A Sociopolitical Approach to Azadi

A Sociopolitical approach to Azadi: A novel by Chaman Nahal

Dr. Amir Taheri

10 July 2011


Chaman Nahal is one of the outstanding novelists of the seventies (1970’s). He worked as a professor of English at Delhi University. He wrote eight novels. Four of them constitute the Gandhi Quartet. Azadi (1975) is one of these four novels, and is added the Epilogue (1993) which serves as the Epilogue to the whole Quartet. Nahal’s other novels are, Crown and the Loincloth (1981), the Salt of Life (1993), and the Triumph of the Tricolour (1993). Chaman Nahal received Sahitya Akademi Award for Azadi in 1977.

The navel Azadi deals with the theme of partition of Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan. As Chaman Nahal himself was a refugee, he writes with remarkable penetration and realism. The novel is historical, political, and above all, a great work of art. Nahal has presented life-like picture of the period of the Partition. However, the remarkable feature of the narration is the tragic effects of the Partition. We certainly feel horrified when we read about the murders, massacre, rapes burning, looting and the condition of uprooted refugees caused by the partition. In this regard, K R. Srinivasa Iyengar says:”Azadi is about the partition of India that held the subcontinent in a nightmare of horror for months and left a trial of phenomenal bitterness and misery. Even at this distance of time, the wounds bleed afresh at the prod of memory”.

The division of the novel into three parts ‘Lull’, “Storm” and “Aftermath” makes it clear that the novel is about the silent atmosphere before the announcement of Partition, the horrible incidents caused by the partition and the Pitiable conditions of the uprooted refugees after the partition. Nahal has used the seven families of a Muslim-dominated city Sialkot to represent thousands of sufferers like them.

Reasons of partition & role of the British

By the end of the 19th century several nationalistic movements had started in India. Indian nationalism had grown largely since British policies of education and the advances made by the British in India in the fields of transportation and communication. However, their complete insensitivity to and distance from the peoples of India and their customs created such disillusionment with them in their subjects that the end of British rule became necessary and inevitable. While the Indian National Congress was calling for Britain to Quit India, the Muslim League, in 1943, passed a resolution for them to Divide and Quit.

There were several reasons for the birth of a separate Muslim homeland in the subcontinent, and that all three parties — the British, the Congress, and the Muslim League, were responsible. The British had followed a divide-and-rule policy in India. Even in the census they categorized people according to religion and viewed and treated them as separate from each other. They had based their knowledge of the peoples of India on the basic religious texts and the intrinsic differences they found in them instead of on the way they coexisted in the present. The British were also still fearful of the potential threat from the Muslims, who were the former rulers of the subcontinent, ruling India for over 300 years under the Mughal Empire.

In order to win them over to their side, the British helped establish the M.A.O. College (or Muhammedan Anglo-Oriental College) at Aligarh and supported the All-India Muslim Conference, both of which were institutions from which leaders of the Muslim League and the ideology of Pakistan emerged. As soon as the League was formed, they were placed on a separate electorate. Thus, the idea of the separateness of Muslims in India was built into the electoral process of India. There was also an ideological divide between the Muslims and the Hindus of India. While there were strong feelings of nationalism in India, by the late 19th century there were also communal conflicts and movements in the country that were based on religious communities rather than class or regional ones. Some people felt that the very nature of Islam called for a communal Muslim society. Added to this were the memories of power over the Indian subcontinent that the Muslims held on to, especially those in the old centers of Mughal rule.

These memories might have made it exceptionally difficult for Muslims to accept the imposition of colonial power and culture. They refused to learn English and to associate with the British. This was a severe drawback for them as they found that the Hindus were now in better positions in government than they were and thus felt that the British favored Hindus. The social reformer and educator, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, who founded M.A.O. College (or Muhammedan Anglo-Oriental College), taught the Muslims that education and cooperation with the British was vital for their survival in the society. Tied to all the movements of Muslim revival was the opposition to assimilation and submergence in Hindu society. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was also the first to conceive of a separate Muslim homeland. Hindu revivalists also deepened the chasm between the two nations. They resented the Muslims for their former rule over India. Hindu revivalists rallied for a ban on the slaughter of cows, a cheap source of meat for the Muslims. They also wanted to change the official script form the Persian to the Hindu Devanagri script, effectively making Hindi rather than Urdu the main candidate for the national language.

Congress made several mistakes in their policies which further convinced the League that it was impossible to live in an undivided India after freedom from colonial rule because their interests would be completely suppressed. One such policy was the institution of the “Bande Matram,” a national anthem which expressed anti-Muslim sentiments, in the schools of India where Muslim children were forced to sing it. The Muslim League gained power also due to the Congress. The Congress banned any support for the British during the Second World War. However the Muslim League pledged its full support, which found favor from the British, who also needed the help of the largely Muslim army. The Civil Disobedience Movement and the consequent withdrawal of the Congress party from politics also helped the league gain power, as they formed strong ministries in the provinces that had large Muslim populations. At the same time, the League actively campaigned to gain more support from the Muslims in India, especially under the guidance of dynamic leaders like Jinnah.

There had been some hope of an undivided India, with a government consisting of three tiers along basically the same lines as the borders of India and Pakistan at the time of Partition. However, Congress’ rejection of the interim government set up under this Cabinet Mission Plan in 1942 convinced the leaders of the Muslim League that compromise was impossible and partition was the only course to take. In Azadi Chaman Nahal through his protagonist (Lala Kanshi Ram) also expresses his idea of partition and the British role. He (Lala Kanshi Ram) has dual attitudes towards the British. He admires them for their qualities but criticizes them for their faults. For example, he praises the British Rule for bringing safety and peace to his country but deeper down he also admired the British in any case he enjoyed the safety of British Raj and hugged it lovingly.

The British had brought some kind of peace to his torn land, Lala Kanshi Ram praises the power of the British, he says: “They are a nation which cannot be easily beaten, he thought. A handful of them have kept us under their feet for over two hundred years And now that Hitler too has met the same fate at their hands. An absolutely invincible race Lala Kanshi Ram also praised the controlling power of the British rule and police officers. For example, he had great faith in General Ress But just before leaving his house Lala Kanshi Ram blames the British for not protecting the refugee. He also blames the faults of the British. If the British were going to lose India, it was not because of Gandhi or the awakening amongst the masses, it was because of the tactical error they made in sending out an ugly Viceroy in the crucial days of their Raj.” Chaman Nahal expresses one of his memories which was about his meeting with Gandhi, related to the partition, he wrote: “I had been personally exposed to Gandhi during the last few months of his life. After 1947, he made Birla House in New Delhi his home. Our family by then had migrated from Pakistan to Delhi. And it was possible for me to attend Gandhi’s prayer meetings on most evenings. And what caught my eyes was the immense humility of the man. Many of us amongst his listeners were angry young men who had lost everything in Pakistan including the dear ones who were assassinated in the riots. And, we asked Gandhi angry questions, to which he never gave an answer without making us feel that our pain was his pain too. I also saw how plain and ordinary Gandhi was to look at short-statured, thin, with rather common features.”

This shows that the novelist was not happy with partition of India and he poignantly expressed the feelings of anguish and anger about it in Azadi which is predominantly a political novel, for example Lala Kanshi Ram, the protagonist, is against the partition. He like many others does not wish the subcontinent to be divided into two nations. He has great faith in Gandhi who would oppose partition. But the partition is announced, Lala Kanshi Ram becomes both angry and sad. He blames the English, as saying: “Yes, they (the British) are the real villains, they had let the country down, they had let him down, he who put such faith in them”.

Muslims & Hindus before partition

Everyone knows that India is known for its democracy, different communities and religions are living together without conflict. This has been shaped in the root of the society of India that no religion attacks another. Muslims are free to live according to their own rules and regulation and Hindus and Sikhs… are as well.

According to Chaman Nahal, in his Novel ‘Azadi’ there was a Hindu – Muslim unity and peaceful life before the Partition. Sialkot was a Muslim dominated city. Yet, there was unity among people of all castes. There was seldom any rivalry between Hindus and Muslims. This fact is presented through the friend¬ship of Lala Kanshi Ram and Chaudhari Barkat Ali and the love of Arun and Nur. Lala Kanshi Ram and Chaudhari Barkat Ali were not only friends but just like brothers. Both the families heard each other’s happiness and sorrow. Influenced by Gandhi’s speech, Chaudhari Barkat Ali says to Lala Kanshi Ram: “You are my brother from today’.

The author adds: “Lala Kanshi Ram chuckled. He had always regarded Chaudhari Barkat Ali as a brother; he did not need Gandhi to make him aware of that”. ‘Then, Arun, the son of Lala Kanshi Ram, loves Nural-Nissar, the daughter of Chaudhri Barkat Ali. He is ready to become a Muslim for her sake.

Munir advised him to show harmony between Hindus and Muslims. The two friends’ converse: “I’ll become a Muslim, if your father insists”. (Arun) “You don’t have to. Why can’t you keep your separate religions?” (Munir) “How do we solemnize the marriage?” “A ceremony in a civil court”. The atmosphere in Sialkot was peaceful. All people did their jobs calmly. There was really ‘lull’ all over the city. The only excitement and even that of happiness was experienced on the New Year Celebration called “Hurrah Parade”. On other occasions, men worked, children went to schools and women gossiped after household works.

Muslims & Hindus after partition

The peaceful life of residents of Sialkot and their Hindu-Mus¬lim unity was disturbed by the announcement of Partition by Mountbatten. The Muslims started celebrating the creation of Pakistan with drum-beating and firecrackers. When they passed nearby the two buildings of Bibi Amar Vati the owner of the house where Lala kanshi Ram and other tenants were lived, they threw some stones which broke the window panes of the houses.

The efficient police officers could keep peace. But soon the Muslims started looting shops even Lala Kanshi Ram’s shop was looted. Then the Mus¬lims started burning one Hindu ‘mohalla’ every night. Meanwhile, a train came from Amritsar which was full of murdered and wounded Muslims. This excited the Muslims who killed and wounded the Hindus in Trunk Bazaar. Soon the Hindus were forced to leave for the Refugee Camp. The scene of the leaving of the tenant families and of the family of Bibi Amar Vati is really very emotional. The scene symbolizes thousands of such scenes. 15 million refugees poured across the borders to regions completely foreign to them, for though they were Hindu or Muslim, their identity had been embedded in the regions where their ancestors were from.

Many years after the partition, the two nations are still trying to heal the wounds left behind by this incision to once-whole body of India. Many are still in search of an identity and a history left behind beyond an impenetrable boundary. The two countries started off with ruined economies and lands and without an established, experienced system of government. They lost many of their most dynamic leaders, such as Gandhi, Jinnah and Allama Iqbal. India and Pakistan have been to war twice since the partition and they are still deadlocked over the issue of possession of Kashmir. The same issues of boundaries and divisions, Hindu and Muslim majorities and differences, still persist in Kashmir.

Overall Chaman Nahal ended his novel with a sadly depleted family trying to begin a new life in Delhi. Azadi has none of the sensationalism of other novels about India’s partition, such as Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan or Manohar Malgonkar’s A Bend in the Ganges. Nahal shows the cruelty as well as the humanity of both sides. The novel also shows the maturing of Arun, Kanshi Ram’s only son, but the account of his love, first for Nur, the Muslim girl left behind in Pakistan, and then for Chandni, a low-caste girl who is abducted on the way to India, is not as gripping as the rest of the novel.


As the above discussion shows, this novel mainly deals with the theme of partition. It is a realistic record of the horrible incidents caused by the partition. It is not less than any tragic novel. It should be also add that, Chaman Nahal in his novel did not try to criticize one religion against other (Muslim against Hindu).

As we mentioned before Nahal himself was one of those refugees who compelled to leave Sialkot for India, so he wrote what he had observed. Almost at the end of the novel this fact had been cleared by him. He wrote: In Delhi Lala Kanshi Ram and others had to see the Muslim abducted women’s parade, they felt bad.

Soon they saw that a train of the Muslim refugees was attacked and many Muslim were killed. Nahal through his protagonist gave his idea that he did not hate the Muslims because what they did in Pakistan with the Hindus, the Indians did the same with the Muslim in India.

Presented by Amir Taheri, National Seminar on Indian Writing in English & in English Translation, Department of English, University of Pune, 25 – 27 FEB 2009.

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