ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

Freedom of expression: K. A. Abbas and his Sardarji

There is a chapter Perils of Progressive Literature in Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’s autobiography (I am not an Island: An Experiment in Autobiography, Imprint 2010), which offers us a detailed account of the controversy around his short story Sardarji (1948). Written in a polemical yet informative tone, this description could also be used to understand the sequence of events that makes this controversy politically as well as intellectually relevant even today.    

This story is about a Sikh old man, Sardarji, who is assassinated by a Hindu and Sikh mob in order to save a pro-Pakistan Muslim man Shaikh Burhanuddin during the Partition riots. The story was written in Urdu around 1947-48. Abbas had already written a few rather provocative short stories on deteriorating Hindu-Muslim relationships by that time and Sardarji was an extension of this thematic interest in the everydayness of communal hostility.

Abbas, who often describes himself as a ‘one-draft’ story writer, tells us that Sardarji was not sent directly for publication. He read it out in a group informally. His first audience including three Sikh friends found it extremely thoughtful narrative. But, it seems, Abbas was not fully satisfied by that time. He showed it to Rajendra Singh Bedi and Kishanchander, who suggested a few minor modifications. Kishanchander advised Abbas to send it to Abad-e-Lateef in Lahore for publication. The idea was to sensitise primarily the Muslim readers of Pakistan. The story was published eventually in Adab-e-Lateef. Since the theme of Sardarji had a contemporary relevance, Hindi magazine Maya of Allahabad also published it in Nagri script.   

The initial reaction was encouraging. The publisher of the journal described Sardarji as the best short story of the year. He informed Abbas that apart from Muslims, a number of Hindu and Sikh readers had written letters to them appreciating this endeavour. However, this positive response was rather short-lived. A few so-called Muslim newspapers of Pakistan demanded legal action against the publisher of Adab-e-Lateef for publishing anti-Muslim stories such as Sardarji.

The more striking reaction came from a section of the Sikh community. The Shiromani Gurudwara Prabhandhak Committee sent a telegram to the Prime Minister saying: 

In the Hindi magazine Maya…some Muslim Leaguer K. A. Abbas had written a provocative, mean and dirty article, which makes one wonder whether it is a Pakistani magazine or a Hindi magazine of India whose proprietor is a Hindu. By the publication of this article there is a wave of anger among Hindus and Sikhs…we demand the confiscation of this issue and exemplary punishment be awarded to the author, printer and publisher of this article. (I am not an Island: An Experiment in Autobiography, p. 220)

The text of this telegram is very relevant. The committee does not recognise the fact that Sardarji was basically a short story not an article. Abbas also highlight this crucial point and emphasises it in his formal communication in this case. But, there is something more alarming, which introduces us to the communally explosive atmosphere of 1948. The text of this telegram very clearly makes a distinction between Hindu-Sikh-India and Muslim-Pakistan. Abbas’s Muslim name is inevitably linked to the political campaign of Muslim League as if the story (which understood as an article!) is written intentionally to hurt the feelings of Sikhs (and Hindus as well!)

The controversy on Sardarji took an interesting turn. A case was filed against Abbas in a lower court in UP under IPC section 153 and 295. He was charged with hate speech and intentional insult of a particular religion.

Although various Hindi and Urdu writers and progressive groups came forward to support Abbas’s freedom of expression, Abbas’s own response in this case is more relevant for us. Two examples may be taken to elaborate this point.

Abbas wrote a formal reply to the Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee. In this letter Abbas argues:

(a)   Sardarji was not an article but a story.

(b)   Its aim was not to defame the Sikhs but to satirise the prejudice that communalist Muslims still harbored against the Sikhs.

(c)    The “I” of the story was a fictitious character and certainly not the author.

(d)   If by reading some part of the story, the sentiments of any Sikh friends and brothers were hurt by a misunderstanding, then I was intensely sorry because my aim was to idealize a brave and humanist Sardarji.

(e)   I was not a communalist, and was a staunch opponent of the Muslim League and the idea of Pakistan…

(f)    I could have neither prejudice against, nor hatred, for the Sikhs as some of my best friends and comrades happened to be of Sikh faith. In the riots several members of my family were saved by Sikhs and indeed it was this that inspired the story.

(g)   The rapid communalist papers of Pakistan were writing against the story because according to them it depicted Muslims unfairly and glorified the Sikhs.’ (I am not an Island: An Experiment in Autobiography, p. 222)

The second example is related to a person who actually filed the case against Sardarji in Allahabad. Abbas tells us a very interesting episode. During the proceedings of the case, Abbas met this old Sikh man from Jhansi. When Abbas found out that this person had not read Sardarji and his complaint was primarily based on a rather selective reading of the actual text, he requested him to listen to his story. They sat-down for an hour and Abbas readout the story in front of him. As expected, the person realized the fact that his opinion about Sardarji was entirely incorrect. He withdrew his case later (I am not an Island: An Experiment in Autobiography, p. 225).   

These two incidents show a very different attitude towards the question of freedom of expression. Abbas did not compromise with his ideas and arguments. Yet, he paid equal attention to the varied reception of his story. Instead of taking a rigid and essentialist position, Abbas tried to create the possibilities of dialogue with all kinds of publics including those organizations, which Abbas himself called communal. In other words, the realm of the ‘popular’ is not approached in an abstract manner, rather the messiness of everyday life of Indian communities, their beliefs and values are given adequate space for highlighting the fine distinction between humanistic values and social prejudices. 

About Author

Hilal Ahmed ( ​ is Associate Fellow, Centre for the Study of Developing societies, New Delhi. He is the author of Monuments, Memory and Contestation: Muslim Political Discourse in Postcolonial India (Routledge/Forthcoming). Ahmed writes on popular Islam and Muslim politics. He is working on his second book project, Politics of Muslim Political Representation.     
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