unusual but nevertheless pleasing to be invited once again by the Khwaja Ahmad Abbas Trust to share my thoughts on that remarkable personality. Could it be that the Trust in its large-heartedness felt generous enough to give me the opportunity to correct my perspectives? Alternatively, does it anticipate a reinforcement of these perspectives?
Today’s theme is ‘the role of Khwaja Ahmad Abbas in shaping national consciousness.’ This he did in his age, in another era, in an idiom when being open-minded and progressive was perhaps relatively easier. He had taken to heart Jawaharlal Nehru’s advice to ‘live dangerously’ and felt free enough to practice it in his work.
By his own description, Abbas was ‘a communicator of ideas’, an advocate of causes, not an adherent of ideological conformity. This is reflected in his writings over decades and was explicit brought out in the piece Communism and I.
Abbas was a discriminating Nehruvian, as is evident from his three essays entitled My Long Love Affairs. He subscribed to Nehru’s faith in the basic values of the Constitution of India summed up as democracy, religious tolerance, economic development and cultural pluralism.
His power of imagination is well portrayed in an essay on what he called ‘the most popular slogan of the Indian national movement’ and on what encounters with Gandhi ji did to ordinary people. It is titled Five Faces of Mother India and is devoted to the concept of a collective Mother India as depicted by five humble unknown women ‘who, between them summed up and symbolised after their encounter with Gandhi and his ways the eternal grace, the life-giving maternal devotion, the earthly wisdom and abiding faith that one likes to associate with the concept of Supreme Mother.’
The first of these, Khaddar Shroud, is a childhood memory of the wizened face of an old woman and the impact on her life after of listening to Gandhiji in Panipat. The second, The Defeat of Manu, raises and answers the question: does Mother India who is the Mother Supreme of all the people of this country also believes in Manu’s divisions and castes or would she defy the ancient social code? The third, Flowers in Her Hair, Dust On Her Feet depicts how a South Indian Brahmin family overcomes its traditional, orthodox, ways. The fourth, The Refugee shows how Mother India in the shape of the intensely human heart of a refugee woman from Rawalpindi has neither anger nor hatred but only memories. The fifth, A Bit of India in Pakistan! is the author’s own mother who migrated to Karachi but from her death bed sought permission to return to die in India. Permission to resume her citizenship was given but death preceded her journey. ‘She in a Karachi graveyard, but her soul, her memory, the ideal of her life, are with us in India. And six feet of earth in Pakistan will for ever be Indian soil – for buried in it is my mother, who also was Mother India.’
Seven decades later the consciousness of yore is under assault. We have to ask individually, and as a people, how committed are we to these in actual practice? If not, where and why did we fail? Do we have alternatives for reaching the common good?
Let me dwell on the optimistic. The last two months have shown a remarkable aspect of the Indian civic character namely, the capacity of the citizen body to go beyond formal structures of opinion of groups and political parties and instead come together spontaneously to raise their voice for a good cause in a very Gandhian way – of peaceful agitation. What are passionately and prominently on display are the Tiranga, the Preamble of the Constitution and the singing of the National Anthem.
The flag symbolises the unity under its banner of We the People of India. So do the National Anthem, and the principles and values inscribed in the Preamble. The latter have a sequential order that is critical to understanding them: Justice, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Thus fraternity cannot be achieved without dispensing justice, liberty and equality to the citizens.
How would have Khwaja Ahmad Abbas reacted to this form of public action? How would he the journalist, the film maker and the story writer respond to the challenge of interpreting this form of expression of dissent?
My guess is that he would be ingeniously creative, as inventive as the newly born sources of hope scattered around the four corners of our land, nameless but not faceless, assertive in their claiming of constitutional rights, in rejection of charity, boldly facing the edifice put in place by their own exercise of franchise but not afraid of confronting the Leviathan, the monster that goes by the name of the present-day Indian state and its antics of infinite cleverness in deforming revered institutions and endowing their functioning with an unprecedented elasticity of time in initiating the processes of accountability and restoring public trust.
Amidst last week’s scenes of doom and gloom, I happened to re-read an old piece, pre-1947, written by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas: Who Killed India. It reproduced a passage from the column he penned every week for the Bombay weekly Blitz:
India was killed and stabbed in the heart, by every Hindu who killed a Muslim, by every Muslim who killed a Hindu,, by every Hindu or Muslim who committed or abetted or connived at, arson, rape and murder during the recent (and earlier) communal riots.
That an imperialist power planned the dismemberment of our country in the very hour of our freedom is not surprising. The wonder, and the tragedy, is that India should have been killed by the children of India.
Do we learn nothing? Must we continue to repeat our own past?