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On why Ghalib should be awarded the Bharat Ratna

Ghalib was a beacon of secular, liberal values


Last year (2011) in April Justice Markandey Katju suggested that Ghalib be given the Bharat Ratna and it appealed to me and several of my secular friends and so I initiated an online petition to collect signatures. It got quite a favourable response but few friends disagreed although their secular credentials are as impeccable as of those who readily supported the petition.

I am writing this note to explain our point of view as well as replying to the objections these friends raised. Some friends pointed out that first we must study the act whether posthumous awards can be given. This objection was not very weighty as more than half a dozen posthumous awards have been given. The other question raised was what would be time frame for giving posthumous awards - why not to Tulsidasji or Kabir? Yes, there is weight in this argument and time frame has to be there otherwise it would go up to even, say, five thousand years ago.

I think right now we are concerned with the modern secular India and our engagement with modernity begins with the British period which is also known as the modern period in Indian history. Modernity created a lot of conflict between rigid orthodoxy and liberal modernity. Modern India obviously could not have been built on rigid orthodoxy, though people are free according to our constitution to believe in orthodoxy and thousands of them believe in it even today.

But our constitution and our liberal secular ethos are the essence of our modernity and Ghalib represents this eminently. He was a poet par excellence and his poetry represents modern secular values along with the value of love. Ghalib’s poetry is ghazal poetry though he wrote in other genres also but he is mainly known for his ghazals which is basically love poetry. And he was follower of what is known as wahdat al-wujudi school of Sufism which is most liberal school among Sufis.

This school was founded by Muhiyuddin Ibn Arabi who says in one of his poems that my Deen (religion) and my shariat is love and love is the very foundation of my philosophy. Most of the Indian Sufis, though not all, belong to this wahdat al-wujudi school and it is the liberal ethos of wahdat al-wujudi Sufis which created our composite culture and these Sufis whole-heartedly embraced local cultures and mainly wrote in local languages including Marathi, Punjabi, Kannada, Tamil, Gujarati  and so on.

What is the implication of philosophy of wahdat al-wujud? Wahdat al-wujud means “Unity of Being i.e. real being is one and we all (whole humanity) are its manifestations and those who believe in this philosophy do not distinguish between one human being and the other, between one religion and the other. Ghalib’s entire poetry is representative of these ethos.

In this respect Ghalib’s mathnavi (a form of long poem each verse of which has two lines) Chiragh-e-Dayr i.e. Lamp of a Temple. This mathnavi is about Banaras, the sacred Hindu city through which he passed on his way to Calcutta and he was so enchanted by its beauty that he wrote this poem in Persian which describes its charms so much so that he says that once anyone who saw the flowing Ganges of this city, his/her eyes will never by harmed. Describing its beautiful damsels he writes, “Their dainty and silken touch beats the softness of pearls”.

“It is Kashi (Banaras) where springs of the world take refuge be it in hot summer or cold winter.” meaning its weather is most suitable weather in the world. The poem is so full of praise for Banaras, as it declares “there is no city like this in the world”. There is so much poetic exaggeration in describing the charms of Banaras. Not only this mathnavi but Ghalib’s entire poetry very eminently represents cultural ethos of India and particularly its composite culture.

Ghalib had friends among all communities of India - Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and several of his disciples were Hindus. He has addressed several of his letters to his Hindu friends. He was so fond of unity of all human beings that when several of his friends were killed in the 1857 War of Independence he wrote in one of his letters that “they say now we will meet on the Day of Judgment (Qiyamat) but what kind of meeting it would be? Sunnis will stand separately from Shiahs and Hindus separately from Muslims. Can it be called meeting together?”

Ghalib indeed was a precursor of ethos of our modern secular liberal India, one of its architects. Our constitution has been based on these values and minus these values our nationhood would be seriously weakened. These are representative values of our nationhood. Even in the 21st Century we are fighting among ourselves on the basis of religion, language, caste, region and so on. Our country is highly diverse, in fact bewilderingly diverse and to create unity in such diversity we have to strive very hard and need persons like Ghalib with their progressive and liberal values.

Urdu in which Ghalib wrote is itself a language of composite culture; it is a product of several languages and dialects, and Urdu is eminently qualified to express such progressive poetry as Ghalib composed. Urdu has been the language of love, not of hatred. Even today its ghazal poetry keeps millions spellbound even though they do not speak the language.

Ghalib, through his poetry raised Urdu to new heights. Iqbal described him as Goethe of Urdu. It is because of Ghalib’s poetry that Urdu poetry can be compared with the highs of world poetry. Ghalib represents beautifully the tension between tradition and modernity. He describes it as conflict between Kaba and Kalisa (church), Kaba representing tradition and Kalisa modernity. It is this tension which troubles Ghalib in the backdrop of the 1857 War of Independence which makes his poetry all the more relevant to us.

Here we are not saying that Ghalib alone deserves Bharat Ratna. Poets like Subramaniyam Bharti and others too are proud heritage of our country and they too must be given this award. These poets, writers and philosophers have made all of us proud and our country great. We shall ever by indebted to them. In fact their greatness is our greatness. There is nothing wrong in extending the scope of this award to the period with which our encounter with modernity began.

Let us not think that we are begging for an award for Ghalib, we are only reminding the government of India and drawing their attention to the great sons of modern India who eminently deserve to be honoured, and in honouring them we will honour ourselves. It is not Bharat Ratna which will make these great sons of India great but it will certainly make us great in honouring them. Justice Markandey Katju’s suggestion eminently deserves country’s attention.

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