Recently, the Rajasthan Government decided to drop the stories of Ismat Chughtai from school textbooks. The decision, according to a textbook committee member was because the works of Chughtai along with Safdar Hashmi’s poems did not fit into the local culture of Rajasthan and that the students would not identify with the Muslim characters in their creations.
Born exactly a century ago, in 1915, Ismat Chughtai was among the most revolutionary writers of her age. No stranger to controversy, her brazen short stories (especially Lihaf) and bold novels caused a furore back in the 1940s, for discussing controversial ideas and themes that ruffled the established morality of her times. Chughtai’s stories were unabashed in their feminine and feminist worldview, political in their nature and questioned the established norms of the age. Chughtai’s writings and her life story – her defiance against religious and cultural ideologies, and her stubbornness to live her life on her own terms made her one of the most progressive intellectuals in India.
The works of a great writer are seldom defined by a language, geography or culture. Writers matter because of the ideas they spread and the questions they raise, within the ambit of the stories they tell. They expose the readers to new worlds, realities and perspectives, while depicting the human condition in each. Academic committees are known to influence education and often design syllabus to fit into their own normative values. However, an argument posited against a writer on the basis of her language, in this case Urdu, which is spoken widely across the country, is restricting a discipline and understanding it through the narrow lens of parochialism. Where would literary greats such as Munshi Premchand, Harivanshrai Bachchan, Dostoevsky or even Gabriel Garcia Marquez be, if they were confined within their own language and not allowed a global readership? What would be the purpose of Literature, or even more simply, stories, if we were confined to read only those identical to our own?
An academic committee that removes material because it is not ‘local’ for the student subverts the purpose of education and knowledge. The purpose of education is to open minds and new vistas. It is not to curtail and inhabit students to live within the wastelands of the known. A student in Rajasthan should be exposed to diktats of Uttar Pradesh, Mizoram or Karnataka, and have an understanding of the people belonging to different religions and cultures. It does not need a government to recognise or emphasise that each is a part of sovereign and independent India and therefore, its contemporary reality. Insularity of identity is the worse form of insecurity. If the writings of these writers are not native to the student – it is precisely the reason why they must be taught. The reasoning as posited by the education board cannot be justified as logical, even in parody.
In a democratic republic, there is a difference between a majority and majoritarianism. While a democracy runs on the consensus of a majority, at no point can it de-legitimise or alienate a minority. Tampering with an academic syllabus and allowing it to tilt towards a single and familiar side is allowing majoritarian ideas to percolate the system. The purpose of a modern education system is then lost. In the long run, this is detrimental to a society and a country at large, as evident in the case of Pakistan and its indoctrinated madrassas and approved curriculum. A modern and holistic education cannot be framed within local cultures and traditions; rather it should encompass aspects of scientific reasoning, liberal values and progressive ideologies, using academic disciplines to expose students to each. Expunging the works of a revolutionary writer such as Ismat Chugtai is undermining multiple aspects of her identity at one go – Chughtai as a woman, a Muslim, a progressive liberal and most importantly, an Indian. Even if unintentional, such a move portrays the conservatism of those designing the syllabus, and their persistence towards reducing the world to a single perspective.
Even in the political domain, Chughtai, and her identity as a woman and a Muslim is significant across India. At a time when women were wrapped within the purdah and buried within the folds of traditions and religion, Chughtai stood for radical liberal ideas that instigated a fundamental shift in thinking. Her writings brought themes of gender, sexuality, politics, suffrage and identity to the fore. For a government wanting to uplift sections of the minority population and be inclusive in its growth and development agenda, exposing school children to the most progressive and liberal voice from that community, is within its own interests. Especially when this community is also battling its own internal parochialism and radical religious ideologies. Instead of removing Ismat Chughtai from schools, her writings should be celebrated and propagated. Claiming the language, characters or settings of a particular piece of literature as ‘alien’, points to a system that has no space for a liberal, progressive and feminist Muslim writer. It rips through the euphemisms and underlines the fact that anything that is not a part of the majority, as alien and outlandish.
When Chughtai was in the ninth standard, her family moved from Aligarh to Sambhar in Rajasthan, which was far away, in the back of beyond. This shift affected her and she obsessively brooded over her future, her education and eventual empowerment. As Chughtai describes in her autobiography Kaghazi hai Pairahan, she defiantly fought her parents to be allowed to go to a boarding school in Aligarh – an unheard proposition in a conservative Muslim family – where she would get the education that she so passionately desired. Eventually her parents relented after she threatened to convert her religion for the sake of her education, and Chughtai went on to gain not just her schooling but also a BA and a consecutive degree in teaching.
It is a tragedy that the defiance and fight Ismat Chughtai put up against her own family in the last century, in Rajasthan, for a liberal education is exactly the same as one, any child wanting to study Chughtai in this day and age will have to put up. And this time around not against a family but against the higher authorities that represent the country.
Sarah Farooqui runs the Takshashila Institution’s flagship course, the Graduate Certificate in Public Policy (GCPP). She is also the Editor of Pragati – The Indian National Interest Review.
She tweets as @sarahfarooqui20