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Resistance Literature and the British Raj


Shahid Siddiqui

Literature is traditionally considered a means of pleasure and enjoyment that focuses on beauty and spreads happiness in an artistic manner. This thesis is the guiding principle for the school of thought that believes in ‘literature for literature’s sake’.

This school of thought believes in a utopia that is constructed with the help of art, skill, and vocabulary, and is far removed from the real issues and challenges of life. The competing school believes in ‘literature for life’ and expects literature to reflect society and its issues. Yet another school of thought believes in ‘literature for change’. This school of thought derives inspiration from the critical paradigm that claims that literature is not merely a tool of pleasure and enjoyment but an important means to bring change in a society.

According to the critical paradigm, literature is not apolitical but a highly political phenomenon that is linked with power and politics. It is important to note that historically powerful groups used literature as a tool to hegemonise marginalised groups. Literature is also used to construct identities: a glorified identity for powerful groups and a stigmatised one for marginalised/colonised groups.

These identities are constructed in such a subtle way that the marginalised groups internalise them as realities and start believing that everything associated with the powerful groups is superior and everything associated with them (the marginalised) is inferior. This state of mind leads to a defeated outlook which is referred to as ‘spontaneous consent’ by Gramsci.

With this defeated outlook the marginalised groups willingly give the powerful groups the right to conquer the marginalised. How literature has been used to construct unequal identities has been explained by Edward Said in his representative book, ‘Orientalism’, where Said demonstrated that how the Orient (East) is represented by the Occident (West) with intrinsic biases.

The Occident, with its positional superiority, looks down upon the Orient and constructs a stigmatised identity of the Orient. In ‘Orientalism’ Said gives a number of examples of how literature was used by imperial powers to construct identities. This was true in case of India as well where a number of English writers wrote about India with their own biases and constructed an identity of India that was far removed from reality.

Literature, however, is not just used to hegemonise others but also to put up resistance against imperialist powers. This was evident in African literature where writers like Achebe and Ngugi wrote to catalyse the process of decolonisation. There is a rich tradition of post-colonial literature that challenged the hegemonic structures of the empire. In British India we see a long list of writers and poets who used literature to resist the tyrannical British Rule. This article focuses on Urdu poets who used their poetry to resist the tyrannical policies of the British Raj.

The poems written in that period, instead of talking about the mellow emotions of love, contained themes of plundering of cities, bloodshed, exploitations, and call for freedom. Such themes were taboo in the British Raj and talking about them was asking for trouble. But these poets, driven by the passion of freedom, willingly took the risk.

Kamaludin Kamal was a radical poet who severely criticised the tyrannical policies of the British Raj. Muhammad Hussain Azad, a famous critic and poet, wrote a moving poem about the 1857 War of Independence. As mentioned earlier, writing poetry of resistance was full of risks. The radical poets were aware of the consequences they and were ready for them.

Munir Shikohabadi challenged the hegemonic structure of the British Raj through his poetry and was consequently arrested and sent to the Andaman Islands. The shackles of slavery were so stiff that colonised Indians were not allowed to lament even the death of their dear ones. In such a threatening situation, Mufti Sadruddin Azurda took the risk of writing a poem about the death of Imam Baksh Sehbai who fell victim to the savage brutality of the British forces.

Among these poets was also Akbar Alah Abadi who launched scathing criticism on British policies and warned the Indians about the potential consequences of opting for a Western lifestyle. Suroor Jahanabadi, whose real name was Munshi Shri Durga Das Sahai, wrote poems imbued with love for India and critical of the British rule.

Tilok Chand Mehroom, father of Jagan Naath Aazad, a noted scholar, composed poems on the theme of patriotism in British India. Brij Narayan Chakbast wrote some fiery poetry to resist British imperialism. Zafar Ali, Khan, poet and journalist, challenged the British Raj upfront with his hard-hitting poems. Maulana Muhammad Ali Johar and Hasrat Mohani also wrote poems as part of their freedom fighting strategy.

Allama Muhammad Iqbal’s poetry played a vital role in the process of decolonisation. He attacked the hollowness of the Western civilisation and paved the way for freedom of India by reminding Muslims of their glorious past. All these poets tried at a conscious level to decolonise the minds of the people. This was done by reversing the imperialists’ strategy. The two-pronged imperialists’ strategy aimed at glorifying their own identity and stigmatising the identity of ‘others’.

Indian poets made deliberate attempts to glorify their own soil, people, customs, rituals, and heroes and challenge the facade of the British Raj that was built on the socioeconomic exploitation of the people, economy, and culture of India. The local poets fearlessly used poetry as a powerful political tool to put up resistance against the British Raj and reclaim the freedom of India.

The writer is an educationist.


Media Resistance in British India


Shahid Siddiqui

In my previous article, ‘Discursive paradigm of resistance’ (August 8) published in these pages I discussed two major approaches of resistance: the coercive approach and the discursive approach.

The coercive approach uses force and the discursive approach employs discourse for resistance. The discursive approach makes use of some social institutions including educational institutions and media. Before we actually look at the role of media in putting up resistance against the British Empire in India it is pertinent to realise the significance of media as a social institution.

Social realities are constructed by social institutions. These social institutions traditionally included family, schools, religion, and judiciary and use certain discourse to construct social reality. With the help of these social institutions it is possible to construct stereotypes.

In the past, school (maktab or madressah) was considered the most powerful social institution to construct social realities. In the past, the institution of school used to enjoy the support of two other social institutions – religion and family. With the changing times two important developments took place that changed the whole scenario of power.

First, the institution of school – which used to be the strongest social intuition – lost its strength as the social institutions of religion and family parted ways. This development weakened the strength of the school. The second development was equally important as a new social institution – the media – emerged on the scene and dwarfed all other social intuitions. The strength of the media lies in efficiency that is acquired through the means of access, speed, and palatable mode of communication.

Let me elaborate on these three aspects. A message can be communicated to a much wider audience across geographical boundaries. Similarly, the message can be communicated to a much wider audience in much less time. The third distinguishing feature of the media is that the message is generally communicated in an entertaining manner.

With these distinguishing features, the media has an edge over other social institutions – eg family, schools, judiciary, etc. The media, with its significant potential for construction of reality, has always been used as a potent tool to hegemonies others. But historically the media has also been used to put up resistance against hegemonic structures.

Having established the central role of the media in the construction of social reality with the help of discourse, now we will look at the role of the print media in putting up resistance against British hegemony in India.

In the pre-1857 period Grish Chandra Ghosh’s ‘Hindi Patriot’, Dadabhai Noroji’s ‘Rastiguftar’, and Ram Mohan Roy’s ‘Bangadoot’ played an important in inculcating political awareness in the masses.

In 1857 ‘Payam-e-Azadi’ (in Hindi and Urdu) challenged the hegemonic British Empire and was banned because of its radical stance. ‘Sultan-ul-Akhar’ which was a Persian journal published the firman (decree) of Bahadar Shah Zafar, urging the people of India to stand up against the British Empire. ‘Siraj-ul-Akhbar’ was a Persian newspaper edited by Abdulqadir that was banned and its press was confiscated because of its criticism of British policies.

It is interesting to note how editors of journals played their role in active politics. They included Subramanya Iyer, ‘The Hindu’; Chiplunkar, ‘Maratha’; Dadabhai Naoroji, ‘Rastiguftar’; Ferozshah Mehta, ‘Bombay Chronicle’; Pandit Madan Malaviya, ‘Hindustan’; Moti Lal Nehru (‘The Leader’); Jawaharlal Nehru founded ‘National Herald’; Lala Lajpat Rai’s ‘The Punjabi’, ‘Bandematram, The People’; Gandhi, ‘Young India’, ‘Navjeevan’, ‘Harijan’, ‘Harijan Sevak’, and ‘Harijan Bandhu’; Hasrat Mohani, ‘Urdoo-e-Mualla’; Subash Chandra Bose, ‘Forward’, C R Das, ‘Advance’.

The ‘Zameendar’ newspaper, which was founded by Zafar Ali Khan’s father Sirajuddin Ahmed in 1903, was later taken up by Zafar Ali Khan who used it for resistance against the British rulers. Similarly, Maulana Muhammad Ali Johar took out ‘Comrade’ in English and ‘Hamdard’ in Urdu. Mulana Abulkalam Azad founded Alhilal which was a popular magazine with critical analyses.

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan edited ‘Tehzeeb-ul-Akhlaq’ which focused on the sociopolitical awareness of people. Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah was the patron of two publications, Dawn (English) and ‘Manshoor’ (Urdu). Majeed Nizami’s ‘NawaiWaqt ‘and Mir Khalil ur Rehman’s ‘Jang’ were organs of the Muslim voice.

The role played by the print media in challenging the hegemony of British rule was phenomenal. It is important to note that this media resistance was launched by Hindus and Muslims alike. The newspapers and journals were not only published in English but also in the major local languages of India, ensuring their mass access. The primary objective of the media resistance was to challenge some of the stereotypes constructed by the British Raj and to expose the despotic nature of the British rule through editorials, poems, and cartoons.

The British government used repressive tactics including the Gagging Act by Lord Canning and later the Vernacular Press Act of 1878 by Lord Lytton to prevent the vernacular press from opposing British policies. To silence the dissenting voices the British used various tyrannical devices including banning the publications, withholding the securities, confiscating the printing presses, imposing heavy fines, and arresting the owners/editors.

The voices of freedom, however, could not be silenced as the editors/owners would not give up. They would go to jail, pay the fines, bear the loss of security money and printing machines but would restart their publications with a different title or in a different city.

The story of the resistance in British India would be incomplete without the mention of courageous journalists who, at the risk of their lives, upheld the dream of freedom and played a major role in the process of decolonisation, and helped the masses to reclaim their freedom.

The writer is an educationist.


Shaista Bibi’s reflections on my novel Aadhe Adhoore Khawab

Shaista Bibi

PhD Student

Centre for Research on Computer Supported Learning and Cognition (CoCo)

The University of Sydney, Australia

Adhe Adhoore Khawab, a novel by Dr. Shahid Siddiqui is not merely a book of fiction for me.  The fiction skilfully intertwined with the real issues of society.  If we see around us, we may find characters resembling Prof. Saharan Roy and Imtisal Agha, the two main character of the novel.  The writer has beautifully portrayed the character of Prof. Saharan Roy with multiple layers of roles. He is apparently a teacher but not just a teacher. He is a guide, a friend, a revolutionary and a problem solver for the humanity. He is adored by his friends, his colleagues, his students and by any one who has the feeling of compassion and kindness for the helpless people.  He was considered by the ruling establishment as a threat that must come to an end. He was arrested and tortured until breathed his last in the jail.  But even his death could not stop his message which in the form of his dreams are shared and owned by his students.

Prof Roy is a guide, a friend, a revolutionary and a problem solver for the humanity.

 Imtisal Agha’s, an informal student of Saharan Roy, shares the dreams of equality, freedom, and social justice.  She like, Prof Roy, believes that education is the way to realise the ideals of social justice, equality, and freedom in any society.  She also believes that this journey is full of difficulties and challenges.  She opts to become a teacher in her village to realized the dreams of a society free of social injustice and oppression.  This is a story of resistance linked with the lives of Prof Roy and Imtisal Agha who believe in resistance and change.

I read this novel almost two years ago in when I used to teach in a university in Pakistan.  Now that I wanted to write these few lines, sitting in my apartment room in Australia, I thought I might have forgotten everything. But when I started writing about it, everything became so clear in my mind as if I had read it only yesterday. I could see Prof Roy teaching in his class, discussing with his students, having his mock birthday in the hostel, participating in rallies, having intellectual debates with Imtisal, and experiencing torture in the jail.  I could see Imtisal Agha meeting Prof Roy for the first time in the TV lounge, having long discussions with him, buying books with him, meeting with Prof Roy for the last time in jail, hearing the news of her mentor, and finally making a bold decision of becoming a teacher in her village.  This shows the deep impact of the novel on my mind. I’ll always cherish the experience of reading this novel.

The Indian National Army


Shahid Siddiqui

In my previous articles on these pages I have been writing about various resistance movements against the British Raj in India. These movements varied in nature, scope, and dynamics. One such resistance movement was initiated by the Japanese government in collaboration with the Indian Independence League (IIL) and the Indian National Army (INA).

Frontier and Resistance

In my previous articles on these pages I referred to several movements of resistance against the British Empire in India. These movements were generally initiated by local emperors, peasants, employees, religious leaders, and ordinary citizens in different parts of India.

One important centre of resistance was the frontier areas, where a number of resistance movements were initiated by different spiritual leaders who motivated their followers to challenge the British imperialism.