Icon of our times


    On the 125th anniversary of his birth, Urdu-Hindi litterateur Munshi Premchand needs to be celebrated for his commitment to nationalism and the plight of the poor, and his unshakeable passion for communal integration

    The 125th birth anniversary of the famous Urdu-Hindi litterateur Munshi Premchand is being observed this year. There is a distinct lack of enthusiasm on the part of the ministry of Culture in particular and the government in general in organising the anniversary in a befitting manner.

    It seems paradoxical that a government the reason for whose existence and continuation is the slogan of secularism is so lukewarm in celebrating the most potent and significant secular icon of our times. The reasons are not far to seek.

    Premchand, in his life and work, is a committed nationalist; he rejects imperialism both for its economics and its culture. Premchand is unmistakably for the poor, more particularly for the peasantry who bore the brunt of colonial exploitation. Premchand is unambiguously secular. Premchand is totally opposed to the Brahmanical social order. Such a man could hardly be a favourite of  the Hindutva regime and they unsuccessfully tried to withdraw his novel Nirmala from the CBSE curriculum. The present regime, deeply committed to imperialism dictated economic policies, half-hearted in its secularism and embarrassed by the constituency of the poor who elected them to power, is less than enthusiastic in celebrating Premchand and his work.

    Why does the Hindi-speaking elite not celebrate Premchand with the vigour that he deserves? (The way, for instance, Tagore is celebrated by the Bengali-speaking elite.) There cannot be a straightforward answer to this question. But a set of factors can be enumerated here, an in-depth analysis of which may provide the answer. The Hindi-speaking elite is too fragmented, it is not homogeneous even linguistically, it does not share the same psychological make-up and its evolution is tainted with its anti-Urdu and pro-upper caste origins. It therefore lacks the requisite democratic impulse.

    Premchand’s creative output, which is immense, considering he died when he was 56, has made him a great writer in two languages – Urdu and Hindi. I am not competent enough to discuss the literary merit of Premchand’s writings and their pioneering role in evolving the genre of the novel and short story in Urdu and Hindi.

    His intellectual evolution has been well summed up by sociologist AR Desai: "He evolved from a critique of orthodox Hinduism via Arya Samaj and other religious reform movements towards agnosticism. He developed from social and political reformer into a critic of (the) consequences of colonialism and capitalism. In politics, he became a rebel who sympathised with  all struggles under the rubric of (an) anti-imperialist nationalist movement. However, getting disillusioned with Gandhiism, he could not transform himself into a radical Marxist though he was developing sympathy for that world view."

    As a great litterateur, social historian and critic through his fiction, reformer and thinker Premchand needs to be celebrated. Above all, he needs to be celebrated at the present juncture for his secular views.

    Premchand’s first short story collection, Soz-e-Watan, published in 1908, was charged with sedition and its available copies were burnt for promoting patriotic feelings. These stories also underline the importance of communal integration which became a passion in his later writings. On the question of communalism Premchand sounds so relevant today that one tends to forget that he said these words in the 1930s: "Communalism always seeks to project itself as culture. It is as if it was ashamed to appear in its true form and so, like the ass that seeks to boss over the creatures of the forest by donning the skin of a lion, communalism seeks to adopt the disguise of culture. Hindu wants to preserve his culture eternally and so does a Muslim. Both consider their culture as insulated from the other. They forget that there is neither a Muslim culture nor a Hindu culture. Now in the world there is only one culture and that is economic culture. But we are still crying over Hindu and Muslim cultures, although culture has nothing to do with religion."

    Although initially Premchand was influenced by the Arya Samaj, he saw its positive role in terms of social reform and did not share its anti-Muslim bias. When the Arya Samaj took up the Malkana Rajput Shudhi movement which  was damaging to Hindu-Muslim unity, he wrote: "I have not been writing in Urdu for some time. I don’t get time at all.  But I have decided to write a small piece on the Malkana Shudhi movement. I am strongly opposed to it. I will send it in three or four days. Arya Samajis will be very angry. But I hope you will publish it in Zamana."

    Another well known instance is when Premchand showed his anger over the vicious anti-Islam writing by Chatursen Shastri, a known Hindi-writer. Shastri wrote a book, Islam Ka Vish Vriksha (The poison tree of Islam), in 1933. Premchand wrote to Jainendra Kumar: "What has happened to that Chatursen that he has chosen to write Islam Ka Vish Vriksha? You write a criticism of it and send me a copy of the book. We must strongly oppose this communal propaganda." He also wrote to another Hindi critic, Banarsi Das Chaturvedi: "This is a very cheap and mischievous conspiracy for spreading communalism, which must be thoroughly exposed." The Hindu magazines edited by Premchand, Hans and Jagaran wrote against Chatursen’s book, inviting the displeasure of many of his "Hindu" friends.

    Premchand was critical of communal bigotry in much of his writing. In an editorial in Jagaran on August 29, 1932 he said: "This mental attitude (communalism) chokes the very spirit of nationalism. We have to root out this attitude else our country will be sweet only in dreams."

    The Urdu critic Syed Sibte Hasan, in a perspectival observation of Premchand’s Muslim characters, noted: "We find Sakina of Maidan-e-Amal and her old mother and Amarkant’s carefree friend Saleem who, though a district officer, kicks off his post, joins satyagraha like the kisans and goes to jail like Sakina and Pathani; Godan’s Mirza, who gives shelter to Hori’s son Gobar and nurses the wounded strikers; the hero of Juloos, old Ibrahim Ali, who attains martyrdom while leading a procession; the poor Muslim child Hamid in Id who, instead of buying sweets and toys for himself,  buys a pair of tongs for his poor grandmother; and finally, Jumman Sheikh of Insaf who, even after an estrangement with his bosom friend Algu Chaudhuri, decides in the panchayat in his favour. Here, in the eyes of Munshi Premchand, Hindu-Muslim unity, going beyond the bounds of necessity, culminates into a principle of justice."

    Premchand’s contribution to the evolution of the Hindustani language needs to be emphasised. He uses colloquial words and words derived from the Persian language with equal ease. It is language like that of Premchand that the vast multitude of people use and enjoy.

    Premchand is indeed one of the most significant secular icons of our times.

    Archived from Communalism Combat, February  2005. Year 11, No.105, Breaking Barriers