The freedom struggle saw many different kinds of movements and associations being formed in India. The movement ‘Anjuman Tarraqi Pasand Mussanafin e Hind’ or The Progressive Writers Association (PWA) was formed in July 1936 in Kolkata to fight for the freedom of expression and sought to spread the idea of equality.

In fact the association was formed in 1935 in London as the Indian Progressive Writers Association and was at the time an expansion of ‘a league of Progressive Authors’, announced by Ahmad Ali and Mamduz Zafar in April 1933. According to reports and documents, the association was a result of proscribing ‘Angare’, 1932 a collection of nine short stories and a one act play written by Ahmad Ali, Sajjad Zaheer, Rashid Jehan and Mamduz Zaffar by the Uttar Pradesh (U.P) Government.

Angare was banned following an uproar in Muslim circles, who criticised the book for insulting Islam. Though Rakshanda Jalil, author, critic and literary historian, in her book ‘Liking Progress, Loving Change: A Literary History of the Progressive Writers Movement’ traces the origin of the movement as a result of ongoing socio-political changes since the mid-19th century. Vineet Tiwari, National Secretary of the current PWA pointed out that the organisation not only took a stand against the colonial ideologies but also against the rise of fascism. Tiwari referred to Prem Chand and how the writer believed in changing the aesthetics of the art from a utopian image to a more realistic one.

(Left to right: Sibte Hasan, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Hameed Akhtar and Nadeem Qasmi. Photo credit: Herald-Dawn)

Sohail Hashmi, historian, academician and filmmaker, told The Citizen that the PWA was part of the major literary and cultural upsurge that was sweeping across India with Subramaniya Bharti, Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, Vaikom Mohammad Basheer, Kesava Dev, A. N. Krishna Rao, T. R. Subba Rao, K. S. Niranjana, Basavaraja Kattimani, Chaduranga and Sri Sri, to name just a few from the four Southern states alone.

“Writers in these parts were actively engaging with the freedom struggle so were the writers in languages of the North including Urdu and Punjabi,” said Hashmi. He added that while fighting for freedom they also thought of the kind of society that free India would be and added that they were not alone in this quest. Tagore, Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar and others were thinking of a more equitable society free of exploitation. The example of the USSR was a beacon that attracted many. Hashmi talked about why a linguistically and culturally diverse country as India, which was backward till the early years of the 20th century, kept emerging as major player in world politics. Tiwari also highlighted that the writers worked together to unite the people of all castes, creed and religion for the freedom struggle.

Since the movement was based on a sociological framework, I wondered if there was a romanticising of the whole Marxist ideology. Hashmi says, “It was this idea of fighting to establish a just social order, based on equality that inspired the creative community all over the country. The PWA was part of this movement along with the All India Students Federation (formed 1936), so was the All India Kisan Sabha, the Indian Peoples' Theatre Association IPTA (formed in 1942)”.

Some of India’s finest artists including Ravi Shankar, Uday Shankar, Salil Chowdhury, Hemant Kumar, Hemanga Biswas, Habib Tanveer, Zohra Segal, Prithvi Raj Kapoor were inspired by the idea of socialism. So were Prem Chand, Raghupati Sahay 'Firaq" Gorakhpuri, Shailendra, Krishan Chander, Kartar Singh Duggal, Ram Lal, Joginder Pal, Faiz, Sahir, Majrooh, Kaifi, Ismat Chughtai, Manto and hundreds of others.

However, Tiwari thought socialistic values were always present in our culture in Kabir and his ideologies; socialism only brought forward what was already present.

(From left: Sultana Jafri, Ismat Chughtai, Vishwamittra Aaadil, Ali Sardar Jafri, Krishnan Chander, Mahendranath, Mumtaz Hussain, Rajinder Singh Bedi and in the front, Sahir Ludhianvi and Habib Tanveer. Photo credit: Jnanapravaha)

Hashmi said that one could call it romanticising but it was any day better than romanticising an unjust past or getting all teary eyed about the gun toting American dream. Jalil, on the other hand said it was precisely through romanticising that PWA popularized the idea of progressivism and even radicalism. Never before the idea of revolution was sung in a sweeter verse than it was by the progressives. She also called the strategy clever as it worked beautifully for almost two decades, allowed the large mass of fellow travellers who wanted a better world and romanticised radicalism making it attractive for the masses.

What happened to the movement in a newly free India? Jalil and Hashmi outlinig the key changes Jalil told how their numbers split and dwindled as a large number of progressives left for Pakistan. She added that the Communist Party of India (CPI) itself got split into its Indian and much truncated Pakistani arm. Again a lot of the progressives felt the goals of the PWA -- that had been fighting against colonialism and anti-fascism and for nationalism -- had been achieved after independence. She also said that many lay their trust with Nehru who urged the writers and thinkers to align themselves with the nation-building projects when he announced: 'Let the temples of modern India be its dams, factories, universities.'

Hashmi, on the other hand spoke about the complexities that emerged after independence. He stated that we had a clearly identified enemy, the Imperialist coloniser and his domestic Lackeys. The pen of the writer was used to mobilise the people against these enemies of the people. He said that the situation got complicated many folds as yesterday's allies became our enemies and there were differences on who exactly was the enemy, the feudal lord or the cut throat capitalist or the government that talked of building an equitable society but always sided with the feudal and the capitalists.

(Ghulam Rabbani Taban, in the front seat, Kafi Azmi and A.K Hangal, in the back, heading for an event by PWA in Patna. Photo Credit: Syed Ahmad Afzal, Twitter)

Sovereign India saw the progressive movement lose its glory and a number factors contributed to it. According to Hashmi many of the leading lights of the PWA were actively involved with both the trade union movement and the Communist Party of India. Further mentioned that the eventual division of CPI also led to the division of PWA. He also added that other factors such as the manner in which the communist movement dealt with questions of creative freedom contributed to the disarray. He believes that the changed political situation, the inability to adapt to the changes, the increasing patronage extended by the growing capitalist class to anti progressive ideas and the weakening of the Anti-Imperialist and Pro People United Front which had been the back-bone of the PWA led to the its eventual collapse.

Jalil also talks about the collapse in her book describing how the party split owing to the rigid practitioners of progressivism. This weakened association further witnessed the partition of India which also saw the partition of PWA and the rise of modernism led to a slow death of the movement. Tiwari, on the other hand, says that though the association was not active for a period of time but by the late 80’s and early 90’s they were trying to fight against the market domination done by the globalised way of writing. These writings, though appeared to have versatile themes, they were not outrightly progressive.

(Allahabad 8 December 2013 - A picture of a rally organised by PWA, Allahabad Unit against communal fascism. Around 1000 writers gathered for the rally in Allahabad. Photo Credit- PWA)

History tends to leave an imprint on the present. Looking for a mark that the progressive movement left on modern day Indian literature, Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, a publishing consultant, said PWA may have been established as a response to the high art seen most often in Urdu literature of the time, but by talking about the common man and making their stories equally relevant opened new spaces in literature. She says that the impact on much of contemporary modern Indian literature in English is obvious. She along with Jalil points out how increasingly stories about people "like ourselves" are being written. Ordinary folks, all of whom have a story to share.

Jalil lists out a few more changes that the PWA was responsible for such as holding up a more faithful, more ruthless and more accurate mirror to society than had hitherto been the practice. She pointed out how it brought people together, especially the intelligentsia, than any other movement with the exception of the Aligarh movement. Stating that the movement drove its tentacles deep into different parts of the country drawing a response from the common man and left a lasting effect on the literary values decades after its decline. She mentions, “The movement played a vital role in inculcating the values of liberty, equality and justice and drew attention to crucial issues of hunger, poverty, inequality, exploitation, gender justice, education and human rights. Most importantly, it provided an impetus to the national freedom movement by focusing attention on nationalism, love for the country and freedom from foreign.” Tiwari on the other hand believes that there is still a lot need to be done in issues that have been there since pre-independent era and still continue to handicap our society such as unity between different religions, women liberation, and unity of people across castes.

(Indore : A photograph of historical importance, taken at PWA state conference of Madhya Pradesh Unit, 2004. On the dias from right, president of the reception committee Comrade Homi Daji, known Marxist ideologue, Prof. Randhir Singh, famous theatre director Habib Tanvir, Hindi-critic and the then President of PWA Namwar Singh, then President of IPTA and noted actor A.K. Hangal, founder General Secretary of Madhya Pradesh PWA Shyam Sundar Mishra, Hindi poet Charakant Deotale. Photo Credit- PWA)

Speaking on the relevance of such movements that spoke of freedom and equality through literature and art, Rose said these kinds of movements will always be relevant. Hashmi shares the same belief and said that all this progressive and pro people content continues to be the main-stay of contemporary dalit, feminist, protest, and rights based pro marginalised writing represented through writers’ organisations like the Janwadi Lekhak Sangh(JLS), Pragatisheel Lekhak Sangh and many other regional and language-based writer’s forums. These are clear indicators of the continuation of the tradition of the PWA. Tiwari also mentions other present writers’ association and adds, “All these organisations can unite as and when needed.” Jalil said all these point to the relevance of the dream of a just social order and the need to carry on the fight for Socialism. She also emphasises on the need of such movements and said, “Literature can no longer afford to keep its eyes closed from social realities,” adding that no writer can really say "I am not political.” She believes that all art and all writing is political today.

Considering India’s situation where journalists are under constant threat and books get banned because they hurt sentiments of certain groups of people or go against the orthodox customs, one cannot help but agree with the four about the importance of a movement spreading the idea of freedom of expression.