Radical Politics and the Urdu Literary World in the Era of South Asian Nationalisms c.1919 - 1952.
Abstract: This dissertation is a historical study of the cultural and
intellectual trends amongst Urdu intellectuals in South Asia during the decades immediately
preceding and following the attainment of formal independence in 1947. I argue that linking
literary radicalism in late colonial North India to a much longer history of the Urdu
language and cultural milieu provides fresh insights for... read moreunderstanding nationalisms in
South Asia. The intellectual and cultural history of the upper middle-class strata of
Muslim society from cities such as Delhi and Lahore reveals that writers from Muslim
backgrounds--representing a relatively small fraction of the entire anti-colonial Indian
intelligentsia--came to play a very strong role in the radical, left-leaning literary
landscape. I show that a minority community, ostensibly organized around a
‗religious` identity, became the votaries of ‗secular`
nationalisms--not because of any neat separation between realms of
―religion‖ and concepts of the ―secular‖--but
because of a long-standing history of culturally informed religious social identity to
which ethical sensibility (in comportment, character, and moral conduct) was central. These
radical writers, known as progressive writers, challenged not only colonial rule, but also
the indigenous social hierarchies in their own (Muslim) communities including conservative
sexual politics, as well as the culturally exclusive nationalisms of the Indian right.
Ultimately, I show that the decolonization era was characterized by a multiplicity of
nationalist voices--alternative secular nationalisms--which was expressed through the
cultural politics of Urdu language and literatures. This dissertation is organized by the
examination of three inter-related themes. The first theme is the influence of imperial
statecraft upon Urdu poetic practice. I examine Urdu poetry over the long durée, from its
ascendance under Mughal political disintegration to the early assertions of Indian
nationalism, and argue that it was a relatively autonomous domain from interference of
colonial manipulation. Furthermore, in examining elite and popular modes of disseminating
Urdu poetry, the continued prevalence of pre-existing Indo-Persian literary milieu in which
mystical dimensions of Islam often influenced critical discourses of religious and state
authorities, I show that the Urdu literary milieu was a shared social space cutting across
religion, and allowing Muslims to express their individual subjectivity as well as
attachment to place of origin. The second theme explores how the field of ethics known as
adab, which also means literature, as well as ethical conduct (akhlāq), was
central in determining literary practice and moral conduct with specific focus on gender. I
examine how akhlaq and adab were reformulated by twentieth century Urdu writers to
challenge the sexually conservative politics of the Muslim upper-classes throughout the
late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. In examining first, the transformation of the
culturally significant figure of the courtesan-prostitute, and second, how the emergence of
progressive writers which was instantiated by a significant debate about obscenity and
subsequent censorship, I show how both the concept of ―progressive‖ and
the identity of ―Muslim‖ was variegated and diffuse from 1920s through
the 1950s. The third theme of this dissertation examines how radical and progressive
writers from Muslim backgrounds of late colonial India, were critical of territorial
nationalism. This theme examines more closely the relationship between minority Urdu
culture, left politics, and nationalism. I show that progressive writers were critical of
narrowly defined interpretations of the ‗nation` as a territorially bound entity.
In India, they produced an understanding of the nation as defined through urban modernism,
as they migrated into the city, and played a role in both cinema and left-politics there.
Also, in their commitments to international, revolutionary, and global forms of
anti-colonial and anti-imperial resistance, many Urdu progressive intellectuals articulated
larger questions of social justice in supporting the demand for Pakistan. In doing so, my
project not only contributes to an understanding of nationalism as a variegated phenomenon,
but it also accounts for the impact that was made by those from the Urdu intellectual
tradition, in the wider political arena. This dissertation is a departure from the existing
literature on nationalism and Muslim identity, because it evaluates the role of both ethics
and aesthetics in the fashioning of modern selfhood in South Asia.
Thesis (Ph.D.)--Tufts University, 2011.
Submitted to the Dept. of History.
Advisor: Ayesha Jalal.
Committee: Jeanne-Marie Penvenne, and Sunil Sharma.
Keywords: History, South Asian studies, and Islamic culture.read less