It is a privilege to be invited to deliver this Memorial Lecture. The late Hashim Abdul Halim sahib was a remarkable personality in terms of his commitments and achievements. Many tributes have been paid to him; I can only add my own and recall what the former Governor of West Bengal Mr. Gopalkrishna Gandhi said that while we “mourn his absence but draw everlasting inspiration from his example of a Marxist mind combining with a nationalist heart to make the perfect Republican.”
His record of being the Speaker of the West Bengal Legislative Assembly for 29 years in six conservative terms beginning from 1982 is unquestionably a national record that is unlikely to be equaled and is the best tribute to his sense of correctness. That responsibility is unrelenting and I say this with some personal knowledge as a former Chairman of the Rajya Sabha for a decade.
His lifelong association with the Iran Society speaks for itself and the esteem that this august body enjoys. The late Professor Suniti Kumar Chatterjee’s description of an Iranian as ‘a learned man who is bold but friendly and whose aim is not to conquer but to convince the opposition’ has been applied with justice to him by a contributor to this society’s journal published in 2015 who described Abdul Halim sahib as ‘a Bengali gentleman with Iranian ethics’.
The Iran Society, depicted in a publication of repute some years back, ‘’stands like a small hidden oasis of harmony and knowledge seeking. It has remained that way for the last 75 years, untouched by the politics of the day and never straying from the purpose for which it was create.’
This association of ideas and inherited traditions allows me today to speak about India and Iran, or Iran and India, in the wider context of cultural history in the fullest sense of the term. Its basis is neighbourhood whose boundaries have varied with age and time. One Indian ideological dignitary in fashion these days described Iran as ‘nothing but the base of Aryabhumi’. The Iranian claims depicted in the sculptures in Persepolis suggest scenes of annual homage and loyalty from provinces of the empire; these included parts of India.
The game of chess in the shape of chaturanga was a gift carried by an ambassador to the Iranian court; over time the Iranian mind modified it into takhte that is said to offer greater negotiating space to the player.
Our greatest gain perhaps was the Persian language that for centuries remained the court language in different parts of our land and left its impact on regional languages including Bengali. Many centuries back the poet Hafiz Shirazi was invited to his court by Sultan Ghiyathuddin Sikandar of Bengal. The journey did not materialize and the Sultan received instead an ode that included this often recited couplet:
Shakkar shikan shawand hami tutiyan-e-Hind
Zeen qand-e-parsi ba Bangala mi-rawad
All the parrots of India will crack sugar
Through this Persian candy which is going to Bengal
I might add that poetry, even good poetry, has to ration ‘qand’ since excess of sugar leads to diabetes!
Tradition has it that travel to India was considered a special virtue in educated circles of Iranian society. This is testified to by a couplet of the 15th century poet Ali Quli Salim:
Neest dar Iran zameen samaan-e-kamal
Ta niyamat su-e- Hindustan hina rangeen na shud
There exist not in Persia the means of acquiring perfection
Hena does not develop its colour until it comes to India
These traditions persisted along with geopolitics and statecraft. Wars were fought and peace made. Nor was the relationship lacking in admonitions and advice as was rendered by Emperor Jalaluddin Akbar to Shah Abbas the Great. Its university is evident and has a contemporary relevance: In internal affairs, unity is prior to discrepancy and peace is better than war specially as we have always differences of religion until now and considered all classes of people as slaves of God…We must be kind to all people who are treasures of god and have mercy on every one, no matter what their religion and idea is.’
The Iranian interest and curiosity about India persists to this day. Many years back a high ranking religious personality sought a visa to visit India. His stated purpose was to see a sanam (an idol) about which so much is said in Persian literature and poetry!
I recall here a passage in the Travelogue of Rabindranath Tagore and his visit in April 1932 to the tomb of the poet Hafiz in Shiraz where the keeper of the mausoleum persuaded him to take the traditional devination or fal-e-Hafiz on the volume of the poet’s diwan. Tagore had, earlier in the day, discussed with the Governor of Shiraz the problem of conflict of faith in multi religious societies and this was apparently uppermost in his mind when he closed his eyes. The relevant verses on the opened page had an allegorical import that seemed to answer his concern. Its opening line was:
bood ayad ki dar maikadha ba-kushayand bood
If only the door of the wine houses were to be opened
(The knots of problems in our work will be resolved)
Tagore writes that ‘friends present there were amazed in noticing the compatibility between my wish and the implied answer. Sitting near the tomb a signal flashed through my mind…We were as it were companions in the same tavern…’
I have said enough to show that the Iran Society has a relevant role in furthering and sustaining a relationship that goes beyond the normal state–level cultural exchanges. That it exists in Kolkata is not accidental; this city’s relationship with the language and culture is well known and is a tribute to Bengali intellectual attainments and their diversity.
Cultural entities and political ones coincide with or overflow their perimeters. This is well reflected at different times in India-Iran relationship. To a student of geopolitics in the medieval period, the power equation of the Moghuls and the Qutbshahis on the one hand, and of the Moghuls and the Safavids on the other, sheds interesting light on the rules of the game of political chess that have an abiding quality and transcend limitations of time and geography.
Equally evident is the persisting nature of instrumentalities – threat or use of force, interference on pretexts of faith, use and misuse of trade and traders, and attempts to seek ‘fifth columns’ based on affinities of race or origin – that were used to further policy objectives.
Examples of these propensities can be traced in history and in recent times. The Mogul designs on the Deccan entities, and the latter’s close affinity to Persia, inevitably resulted in clash of interests and perceptions. The Moguls objected to the recitation in Golkonda of the Shah of Persia’s name in the Friday prayer sermons. In the War of Succession after Shah Jahan’s death, there was clear evidence of Safavid intervention on the side of Dara Shikoh and, in a counter move, Aurangzeb contemplated but did not pursue an invasion of Persia in alliance with the Uzbegs.
In recent times tensions developed at the time of the Bangladesh War of 1971 and after it Delhi sent P.N. Haksar as special emissary to the Shah of Iran who put a blunt question to the visitor: ‘tell me, quite frankly, is India even remotely interested in the breakup of Pakistan?’ Following a long conversation, relations were restored and touched new heights. Another dip followed by restoration was registered in early 1990s. This continue to recur from time to time followed by correctives emanating from imperative of geo-political and economic interests that are appreciated by both sides.
On an earlier occasion and on this platform, in September 2014, I had said much on the imperatives of the present-day relationship. A recent study by an eminent scholar on India and Asian Geopolitics opines that “for India, Iran is a critical partner in west Asia”; it goes on to say that “We therefore have good reasons, apart from civilzational and historical inks, to stay clear of attempts to isolate and contain Iran.”
Their relevance is evident and so does the beneficial role of the Iran Society in irrigating the cultural and intellectual landscape for its furthering. This memorial meeting is an important ingredient of it. Thank you, Jai Hind