Reclaiming radicalism

Issue: 125
Posted: 7 January 10

Barry Pavier

Talat Ahmed, Literature and politics in the Age of Nationalism, The Progressive Episode in South Asia, 1932-56 (Routledge, 2009), £50

Talat Ahmed has written a fine account of the All-India Progressive Writers Association which flourished between 1936 and 1956. In doing so she has rescued it from its frequent fate of being labelled as little more than a front organisation of the Communist Party of India.

The Progressive Writers’ Association was much more complex than that. It was created through the interaction of several forces operating in Indian society. The national struggle for independence from the British, the drive for social transformation within India, and the savage international polarisation between fascism and democracy in the 1930s all came together in its formation.

Talat locates the genesis of the movement in the bitter controversy produced by the publication of Angare (Burning Coals), a collection of Urdu short stories in Lucknow in 1932. Four young Muslim authors wrote about gender relations, organised religion, social and economic inequality and the impact of foreign rule. They were violently denounced in the local Urdu press and by Muslim organisations as “[wounding] the feelings of the entire Muslim community by ridiculing god and his prophets”, a criticism that has a surprisingly contemporary feel to it. The writers decided to make a fight of it in the press, and the Progressive Writers Association can be seen as having sprung from this very public controversy.

One of the Angare authors, Sajjad Zaheer, was then packed off to London to study by his family. In London and later in Paris he mingled both with other radical Indian students and intellectuals (including the soon to be famous novelist Mulk Raj Anand), and with British and European socialist-influenced writers.

In November 1934 Zaheer wrote a final draft of a constitution for the Progressive Writers’ Association. It called for writers to engage with society, specifically by ruthlessly criticising reactionary features of society, and to rescue the arts from the “priestly, academic and decadent [ie English speaking] classes”.

Once back in India Zaheer scored a major coup for the first conference in Lucknow in April 1936. He got Premchand, the doyen of Urdu and Hindi literature, to agree to give the opening address, which gave the association immediate massive credibility. Two years later the second conference in Calcutta received an address from Rabindranath Tagore, Nobel Prize winner for literature and the most prestigious Indian intellectual of the century. Then in 1938 Jawaharlal Nehru attended an Urdu conference of the association. Such endorsements demonstrate the impact that the initiative had over a wide range of literary and political opinion, and it attracted many writers and other intellectuals (3,900 by 1947).

Its growth took place alongside that of the movement against British rule. Campaigning had forced the British Labour government to break with the practice of 170 years of imperial rule and propose negotiating with Indians in 1930. But the Indian National Congress leadership’s failures in the civil disobedience movement allowed the Conservative-led National Government to impose its own plan in 1935, building a political structure carefully designed to be sympathetic to British interests.

Frustrated by the leadership, radicals within the Congress formed the Congress Socialist Party, which the Communists joined in 1936, with Sajjad Zaheer (already a Communist) becoming general secretary in 1938.

Premchand’s 1934 novel Gaban (Stolen Jewels) reflected the political turmoil in its story of a peasant disillusioned with corrupt Congress leaders. Mulk Raj Anand’s 1936 novel Coolie was about a strike of Bombay textile workers and featured a confrontation between a “Red” trade unionist and a compromising Congress union leader.

Alongside their desire to engage with the struggles of the dispossessed within their own society, many Progressive Writers’ Association members were conscious of the international context. Anti-fascism came to be as much a part of their political identity as anti-imperialism and social radicalism. Before 1939 all the evidence seemed to point to the USSR as being the only state fighting fascism, in contrast to the Western democracies’ reconciliation with fascist aggression in Abyssinia, Spain, China and Czechoslovakia. They saw the USSR as an authentic workers’ state.

They followed the line of the Communist Party on the outbreak of war in 1939. In some of the most powerful extracts that she has selected, Talat quotes Ali Sadar Jafri, Kaifi Ahmed and the Hyderabadi poet Makhdoom Mohiuddin as opposing what they saw as an imperialist war. On the next page she quotes Makhdoom three years later with an equally powerful pro-war poem: the association had adopted the Communist Party’s “People’s War” position at its third conference in May 1942 in the wake of the Nazi attack on the USSR.

It was this policy reversal that has made it easy for critics to label the association as a Communist Party front. The party had an even more baleful influence. It adopted a policy of equivalence between the Congress and the Muslim League, arguing that Muslims constituted a separate nationality, with national rights that had to be met. This meant the party was frequently disarmed during the crises of 1945-47 which marked the endgame of the British Indian Empire.

The Progressive Writers’ Association was hamstrung in the one area where it could have decisively intervened, that of language. The potential common national language was Hindustani. It was the single spoken tongue of the mass of people across north India, although written in two very different scripts. Communalists set out to marginalise Hindustani by promoting the two scripts as the basis of distinct “authentic” national languages, Hindi for Hindus and Urdu for Muslims. This controversy was well advanced by 1939 when an association publication carried a pro-Hindustani article, and a major symposium in Delhi in 1940 included Gandhi, who supported Hindustani, Nehru and many other leading academics and politicians.

The argument was central to the nature of whatever states succeeded the British. It was not until 1946 that Sajjad Zaheer produced what was apparently the first major Progressive Writers’ Association intervention on behalf of Hindustani. By then the communal forces had seized the initiative. After Partition communalist politicians managed to get Hindi rather than Hindustani adopted as the language of the Indian state. When Rahul Sanskritayan, a Progressive Writers’ Association member and Communist Party sympathiser, became president of the Hind Sahitya Sammelan literary organisation his inaugural speech denounced Urdu as the language of “Arab jehadis”, and Muslims as “fifth columnists” and traitors. At a 1953 United Provinces conference of the writers’ association he was defended by prominent members such as Amrit Rai (Premchand’s son) and Yashpal. All this suggests that the language issue may not have been seriously addressed by the Association prior to Partition.

This failure to engage with the central cultural aspect of communalism is all the more peculiar as in the 1940s the Progressive Writers’ Association developed the ideal mechanism for promoting a distinctive position on language. The Indian People’s Theatre Association used popular forms of drama to agitate for progressive aims and was spectacularly successful in many areas. For instance, plays were used across India to agitate over the disastrous Bengal Famine of 1943-4, and a little later in the early years of the Telengana peasant uprising in Hyderabad State. Once the progressives moved into mass performances, with large-scale poetry recitals as well as drama, they reached the wide popular audience that enabled them to realise the objectives set out in 1936.

The one cultural form that they did little to reach was film. There was a notable exception in the 1946 film Dharti Ke Lal (Children of the Earth) about the Bengal Famine, although it would seem that another 1946 film, Neecha Nagar (World Down Below), was also in reality an IPTA production. A number of key figures in the post-war Bombay film industry were certainly heavily influenced by the Progressive Writers’ and Progressive Theatre Associations.

One suspects that many in the associations embraced the all too familiar po-faced attitude to popular culture expressed by a member of the writers’ association remnant in Pakistan who attacked the author and former Bombay screenplay writer Sadaat Hasan Manto as being “anti-progressive” because his work was “crude and salacious”. While the undisciplined Manto could never have been described as a “party man”, he was a genius who any serious radical cultural organisation should have been falling over themselves to get involved.

This neglect of film is all the more ironic since the nemesis for the Hindi lobby has arrived in the unusual form of the melodramatic Bollywood romance. Needing an all-India audience, Bollywood has developed a contemporary version of popular Hindustani. In the last 20 years this has been given a boost by the arrival of videos from the Pakistani film industry that use a modernised and popularly accessible form of Urdu.

Discussing missed opportunities just goes to highlight how good the Progressive Writers’ Association initiative was. Its achievements show how to make sure that the next time we do even better. This book rescues it for history and raises all the crucial issues of its experience. The book deserves to be widely read beyond the circle of those with a specific interest in South Asia.