People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 51

December 18, 2005

Sajjad Zaheer: A Life of Struggle & Creativity


Naresh Nadeem


TODAY, when we are in the midst of the Sajjad Zaheer birth centenary, some of the attempts at a re-evaluation of the late comrade’s life and work seem to have an ulterior motive. Though these attempts are still quite feeble, it appears that their real aim is to discredit the Progressive Writers Association (PWA), formed in 1936, and question its very role in our independence struggle.


At the same time, on the other side of our western borders, interested quarters are seeking to malign the communist movement in the subcontinent. Their contention is that, immediately after the partition, the Communist Party of India deliberately "planted" Sajjad Zaheer in Pakistan in an ominous bid to overthrow the Liyaqat Khan government. Needless to say, however, the late Comrade Sajjad Zaheer’s life and work is in itself a strong rebuff to all such attempts and insinuations.




Born at Golaganj, Lucknow, on November 5, 1905, Sajjad Zaheer grew in an atmosphere when the Moderate politics of petitions and memorandums was on a decline and India’s struggle for independence was gradually taking a radical turn under the Bal-Lal-Pal leadership. Yet another feature of this period was the rise of small groups of national revolutionaries ("terrorists" in British parlance) in Bengal (in the wake of the province’s partition) and in some other parts of the country. But this was also the period when the British intensified their divide and rule politics, the Muslim League came into existence in Dacca in 1906, and the Morley-Minto reforms of 1909 accepted the idea of separate electorates based on religion.


The dual British policy of reform on the one hand and repression on the other reached a further height after the First World War. While the British refused to honour their promise of granting the Indian demand of Dominion Status after the war, they tried to pacify the agitated Indian psyche by doling out the Montague-Chelmsford reforms. But to these limited and defective reforms too, they cunningly tagged the draconian recommendations of the Sedition Committee (Rowlatt) Report which, if fully implemented, would have transformed India into a prison house of immense proportions. How this led to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre on April 13, 1919, is now public knowledge.


This period also witnessed some other important events which had a profound impact on the impressionable minds of Sajjad Zaheer and his contemporaries. These included the following: (1) the heroic saga of the Ghadar Party and the first Lahore conspiracy case launched to kill this movement; (2) the coming together of the Moderates and Extremists at Lucknow in 1916 and the simultaneous Lucknow Pact between the Indian National Congress and Muslim League; (3) the non-cooperation and Khilafat movements, and the emigration (hijrat) of a large number of Muslim youth for Turkey; (4) birth of the Communist Party of India in October 1920 and its incessant attempts to radicalise the Congress politics and freedom struggle; and (5) the Kakori case whose hearings took place in Comrade Sajjad’s own city; leading to the execution of Ram Prasad Bismil, Ashfaqullah Hasrat Warsi, Roshan Singh and Rajendra Lahiri and heavy jail sentences for many.


It was in such a political milieu that Comrade Sajjad Zaheer did his matriculation from the Government Jubilee High School in Lucknow and graduation from Lucknow University, before proceeding for Oxford. One may well recall that it was the same city where a respected Urdu poet like Pandit Braj Narain Chakbast, a lawyer by profession, had worked as an untiring volunteer at the historic unity session of the Congress in 1916. It was therefore no surprise that the city’s political milieu played a significant role in radicalising a large number of the middle class youth. Of these, Asrarul-Haq Majaz, Ali Sardar Jaffri and Kaifi Azmi, to name a few, emerged to join the first rankers in the PWA.




As for Comrade Sajjad, he began to take part in the freedom struggle in 1919 when he was not even 14 years old. But his 8-years sojourn in England, where he did his MA and LLB at Oxford, followed by a diploma in journalism from London University, proved a turning point in his life.


When Comrade Sajjad Zaheer reached England for higher study, a number of revolutionaries from India and other colonial countries were already active there, challenging the imperialist lion in its own den. London, the capital of the biggest colonial power of the day, was the city where figures like Shyamji Krishna Varma, V D Savarkar (of the 1908 vintage) and Madame Bhikaji Cama had been more or less openly canvassing for the colonies’ liberation in the first decade of the 20th century. Some of the Indians living in London were the motive force behind the genesis of Ghadar Party though its actual formation took place in San Francisco. A number of Indians studying in England later turned towards the Communist Party and played a memorable role in its growth.


One thing is amply clear from the reminiscences such Indians living in London, New York, Vancouver or San Francisco have left: that in those foreign lands they felt to an extreme degree the pinch of their country’s subjugation. That they were being humiliated at every step simply because they were from a colonial country. It was therefore no wonder that a number of such students, most of whom were from affluent families, turned towards the communist and socialist ideologies, with several of them having to face intense opposition from their families. Sajjad Zaheer was one of these very youths.

Comrade Sajjad Zaheer went to England in 1927 and stayed in that country till 1935. Soon after reaching England, he became active in London branch of the Indian National Congress, mobilised Indian youths and organised protests against British imperialism. While at Oxford, he was chosen editor of Bharat, which was being brought out by Indian students there. But the university authorities soon moved into action and forced the journal’s closure as a reward of its radical stance on various issues under Sajjad Zaheer.

In 1929, Comrade Sajjad formed the first group of Indian communist students in England. In this period he remained in close contact with the Communist Party of Great Britain.




On his return to India in November 1935, Comrade Sajjad began to practice in the Allahabad High Court, simultaneously working actively in political field. Soon he was elected secretary of Allahabad branch of the Indian National Congress and acted in close contact with Jawaharlal Nahru. After his election to the All India Congress Committee, he was given specific responsibilities for foreign affairs and Muslim mass contact. He was in close touch with many CSP leaders as well as underground communist leaders like P C Joshi and R D Bhardwaj. Later, he was elected secretary of United Provinces unit of the then underground Communist Party. In this period, he also edited Chingari (Spark), monthly Urdu organ of the party.


In this period, he suffered two years of imprisonment in the Lucknow Central Jail for his radical speeches. While in jail, he continued to secretly send his writings to various papers under several pseudonyms.


After the ban on the party was lifted in 1942, he worked as chief editor of its Urdu organs Qaumi Jang (National War) and Naya Zamana (New Age). He was also active in formation of the All India Kisan Sabha and of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) later.


But the biggest contribution made by Comrade Sajjad Zaheer was in the formation of the Progressive Writers Association (PWA), for which he had been striving since 1930. In this period, he made many trips from London to Lucknow for the purpose, formed a nucleus of the PWA in London in 1935 before its actual formation in India, and drafted its manifesto which became the rallying point for poets and writers in India. Among others, Mulk Raj Anand, Jyoti Ghosh and Mohammed Din Taseer were closely associated with the project.




The PWA came up in a period when fascism posed an extremely ominous threat for the very future of humankind, and it looked like the world was going to enter a new, "thousand years long" Dark Age. While the Dimitrov thesis called for a united front to kill this menace, Maxim Gorki posed a pointed question before the makers of culture --- writers and artistes --- of the whole world as to where they stood. There was no place for an ambivalent attitude: one had to either stand up to the menace of fascism or objectively help the latter, willingly or unwillingly.


It was to this challenge that Indian writers creditably responded through the formation of the Progressive Writers Association in April 1936. The PWA was one of the trio of organisations formed at the same time, the other two being the All India Kisan Sabha and Students Congress that later became Students Federation. Another meaningful aspect of the development was that the birth of these organisations coincided with the annual session of Indian National Congress, in the same city where the historic Congress-League pact had taken place 20 years ago.


The PWA was, in a very real sense, a united front in the field of literature though interested quarters always dubbed it as a communist body. Apart from communists, Congressmen, Congress socialists and even non-party people also joined its ranks. Led by Sajjad Zaheer, a big contingent of Urdu writers took an active part in its work, and many of these attained an international stature for their writings. These included Majaz, Sardar Jaffri, Saahir, Majrooh, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Kaif Bhopali, Kaifi Azmi, Makhdoom Mohiuddin, Krishna Chander, Rajendra Singh Bedi, Shankar Shailendra, Gurbakhsh Singh Makhmoor Jalandhari and a host of others.


As for presiding over the PWA’s foundation conference, all his colleagues happily accepted the name which Comrade Sajjad (whom others now lovingly called "Banne Bhai") suggested. It was Premchand, the doyen of Urdu-Hindi writers, whose presidential address is still remembered for its gist as well as simplicity.




But fascism was not the only challenge before the Indian writers. A no less grave task was at hand in the domestic arena --- of clearing our society of the muck that had accumulated over thousands of years. In this regard, the tone was set by Angarey (Embers), published in 1933. The collection included five short stories by Sajjad Zaheer, two by Ahmad Ali, one by Mehmood-uz-Zafar and one short story and one play by his wife Rashid Jahan.


The publication created a big furore in North India as it ruthlessly shook the Muslim psyche. The Urdu press of the day was full of writings condemning the book, and the lunatic fringe among the conservatives began to bay for the authors’ blood. Threats of physical violence were also doled out. As a result, the British soon moved into action and proscribed the book. On the other hand, several came forward to defend the book. Premchand said though the older people like him might not agree with what the Angarey team wanted to say, yet these youngsters must be given an opportunity to express their feelings and be heard.


On the other hand, testimonies left by Ismat Chughtai, Sa’adat Hasan Manto, Kaifi and others do testify how Angarey moulded the psyche of a whole generation of the Urdu speaking youth. In Shia seminary Sultanul-Madaaris, Kaifi wrote, the teachers used to violently condemn the book but, nevertheless, read it slyly, away from the gaze of their students.


This is not the place to analyse the collection or its individual contributions, but one thing is certain --- that many of the charges labelled against the book would appear meaningless today. One such charge, for instance, was of obscene language, but the book contains no such thing. Sajjad Zaheer’s story "Jannat ki Bashaarat" (A Feel of Heaven) was the most maligned piece in the collection, but it says not an iota more than what the Muslim mass knows and says about their Maulanas today. Similarly, Rashid Jahan’s very short (two-page) story "Dilli Ki Sair" is about how a Muslim woman of Faridabad describes her trip to Delhi and seeks to overawe her neighbourhood women. And what is the fact? After her husband brings her to Delhi, he leaves her at the railway station where for hours she keeps waiting, till her husband finally comes back and takes her home.


The real cause of the furore was the fact that the book questioned many values and practices, and exposed the vested interests among the Muslims, who felt threatened and roused the people against the Angarey team. And we must not forget that the clergy and the ashraaf (elite) then had an overbearing influence over the Muslim mass. If that influence has considerably tapered during these seven decades, a part of the credit certainly goes to a publication like Angarey and to Sajjad Zaheer who was the guiding spirit of the team, as of the PWA later.




In 1948, after the partition of the country, Comrade Sajjad Zaheer migrated to Pakistan where he was elected (first) general secretary of the newly reconstituted Communist Party of Pakistan. There was nothing extraordinary about it; he migrated to the newly formed country just like lakhs of others had done. But those who accuse the Indian communists of "planting" him in Pakistan, do they mean to say that a communist should not have remained a communist after coming there?


Marxism, in any case, does not teach its adherents to remain unconcerned with the toiling people’s struggles in other countries.


Be that as it may, from the day he reached Pakistan, Comrade Sajjad Zaheer remained a thorn in the Liyaqat government’s flesh. The result was that as soon as the latter launched the Rawalpindi conspiracy case in 1951, it arrested Comrade Sajjad Zaheer too and implicated him in the case. Revolutionary Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz was another notable personality to be implicated.


But what was the reality of the Rawalpindi case? Today, Captain Zafarullah Poshni is the only surviving accused of the case, and came to meet the Indian communist delegation at Karachi on March 3 this year. Some one and a half decades back, his book laid bare the whole story of the Rawalpindi case, showing how it contained a grain of truth and a lot of falsehood.


The account given by Captain Poshni may be summarised like this. After the fiasco of Pakistan’s misadventure in Kashmir, Brigadier Akbar Khan got quite frustrated with the Liyaqat government, more so when the prime minister spurned his (anti-India) ideas. Then the brigadier thought of overthrowing the government and began to look left and right for prospective supporters. It was in this process that he contacted the Communist Party and promised that if the party welcomed his coup after it took place, the ban imposed on the party and the organisations led by it would be lifted. For mobilising support in the media, he spotted Faiz who was then the chief editor of Pakistan Times, a widely read and highly influential daily. And so on. However, when Brigadier Akbar Khan convened a secret meeting for the purpose, those who came there overwhelmingly rejected his plan after some 8 hours of discussion and dispersed.


But this was as if enough for the Pakistan intelligence that had got the scent of the Brigadier’s plan, courtesy his wife Mrs Naseem Jahan. She was a talkative lady and had boasted to a few ladies of her acquaintance that her husband was soon to become the country’s president. The result was that soon after the said meeting, the establishment moved into action, arrested a number of persons from all over the country, and foisted upon them the infamous Rawalpindi conspiracy case.


According to Captain Poshni, the law in Pakistan said that if two persons said yes to a conspiracy plan, it was enough to launch a case against them, even if no actual act of conspiracy had taken place. Here the situation was different, as the gathering had rejected Brigadier Akbar Khan’s plan. But, under threat, the CID and police got some participants to depose in the court that a conspiracy had indeed been hatched. The Rawalpindi case was, thus, a manufactured one --- from end to end.




Comrade Sajjad Zaheer spent four and a half years in the jails in Hyderabad Sindh, Lahore, Machh and Quetta, before his release and return to India in 1955. It was in this period that he wrote Roshanai, the first authentic account of the PWA, and Zikr-e-Haafiz, an evaluation of the 13th century Persian poet Haafiz Shirazi. His return to India was a part of the conditions for his release.


Comrade Sajjad now resumed his activities in the undivided Communist Party here. He revived the PWA, was elected secretary of the India chapter of Afro-Asian Writers Association, and was the chief editor of party weekly Awami Daur (People’s Era) that was to later become Hayat (Life). His popularity soon grew all around and writers of various countries invited him. He was among the key figures who mobilised writers against US atrocities in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.


While in Alma Ata, Comrade Sajjad Zaheer breathed his last after suffering a heart attack on September 13, 1973. He was buried in the Jamia Millia cemetery in Okhla.


Apart from his pieces in Angarey and the two works mentioned above, Comrade Sajjad has to his credit Beemar (drama), Pighla Neelam (collection of blank verses), and Naqoosh-e-Zindan (collection of letters to his wife, from jail). But his most important work is his only novel London ki Ek Raat (A Night in London) in which, through his characters Bhuwan and others, he portrayed what humiliations the Indians had had to suffer in the imperialist metropolis.