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December 12, 1997


The Rediff Interview/Ali Sardar Jafri

'These verses are born of anguish. Anguish at what is happening in my motherland. India'

Ali Sardar Jafri Ali Sardar Jafri is the doyen of progressive Urdu poetry. Committed to the highest values of secularism and intellectual integrity. That is why it came as a shock to many poetry lovers when the Urdu Academy recently refused to give him the Sant Gyaneshwar Award, announced last May to recognise his remarkable contribution to Urdu literature.

In protest, a prominent member of the Academy -- Urdu scholar A M I Dalvi resigned last week. Others, too, have threatened to step down. Unless the state government steps in and persuades its controversial nominee, Yamin Farooqui, to step down as secretary of the Academy.

The poet spoke to Pritish Nandy about the award, the poem, the status of Urdu and the rise of intolerance in India.

Why has the Urdu Academy secretary, Yamin Farooqui, stopped you from receiving the Sant Gyaneshwar Award which was awarded to you seven months back? What does he have against you?

I have no idea. The award was announced in May but the award giving ceremony was held back for months. Now I read in newspapers that he has called my poem on Ayodhya poisonous. He claims he has got letters from many people protesting against the award being conferred on me because of this particular poem. But you listen to it. You understand poetry. You know Urdu. You judge whether this is true. In fact, there is no reference to the Babri Masjid in the poem at all. It merely laments the rising wave of communalism, my sorrow at what is happening around us.

Look, Pritish. I am an Indian. Like any Indian, I feel strongly about India. Its values, its secularism, its great spiritual heritage. How can anyone accuse me of writing poisonous verse on the theme of Ayodhya, when all my life I have so strongly propagated the importance of religious tolerance, when I have fought against injustice and fascism.

Look carefully at the sharp curve of the sword of history which has slashed to size the arrogance of countless oppressors.

Tyranny and the reign of darkness cannot scare us forever. This verdict on time is being written by the pen of this poet.

These are the last two stanzas of the poem. What is there poisonous about them? You tell me.

What is Farooqui's credentials for being the secretary of the Urdu Academy apart from the fact that he is a Shiv Sena sympathiser?

He is a Shiv Sena member I am told, not just a sympathiser. But that is his own preference. His own politics. The tragedy is that he is making the Urdu Academy into a farce. We cannot afford that. Urdu is already under siege. We need to protect the language, give it its appropriate, rightful status. The newspapers have reported that at one meeting Mr Farooqui said that he had invited Khwaja Ahmed Abbas and Ismat Chughtai to some forthcoming function of the Academy. Obviously, he does not even know who is alive, who is dead!

Someone else reported that he had referred to Majrooh Sultanpuri as Sultan Majroohpuri!

No, I do not think that communalism or the Shiv Sena has anything to do with it. It's just one man's perverse view. When you appoint people on the board of such bodies, you must ensure that they are qualified to understand literature, poetry, language.

But I am not worried. My own experience is this: The longer awards take to come, the more they grow in value. The same thing happened to a recent award I got in Bihar. The Maulana Mazharul Haq Award which was announced a long time back but was actually given to me on 29th September. During the interim period, people protested against the fact that the Urdu Award was only Rs 51,000 and the Hindi Award Rs 151,000. So the Urdu Award was increased to Rs 151,000. I hope something like that happens here as well!

Why has Urdu failed to get the status it deserves even though Prime Minister Inder Gujral led the committee on Urdu, to get it back the dignity and stature it once had?

Every time a committee was set up to restore Urdu to its glory, its findings got stuck! It was not the committee but the implementation of its findings that got stuck in a quagmire -- from Indira Gandhi's time. The moment Mrs Gandhi was ready to implement the findings, her government fell! The Gujral Committee faced the same problem. So did my own committee. The Jafri Committee. Its recommendations never got implemented. I met Mr Gujral on the 22nd of last month. We discussed the matter again. As you know, he is very keen to give status and importance to Urdu. But, see, the government has again fallen! That is the problem.

But, at the same time, Urdu has got the status of a second language in Bihar, UP, in certain districts of Andhra Pradesh. In Bengal and Maharashtra, there was never any problem. Never any conflict. Things were always fine. But the problem was only in the Hindi speaking states. That problem has been partly resolved now.

Ali Sardar Jafri What were the specific references to Ram and Sita in the poem on Ayodhya?

What I wrote was:

The hand of wild fury has snatched the crown from Ram's head and Sita's eyes bemoan this indignity with tears of blood.

With the demolition of the domes were also destroyed our ideals of love and tolerance, enshrined for ages in India's heart.

The greed for power thirsts for blood -- and your vicious longing is neither less nor more.

Your wayward stampede on the soil of my motherland is like Ravan's march on Ram's chest.

How can there be anything poisonous in these verses? They are born of anguish. Not hate, nor anger. Anguish at what is happening in my motherland. India.

Do you see a rise in communalism in India?

People are becoming less and less tolerant all over the world.

Why is this?

Because we are moving towards another kind of society. Old values are dying. New ones are yet to be born.

Do you see the denying you of this award on such silly grounds as yet another manifestation of this?

Well, I have no reason to complain. Because of this award being announced, I got many other awards! Like that one there on the shelf. It was given by the Film Writers Association to felicitate me for getting the Sant Gyaneshwar Award! There were other such awards also.

Frankly, I do not see this award not coming to me. It will come. It will only get a little delayed perhaps. But, then, as I said before, perhaps its value will get enhanced-like in Bihar! That would be quite nice, in fact.

They must realise one thing: You cannot accuse a man who has written such elaborate commentaries on Kabir and Mirabai -- as I have also done on Ghalib and Meer -- of propagating the two nation theory. It's ridiculous. Curzon created two nations. Not anyone else.

Some time back, an effort was made to malign Husain as well. Do you see a pattern to such mischief mongering? To attack prominent literary and artistic figures and create an unnecessary hungama to promote what are essentially political issues?

I don't know. All I feel is sadness at what is happening to the India we have loved and cherished over the years. The India we all belong to.

The Rediff Interview

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