On 25 October 1917 in Russia – 7 November in India – the Bolsheviks led an armed insurrection against Petrograd. News of the revolution reached India and Nazrul, then enlisted in the 49th Bengal and stationed in Karachi, celebrated. He entertained his fellow soldiers by singing songs and reading to them about the liberation of the Russians from the clutches of the Czar. The success of the Bolsheviks inspired Nazrul's poetry and fiction. His poems on equality in Samyabadi were inspired by the ideals of the Bolshevik Revolution. He would also translate the Communist anthem.
But the earliest impact of the October Revolution was on Nazrul's fiction. In the story “Byathar Dan,” Dara and Saiful Mulk travel from Baluchistan via Afghanistan to the Caucasus to join the Red Army. It was dangerous to be writing about Indian soldiers deserting and joining the Red Army, and Muzaffar Ahmed, the assistant editor of Bangiya Mussulman Sahitya Patrika where Nazrul had sent the story, was worried about repercussions on the paper. A few years later, Muzaffar Ahmed would help found the Indian Communist Party, but, for the present, he replaced the name “Lal Fauj” (Red Army) with “Mukti Shebok Sainyader Dal” (Soldiers of Freedom). The words of Dara in the story reflect Nazrul's idea that it was a revolution such as the Bolshevik Revolution that would bring freedom to the down-trodden people of the world.
After the Bengal Regiment was disbanded, Nazrul returned to Bengal. After a brief visit to Churulia, he went to Calcutta. Initially, he stayed with Muzaffar Ahmed at the office of Bangiya Mussalman Sahitya Patrika. From May 1920, he also became joint editor of the newly-founded Nabajug with Muzaffar Ahmed. Towards the end of 1925, Nazrul started becoming more involved in active politics. He was one of the founders of the Labour Swaraj Party of the Indian National Congress and became the de facto editor of the party weekly, Langol (Plough). The first issue of Langol, published on December 24, included Nazrul's Samayabadi poems, perhaps the first poems written in Bangla on the Communist idea of equality. The paper also contained the manifesto of the Labour Swaraj Party of the Indian National Congress, stressing the need to organize workers and peasants to become more conscious of their political rights in order to wrest independence from the British rulers. Langol stopped publication in April 1926. From August that year, it was replaced by Gono-Bani (The People's Message).
Nazrul Islam's political interests are reflected in his three novels: Bandhon Hara (1927), Mrityukshudha (1930) and Kuhelika (1931). Each of Nazrul's novels has a rebel as the central character if not the protagonist. Thus in Bandhon Hara, which contains some autobiographical details of the writer's life as a soldier in Karachi, Nazrul portrays a rebel in Nuru. Even though Nuru is a soldier, he refuses to abide by military discipline and is often sent to the quarter guard, the military lock-up. Mrityukshudha depicts a Bolshevik, and the protagonist of Kuhelika is an armed revolutionary with socialistic leanings.
Nazrul, who had got married in 1924 to Ashalata Sengupta, moved to Krishnanagar. Shortly after this move, the Nikhil Bangiya Proja Sammelan, the All-Bengal Peasants Conference, was held there. The conference opened with Nazrul's “Sramiker Gaan” (Song of the Workers).
It was in Krishnanagar that Nazrul wrote his second novel, Mrityukshudha, which of all his novels reflects most strongly Nazrul's interest in Communism. The focus in Mrityukshudha is divided between Mejo Bou, who attempts to rise above her abject poverty by converting to Christianity, and Ansar, a Bolshevik, to whom Mejo Bou finds herself attracted. However, it is not so much the love story as the extreme poverty of the people in Krishnanagar which strikes the reader and explains the setting in which Ansar appears – rather late in the novel. To escape the grinding poverty some, including Mejo Bou, convert to Christianity. Ansar offers another solution: Communism.
Ansar exhorts people to become aware of their own pitiable condition and to rise against the conditions that debase them. However, apart from Mejo Bou – who is inspired to start a school for poor children – Ansar fails to get even one convert to his way of thinking. Still, he is arrested. Before he is off to jail, he requests the British police officer to allow him to say farewell to the people who had gathered – more out of curiosity than for love of the man.
Do not surrender the demand for your rights under any circumstances. Perhaps you too will have to wear shackles like me and go to jail. You might have to face bullets and die. Your own countrymen will stand in your way, will create all sorts of difficulties for you, still you must not relinquish the path you have chosen. Do not turn back. Those in front will die or give way, those at the back must take their empty places. Your freedom will come over your dead bodies. Do not grieve that you have no weapons. If you do not lack the strength of spirit that fighting soldiers have, you will be victorious.
The police officer is worried that things will get out of control, but Ansar knows that, despite all his speeches, despite all the cries of the people in the crowd, no one will follow him.
Succumbing to tuberculosis – a disease which also affected Muzaffer Ahmed, who, however, managed to survive it – Ansar is a failure. It is only the love of the woman he has loved all his life that comforts him at the end – but to whom he will have transmitted his dread disease.
The main focus in Kuhelika is the anti-British movement. Through Jahangir, Nazrul imagines how a Muslim might have joined the Indian nationalist movement. The Hindu revolutionaries do not want to include Muslims in their movement. However, Promotto, their leader, explains that it is crucial to include Muslims: “The day India becomes united is the day the British will have to pack up and leave. The British know it, and so does the common person. The magic of the two words 'Hindus' and 'Muslims' provides the talisman for continuity of the British Empire in India….” At the same time, Muslims must be weaned from their dependence on Muslim powers outside India and instead feel a love for the motherland.
Though not portrayed as a Communist, Jahangir is careless about his inherited wealth. And, at the end when he is being transported for life, he asks his mother to give the wealth belonging to him to the two women in his life. One of them, Champa, the female revolutionary, will use that money to support women and children who have none to look after them.
Moving from the rebel through the Bolshevik to the revolutionary, the novels reiterate Nazrul's call to obliterate all forms of oppression and discrimination. The destruction that the poet calls for in his passionate, iconoclastic “Bidrohi” was in order to create a new world from the ashes of the old, the world that the October Revolution had promised, a world where the oppressors and the oppression they wreaked on the helpless would be obliterated. Sadly, neither in Russia nor in India did this ideal world materialize.
Niaz Zaman is Advisor, Department of English, Independent University, Bangladesh, and founder of writers.ink.