By Azzam Khan/www.southasianmonitor.com
Kazi Nazrul Islam, the national poet of Bangladesh, the pride of the Bengali nation, the revolutionary who stood up against the British colonialists, against religious hypocrisy, against class and caste discrimination, is now being used for all the wrong reasons. He is being embroiled in the exact kind of propaganda that he abhorred.
Nazrul now lies buried beneath the green grass near the Dhaka University mosque in Bangladesh. It had been his wish to lie in eternal rest where the call to prayer, azaan, would come floating to his ears. Surely he did not want to hear the discordant debates of religious fanaticism.
However, in India, the hindutva propagandists have now apparently laid claim to Nazrul as one of their own, going as far as to call him a “good Hindu”!
The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), in a blatant Goebbelsian spin, claims that “Kazi Nazrul Islam practised Islam, yet he lived as a dedicated Hindu.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Nazrul stood steadfast in his faith – his faith in humanism.
Born a Muslim and with reverence for Islam, Nazrul sought goodness in all faiths. Just as he penned hamd and nath, Islamic hymns, he also composed songs about the Hindu deities. To him, mankind was above all. He was not against religion. He was against religious hypocrisy.
Nazrul Islam’s birth anniversary comes up on May 25 and RSS plans to get his works translated into all Indian languages. This seems to be a rather heavy-handed attempt of RSS to draw in Muslim sentiment by displaying the largesse of glorifying a Muslim poet. Or is it an attempt to highlight the fact that while being Muslim, Nazrul had reverence for Hindu beliefs? Whatever the case may be, this is an unmistakably brazen effort to draw Nazrul Islam into their own fold.
Do these Hindu extremists not realize that Nazrul stood vehemently against all for which they stand? In his various poems, prose and songs, he lashes out at both Hindu and Islamic fundamentalism, decrying the beards and tikkis that are an outward manifestation of superficiality over spirituality.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), RSS and the likes of such overtly Hindu political entities had staked their claims on other national heroes in the past too. There was BR Ambedkar, Vallabhbhai Patel and Bhagat Singh, who were at one time or the other co-opted by the RSS. In the run-up to the general election in 2014, Narendra Modi went out of his way to eulogize Patel and promised to build the tallest statue in the world dedicated to the leader in Gujarat. They have now turned their focus towards Nazrul.
However secular he may have been in lifestyle and in his works, Kazi Nazrul Islam is a Muslim with an unmistakably Islamic name. He even was a muezzin, calling to prayers in a local mosque during his youth. Neglected during his old and ailing days in India, he was brought to Bangladesh where he was given the highest honor and care. He is the revered national poet of Bangladesh.
While the bard Rabindanath Tagore is almost placed on the pedestal of a deity among Indian Bengalis, and by many in Bangladesh too, Bengali Muslims and Bangladeshi Muslims identify themselves more with Nazrul. He speaks their mind. He writes Islamic verse, though not a fanatic. He appreciates the spirituality of all religions, but lashes out against the hypocrisy of religious rhetoric and religious leaders who manipulate men with twisted interpretations of scripture.
In Bangladesh, there are quarters that highlight Nazrul as an Islamic poet, but he has captured their hearts and minds by placing the proverbial ‘Ram’ and ‘Rahim’ on one platform. RSS is attempting to negate all that and make him into a true blue Hindu. That is demeaning and disrespectful to someone who writes about the sacrifices of Muharram, of the eternal appeal of azaan, who lauds the words of the Holy Quran.
He was big enough to sing praise of the Hindu heroes and heroines used the Mahabharata and Ramayana as sources of inspiration for his creativity. But that does not make him a Hindu. To him, ‘manusher cheye nahi kichhu boro, nahi kichhu mahiyan’ – ‘nothing is bigger than mankind, nothing greater.’
India’s magazine Frontline writes: “Much earlier, the RSS had even started seeing in Ambedkar a Hindu icon, and was not averse to drawing parallels between Hedgewar and Ambedkar when the anti-Mandal agitation against reservation rocked India. The refrain then was that ‘Dr Ambedkar wanted reform in the caste system; he was not opposed to the system.’ The latest of these devious tactics is to find a Hindu in Nazrul “who fought for Indian ethos and against the British.”
It goes on to say: ‘The attempt at appropriation is not new. They [the RSS bodies] lack ancestry in the national freedom struggle and have made similar attempts in the past, too,’ said Prof. Aditya Mukherjee, an authority on modern India and the co-author of India’s Struggle for Independence along with Bipan Chandra. ‘What is new is an attempt to adopt a Muslim name,’ he said. Importantly, Mukherjee refrains from calling Nazrul a Muslim, limiting himself to a “Muslim name”, as Nazrul was essentially a humanitarian person who drew happily from the founts of different faiths. He indeed wrote about Kali and Durga, as the RSS claims. He also wrote about Shyam. And he wrote about ‘Allah, Islam, Ramzan and Eid too’, said Soumi Roy, who has done her thesis on the revolutionary poet.”
It is obvious that RSS and BJP are realizing that it is not politically profitable to simply represent a section of fanatic Hindus. They are using Nazrul now in an attempt to present themselves in a more holistic manner, as representing the nation as a whole, not just a slot of Hindus.
But no matter what strategies they undertake, it will not be that easy for the entities to absolve themselves of their anti-Muslim stance. From instigating riots, to killing and castigating those who eat beef, to a multitude of other biased actions that debase Islam and its followers, the hindutva ideologists can hardly hide their venomous disdain, and downright hatred, for Muslims. They must realize that if they use Nazrul as a shield, this very shield will turn on to them as a sharp sword to cut into their farce.
Soumi Roy, who wrote Kazi Nazrul Islam: A biography, writes: “Nazrul was a free spirit and was of footloose nature. He would not have liked to be appropriated by a political party, much less the government. He was seen as a rebel. He was against governmental oppression. It is both shameful and ridiculous to claim that he was a Hindu. He protested against pandits just as he spoke out against maulvis. And yes, he was all for pluralism.”
Soumi Roy adds, “He was a man who wrote about Shyam just as he wrote about Islam. To confine him to an organized religion would be a travesty. Calling somebody who does or has done good work a Hindu is downright hegemonistic.”
In West Bengal too, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has jumped on the Nazrul bandwagon too, to woo the large Muslim electorate in her state. She names an airport and a railway station after him because he is a Muslim.
All his life Nazrul fought against injustice. He fought against the politicians, the religious leaders and anyone who attempted to divide and discriminate the people. As he lies in his grave today, listening to the muezzin call to prayer, surely he winces at these unfounded claims being placed on him. Or perhaps he laughs. He belongs to no one. He belongs to all.
(The featured picture at the top is that of poet Kazi Nazrul Islam)