Iqbal’s indifferent Brahman cousins

Khalid Bashir AhmedRecommended Comments

Allama Muhammad Iqbal’s Kashmiri lineage and pride in his roots are well known. Like the majority of Kashmiri Muslims, his ancestors, who came from a Kashmiri Brahman gotra Sapru, had converted from Shaivite Hinduism to Islam and at one stage migrated to Sialkot.

Iqbal’s taking pride in his Kashmiri origin is generally explained as his being proud about his Brahman ancestry. However, his son, Javed Iqbal disagrees. He believes that renounced beliefs carry no importance in the personal life of an individual and that their influence dissolves after a generation or a half. “Iqbal’s ancestors”, he argues, “had accepted Islam about four hundred and fifty years before his birth. Hence, what pride can Iqbal feel about his Brahman pedigree?”

For Javed, his father’s verses pointing to the Brahman lineage actually carry a sarcastic reference to the infighting of the Muslims in politics and the irony that if there was anyone informed about the secrets of Islam or its bright future it was a Brahman zaadah (a scion of Brahmans), the reference being to himself.

Be that as it may, Iqbal’s acclamation of his Brahman cousins has attained proverbial status. His tribute to their qualities is extraordinary and serves as the community’s best PR statement. The Javed Nama contains verses overflowing with admiration of the Brahman zaadgaan-e-zindah dil or the ‘Scions of the Brahmans with vibrant hearts’. Says Iqbal:

A’an Brahman zaadganan-e-zindah dil
Laleh-e-ahmar zi rooye sha’n khajil
Tez been-o-pukhta kaar-o- sakht kosh
Az nigah-e-sha’n farang andar kharosh
Asl-e-sha’n az khaake-e-daamangeer ma’st
Matla-e-ein akhtara’n Kashmir ma’st

(Those scions of Brahmans with vibrant hearts, their glowing cheeks put the red tulip to shame. Keen of eye, mature and strenuous in action, their very glance puts Europe into commotion. Their origin is from this protesting soil of ours, the rising place of these stars is our Kashmir.)

In Payam-i-Mashriq, Iqbal sang praises of a Brahman maiden’s beauty like no poet could do:

Dukhtarey Brahmaney lala rukhey saman barey
Cheshm barooy-e-oo kusha, baaz ba khawaishtan digar

(A Brahman maiden, rose-cheeked and jasmine-bodied; Cast your eye on her and turn it backwards upon yourself)

Unfortunately, however, Iqbal’s warmth towards Kashmiri Pandits proved one-sided. The ‘vibrant hearts’ did not feel obliged to reciprocate. Widely recognised as a learned and educated community, its scholars many of whom were well versant with Persian and Urdu, the languages of Iqbal’s poetry, simply ignored him. Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru who shared his family name with Iqbal, was an exception who came out in open support of Iqbal when the latter was sought to be dismissed as a poet for the Muslims only. He argued that Iqbal was a Universalist like Kalidas who wrote Shakuntalam and justified his voicing of Muslim concerns in the backdrop of the community being relatively voiceless compared to other communities.

In Jawaharlal Nehru though Iqbal had another Kashmiri Brahman admirer but his praise was a veiled criticism of the poet for influencing the Muslim sentiment in British India. Ironically, Nehru, besides Sapru and some others, is believed to be one of those Kashmiri Brahmans who were in Iqbal’s mind when he wrote those eulogising ‘Scions of the Brahmans’ verses. Nehru appears in two minds while expressing his opinion about Iqbal and, in fact, ends up in handing him a left hand compliment. In the Discovery of India, he presents himself as an admirer of Iqbal and his ‘fine poetry’ and greatly pleased “to feel that he liked me and had a good opinion of me.” He recognises Iqbal as “a poet, an intellectual and a philosopher’ but hastens to emphasise his “affiliations to the old feudal order.” For him, Iqbal failed to influence the masses who were “hardly affected by him”, and he was “very far from being a mass leader.” At the same time, however, he admits Iqbal’s popularity “due to his having fulfilled a need when the Moslem mind was searching for some anchor to hold on to.” It is not difficult to see through Nehru’s words an implied attempt to establish Iqbal as a failure in his vision.

Iqbal was blamed to have fathered the idea of dismembering India, and was labelled by the author of Warning from Kashmir as “one of the most dangerous sponsors of Islamic hegemony.” Despite this, there is no dearth of Hindu scholars or writers who studied and extensively wrote about him and his poetry. Jagan Nath Azad, Tara Chand Rastogi and Gopi Chand Narang are some of the many big names that instantly come to mind. The lovers of Iqbal’s poetry are in no less number in a Hindu majority India than they are in a Muslim majority Pakistan. There is also a whole body of literature on Iqbal written by Muslims of Kashmir and Kashmiri-origin Muslims. Among these Khalifa Abdul Hakeem, Akbar Hyderi, Dr. G. R. Malik, Hamidi Kashmiri, Ghulam Nabi Khayal, Mohammad Din Fauq and Muhammad Amin Andrabi are in the forefront.

On the other hand, no writer from the Kashmiri Pandit community considered Iqbal’s poetry for study. Ratan Nath Sarshar, Brij Naraian Chakbast and Daya Shankar Naseem who made it big in Urdu literature could have paid a return compliment but did not. Nand Lal Koul Talib, with command on Persian and Urdu languages, wrote a book on Ghalib but felt no compulsion to write about an equally, if not more, renowned poet from his own land. Jia Lal Koul and many other community writers could not see beyond Lall Ded, the 14th century Kashmiri mystic poetess. An article or reference on Iqbal here and there by an odd Pandit writer, [Moti Lal Saqi’s Iqbal Aur Bhagwat Geeta] is all that is forthcoming if one searches for any literary work by Kashmiri Pandit scholars and writers on Iqbal. Sixty-six years after Iqbal’s demise, Premi Romani made a humble attempt to break this community tradition by coming up with a book, Iqbal Aur Jadeed Urdu Shairi [Iqbal and Modern Urdu Poetry] in 2004.

To my mind there are three reasons for the indifference of Iqbal’s Brahman cousins towards him. First, his transformation from a nationalist poet [remember his poems, Tarana-e-Hindi (with that opening line Saare jahan se accha Hindustan hamara), Ram, Himalaya, Swami Ram Teerath] to an advocate of pan-Islamic unity [Neel ki waadi se lekar tab a khaak-e-Kashgar Aik hun Muslim Haram ki pasbani ke liye]. This transformation was negatively viewed by Hindus in general and their leadership in particular.

Second, Iqbal was seen as the brain behind the division of India and the creation of Pakistan, although many scholars do not agree with this notion and argue that Iqbal’s highlighting the Muslim identity in British India was misunderstood as his advocating a separate country for Indian Muslims. Third, his support for the cause of oppressed Kashmiri Muslims against their Hindu ruler.

Of the three reasons, the last proved the main irritant for Kashmir’s Pandit community that was in the vanguard of support for the Maharaja of Kashmir. Iqbal’s political stand, especially on Kashmir situation in the aftermath of the carnage of July 13, 1931 when 22 unarmed Muslims were gunned down by Dogra army in Srinagar, earned him disfavour from and virtual rejection by his very own Brahman zaadgaan e-zindah dil. Some of them even went further to malign him. He was accused of conspiring to overthrow Maharaja Hari Singh and one Brahman ‘historian’ even attempted scandalising his ancestry. The Hindu press of the Punjab ran a smear campaign against him for his criticism of Hari Singh’s government and highlighting its oppressive measures against Muslim subjects. Simultaneously, he was also accused of aspiring to become the Prime Minister of Kashmir.

A Kashmiri Brahman journalist turned historian, Pandit Gwasha Lal Koul appeared before the Riots Enquiry Committee, constituted by Hari Singh following the killings of July 13, 1931. He alleged that Dr. Iqbal was instigating Kashmiris to overthrow Kashmir Government. He told the Committee that he had gone to the residence of Dr. Iqbal where several suggestions to overthrow the Kashmir Government were discussed. The allegation was picked and widely circulated by the Hindu press. A Lahore based Urdu newspaper, Guru Ghantal, in its special ‘Kashmir Number’ issue dated August 30, 1931 published the contents of the purported meeting of Gwasha Lal with Iqbal under the caption: ‘Dr. Iqbal’s Mansion: A hub of Conspiracy – How a plot was hatched at Lahore against Kashmir Government.’ Koul accused Iqbal of advocating public disorder in Kashmir at such a scale that it would lead to rebellion.

The alleged conversation, in fact, was an attempt at vilification of Allama Iqbal to discredit the most influential pro-Kashmiri Muslim voice in British India. Iqbal had led a massive campaign against the atrocities perpetrated on Kashmiri Muslims and denial of basic rights to them by the Dogra regime. Abdul Majid Saalik who was quoted in the deposition as having escorted Gwasha Lal to Iqbal’s residence vehemently refuted the allegation. He said that at Iqbal’s residence issues pertaining to Kashmir were discussed but to say that the Allama advocated public disorder and rebellion is dishonesty and mischief of an extreme order.

Koul’s deposition before the Riots Enquiry Committee turned out to be a lie spoken by an individual who was alleged to be on the right side of the Dogra rule. During the recording of witnesses by the Riots Enquiry Committee, a witness, Abdul Majid, described Gwasha Lal as “riyakaar” (a hypocrite) who was on the payroll of Thakur Kartar Singh, a minister in the Kashmir Government. Majid stated that Gwasha Lal had himself confided in him about receiving money from Singh.

About four decades later, another Kashmiri Brahman ‘historian’, R K Parimu tried to scandalize the ancestry of Allama Iqbal by identifying an alleged Pandit embezzler in Kashmir’s revenue department under the Afghans as his grandfather. Parimu wrote that in 1939-40 he came across a paper in the Persian documents of the State Archives according to which one Sahaz Ram Sapru who was in-charge of revenue of Kashmir during the regime of Azim Khan had held the revenue in arrears having spent the money on his personal expenses including marriages in the family. When the embezzlement was discovered, Sahaz Ram was offered death or Islam as penalty. The Pandit, according to Parimu, accepted Islam but at the same time requested that as Muslim he would not like to live in Kashmir, upon which he was allowed to settle in Sialkot. Parimu quotes Hassan Khoihami, a 19th century Kashmiri historian, to observe that Azim Khan had sent Sahaz Sapru to Kabul to escort his wealth and family in 1818-19 and concludes that may be from Kabul he went to Sialkot.

Parimu’s observation has found way in the works of some other writers, notably Khushwant Singh. In his article, Iqbal’s Hindu Relations, published in the Telegraph, Calcutta, Singh reproduced embezzlement story but with a changed name. In his account, Parimu’s Sahaz Ram Sapru becomes Rattan Lal Sapru. Singh attributes the narration of the story to Syeda Hamid. One does not know where from Hamid had lifted it but in the ultimate analysis Singh, a writer of high calibre, ended up producing a poor piece in which at one place he writes that the Sapru family shifted to Srinagar where Iqbal and most of his cousins were born but ten sentences later, says that Iqbal was born in Sialkot on November 9, 1877.

Parimu’s linking of the alleged embezzlement with Iqbal’s ancestor is gibberish and intellectual dishonesty. He identifies the accused revenue collector under Azim Khan’s governorship as Sahaz Ram Sapru when the official’s name was Sahaj Ram Dhar, as recorded by Hassan whom Parimu summons as his evidence. Even if Parimu’s claim of finding the document is taken at face value still the two are not the same person. Hassan’s Sahaj Ram Dhar was Madar-ul-Mahaam or the Prime Minister of Governor Azim Khan who was sent by the latter to Kabul with his fortune and family when he was recalled by his minister brother Wazir Muhammad Khan, to assist him in the discharge of his duties as a minister after he had lost eyesight. All efforts to locate the purported paper in the Archives Department did not succeed. None of the index registers of the Persian record mentions this paper.

Iqbal’s grand father’s name was Sheikh Muhammad Rafiq, not Sahaz Ram Sapru as Parimu would like us to believe. The family had converted to Islam about 450 years before Iqbal’s birth. Parimu’s attempt to scandalize Iqbal’s ancestry, thus, falls flat.

This article was first published in Kashmir Reader.

About the Author
Khalid Bashir Ahmed

Khalid Bashir Ahmed