Crisis of Identity in Azadi by Chaman Nihal

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This crisis of identity of both Hindus and Muslims has been mirrored in some major texts on partition fictions in English and in English translation. The crisis of Muslim identity is a historical phenomenon. Many reasons may be taken for granted for this crisis of Muslim identity. The Hindu fundamentalism, the colonial master’s strategy of ‘divide and rule India,’ economic and educational backwardness of the Indian Muslims, economic exploitation of Muslims by Hindus and Sikhs and the English rulers’ tacit support to that at least in the early phase of English colonisation in India — all these and many others are responsible for this crisis of Muslim identity. In this backdrop, Basudeb examines the crisis of identity in Chaman Nihal’s Azadi, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.

To examine the facts of history is not the focus of my present study. I repeat neither I am a historian nor do I think myself to be so. What is a fact is that the Indian partition fiction in English and in English translation needs not to be dehistoricised for its appropriate evaluation. Frequent and explicit references to the various narratives of Indian partition historicity are the unique feature of the partition literature written during and after the Indian partition. We will examine the crisis of identity of both Muslims and Hindus before the partition of India in 1947 — the crisis that is one of the important aspects of Indian partition historicity and this crisis of identity is one of the important causes of the partition of India in 1947. This crisis of identity of both Hindus and Muslims has been mirrored in some major texts on partition fictions in English and in English translation. The crisis of Muslim identity is a historical phenomenon. Many reasons may be taken for granted for this crisis of Muslim identity. The Hindu fundamentalism, the colonial master’s strategy of ‘divide and rule India,’ economic and educational backwardness of the Indian Muslims, economic exploitation of Muslims by Hindus and Sikhs and the English rulers’ tacit support to that at least in the early phase of English colonisation in India — all these and many others are responsible for this crisis of Muslim identity. Jinnah in his Presidential address of the Muslim League held at Lahore, in March 1940, says:
It is extremely difficult to appreciate why our Hindu fail to understand the real nature of Islam and Hinduism. They are not religious in the strict sense of the word, but are, in fact, different and distinct social orders….The Hindus and the Muslims belong to two different religious philosophies, social customs, and literature. They neither intermarry, nor inter-dine together, and indeed they belong to two different civilisations, which are based mainly on conflicting ideas and conceptions….They have different epics, their heroes are different, and they have different episodes. Very often the hero of one is a foe of the other.1

Historians may or may not consider India as a multi-religious, multi-linguistic country. Pluralism is or is not the fabric of the Indian society. This study is related to the historiography. However, the reality is that Jinnah being the leader of the Muslim League, representing Muslim masses in India holds for any reason a different opinion about the relationship between Hindus and Muslims. To Jinnah the search for Muslim identity is a historical necessity. Here I intend to study those texts on partition theme with reference to the crisis of Muslim identity. My arrests first Chaman Nahal’s Azadi.

Before I examine Chaman Nahal’s Azadi, I would like to refer to another Pakistani novelist, Mehr Nigar Masroor. She writes Shadows of Times, a on partition theme, which is published sometime in 1987. She died of cancer before the publication this . The events taking place in this are Lucknow, Delhi, Lahore and Calcutta, Farhan is a freedom fighter. He is Muslim by religion. He grows love for a Hindu woman. It is a love that knows no bar of religion. He becomes the father of two children. After a couple of years, Farhan has to return to Lahore and to marry a Muslim woman. Maheen is the daughter of this second marriage. Torn by his faithfulness to both his Hindu and Muslim wife, Farhan finally returns to India and there he dies. Farhan’s return to his first wife in India infuriates Maheen. The authorial comment in the is strikingly interesting. The novelist ultimately makes Maheen realise why her father returns to India leaving her second wife in Pakistan:
She had hated him for dying in India; she now began to understand the deep desire that drove him back to revisit the soil, which was his own, and his ancestors.2 (Tariq pp.146-47).

Maheen understands finally that her father is a staunch advocate of the ideology of the Muslim League and an enthusiastic champion of the creation of a separate land for Muslims in the Indian sub-continent. On the one hand, the crisis of his Muslim identity, on the other hand, his root – both are in contrastive state. He is in an emotional predicament. He is always aware of his root, which is in the Hindu part of India – the root that he cannot brush aside. Finally, his realisation of his root triumphs over his ideology of having a separate land for Muslims in India. Therefore, he returns to his own soil and meets his first wife in India.

Towards the conclusion of the novel, Shadows of Times, Maheen decides to end her life by drowning herself in the river of the Indus. She drowns herself in the sacred water of the Indus because the Indus goes through the holy land, i.e., Pakistan. To her it is a sacred occasion to intermingle herself with the sky and water of her own land. This symbolises her profound commitment to separate entity of Muslims in a separate land. Thus, she vindicates Jinnah’s two-nation theory. Tariq Rahman comments:
The symbolic act makes her support the two-nation theory in the end though she does understand the emotional cost of the Partition for many people. In this way, the theme of this novel concedes the point that the partition of India was necessary but also understands the suffering, which was caused.3 (Tariq, p.147)

The Partition of India: ‘Historical Necessity’

What is important in this context is Tariq Rahman’s observation that the partition of India is a ‘historical necessity’. The fundamental question is why the partition is necessary. One of the major reasons of the Indian partition in 1947 is the crisis of Muslim identity.

The crisis of Muslim identity is discernible not only in these two Pakistani novels in English but also in Indian fictional writings in English and in English translation. Though the dominant theme of Chaman Nahal’s Azadi is not the crisis of Muslim identity, the fiction has some inferred overtones of this crisis of Muslim identity as well as the identity crisis of those Hindu refugees in India coming from their own soil in Pakistan during and after the partition riot. Here, my study focuses those overtones of identity crisis with a view that this identity crisis leads both communities to head-on collision, unleashing a reign of killing, bestiality and terror.

The unique feature of Chaman Nahal’s Azadi is that it is very much wide-ranging in presenting the total views of life through different characters and situations. The novel is epic-like in presenting the character like Lala Kanshi Ram, the protagonist in the novel, who is a grain merchant in Sialkot, now in Pakistan. This tiny town, Sialkot is located in the western side of Punjab and majority of the population of this town are Muslims. The partition of India has been declared by the Viceroy. The time in the novel is 1947 just on the eve of Indian freedom when migration of people from both sides of this country starts taking place. Hindu families are brought to a newly set up refugee camp for security reasons and are guarded by the military. Kanshi Ram Lala comes to know that his only daughter, Madhu has been killed by Muslims. After a couple of days in that camp, all Hindus start leaving Sialkot for the Indian side. The influx of Muslims at Sialkot from the Indian side deteriorates the condition of the town. News of killing of Muslims by Hindus, on the other side of the Pakistani border, spreads like wild fire and disturbs the communal relationship. In their way, they experience several attacks by Muslims. The foot convoy goes through Gunna Kalan, Pasrur, Quila Sobha Singh, Manjoke and Norowal. Hindu families living at Fort Street under the leadership of Kanshi Ram Lala are in this foot convoy. The journey is heart breaking and dreadful.  Muslim fanatics either rape or kill at least one from almost every family on this horrible journey to the other side of the Pakistani border. When this traumatised foot convoy reaches the Indian side, they all are thunderstruck and dumb found. In spite of all these ghastly experiences in their horrible journey from Sialkot to the other side of the border, Kanshi Ram Lala emerges as one who transcends himself from the level of an individual to that a universal man. Mohan Jha comments:
Azadi is indeed full of suspense and excitement, morbid silences and frightening noises, of graphic descriptions of human indignity and brutality. And though in this drama of mass murders and mass rapes, large-scale abductions and parades of nude women we encounter a number of characters, the one character who stands far above anybody else is Lala Kanshi Ram. In fact, there are only two characters in the novel, Lala Kanshi Ram and Arun, who deserve, even command, a close and detailed consideration.4 (p.38-Jha)

Cosmic Vision of Life

The experience of his life enables him to see life with a compassionate and humane understanding and thus helps him attain cosmic vision of life. An excerpt of the conversation between Prabha Rani and her husband Kanshi Ram Lala reveals the epic-like quality in the character of Kanshi Ram Lala:
‘We are all equally guilty,’ he said, spacing his words apart. ‘Each of those girls in that procession at Amritsar was someone’s Madhu, and there must have been many amongst the dead you saw at Ambala’.
Without knowing it, Prabha Rani was weeping. Softly, she called, ‘Madhu, Madhu, Madhu….’ And she repeatedly shook her head, for she did not agree with her husband.
‘Forgive. That way alone can you make peace with yourself.’
She shook her head in slow motion and continued to weep.
‘There’s no other way,’ he said.
‘As a last resort – yes. But I don’t believe in it.’
‘You have to. To forgive fully.’ (Azadi, p.300)

The nobility and strength of Kanshi Ram Lala’s mind makes him an epic character. In one sense, he represents human understanding, tolerance and wisdom. He is steady, strong and undaunted even in the worst moments of his life. My purpose in referring to this epic dimension of the character of Kanshi Ram Lala is to emphasise that this is one of dominant themes of Chaman Nahal’s Azadi. The crisis of Muslim identity is also one of the themes of the novel though not dominant like the prevailing theme that highlights the epic grandeur in the character of Kanshi Ram Lala.  Now, I intend only to examine how this theme, i.e., the crisis of Muslim identity, recurs in different forms in this novel.

The novel begins with the apprehension of both Lala Kanshi Ram and his wife Prabha Rani about the declaration of the Indian partition by the Viceroy. The crisis of Muslim identity is revealed through the conversation between Prabha Rani and her husband, Kanshi Ram Lala:
‘If Pakistan is created, we’ll have to leave. That is, if the Muslims spare our lives!’
“There will be much killing, you think?’
‘Don’t you know the Muslims? There has been much killing going on for the past many months. Imagine what will happen once they are in power!’
‘Listen’ – said Prabha Rani, showing more calm than her husband –‘you know destiny. What has to happen will happen! Put your trust in God, and don’t worry too much.’ (Azadi, p.28)

Prabha Rani and Kanshi Ram Lala are aware of the social and economic injustice perpetrated to the Muslim community by the Hindus over decades. Once the economically exploited and socially marginalized Muslims are in power and have a separate land for their own in India, they will not spare anyone of the Hindu community. They are confirmed of the violent turn of the crisis of Muslim identity. For that reason they are nervous and look wrinkled with fear.

Radio broadcast on the question of partition is awaited. Kanshi Ram Lala and is Hindu co-traders in the bazaar area of Sialkot are not sure about the birth of Pakistan. They are in dilemma. In the heart of their hearts, they still believe that Nehru and Mountbatten will avoid the Indian partition and that will be announced through the evening radio broadcast.

Muslim Dominated Sialkot

Sialkot is a small town dominated by the people of Muslim community. However, local trades are primarily in the control of Hindus. Kanshi Ram is one of those affluent Hindu traders. Abdul Ghani has also a small business at the Fort Bazaar area but the volume of business he does daily in comparison to his Hindu counterparts is quite insignificant. What he earns daily from his hookah shop is spent for his day’s living. Throughout the day, he makes one or two hookahs and sells those in the evening. In no way he is equal to his fellow Hindu traders. When the question of partition becomes the burning topic of the day he becomes elated with the prospect of his bright future. He believes the partition of India will brighten his business prospect because the domineering Hindu traders will quit Sialkot and in their vacuum, he will be able to place himself. His crisis of identity arises out of his perception that in a small town like Sialkot, which is primarily dominated by the people of Muslim community, he is economically poor and marginalised in comparison to his Hindu business counterparts. He lives on hand to mouth. His natural joy at the prospect of Indian partition thus reveals the crisis of his identity as a person belonging the Muslim community. The authorial comment is relevant to this context:
When the businessmen were arguing in Lala Kanshi Ram’s store, Abdul Ghani watched them with disdain. No power on earth could now stop Pakistan. He knew the noise they were making would be short-lived – they would see this evening when the broadcast was heard.

He finished smoking his hookah, and closing the shutters of his shop, he spat on the ground in contempt and went home. ‘Eh, maan chode!’ he shouted loud enough for them to hear him. In his mind he knew he had just enough time to go home and rush to the paan shop of Karim Baksh to listen to the wireless. (Azadi, p.42)

The key phrases in this authorial comment are  ‘disdain’, ‘spat’ and ‘Eh maan chode’ signifying Abdul Ghani’s deep-rooted hatred for Hindus doing business well in Sialkot, which is a Muslim dominated town. It is his town where he is marginalised. He finds Kanshi Ram Lala command respects among the Hindu business community. If Pakistan is formed for Muslims, he thinks, his business prospect will be brightened. In addition, he will be able to win over his crisis of identity. To examine the crisis of Muslim identity let me refer to a Muslim Police Inspector, Inayat-Ullah Khan who is posted in this small town. According to the Government Order, police officers above the rank of Inspector are liable to be transferred from place to place over times. However, Inayat-Ullah Khan knows all about the city, for he has been doing his duty as the city police inspector for the last thirty years. His crisis of identity is revealed after the proclamation of the formation of Pakistan. Muslims start celebrating in the town on this occasion. The procession finally reaches Trunk Bazaar and then the organisers of the procession ‘wearing red Muhammadan caps with the black tassel on their heads and garlands of jasmine around their necks decide to enter the Hindu mohalla at Fort Street. The announcement for a separate land for Muslims in India fulfills the ambition of all Muslims at Sialkot celebrating their victory. The drummers in the procession are with outrageous delight. They all become frenzied with infuriating joy. The authorial comment in this context surfaces how Muslims in undivided India suffer identity crisis:
The drummers were in a madness of the purest kind. And why shouldn’t they be? Today their Pakistan had been sanctioned – the land of the pure. Today they had become pure, at the last . . . .  And another cry arose from the procession, louder and more menacing than the daga-dug of drums . . . They also shouted, ‘Pakistan Zindabad’. (Azadi, p.60)

The entire Muslim community at Sialkot welcomes and celebrates the formation of Pakistan that symbolises the fulfillment of their intent longing to overcome their identity crisis in India, which is dominated by Hindus.  The organisers of the procession demand to the police Inspector that gate should be open to them so that they can lead the procession through the Hindu dominated area. The police Inspector Inayat –Ullah Khan is in charge of containing the procession and protecting the law and order situation in this part of the town. The organisers of the Muslim procession tell Inayat –Ullah Khan, “…the English have agreed to the new state of Pakistan, a state for which all national Muslims like you and us pined for years.” So they should be allowed to lead their procession through the Fort Street, for that reason they want the gates of the street to be opened. Inayat-Ullah Khan is convinced of this exciting argument of the organisers of the procession.  The authorial comment in this context is relevant to what Inayat-Ullah Khan thinks:
Inayat-Ullah Khan knew of the municipal law, which allowed the citizens to close the side lanes and mohallas to general at night. But he too had listened to the broadcast, and things had ceased to have a legal right or wrong for Inayat- Ullah Khan in the past few hours. It was a matter of conscience. For years he had ordered lathi charges on Muslim processions at the command of the British government. He hated doing it, they were his own brethren, but orders were orders. The only consolation he had was that when the lathi charge was to be on a crowd of Congress Muslims, he made it as violent as he could. But on his own Muslims, the Muslims League Muslims – Allah! Allah!” (Azadi, p62) 

Crisis of Muslim Identity

Inayat-Ullah Khan’s crisis of Muslim identity is revealed through this authorial comment. As a police officer, he is bound to carry out the orders of his superiors but at his heart, he hates to lathi charge against his Muslim brethren. He believes that a separate land for Muslims in India will usher a bright future for Muslims in India. The narrative in this part of the novel shows that Inayat-Ullah Khan is also at the formation of Pakistan – a separate and ‘pure’ land for Muslims in India.

Kanshi Ram Lala and Choudhury Barkat Ali are friends. Their families make a regular exchange of visits. Barkat Ali’s daughter Nur and Kanshi Ram’s son Arun both are the students of Murray College. Both Arun and Nur belong to the different religious community. However, this does not deter them to be in love with each other. The declaration of the partition of India appears to be a shock to both of them. When Arun tells Nur that Hindus are to leave for the other side of the Pakistan border, Nur tries to convince him of his conversion into Islam. Arun now understands that he cannot disown his parents for his love for Nur by converting himself into Islam. He is fully aware that he is born and brought up at Sialkot. He knows well that leaving the other side of Pakistan border is a move to uproot himself from the soil of his own. Sialkot is his root. Nevertheless, his identity does not match with the identity of the newly born Pakistan. The authorial comment in this context is relevant to the exposition of Arun’s crisis of identity too:
Embracing Islam for the sake of Nur meant nothing to Arun, embracing death for her sake would have meant nothing. What was Islam anyway? Seen as faith it was as good as any. Seen as intellectual enquiry, it was as superstitious and wanting. If by switching a few rituals he could hold Nur next to him in bed every night that would be a small price for the ecstasy of living.    

The issue was no longer as simple as that. The cry of the new state, the name of Pakistan shouted repeatedly before him as insult, had split Arun asunder. … Arun knew this, the game of which he and Nur and millions like them were only victims. But politicians gave ideas legs, even though they were the wrong kind of ideas. And Arun too at the moment was driven by the irrational part of his being. (Azadi, pp.77-78)

The polarisation of India into two parts based on religion makes him aware for the first time that he is a Hindu and distinctively different from Nur who belongs to a different religion. Nur wants him to convert himself into Islam. At this Arun irritatingly replies why he should be a Muslim.  She tells Arun:
‘Because I’m a girl and am defenseless and cannot force my will on my father and because you’re aman, more independent than me, and I expect you to defend me and make sacrifices for me, that’s why1’ (Azadi, p.78)

Different Religious Identities

Arun expresses his inability to convert himself into Islam for Nur who exasperatingly retorts, “You are only a timid Hindu. Go put your head in your mother’s lap!” For the first time, both Nur and Arun realise that they belong to two distinctively different religious identities. Arun now feels that though they love each other, they do not have any common identity. Nur for the first time feels that it is not for possible for her to go with Arun to the other side of the border. The community to which she belongs has a separate land in India. Nur does not suffer any crisis of identity but at the same time, she realises that as a member of the Muslim community she has one identity, which is even more important than the identity in her love for Arun. Her communal identity, which is linked with Islam, dominates over the identity in her love for Arun. Chaman Nahal’s Azadi documents how the natural love between a boy and a girl is communalised.

Munir is Nur’s elder brother. He is also Arun’s classmate in the same college. They are friends. Munir knows that both Arun and his sister have developed an affair of love. Munir never objects this relationship between his sister and Arun. But after the broadcast of the declaration of the partition, Munir shifts his earlier position and one day he asks Arun to dissociate himself from Nur. He starts believing that the relationship they have grown up will hardly ripen up into marriage under the changed circumstances. The conversation between Munir and Arun in this context reveals a different dimension of Munir’s identity crisis:
‘I don’t think this can go on.’
‘Don’t talk like that!’
‘You have to be realistic Arun. Stop meeting Nur altogether.’
‘Not of my own free will – never!’
‘I may have to stop Nur, then.’ Seeing Arun writhe in Agony, he added: ‘Are you so naïve as not to see it is a question of your safety? All right —promise one thing: you will see her only in my presence. Preferably at our house. But you must no longer see her in public.’ (Azadi, p.91)

Munir concern for Arun’s physical security is no doubt explicit here. Arun is his friend. Furthermore, he has no disapproval for the love that grows between Arun and his sister. But he has gained the knowledge that the declaration of the partition of India has divided the country rather the heart of India into two based on communal bias. He now understands that they are now communally divided. And Arun and Nur stand poles apart though they love each other. He is practical minded and for that reason he warns Arun not to think of the maturity of his relationship with his sister Nur. Munir’s understanding of his family’s communal identity will not allow him to bring about the marriage between his sister and Arun. His identity as a Muslim is more important than his identity as the friend of Arun who is in love with his sister. This identity clash in the mind of Munir has evolved as a new phenomenon after the declaration of the partition of India. And ultimately Munir’s Muslim identity wins over his identity as Arun’s friend. He is very sensible, humane, rational and friendly to Arun and so he tries his utmost to dissociate his friend Arun from further continuing any relationship with his sister Nur.


Finally, Lala Kanshi Ram and others cross the border of Pakistan and enter the Indian territory. With a view to settling down permanently, Lala Kanshi Ram then decides to go to Delhi from Amritsar. When they get off the train at Delhi railway station, they are hardly welcomed by the rehabilitation officers at the railway platform. One of the officers asks him why he has chosen to come to Delhi. Here for the first time he feels that he has come to an . His expectation is that he will be cordially received by the Indian authority after he crosses the border of Pakistan. The transfer of population based on religion has been negotiated by the two Governments. Pakistan is for Muslims and India for Hindus. Being a Hindu, he opts for his rehabilitation in India. India is his own country. An excerpt of the conversation between Lala Kanshi Ram and the officer at the station platform and the authorial comment are relevant to the present context:
‘Why have you come to Delhi?’
Lala Kanshi Ram looked up at him in surprise. 
‘I am from Pakistan,’ he said, feeling certain this was identity enough.
The officer scoffed.
‘I know, I know. But why to Delhi?’
Lala Kanshi Ram was at a loss for a reply. He had not thought for a moment he would have to justify his presence anywhere in India. (Azadi, p.301)

Here again he suffers the crisis of his identity. His ego is injured when he is humiliated in presence of his wife and son by the officer who is in charge of helping refugees at Delhi railway station. He moves from door to door for rehabilitation in Delhi. At the end, Lala Kanshi Ram and his family move to Kingsway Camp on Alipur Road and there they get a brick hutment instead of being housed in tents.

Notes and References

Primary Source
Chaman Nahal’s Nahal, Azadi, New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2001.

Secondary Sources
1. India’s Partition Process, Strategy and Mobilization, ed. Mushirul Hasan, New Delhi: Oxford                             University Press, 1993, p.56.

  1. Tariq Rahaman, A History of English Literature in Pakistan, Lahore: Vanguard Books Pvt.Ltd, 1999. pp. 146-47
  1. Ibid., p.147.
  1. Mohan Jha, “Chaman Nahal’s Azadi: A Search for Identity,” Studies in Indian Fiction in English, ed. G. S. Balarama Gupta, Jiwa Publications, Gulbarga: 585, 106 (India).
©Basudeb Chakraborti

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Basudeb Chakraborti

Basudeb Chakraborti

Basudeb Chakraborti is a retired professor of English and Faculty Dean, University of Kalyani. He founded the Department of English in Sikkim Central University (2013). He taught in the USA and India. He wrote more than 100 articles in different literary journals in India and abroad. Among his books, 's View of Happiness, Some Problems of Translation: A Study of Tagore's Red Oleanders, Indian Partition Fiction in English and in English Translation, etc.
Basudeb Chakraborti