Thus Spoke Iqbal


One of the most telling signs of our intellectual backwardness is our obsession with ‘great men’ of history. ‘Great men’ not as they really were, became and were becoming but as ossified stereotypes used both for the legitimacy of the status quo and for ‘personally’ liberating feats of empty iconoclasm. Jinnah said this and Iqbal said that. And because they said this and that, such and such conclusions follow. A few liberal jibes here and there taken at an icon ensures your independence of thought and superiority of intellect. A few reactionary, abusive and empty-headed responses from the Right show that the responders are fully equipped with historical truth to defend the pillars of their faith. The pillars apparently also include worshipping the desecrated icon in all his officially approved forms – other forms having been banished from discourse long ago or, worse, having never entered it in the first place. The exercise remains essentially barren as it degenerates into personal jibes at each other. Anything that does not fit the stereotype is either ignored or – if it comes to light – distorted.

We are told that Bhagat was a freedom fighter whom we should honour and that Jinnah spoke for him while Iqbal maintained a mysterious silence. This ruffles a few patriotic feathers and we are subjected to a barrage of self-righteous rants against ‘secularists’ who are allergic to things Islamic and Pakistani. A conspiracy to drive a wedge between the daring Jinnah and the dreamer Iqbal stands exposed thanks to the constant vigilance of our brains by the noble souls suffused with Pakistan ideology. The storm rages – names are called, taunts are exchanged – and the storm abates. What lies dead on the vanity table is a possibility that our understanding of past and present could have moved at least an inch beyond where it was before.

Why should we honour the ‘freedom fighter’ Bhagat? What kind of fight and what kind of freedom were his? What makes him different from the many other freedom fighters the pages of our history are replete with? Were Bhagat and his men “merely trigger-happy adventurous patriots” who died bravely for freedom? Is it or is it not the case that what we lost in them was “an alternative post-independent framework of governance”? Is Bhagat relevant to our times – our times of war, terror and drones, our times of peace, progress and dialogue, the times of WTO, WB and globalisation? If he is not relevant, then why add another idol to the long line of gods we have to worship? A Bhagat castrated by the status quo is what we want?

Yes Jinnah spoke for him. And he was magnificent when he did. So what? We are supposed to love Jinnah a bit more after reading his speech to the legislative assembly? Does that speech have anything to say to our times – our times of the PPO, the missing people, the military operations? Read that speech, it must appear very unfashionable to our liberal, war-loving minds with its talk of “universal resentment” against imperialism and “the root causes.”

When a debate of the empty sort rages, it throws up gems from all sides. Take the pick of the lot: “Iqbal did not support Bhagat Singh because Bhagat Singh wanted freedom for India. Iqbal wanted to divide India. Bhagat Singh exploded bombs. Iqbal did not agree with Bhagat’s ideas. If Bhagat’s bomb explosions were right, then why are the Kashmiri mujahideen’s explosions against the Indian army and those by the Afghan Taliban against the US forces wrong?”

Reading like a narrative fit for second-grade students, these lines treat history as if telling it were a task simpler than giving a minor a haircut. With little record of what Iqbal actually thought of Bhagat Singh, we must assume that the writer is in communion with the ghost of Iqbal. What is recorded is Iqbal’s signature on a Lahore High Court bar report terming invalid and ultra vires the Lahore Conspiracy Case Ordinance promulgated by the viceroy to try Bhagat Singh and his men.

Such ahistorical ‘reasoning’ is meant to be lapped up by the gallery. Bhagat Singh’s struggle was for the emancipation of the toiling masses no matter what their creed or caste – and no matter what Bhagat’s methods were. Only intellectual poverty can make possible such a comparison between the youth of the HSRA and the criminal bigotry of those who – supported and nurtured by security agencies – would corrupt and destroy the Kashmiri people’s genuine movement for self-determination or those whose ‘vision’ would brutalise a whole society.

The logic here seems to be that if Bhagat was wrong then the Kashmiri and Afghan resistance are wrong. And if he was right, then so are they. But the logician falls short of telling us where he stands in the scheme and instead attacks a position which was never there in the writing he is trying to demolish.

Iqbal, who allegedly wanted to divide India at the time Bhagat and his men walked to the gallows, delivered his famous Allahabad address in 1930 which is considered to be the forerunner of the idea of Pakistan. Iqbal though complained in 1934 that his scheme of a ‘Muslim province within the Indian federation was being confused with the Pakistan scheme of a separate federation of Muslim provinces… outside the Indian federation.

In the Allahabad address – for all his passion for Islam and his problem with nationhood based only on territory – Iqbal does not talk of separation but of a dialectical harmony of cultures so that the Indians could become one nation fighting for freedom, with the Muslim ready to ‘stake his all for the freedom of India’ – provided that he is entitled to free development of his culture and tradition in his ‘own Indian homeland.’

He says: “The political bondage of India has been and is a source of infinite misery to the whole of Asia. It has suppressed the spirit of the East and wholly deprived her of that joy of self-expression which once made her the creator of a great and glorious culture.” But “there will be no peace in the country until the various peoples that constitute India are given opportunities of free self-development on modern lines without abruptly breaking with their past.”

Iqbal continues with even greater profoundness in his address to the Muslim Conference two years later:

“I do believe in the possibility of constructing a harmonious whole whose unity cannot be disturbed by the rich diversity which it must carry within its bosom. The problem of ancient Indian thought was how the one became many without sacrificing its oneness. Today this problem has come down from its ethical heights to the grosser plane of our political life, and we have to solve it in its reverse form, ie, how the many can become one, without sacrificing its plural character.”

Iqbal’s dialectical vision of unity and diversity was too much for the pygmies of all sides that then roamed the political scene of India. Twenty-three-year-old Bhagat Singh was not one of them. It is still too much for the communalists of the Subcontinent. It is still too much for our Pakistani patriots who shudder at the thought of unity of one nation in the diversity of all other spheres, including religion and culture. Their bigotry is blind to the complex interaction of a sensitive and deeply romantic soul such as Iqbal with the weight and turbulence of his times…
-the writer is editor oped at The News International. This article is his fourth in a series on Bhagat Singh
-courtesy: The News International