Kazi Nazrul Islam’s uncompromising attitude towards secularism never permitted any particular community to claim him and he continues to remain an important symbol of unity for Bengalis on both sides of the border.
As the world is treading the dreadful path to be broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls, it is time to relook at how the cause of secular spirit has been championed by two of Bengal’s greatest cultural icons — Tagore and Kazi Nazrul.
As we celebrate the 121st birth anniversary of the rebel poet Kazi Nazrul Islam on 26 May, we must reminiscence Nazrul’s clarion call to hug the spirit of universalism that rises beyond parochial pettiness and defends the human dignity. Nazrul started to explore in the world of literature at a time when World War I had just ended leaving an indelible impression globally.
Ideological differences and economic discrimination through various occurrences both global and regional had created a vulnerable atmosphere of mutual distrust between the two major religious communities in India — Hindus and Muslims. The Muslims felt oppressed by Hindus due to widespread zamindari system and hence, disrespect was mutual. The British cultivated its much-abhorred divide and rule policy by favouring the elite Hindu classes through various preferences thus cunningly succeeded in antagonizing the Muslims towards their Hindu brothers.
The 19th-century Bengali renaissance was also solely led by Hindu middle class. Bengali literature continued to be shaped by the likes of Bankim Chandra, Hem Chandra, Nabinchandra Sen and others with a similar mindset. On the other hand, Muslims were relegated to the background often dubbed ignominiously as ‘jobon’. The few Muslim poets of this time like Mir Mossharraf Hossain could not truly represent the masses.
Around mid-1920s, outbursts of communal violence were reported not only in Kolkata and other cities, but also in remote rural areas.
The shackles were broken quite rigorously by Kazi Nazrul Islam who championed the cause of Hindu-Muslim unity in a way unheard of in not just Bengali but Indian literature as a whole. In his literature he started to express his great admiration and respect for Kemal Atatürk, solidarity with the Turkish War of Independence and opposition to the Khilafat Movement that Atatürk fought against. (See Kemal Pasha)
He used his pen as a mode of promoting progressive nationalism among the Muslim community while strongly criticising the role of religious functionaries often accused of spreading communal hatred. In his essay Mandir O Masjid, (Temples and Mosques), published in Gana Bani, edited by him, Nazrul directly addresses this by saying, “Hearing the weeping of the wounded, the mosque does not waver, nor does the Goddess-in-stone of the temple respond”.
He further admits, Tomarbanire korini grohon khoma koro Hazrat (Prophet, please forgive us for having failed to imbibe your ideals of tolerance).
As a secular rebel poet, Kazi Nazrul Islam had deep knowledge about Hindu mythological characters as well as the heroes of Islamic history.Nazrul wrote kirtans and bhajans along with ghazals with equal depth. Some of his more famous Shyamasangeet include Kalo Meyer Payer Tolai Dekhe Ja Alornachon along with a large number of songs as an ode to Lord Shiva and on the eternal love and parting between the eternal lovers — Radha and Krishna (Reference, Brojo Gopikhele Hori).
His Shyamasangeet songs are popular even to this day and sung with universal respect. In parallel, his in-depth knowledge about Islamic religion and life of prophets propelled him into composing songs (praising Almighty Allah and Hazrat Muhammad respectively), which have added a new dimension to the scene of Bengali music.
His poetry and songs present an interesting confluence of Sanskrit and Arabic words consciously using Muslim words and names and imagery of Hindu gods and goddesses to strike in the mindset and promoting mutual tolerance and respect in the truest sense.
In the backdrop of communal riots, Nazrul penned his famous Kandari Hushiar (Captain Beware), in which he warns them against from enmity and hostility between the two communities. Here, he professes the equality of all regardless of religion, saying, Hindu naora Muslim? Oijiggashekonjon? / Kandari! Bol, dubichhe manush, shontaan mor Mar? (Who asks whether they are Hindu or Muslim? Captain! Proclaim: The drowning humans are all children of my mother). This poem is a passionate appeal to the Congress, to work more determinedly for the cause of Hindu-Muslim unity required in the struggle against British imperialism.The communal sparks of that period turned into a conflagration 20 years later with the Partition of India — a defining moment in the history of the subcontinent.
In another well-known incident, Nazrul went to attend the wedding ceremony of a close friend, Dr Nalinaksha Sanyal. However the Hindus refused to dine at the same table as him. He chuckled and composed his other timeless creation Jaater name Bojjati Sob (Chuck the mayhem on grounds of religion) which left the entire marriage attendees dumbfounded.
Nazrul addressed the Bengali psyche in perfect tone as he never patronised atheism, rather he glorified the opportunity to the members of the two communities to explore their culture and celebrate it together by knowing each other. He harshly criticised fanaticism passionately arguing that he entirely believed in the possibility of Hindu-Muslim unity. In the essay titled Hindu-Musalman, he mentions, “Krishna, Muhammad, and Christ have become national property. Property is the root of all evil. Men do not quarrel for light, but they quarrel over cattle.”
Nazrul was misunderstood and harshly criticised by contemporary Hindus and Muslims alike. While Hindus were sceptic about his emergence as a liberal humanist, Muslims branded him a “kafir” for writing about Hindu mythology. In his personal life, he chose Promila Devi, a Hindu woman, as his wife.
His sons were named with an essence of both religions —Krishna Mohammad, Arindam Khaled, Kazi Sabyasachi and Kazi Aniruddha. He viewed woman as a critical contributor to human civilisation portraying his desire for the emancipation of women from society’s patriarchal shackles and social conventions inflicted by religion.In the realm of Bangla literature Nazrul truly rose like a comet and glittered to show the path to the successive generations. His uncompromising attitude towards secularism never allowed any particular community to claim him.
Nazrul continues to remain a revered symbol of unity among the Bengalis on both sides of the border.
Freelance Journalist, edits various small magazines.