Iqbal’s Brahmin Cousins

Khalid Bashir Ahmad
Feb 2, 2018 · 13 min read

Khalid Bashir Ahmad

Allama Muhammad Iqbal had Kashmiri lineage and that his ancestors had migrated from a south Kashmir village in Kulgam to Sialkot in the Punjab is well known. He was very proud of his roots. Like the majority of Kashmiri Muslims, Iqbal’s ancestors, coming as they did from a Kashmiri Brahman gotra Sapru, had converted from Shaivite Hinduism to Islam.

Iqbal’s taking pride in his Kashmiri origin is generally explained as his being proud about his Brahman ancestry. However, his son, Javed Iqbal, has a different opinion. He believes that the renounced beliefs carry no importance in the personal life of an individual and that their influence dissolves after a generation or a half. “Iqbal’s ancestors”, he argues, “had accepted Islam about four hundred and fifty years before his birth. Hence, what pride can Iqbal feel about his Brahman pedigree?”[i] For Javed, his father’s verses pointing to the Brahman lineage actually carry sarcastic reference to the infighting of the Muslims in politics and the irony that if there was anyone informed about the secrets of Islam or its bright future it was a Brahman zaadah (a scion of Brahmans), the reference being to himself.

Be that as it may, Iqbal’s acclamation of his Brahman cousins has attained proverbial status. His tribute to their qualities is extraordinary and could serve as the community’s best PR statement. The Javed Nama contains verses overflowing with admiration of the Brahman zaadgaan-e-zindah dil or the ‘Scions of the Brahmans with vibrant hearts’. Says Iqbal:

A’an Brahman zaadganan-e-zindah dil

Laleh-e-ahmar zi rooye sha’n khajil

Tez been-o-pukhta kaar-o- sakht kosh

Az nigah-e-sha’n farang andar kharosh

Asl-e-sha’n az khaake-e-daamangeer ma’st

Matla-e-ein akhtara’n Kashmir ma’st

(Those scions of Brahmans with vibrant hearts, their glowing cheeks put the red tulip to shame. Keen of eye, mature and strenuous in action, their very glance puts Europe into commotion. Their origin is from this protesting soil of ours, the rising place of these stars is our Kashmir.)

In Payam-i-Mashriq, Iqbal sang praises of a Brahman maiden’s beauty like no poet could do:

Dukhtarey Brahmaney lala rukhey saman barey

Cheshm barooy-e-oo kusha, baaz ba khawaishtan digar

(A Brahman maiden, rose-cheeked and jasmine-bodied;

Cast your eye on her and turn it backwards upon yourself)

Unfortunately, however, Iqbal’s warmth towards Kashmiri Pandits is one sided. The ‘vibrant hearts’ did not feel obliged to reciprocate. Widely recognised as a learned and educated community, its scholars many of whom were well versant with Persian and Urdu, the languages of Iqbal’s poetry, simply ignored him.

Allama Iqbal in a thoughtful mood.

During Iqbal’s life time, Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru, a Kashmiri origin Brahman, was an honourable exception who had publicly expressed his liking for Iqbal. Sapru, who shared his family name with Iqbal, was not only warm towards him but also openly came out in his support when the latter was sought to be dismissed as a poet for the Muslims only. Sapru had read and appreciated Iqbal’s poetry. When Rabindra Nath Tagore was awarded Nobel Prize questions were raised why Iqbal was ignored. The Western media then argued that Tagore was a humanist and a Universalist while Iqbal was the poet for Muslims. Rebutting the argument, Sapru said that Iqbal was a Universalist. “If Kalidas who wrote Shakuntalam is a Universalist, then Iqbal too is a Universalist”[ii], he wrote. He justified Iqbal’s voicing of Muslim concerns in the backdrop of the community being relatively voiceless compared to other communities.

In Jawaharlal Nehru, though Iqbal had another Kashmiri Brahman admirer but his praise of the poet was a garment on the body of criticism he did on his vision as the one who influenced the Muslim sentiment in British India. Ironically, Nehru, besides Sapru and some others, is believed to be one of those Kashmiri Brahmans who was in Iqbal’s mind when he wrote those eulogising ‘Scions of the Brahmans’ verses. Nehru appears in two minds while expressing his opinion about Iqbal and, in fact, ends up in handing him a left hand compliment. In the Discovery of India, he presents himself as an admirer of Iqbal and his ‘fine poetry’ and greatly pleased “to feel that he liked me and had a good opinion of me.” He recognises Iqbal as “a poet, an intellectual and a philosopher’ but hastens to emphasise his “affiliations to the old feudal order.” For him, Iqbal failed to influence the masses who were “hardly affected by him”, and he was “very far from being a mass leader.”[iii] At the same time, however, he admits Iqbal’s popularity “due to his having fulfilled a need when the Moslem mind was searching for some anchor to hold on to.”[iv] It is not difficult to see through Nehru’s words a veiled attempt to establish Iqbal as a failure in his vision of Pakistan.

Nehru invokes Edward Thompson to suggest that Iqbal believed that creation of Pakistan “would be injurious to India as a whole and to Muslims specially.”[v] He writes that Iqbal’s “whole outlook on life does not fit in with the subsequent developments of the idea of Pakistan or division of India.”[vi] Thompson, it may be added, had twisted Iqbal’s words to give an entirely different meaning to what he had told him. Iqbal had written to him that personally he believed that merger of the Muslim provinces in the north-west of India would be beneficial for England, India and Islam but he quoted him as saying that the proposal of Pakistan would be detrimental for British Government, Hindus and the Muslims. Iqbal wrote him that as President of the Muslim Conference it is his duty to support separation of Sindh but Thompson put into his mouth words to the effect that as President of the Muslim League it was his responsibility to support the proposal for [creation of] Pakistan.[vii] Nehru also wrote three articles in the Modern Review, Calcutta to counter Iqbal’s views on the Ahmadis and the finality of the Prophet-hood.[viii] In response, Iqbal wrote an exhaustive piece to justify his and the Muslim point of view on the subject in which he also had a dig at Nehru:

“It is obvious that for an Indian nationalist whose political idealism has destroyed his sense of recognition of the truth will not tolerate birth of the feeling of right to self determination in the hearts of the Muslims of the north-west India.”[ix]

Iqbal’s support for Muslim sentiments and for Muhammad Ali Jinnah did not go well with India’s Hindu leadership including, rather chiefly, Jawaharlal Nehru. He was blamed to have fathered the notion of dismembering the country, and labelled as “one of the most dangerous sponsors of Islamic hegemony.”[x] Despite this, there is no dearth of Hindu scholars or writers who studied and extensively wrote about Iqbal and his poetry. Jagan Nath Azad, Tara Chand Rastogi, Gopi Chand Narang, Maalik Ram and Kali Das Gupta Raza are some of the many big names among Hindu scholars that instantly come to mind. The lovers of Iqbal’s poetry are in no less number in a Hindu majority India than they are in a Muslim majority Pakistan. There is also a whole body of literature on Iqbal written by Muslims of Kashmir and Kashmiri-origin Muslims among whom Khalifa Abdul Hakeem, Akbar Hyderi, Dr. G. R. Malik, Hamidi Kashmiri, Ghulam Nabi Khayal, Mohammad Din Fauq and Muhammad Amin Andrabi are in the forefront.

On the other hand, the Kashmiri Pandit scholarship has simply ignored him. No writer or author from the community considered him or his poetry for study. Ratan Nath Sarshar, Brij Naraian Chakbast and Daya Shankar Naseem who made it big in Urdu literature could have paid a return compliment but did not. Nand Lal Koul Talib, with command on Persian and Urdu languages, wrote a book on Ghalib but felt no compulsion to write about an equally, if not more, renowned poet from his own land. Jia Lal Koul and many other community writers could not see beyond Lall Ded, the 14th century Kashmiri mystic poetess. An article or reference on Iqbal here and there by an odd Pandit writer, [Moti Lal Saqi’s Iqbal Aur Bhagwat Geeta] is all that is forthcoming if one searches for any literary work by Kashmiri Pandit scholars and writers on Iqbal.

Dr Iqbal sitting on a sofa in a typical Kashmiri style.

Sixty-six years after Iqbal’s demise, a Kashmiri Pandit author and Urdu teacher by profession, Premi Romani, made a humble attempt to break this community tradition by coming up with a book, Iqbal Aur Jadeed Urdu Shairi [Iqbal and Modern Urdu Poetry] in 2004. Romani thus has the distinction of being the only among Iqbal’s Brahman cousins to write a book about his poetry. On the whole, the Pandit community refuses to recognise Iqbal, neither does his great literary contribution, that attracts scholars from world over, tempt its members to write about him. It is intriguing that a community which boasts in the tradition of learning and scholarship ignoring a poet of Iqbal’s eminence who came from the same stock as theirs.

Why does Iqbal not invoke interest in the Kashmiri Brahman scholars and writers?

To my mind there are three reasons for the indifference of Iqbal’s Brahman cousins towards him. First, his transformation from a nationalist poet [remember his poems like Tarana-e-Hindi (with that opening line Saare jahan se accha Hindustan hamara), Ram, Himala, Swami Ram Teerath] to an advocate of pan-Islamic unity [Neel ke saahil se lekar ta ba khaak-e-Kashgar Aik hun Muslim haram ki pasbani ke liye (From the banks of the Nile to the land of Kashgar, let the Muslims unite]. This transformation was negatively viewed by Hindus in general and their leadership in particular. Second, Iqbal was seen as the brain behind the division of India and the creation of Pakistan, although many scholars do not agree with this notion and argue that Iqbal’s highlighting the Muslim identity in British India was misunderstood as his advocating a separate country for Indian Muslims. Third, his support for the cause of oppressed Kashmiri Muslims against their Hindu ruler. Of the three, the last proved the main irritant for Kashmir’s Pandit community that was in the vanguard of support for the Maharaja of Kashmir. Iqbal’s political stand, especially on Kashmir situation in the aftermath of the carnage of July 13, 1931 when 22 unarmed Muslims were gunned down by Dogra army in Srinagar, earned him disfavour from and virtual rejection by his very own Brahman zaadgaan-e-zindah dil. Some of them even went further to malign him. He was accused of engineering overthrow of Maharaja Hari Singh and one Brahman ‘historian’ even attempted scandalising his ancestry. The Hindu press of the Punjab ran a smear campaign against him for his criticism of Hari Singh’s government and highlighting its oppressive measures against Muslim subjects. On the one hand, he was accused of aspiring for the post of Prime Minister of Kashmir and on the other he was condemned for conspiring to overthrow Hari Singh.

A Kashmiri Brahman journalist, later turned historian, Pandit Gwasha Lal Koul, B. A., who had made his graduate degree as part of his name, appeared before the Riots Enquiry Committee, constituted by Hari Singh following the killings of July 13, 1931. He alleged that Dr. Iqbal was instigating Kashmiris to overthrow Hari Singh. He told the Committee that he had gone to the residence of Dr. Iqbal where several suggestions to overthrow the Kashmir Government were discussed. The allegation was picked and widely circulated by the Hindu Press. A Lahore based Urdu newspaper, Guru Ghantal, in its special ‘Kashmir Number’ issue dated August 30, 1931 published the contents of the purported meeting of Gwasha Lal with Iqbal under the caption: ‘Dr. Iqbal’s Mansion: A hub of Conspiracy — How a plot was hatched at Lahore against Kashmir Government.’ The newspaper wrote:

“Journalist Mr. Gwasha Lal, BA has revealed before the Kashmir Enquiry Committee a very dangerous conspiracy to overthrow the Kashmir Government wherein he said, “I had gone to Lahore to attend the meeting of the Kashmir Committee. [I] attended the public meeting. After that I was taken to the office of the Inquilab newspaper. There, I met Mr. Saalik. Then we went to the residence of Dr. Iqbal where suggestions to overthrow the Kashmir Government were discussed.”

The newspaper reproduced the purported conversation in which Abdul Majid Salik, Editor Zamindar, was allegedly present. In the purported conversation Dr. Iqbal was accused of advocating public disorder in Kashmir at such a scale that it would lead to rebellion. The alleged conversation, in fact, was an attempt at vilification of Dr. Iqbal to discredit the most influential pro-Kashmiri Muslim voice in British India. Iqbal had led a massive campaign against atrocities perpetrated on Kashmiri Muslims and denial of basic rights to them by Dogra regime.

Abdul Majid Saalik who was quoted in the deposition as having escorted Gwasha Lal to Dr. Iqbal’s residence vehemently refuted the allegation. In a press statement, the Editor Inquilab said that a Hindu youth whose name he did not remember had come to his office along with a group of Muslims from Jammu and expressed his desire to meet Iqbal. He said that he took them to Iqbal’s residence where issues pertaining to Kashmir were discussed but to say that the Allama advocated public disorder and rebellion is dishonesty and mischief of an extreme order. “On the contrary, he said that the Dogras have no reason to start a movement in Kashmir as they have their own government there. As regards Kashmiri Pandits and the Muslims they should foster unity and fight for their rights so that the matter remains between the ruler and his subjects and nobody gets an opportunity to make it a Hindu-Muslim issue. Beyond this, whatever has been said is absolute lie”, Saalik published his rejoinder in his newspaper which was carried by some other newspapers also.

Iqbal in a pleasant mood.

Gwasha Lal Koul’s deposition before the Riots Enquiry Committee turned out to be a lie spoken by an individual who was alleged to be on the right side of the Dogra rule. During the recording of witnesses by the Riots Enquiry Committee, a witness, Abdul Majid, described Gwasha Lal as “riyakaar” who was on the payroll of Thakur Kartar Singh, a minister in the Kashmir Government.[xi] Majid stated that Gwasha Lal had himself confided in him about receiving money from Singh. A Government report also accused him of receiving money from “one or the other Minister of the time” and being “opposed to the setting up of a responsible government in the State.”[xii]

About four decades later, another Kashmiri Brahman ‘historian’, R K Parimu tried to scandalize the ancestry of Allama Iqbal by identifying an alleged Pandit embezzler in Kashmir’s revenue department under the Afghans as his grandfather. Parimu published his book, A History of Muslim Rule in Kashmir (1320–1819) in 1969 in which he wrote that in 1939–40 he came across a paper in the Persian documents of the State Archives, Jammu according to which one Sahaz Ram Sapru who was incharge of revenue of Kashmir during the regime of Azim Khan had held the revenue in arrears having expended the money on his personal expenses including marriages in the family. When the embezzlement was discovered, Sahaz Ram admitted his guilt. He was offered death or Islam as penalty. The Pandit, according to Parimu, accepted Islam but at the same time requested that as Muslim he would not like to live in Kashmir, upon which he was allowed to settle in Sialkot. Parimu quotes Hassan Khuihami, a 19th century Kashmiri historian, to observe that Azim Khan had sent Sahaz Sapru to Kabul to escort his wealth and family in 1818–19 and may be from Kabul he went to Sialkot.

Parimu’s observation has found way in the works of some other writers, notably Khushwant Singh. In his article, Iqbal’s Hindu Relations,[xiii] Singh reproduced embezzlement story but with a changed name. In his account, Parimu’s Sahaz Ram Sapru becomes Rattan Lal Sapru. Singh attributes the narration of the story to Syeda Hamid. One does not know where from Hamid had lifted it but in the ultimate analysis Singh, a writer of high calibre, has ended up producing a poor piece in which at one place he writes that the Sapru family shifted to Srinagar where Iqbal and most of his cousins were born but ten sentences later, says that Iqbal was born in Sialkot on November 9, 1877. An argument based on wrong information could not go any worse.

Parimu’s linking of the alleged embezzlement with Iqbal’s ancestor is gibberish. He has committed intellectual dishonesty by naming the revenue collector under Azim Khan’s governorship as Sahaz Ram Sapru when the official’s name was Sahaj Ram Dhar, as recorded by Hassan whom Parimu quotes as his evidence.[xiv] Presenting Sahaz Ram Sapru, the alleged embezeller, about whom Parimu purportedly found a paper in the State archives, with Sahaj Ram Dhar, the Madar-ul-Mahaam or the Prime Minister of Governor Azim Khan is an apology of scholarship. Even if Parimu’s claim of finding the document is taken at face value the two are different persons. Hassan’s Sahaj Ram Dhar was sent by Azim Khan to Kabul with his fortune and family when he was recalled by his minister brother Wazir Muhammad Khan, to assist him in the discharge of his duties as a minister after he had lost eyesight.[xv] My efforts to locate the purported paper, whose index number Parimu has failed to mention even when he claims to have organised and listed the Persian record of the Archives Department, did not succeed. None of the index registers of the Persian record mentions this paper.

Importantly, Iqbal’s grand father’s name was Sheikh Muhammad Rafiq, not Sahaz Ram Sapru as Parimu would like us to believe. He ran a cloth shop in Sialkot. The family had converted to Islam over two centuries before Iqbal’s birth, and if we consider the family legend, in 1650 A. D.[xvi] Parimu’s attempt to scandalize Iqbal’s ancestry falls apart.


[i] Iqbal, Javed, Zindah Rood, p 35–36.

[ii] Iqbal, Waleed (grandson of Iqbal), at the inaugural ceremony of Jeshan-e-Iqbal at Kolkata on May 30, 2015. [Times of India].

[iii] Nehru, Jawaharlal, Discovery of India, p 350.

[iv] Ibid, p 351.

[v] Ibid, p 352.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Iqbal, Javed, Zindah Rood, p 483.

[viii] Ibid, p 612.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Raghavan, G. S, The Warning of Kashmir, p 59.

[xi] Weekly Amar, Lahore, August 31, 1931.

[xii] File №509 PR-21/N, Year 1939, Archives Repository, Jammu.

[xiii] Singh, Khushwant, Iqbal’s Hindu Relations, The Telegraph, Calcutta, June 30, 2007.

[xiv] Khoihamai, Hassan, Tarikh-i-Hassan, vol. II, p 730.

[xv] Ibid, p 738.

[xvi] Waleed Iqbal, grandson of Allama Iqbal, at the inaugural ceremony of Jeshan-e-Iqbal at Kolkata on May 30, 2015. [Times of India].

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