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70 years of Pakistani Urdu literature

70 years of Pakistani Urdu literature



In addition to discussing the socio-political background along with the cultural and intellectual factors that influenced the development of Pakistani Urdu literature, this series intends to analyse the literary movements, trends and the distinct features that set Pakistan’s Urdu literature apart. It will especially take into account, narrated through a thumbnail history of literary genres, the individual works of the poets and writers who have contributed in shaping the peculiar sensibility and mood of our Urdu literature. The series will try to present a panoramic view of the peculiar traits that our Urdu literature has acquired over the last seven decades.

While the forthcoming pieces in the series will focus on genres such as the novel, short story, autobiography, travelogue, criticism, et al., this piece covers the social, intellectual and political backdrop against which Pakistani Urdu literature was created.

It is a common misconception about Urdu literature that it has nothing to offer except the traditional tales of gul-o-bulbul, alluding to the beloved and the lover and the lab-o-rukhsaar, alluding to the beauties of the beloved. But nothing can be farther from the truth: throughout the history of Urdu literature we find writings that reflect social, economic and political awareness, albeit wrapped in literary metaphor and in an apparently detached manner. Mir Taqi Mir’s poetry, for instance, is said to be “the elegy of heart and Delhi”, though the popular concept about his verses is that these are the woes of a love-struck man and that’s all. Some misconceptions about Urdu literature are so widespread that they have crossed our borders. I still vividly remember that some 20 years ago during a chance meeting in a Swat hotel, a teacher from a Western country asked me, “Is ghazal the only literary genre in Urdu?” “Not at all, by no means,” was my reply. But even some educated Pakistanis hold similar views about Urdu and its literature. This series may help clear such misunderstandings, too.


The social, intellectual and political background of Urdu literature written after Partition


The old cliché that literature mirrors society does hold water when it comes to classical as well as modern Urdu literature. Major historical milestones, be it the Tehreek-i-Jihad in the 1830s or the War of Independence, Aligarh Movement or Pakistan Movement, are recorded, directly or indirectly, in the tomes penned by the writers and poets of Urdu, in almost every genre, right from the earliest literary pieces of the 1400s to the ones written in the 21st century.

Literature is influenced by social and political bearings. So the events that took place before and after Independence did have profound effects on Urdu literature. The most tangible impact that the creation of Pakistan had on Urdu literature was that literature that was being created in an undivided India was now bifurcated into two separate nations, with their own innate sensibilities, aspirations, notions and worldviews. This, in a way, was detrimental to the interests of Urdu as it meant that with the passage of time, slowly but surely, Urdu literature would largely be restricted to the works of Muslims, particularly in post-1947 India, though neither is Urdu the language of the Muslims alone, nor had it ever claimed to be so. In fact, Urdu language and literature are, to a large extent, liberal, secular and all-embracing in their tone and outlook. A large number of non-Muslim writers have enriched Urdu literature and language through their creativity and ingenuity.

A number of factors influenced Urdu literature created in the early phase of the nascent country. These factors included the newly created geographical realities, historical events and political situation. The migration and massacre that took place during Independence had left indelible marks. Many questions were left unanswered and some issues were seen from different perspectives. The question of what would or should constitute Pakistani literature and how would or should it be different from Urdu literature created in a united, British India or from post-Independence Indian Urdu literature was raised. This inevitably brought under the spotlight questions about Pakistani culture and its depiction in literature.

In fact, the question of Pakistani literature had been raised before the creation of Pakistan and the debate first appeared in columns written by Muhammad Hasan Askari and M.D. Taseer, as Dr Zia-ul-Hasan has mentioned in his book Urdu Tanqeed ka Umrani Dabistan. Askari and Taseer favoured writers being committed to a cause, whether political or otherwise. As mentioned by Tehseen Firaqi in his book, Justuju, Taseer asked what the writers’ stance should be on Kashmir issue after Independence.


The Islamic Literature Movement was a reaction to Progressive ideas, too, and with the banning of the Communist Party in Pakistan in 1954, the Movement lost some of its steam, though it is still very much alive.


At the time of the creation of Pakistan, the Progressive Writers Movement was a dominant factor on the literary scene, with Halqa-i-Arbaab-i-Zauq, a Lahore-based literary organisation being perceived as its rival, though Halqa only stressed the art-for-the-sake-of-art theory and never directly opposed the Progressive writers. But unlike Halqa, the Progressives were committed politically and were generally against the idea of Pakistan since it was created on the basis of a religious identity. Progressive writers such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz did not show much sympathy towards the idea of a religious Pakistan and Faiz was much criticised for his poem Subh-i-Azadi, composed in August 1947. According to Faiz, “the dawn of Independence was stained and it was not the morning we had been waiting for.”

Progressive voices believed that true freedom would have meant emancipation from the feudal lords and the capitalist exploiters. But disowning and scorning freedom was naturally painful to those who had sacrificed much during the Pakistan Movement and were still reeling from the aftermath of bloodshed that took place in the wake of Independence. Millions had pinned their hopes on the new motherland. Their newborn patriotism looked down upon such expressions as Subh-i-Azadi. For many, leftist ideas were tantamount to negating religious philosophy and it was simply not acceptable to them. The communal riots and massacre became the topic of many prose and poetic works. Similarly, migration became the theme of many a moving literary piece. The writings of Manto, Qurratulain Hyder, Intizar Hussain and some others have artfully recorded it all.

These sentiments were sowing the seeds of two literary movements in a country that was still grappling with political, economic and social problems such as an utter lack of resources and rehabilitation of over seven million migrants. Hasan Askari’s outline of Pakistani literature was based on the premise that the newly created country was a cultural unit and Islam was its basis. Pakistani literature, so he wrote, should reflect Pakistani culture and values. Later on, this gave birth to a literary notion dubbed the Pakistani Literature Movement. Then Askari added “Islamic values and aspirations” to the notion and a new debate ensued as to what ‘Islamic literature’ or ‘the literature of Islam’ meant. It prompted another literary movement named the Islamic Literature Movement. Pakistani Literature Movement demanded of the writers that they should be loyal to the newly created state of Pakistan (not government). The writers and critics who supported Hasan Askari’s views included Mumtaz Shirin, Samad Shaheen and at a later stage, Saleem Ahmed, Shamim Ahmed, Sajjad Baqar Rizvi and Jameel Jalibi. Many others partially or wholly supported his views.

In 1948, As’ad Gilani, Naeem Siddiqui and some other writers founded the Halqa-i-Adab-i-Islami Pakistan, a literary organisation that had a manifesto. But it is a fact that the movement was much impressed by the thoughts of Maulana Maududi, the founder of Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), and the movement got its inspiration from his writings. Many of the members of the movement who actively participated were members of JI as well. Some well-known critics, such as Abul Lais Siddiqui and Shaukat Sabzwari, endorsed some of the views proffered by the movement, though they were not politically motivated or part of JI. Some critics believe that Askari’s interconnecting of Pakistani literature with Islamic literature caused confusion. The one cannot necessarily be equated with the other. As usual, Askari’s views created ripples. The liberal and Progressive writers who vociferously opposed Askari’s views on the issue of Pakistani and Islamic literature, wrote Shehzad Manzar, included Firaq Gorakhpuri, Asar Lakhnavi, Ali Sardar Jafri and Intizar Hussain.

The Islamic Literature Movement was a reaction to Progressive ideas, too, and with the banning of the Communist Party in Pakistan in 1954, the Movement lost some of its steam, though it is still very much alive. The Anti-Ahmadi Movement — organised in 1952 and resurfacing in 1953 — emphasised Pakistan’s Islamic identity, which later influenced Pakistan’s 1956 Constitution, which in turn was influenced by 1949’s Objectives Resolution, saying that Pakistan was founded because the Muslims of the subcontinent wanted to live their lives “in accordance with the teachings and traditions of Islam”.

The One Unit scheme, announced in 1954 and implemented in 1955, was a move intended to fill the widening schism between different parts of the country, especially between East Pakistan and West Pakistan. The tension between different ethnicities, such as maqami (the locals) and muhajir (the migrants), Bengalis and Punjabis, was growing. Some politicians wanted to exploit the division to their own benefit. Corruption had begun to seep into the bureaucracy. Martial Law was imposed in 1958 and it curbed freedom of expression.

Many critics believe that the new literary trends of Urdu literature in the 1960s, such as the rise of symbolism, Modernism and plotless fiction, were but a way of airing the views and sentiments against the military rule and its effects. Pakistan got a so-called ‘basic democracy’ and, in 1962, a new Constitution. But the ethnic and nationalistic parties kept working, and 1971 saw the creation of Bangladesh.

The War of 1965, slogan of “Islamic socialism” during general elections in 1970, the 1971 debacle, the ethnic riots in Sindh in 1972, the 1977 Martial Law, the Movement for Restoration of Democracy in the 1980s, Karachi’s unrest in the 1990s and the latter-day political and social developments, all are portrayed in Urdu literature. This portrayal will be analysed in other segments of this series.



The reviewer is a former chief editor of Urdu Dictionary Board and now teaches Urdu at University of Karachi.
















Published in Daily Dawn,  September 25th, 2016

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