THE humanist spirit of Kazi Nazrul Islam, known as the “rebel” poet is alive and strong. Despite religious strife still common in our news, Nazrul remains a popular literary figure in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
Revered for his words and fight for social justice, this is how these three countries, divided so many years ago by the Partition and fighting, co-opted one man’s legacy to tell their own stories.
Kazi Nazrul Islam was born in 1899 in what is now West Bengal. Throughout his lifetime, from high school onwards, he spent time in what later became Bangladesh, eventually marrying a Hindu woman from Comilla, now in eastern Bangladesh. In 1917, he joined the 49th Bengal regiment and fought in the British Indian army where his strong patriotism for India flourished.
After leaving the military, he moved to Calcutta where he became popular as a poet and author, especially after the release of his poem, Bidrohi (Rebel). As an outspoken advocate for India’s independence from British rule, he was arrested in 1922 and imprisoned for a year. He opposed plans to partition British India along communal lines, thus staying in India post-Partition.
India celebrates him as a freedom fighter and patriot who supported Indian unity, a mute testament to its secular credentials. India paid tribute to this legacy during their 1999 postage stamp series, “Linguistic Harmony of India”, where Nazrul was one of four distinguished literary figures honoured, chosen because his “works, when viewed in totality, emphasise the linguistic harmony of the country”.
During the turbulent first years after Partition, despite his outspokenness against religious fundamentalism, dogma and intolerance, Pakistan used Nazrul’s image and work during the Bengali nationalist movement as a “Muslim voice” to counteract the “Hindu poet” Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, Nazrul’s close friend and mentor. From independence until the separation of Bangladesh in 1971, Pakistan only honoured one Bengali figure with a postage stamp. Pakistan’s post office issued a set of two stamps in 1968 to highlight the poet’s role as a fighter for freedom for the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent.
A proud Bengali, Nazrul still fought against the divisive ideologies that went into the creation of an apportioned India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
“Even though I was born in this country [India], in this society, I don’t belong to just this locale. I belong to the world.” – Kazi Nazrul Islam
Yet, a newly independent Bangladesh recognised him as their national poet and he became a cultural icon there. The government brought him to Dhaka in 1972 where he lived until his death in 1976. He was commemorated on a stamp on the first anniversary of his death in 1977 and then again on the 90th anniversary of the release of his famous poem, Bidrohi.
Despite his voice being taken first by a neurodegenerative disease, and then, co-opted by the nationalist movements of the very divisions he fought against, we’re happy to report that Nazrul’s legacy is still making a difference.
Regarded for his secularism and stance against religious intolerance and prejudice, his writings explored love, freedom and revolution. He was dedicated to the struggle against injustice, oppression and exploitation, and an outspoken advocate for gender equality, renouncing the long-standing oppression of women, a revolutionary thought at the time, which earned him many critics from both Hindu and Muslim circles.
As Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheik Hasina, explained at the India-Bangladesh joint celebration of Nazrul’s 113th birth anniversary: “As a poet, it was not easy for Nazrul to ignore the shame and disgrace of subjugation. The agony of the suppressed and oppressed humanity was reflected in all his literary works.”
“People of all classes and strata, irrespective of religion, caste, creed and rich and poor, were equal to him. He himself witnessed the consequences of intemperance of religion. He made salvos of attack against communalism and religious fundamentalism. Human being was the supreme to him. As he was against the excesses of religion, similarly he was against unequal treatment to women. Women’s contribution to the society and the family is no less than that of their male counterparts.”
Embrace your inner rebel
From Gandhi’s Swadeshi movement in 1905 to the more recent hunger strike against corruption by Anna Hazare in 2011, and the 2012 Nirbhaya movement that brought the nation together to make the country safer for all women, India has long embraced social justice movements by traditionally marginalised populations.
Even this past year, the international #MeToo campaign came to India, helping professional women fight against traditional gender norms and expectations and then tens of thousands of farmers and rural labourers from 20 states gathered in Mumbai to rebel against rising production costs, increased droughts and falling incomes.
Lend your voice, avail your fundamental right to peaceful protest, pull out your pocketbook, or donate your time to a movement that affects you, your community, or your fellow citizens. Not everyone is passionate about the same causes, and that’s OK. Diversity in passion means more issues will get resolved as more individuals discover the grassroots movements. Find an organisation that lets you support your passion here.