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A call from the no man’s land

When the boundaries between patriotism and nationalism are fast crumbling, let’s look back at Manto’s cogent arguments for peace and non-violence.

February 05, 2015 08:53 pm | Updated 08:53 pm IST

Saadat Hasan Manto

Saadat Hasan Manto

Nation as a binding force and a dominant political discourse went very well with people in the second and third decade of 20th Century. In India nationalism paid rich dividends as the alien rule was overthrown but the Partition was marked by unpredicted violence. The macabre dance of death and destruction rendered innumerable persons homeless and they were forced to migrate to other country. Did this unprecedented political conflict drawing on nationalism, become an integral part of the creative experiences of any writer? How did nation and its political implications find their way in creative writings? Did any writer strive for unveiling the ruthless and inhuman face of the nation state?

These questions are creatively answered by Manto whose short stories have been explicated in the backdrop of communal violence, partition, prostitution, sexual aberration and human eccentricities. Some of his oft-repeated themes such as religious hatred, feigned morality, political concerns and sexual perversion continue to engage the attention of the critics. Seldom does one come across any attempt to elucidate his creative strategy to subvert the very concept of ‘nation’.

Manto quite quick-wittedly denudes the demented nature and inherent contradictions of the nation that was espoused as the eternal truth or emancipatory ideology. His several short stories make it clear that nation hardly cogitates about human predicament eternal moral values and deep social concerns. Nation state becomes synonymous with war and exploitation. His innumerable characters through their actions and dialogues divulge that nationalism hardly goes along with freedom, tolerance, equality, justice and basic human rights. Manto’s widely-acclaimed short story Toba Tek Singh pulls the plug on it. The protagonist of the story Bishan Singh firmly stands on a place and his meaningless utterances aptly unmask the repressive nature of political dispensation and human folly to justify violence in the name of national interests. Bishan Singh’s death at no-man’s land denotes dissipation of an age-old human belief that reckons earth as in separable entity.

The beginning of a new nation state forced migration of vulnerable millions and it unfailingly denotes unprecedented moral debacle. No other Indian language could vie with Manto in producing such a poignant irony on the Partition. The propagators of the Partition referred to the religious texts and several injections in their support but a character of the story who lived in the mental asylums for long, replying to the insistence of Bishan Singh on identifying geographical boundaries of new state mentions, “I am God and I have not yet decided the geographical location of Toba Tek Singh.” The dialogues assert that the earth cannot be divided and attempt of its division would never realise the dream of peace and prosperity.

The whole narration is braced for subverting the age-old concept of treating the earth as a means of acquiring power. Dividing earth into narrow geographical boundaries cannot go well with freedom but nation state thrives on its denial. Toba Tek Singh is perhaps the first short story in Indian language that creatively subverts the contours of nationalism.

Manto makes a candid difference between patriotism and nationalism. Patriotism means genuine love for one’s country but nationalism reveals hostility towards others that is deplorable. Toba Tek Singh , and some other stories, proffer a live debate on different aspect of the dominant discourse of the age. Actions and dialogues of the characters and story line create inspiring narrative space that explores the possibility of an alternative definition of nation. Manto’s stories unfailingly make us realise that if nation is reduced to unconditional subordination and it is viewed as the eternal truth, it will become a metaphor of blatant violation of human fights. Nation cannot usurp the individual liberty and Manto also makes us to understand that nationalism is also a prejudice akin to religious, ethnic and linguistic predisposition.

Political leaders and power that be always use public interest as a cover up for their brutality. Aggressive and hostile kind of nationalism, known as jingoism, reveal one-dimensional and autocratic concept of nationalism. No one is allowed to deviate from it and people not subscribing to it, are not provided with basic human rights. Their so called anti-social activities are cited as the reason for not granting them the rights and they are punished after a summary trial. This sort of reasoning does not give civil rights to even petty criminals. The protagonist of, “Jhooti Kahani” lodges a strong protest by asserting criminals are fully entitled to the rights enjoyed by law abiding citizens of the society.

His scores of stories including Badtameez, Akhari Salute, Joota place nation in the backdrop of cultural and narrative space. Manto’s many characters showing their disposition towards deep wider human concerns make it clear that every attempt to provide individuals with imagined cultural identity by depriving them of their individuality, is downright deplorable

Manto’s text as a whole questions the very existence of autocratic nation state as it owes much to military, police, investigation agencies and courts. How do police arrest innocent citizens by filing false cases against them? How do people find themselves entangled in never-ending trials, these questions have come in for a detailed narration in his short story “Phoja Haram Da” that reminds us of Kafka’s trial. “In an autocratic state everyone is forced to work for the government no matter whether he is a worker, judge, shopkeeper, priest or lawyer. Violence, war and merciless killings are frequently used for perpetuating nationalism and new areas are to be won. War seems inevitable in making nation invincible. Manto in his story “Akhri Salute” tears apart this argument and asserts war does not solve any issue; conversely it is the biggest problem that jeopardises the peaceful existence of people.

Violence in any form and in circumstance was intolerable and the idea of annihilation of one group of people by using violent methods can never be realised, this is what Manto creatively discussed in his fiction.

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