Few writers are as prolific as Asghar Wajahat. At 73, the acclaimed Hindi language author has close to 40 published works, including plays, novels, short story compilations, literary criticism and travelogues. However, the Delhi-based author is best known for writings that look at communalism, especially through the lens of Partition. In this interview, he talks about Jamia Millia Islamia, where he taught for 42 years and why his plays continue to resonate. Excerpts:
Your play Gandhi@Godse.com (2012) is being adapted for the screen by Rajkumar Santoshi. What makes it relevant today?
It begins at a point when Gandhi finds himself in jail for sedition alongside Godse, who attempted to murder him. He wants to engage with Godse to understand what lies at the heart of his hatred. The play is thus a dialogue between Gandhi and Godse. Today, when we see people divided into two extremes by their ideologies, it is only through dialogue we can hope to resolve it. The play has been controversial ever since it was published. (Among other things,) it depicts Godse as a popular figure, which many object to. But I have merely portrayed the truth.
You have studied at both Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), and your first job as a professor of Hindi was at Jamia, where you continue to teach as a guest lecturer after your retirement in 2013. Each of these institutions find themselves at the heart of controversies today.
The history and legacy of each of these universities is being disregarded before branding them as institutions that breed hate or a certain ideology. Jamia was, in fact, set up in response to Gandhiji’s call to reject the British education system. He delivered a lecture at AMU on the topic, which divided the administration into two groups. One, which supported Gandhi, formed Jamia. It was an institution well ahead of its time – secular, independent and democratic. Gandhi’s son Devdas was its first Hindi teacher. The students had their own municipality, police, traffic rules; they even ran their own bank. It operated on the model of a self-sufficient village. Students helped take forward adult education by teaching in the nearby village at night. Things changed after Independence, but the spirit remains the same. Jamia may be a Muslim institution but the admission form to date doesn’t have a section for religion.
Were you present on campus when the attack took place?
I was not. What happened is sad. If the police really believed there were miscreants inside the campus, there could have been other ways of dealing with the situation. Terrorising the children, damaging the library, beating up girls… it was painful to see what unfolded. We fear the government may be looking for excuses to close us down, as well as AMU. It’s easy because we are funded by the central government. The situation reminds me of the first VC of Jamia, Dr Zakir Husain. He apparently said he is scared of inaugurating new buildings because very often they become the graves of the ideas they were once built on.
Jis Lahore Nai Dekhya, Woh Jamyai Nai (1989) tells the story of a Hindu woman who chooses to stay back in Lahore after the Partition, only to face the ire of a communal people. What made you look at Partition 40 years after the event?
Once you accept that people of two different religions cannot live together, you have to accept that people of two different ideologies cannot live together either. What is religion, after all? It’s an idea. Once you accept this, then anyone who differs from your point of view becomes the ‘other’. Pakistan is an example of that – it became a Muslim nation but did the Sunni majority accept other Muslim sects?
With the current debate on NRC and CAA, there is a rising fear that India is also heading towards a religiously intolerant future. Did you foresee such a future at the time you wrote this play?
Few could have imagined a religiously intolerant India before the felling of Babri Masjid. In the years since, the division of people on the basis of religion has been on the rise. Unity, secularism and cross-cultural understanding were at the core of the idea of India when it was being formed, and CAA threatens that. The current government has changed the Constitution without changing it. Their actions go against Gandhian values but they have co-opted the Mahatma and use him as a shield against anyone who questions them. But who is to blame for it? The Left and socialist movements have died because they did not remain connected with the masses. And democracy aisa system hai jahan aadmi tolaa nahin, ginaa jaata hai.
Is this what you try to say through your book Bheedtantra (2016)?
It’s a take on democracy, which, in my opinion, does not exist in India. A democracy is made of thinking, acting individuals whereas bheedtantra is just a bheed, crowd. It acts without thinking, often turning into a mob.
What could have been the alternative to democracy in your view?
The British gave us independence in a hurry and left. If we had got from them a dominion state, we would have had time to discuss and have a version of democracy that was adapted to our needs and traditions. It should have been followed up with mass-scale social reforms and education. But the government did not see citizens beyond their role as voters. As a result, the country continues to vote for the promise of employment and education 70 years after Independence. Whatever little socialism existed at the time of Jawaharlal Nehru is now long dead.
Ideologically, do you stand with the Left?
I support the ideas but I openly criticise the Indian Left, whose decline is the doing of its people.
Language, too, is being communalised today. Banaras Hindu University recently had to let go of a Muslim teacher of Sanskrit language.
Earlier, it was limited to prejudices and never became something to openly protest about. For instance, back in the 1970s, my decision to teach Hindi was not welcomed in our social circles and I did face a problem finding a match. I will say this about Hindi – and it’s also true for Urdu – they could not become a language of knowledge. Agar gyaan hai toh samman hai (knowledge brings trust). Look at Hebrew…they took a dead language, adapted it to science and technology and made it a modern language. Despite allocations of budget, very little work has happened in Hindi in the last 50-70 years.
Dipti Nagpaul is a Mumbai-based independent journalist.
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