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Gau rakshaks, Nehru and a poet's migration to Pakistan

April 08, 2017 12:51 IST

Little has changed in Digital India.
The issue that rocked the nation 100 years ago still creates a furore in Indian society, says Syed Firdaus Ashraf.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/

When Mohammed Akhlaq was killed for supposedly eating cow's meat in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, on September 28, 2015, many Indians felt it was a rare occurence.

After the Alwar, Rajasthan, incident on April 3, 2017 -- in which men transporting cows were brutally assaulted, one of whom died after the attack -- and the many incidents of bovine vigilantism in India in between, it seems that the mayhem provoked by 'gau-rakshaks' will continue for a long time to come.

Those who feel a new terror has gripped India are wrong. More than 100 years ago, in undivided India, the cow protection movement was very strong and many people died then in the cow's name.

The life of Josh Malihabadi, the Urdu poet who migrated to Pakistan and his couplet continues to be relevant today:

Insaan ka lahu piyo, izn-e-aam hai
Par gai ka gosht khana haram hai
(Drink human blood, it is permitted
But cow's meat is forbidden

Josh wrote the couplet in pre-Independence India when some Hindus and Muslims fought over the cow.

Little has changed in Digital India. The issue that rocked the nation 100 years ago still creates a furore in Indian society.

After the Alwar incident I re-read Josh Malihabadi's autobiography (Yaadon Ki Baraat) which throws light on his friendship with Jawaharlal Nehru and reveals why he migrated to Pakistan.

Unlike millions of Muslims who moved to Pakistan during the Partition of India, Josh did not do so.

A native of Malihabad near Lucknow -- his ancestors worked for the nawabs of Awadh -- Josh believed in Nehru's idea of a secular India.

The thought of migrating to Pakistan did not occur to him even though many of his relatives made their way across the new border in 1947.

In 1955, when Josh traveled to Pakistan to visit relatives, a relative, Nasir Ahmed Khan Malihabadi, taunted him about the state of Urdu in India.

His children and grandchildren, Nasir Malihabadi told Josh, would not be able to read his poetry in Urdu because it would be a dead language in India.

'After Nehru's death,' Nasir Malihabadi asked Josh, 'who will respect you in India?'

Another Pakistani friend taunted Josh that soon he would be wearing a dhoti and sporting a choti (tuft at the back of the head), as some Hindus in Malihabad did.

When he returned to India, Josh was in a dilemma. He knew that Hindi was taking over as the official language in India and Urdu, the language in which he wrote his poetry, was neglected.

But he could not think of betraying his friendship with Nehru by migrating to Pakistan.

Finally, he mustered the courage to tell Nehru that he was worried about his future in India.

Urdu was dying, the poet told the prime minister. His children, Josh explained, would not learn Urdu and would be unaware of his poetry.

'Let your family migrate to Pakistan,' Nehru told Josh, 'but you remain an Indian citizen. If you want, you can go to Pakistan for four months a year to serve the cause of Urdu.'

While Nehru loved Urdu, Josh wrote in his memoir, he knew the views of many ministers and Congress leaders were different.

'I don't want to impose my view of Urdu on my government,' Nehru told Josh, 'because if I do that, it will be against democracy.'

Josh left for Karachi after meeting Nehru. When he met Syed Abu Talib Naqvi, then the chief commissioner of Karachi, he told him about his intention to not give up his Indian citizenship.

Naqvi was furious. He told Josh that he could not sail on two boats at the same time, he had to decide whether he wanted to be Pakistani or Indian.

Josh -- who owned large tracts of property in India -- was promised plots of land by the Pakistan government, which would ensure financial security for the rest of his life.

With deep sorrow in heart, Josh decided to accept Pakistani citizenship, knowing fully well that he would betray his dear friend Nehru's trust.

No sooner had Josh became a Pakistani citizen that he realised there were no Muslims in Pakistan, there were only Wahhabis, Barehlvis, Deobandis, Qadianis and Shias. Many of whom were angry that he had been granted government favours.

Josh eventually returned the plots of land to the government, and tried his hand at many businesses -- fisheries, a petrol pump, a restaurant, selling beedis and textiles, a printing press -- all of which failed.

He had been promised a house when he changed his nationality, but that was not given to him.

The poet had to sell the family gold to survive; he had to cut down on his drinking because he had no money.

In 1964, three months before Nehru died, Josh returned to India and sought a meeting with the prime minister.

During their final conversation, Nehru quipped that that whenever he met Pakistanis they were dressed like Englishmen and only spoke English.

'I thought Pakistan came into existence because Muslims wanted to preserve Urdu and Muslim culture,' Nehru told Josh who was too embarrassed to respond.

After Nehru's death, Josh wrote: 'Nehru was a good human being and a bad politician. And in politics, if you are a good politician you are surely a bad human being which Nehru was not.'

In 1967 Josh traveled to India to sell his property in Malihabad. During his stay, in an interview to a local newspaper he criticised the Pakistan government.

The candour angered the Pakistani establishment. Josh discovered he was no longer welcome in Pakistan.

He lost his job. His passport was seized. He could not transfer the money from India. The trolls of that time denounced him as anti-Pakistani and as an Indian agent.

If he was anti-Pakistan, Josh asked, why would he leave behind his ancestral property in Malihabad and migrate to Pakistan?

On February 22, 1982, the man acclaimed as the finest revolutionary poet of his time died. He was 88.

Josh regretted to the end his decision to migrate to Pakistan. He regretted that he had not heeded Nehru's advice.

If he were alive today, what would he say about today's times?

He would not need to say anything more than the couplet quoted earlier in the column.

Josh's words are as relevant in India today as they were when he wrote them.

Syed Firdaus Ashraf