Once upon a time, only a hundred or so years ago, and earlier, Iranians were our neighbours. Many were friends, relatives – uncles, grandparents, ancestors, some were husbands, wives and lovers. And cities like Delhi, Lucknow, Murshidabad and Hyderabad spoke Persian better than they spoke English, or even Hindi. The distance from Tehran and Isfahan to Delhi, Lucknow and Lahore, or across the water from Bandar Abbas to Bombay or Karachi, in miles and in the imagination, seemed less than what we can even begin to understand today.
The Bengal renaissance had one of its points of origin in a Persian broadsheet called Mirat ul Akhbar published by Ram Mohan Roy in Calcutta. The first Iranian talking film and the last ‘Irani’ restaurant both have their origins in Bombay. The Sabk-e-Hindi, or the ‘Indian Style’ continued to adorn the more ornate fringes of Persian poetry in Iran. The miniatures painted in the ateliers of Delhi and Agra owed a great deal to the paints, brushes, colours and visions of visiting masters from Tabriz. The sitar and the sarod came from Iran, and stayed on. We shared jokes and stories, poets, prophets and pranksters, wine and spices, surnames (Kirmani, Rizvi, Mashadi, Yazdi) and clan histories, heresies and wisdom and a thousand other things that neighbours, friends, cousins and lovers share.
Then came another time, closer to our times, and Iranians were once again friends, some were comrades, in colleges and universities in Aligarh, Delhi, Pune and Bangalore. They were the best footballers in Aligarh, the best dancers in Pune, they told the wildest jokes in Delhi, some of them were poets, some were athletes, some were fops, others saw themselves as revolutionaries. In the early and mid eighties of the last century, thousands of Iranians, fugitives from the tightening madness of the Islamic Republic (like their predecessors, fugitives from the lunacy of the Shah) came to India for respite. If you listen to Iranians who once lived in Delhi and Aligarh, and are now scattered across the world in Toronto, Berlin, Paris, Stockholm, Melbourne and Isfahan, they tell you a little known, or forgotten, story of betrayal. Of how the Iranian theocracy’s spies, (exactly like the Shah’s hated SAVAK) aided and abetted by Indian intelligence agents, harassed and intimidated hundreds of Iranian students and exiles in india. Some committed suicide.Others were blackmailed into returning in the name of their families, and many were imprisoned immediately, or sent to die at the front of a nasty war. Some perished in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison. Others, those who could resist going back to Iran, soon had to leave India, bitter and saddened to leave the cities that to them felt closest to home.
The first, and only ‘revolution’ I encountered as a child was born and betrayed in Iran. I was eleven years old in 1979, when the Shah of Iran was deposed, and I can still recall vividly, the elation I saw in blurred radio-photo images in newspapers, as I scanned them in Delhi. The streets of Tehran, to my eleven year old imagination, were the most thrilling place to be. It seemed to me, that young people, not more than ten to twelve years older than me, people who could have been my elder brothers and sisters, were changing history. The long shadow of Khomeini’s beard, a senseless war between a despotic regime in Iraq and the Iranian theocracy, and the betrayal of the 1979 revolution by the regime that became the Islamic Republic of Iran taught me to understand, at a fairly young age, that the withering and atrophying of ideals can be the cruellest gift that history holds out to those who hold dreams dear.
Ever since then, I have followed what happens to people in Iran as one would the fortunes of close relatives cut off by history. I have always dreamed of going to Tehran and Isfahan, tried to learn Persian, tried to follow the chaotic, joyous, anarchic and melancholic edges of Persian cyberspace, tried, whenever possible to know and learn more about Iran, and tried my very best to avoid the gushing Iranophilia (‘No, not all Iranian films are fantastic, many are boring, formulaic and predictable’) that I know is as irritating to intelligent Iranians as gushing Indophilia is to me.
Today, as ever before, the millions of people on the streets of Tehran, Isfahan, Tabriz, Mashhad and elsewhere who up have risen up against the recent ‘stolen election’ have shown the world the face of an Iran that hardly anyone knew, or at least one that many preferred not to know.
This is an Iran that I have tried to know, at a distance, from Delhi, for a while. I have followed it in the testaments of Iranian exiles and Iranian dissidents like Akbar Ganji and Shirin Ebadi and thousans of others, imprisoned, tortured, killed, blackmailed and blacklisted, in the statements of anonymous and underground and lesser known Anarchist, Communist and Socialist Iranians, Iranian feminists, Iranian workers, Iranian civil rights activists, Iranian bloggers, Iranians both religious and non-religious who no longer believe that the Islamic Republic’s regime means anything to them, Iranian filmmakers, artists, poets, writers, philosophers, scientists and doctors, Iranian gay and lesbian activists, ordinary, decent, hard working, god fearing, sceptical and apolotical Iranians who just want to be left in peace and spared the depradations of a regime grown fat on the lard of corruption, priviledge and hypocrisy. Today, millions of these people, men, women, children, older people, pensioners, war veterans, former Islamists, believers and non-believers, are showing us that they, and not the Khamenei-Ahmedinijad cartel will write the contemporary history of Iran.
Today, many of the protestors in Tehran, are taking to the streets with placards that carry poems and aphorisms taken from Iran’s rich literary heritage. A poem, by the much loved Iranian poet Ahmed Shamlou, could be read as a poetic allegory for the regime presided over by Khamenei and Ahmedinijad. I am sure it is being read as that today on the streets of Tehran.
In This Blind Alley by Ahmed Shamlou
(Translated by Ahmad Karimi Hakkak, published in Strange Times, My Dear: The P.E.N Anthology of Contemporary Iranian Literature edited by Nahid Mozaffari and Ahmad Karimi Hakkak, Arcade Publishing, New York, 2005)
“They smell your breath
lest you have said; I love you
They smell your heart
These are strange times, my dear
They flog love
at the roadblock
Let’s hide love in the larder
In this crooked blind alley, as the chill descends
they feed fires
with logs of song and poetry
Hazard not a thought
These are strange times, my dear
The man who knocks at your door in the noon of the night
has come to kill the light
Let’s hide light in the larder
are posted in passageways
with bloody chopping blocks and cleavers:
These are strange times, my dear
They chop smiles off lips
and songs off the mouth
Let’s hide joy in the larder
on the flames of lilies and jasmines,
These are strange times, my dear
Satan, drunk on victory
squats at the feast of our undoing,
Let’s hide God in the larder.”
At the same time as the streets of Tehran construct their defiance with silence and the reading of poems during the day and the rooftops of Tehran articulate their anger with slogans that invoke both the greatness of god and the fervent desire for ‘death to the dictatorship’ , we in India are sitting amidst the rising stench of a profound, sullen, stupor about Iran.
We have turned our back on our neighbours, our friends, our sometime cousins. We have betrayed, and are continuing to betray those who dream of an ordinary, decent, non-theocratic, open society in Iran, where people will not be harassed for showing the hair on their heads, or jailed for reading certain books or agitating for a fair wage, or sentenced to death for being in love with a person of a certain gender. We are failing to realize that the victory of the forces opposed to the Ahmadinejad clique represent a profound transformation in the Muslim world, where the automatic call to ‘politics by prerformed piety’ is no longer working. This could well be the begining of the end of Islamic fundamentalism, and a return to a broad based, class based, secular-democractic politics in the Islamicate world, just as the Khomeinist putsch signalled the glamorous inauguration of contemporary Islamic Fundamentalism in the world and the derailing of the Iranian revolution against the tyranny of the Shah by a fascist clerical clique.
Mir Hossein Mousavi, the challenger to Ahmadinejad, may well have been associated with the establishment of the Islamic Republic (as prime minister) in the early years of the Iran Iraq war, but his long exile and distance from politics following his removal from power, may have either led him to realize that the regime as it exists is unredeemable, or, he may be carried by forces that emanate from the popular hatred of the Islamist regime that may even be beyond his control. Not all those who are arrayed in the anti-Ahmedinijad faction are angels in waiting. Prominent amongst them is the corrupt and opportunist Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, whose opposition to Ahmedinijad has less to do with his love of liberty and more to do with his insatiable lust for power. He derailed the revolution before and handed it on a platter to the Islamists, he may derail the revolution again, and hand it on a platter to other vested interests.
Whatever be the case, there can be no mistaking the fact that the real movers of history at present are neither Mousavi, nor Rafsanjani, nor Ahemdinijad or the ‘Supreme Leader’ Ayatollah Khamenei. History is being made, not by leaders and candidates, by Ayatollahs and clerics, but by ordinary people gathering in their millions.Their resistance may have begun as a protest from within the Moussavi camp against electoral fraud, but it has rapidly become far more generalized. Today, the protests are about things much greater than a stolen election alone, they are about the fundamental directions that politics, culture and society will take in iran today. Even if the Khamenei-Ahmedinijad clique wins the day with repression and violence, it will have lost the night. Iran by night will continue to resonate with anger and rage. The dreams dreamt in Tehran will infect the nightmares of the Supreme Leader.
That the government of India, which has to protect its cynical interests in the realpolitik of the region should shake hands with the hated Ahmadinejad in Moscow, under the tutelage of (Ras)Putin is not surprising (after all they also cosy up to the junta in Rangoon for the same reason).
That there should be nervousness and anxiety in the corridors of Tata Steel, Essar, Reliance Petrochemicals and ONGC Videsh (each with substantial investments in Iran garnered by schmoozing with the Ahmadinejad-Khamenei cartel) is not in itself surprising. That the moribund and pathetic sycophancy of the so-called Communist Party of India (Marxist), which functioned, (while it functioned), as the front office of the Iranian regime in India (how many more dead communists and leftists in Iran would it have taken for the CPI(M) to recognize the fascism of Khomeini-Khameini-Ahmadinejad? ) should have rendered it speechless in the face of the current developments is not surprising. That the tired hacks of the Urdu press should provide apologies for clerical-klepto-fascism in iran is not surprising.
While none of this is surprising, it is nevertheless, deeply, profoundly saddening.
Remember the pious sloganeering of ‘Hands off Iran’ which exercised the Karats and the Bardhans, and even the more effete and niche apparatchiki of student Maoism in JNU and elsewhere, only last year? Iran was suddenly the most important issue in Indian politics, it appeared that how India’s foreign policy oriented oneself towards Iran’s nuclear ambitions could even make or break governments in India. Where are those people who shouted ‘Hands off Iran’? Where are they now, when the people of Iran need some real solidarity, and not the masquerade of ‘anti-Imperialism’ by proxy that our ‘radical’ mob-masters are so good at. Where are they now, when strong and vocal expressions of support for freedom and democracy in Iran could make a real difference?
I have already heard some snide remarks and whispers (which have attempted to relieve the obscenity of the stunning silence in India regarding Iran) about how the protests in Iran are all engineered, about how they are all ‘elitist elements’ and about how Ahmadinejad needs all the support he can get from ‘people like us’.
If this is indeed the case, how can one explain the following statement of 23rd June, put out by militant Industrial workers (by no means the ‘velvet revolutionaries’ of the elite enclaves of North Tehran). And there are many more.
“…We workers, under the present conditions, when social protests have taken the form of a mass and a huge movement has come on the scene to achieve its demands, see it as our right to put forward the demands of fellow workers and to raise our banner. These demands are as follows:
1. Immediate increase in the minimum wage to over 1 million tomans [$1010] a month.
2. An end to temporary contracts and new forms of work contracts.
3. The disbanding of the Labour House and the Islamic Labour Councils as government organisations in the factories and workshops, and the setting up of shoras [councils] and other workers’ organisations independent from the government.
4. Immediate payment of workers’ unpaid wages without any excuses.
5. An end to laying-off workers and payment of adequate unemployment insurance to all unemployed workers.
6. The immediate release of all political prisoners including the workers arrested on May Day, Jafar Azimzadeh, Gholamreza Khani, Said Yuzi, Said Rostami, Mehdi Farahi-Shandiz, Kaveh Mozafari, Mansour Osanloo and Ebrahim Madadi, and an end to surveillance and harassment of workers and labour leaders.
7. The right to strike, protest, assemble and the freedom of speech and the press are the workers’ absolute right.
8. An end to sexual discrimination, child labour and the sacking of foreign workers.
Workers! Today we have a duty to intervene, to pose our demands independently and by relying on our own united strength, together with other sections of society, to work towards achieving our human rights.
The Free Trade Union of Iranian Workers. “
To this statement could be added calls to strike by workers in the Khodro Automobile Plant, of Bus Drivers and Transport Workers and even of the lower echelons of the bureaucracy. These voices will only grow, and if workers in the Oil Industry go on strike, as they did in 1978 and again in 1997, then the Regime’s days are clearly numbered .
Each of these calls have led to intimidation by the Basij, the gangs of Islamist thugs maintained by the state, even as regular units of the police, army and even some sections of the elite Revolutionary Guards seem reluctant to use force against striking and demonstrating people. The Basij have been particularly brutal with young women, who are seen as leading protests and especially vocal in their opposition to the repression unleashed by the regime.
The death of Neda Agha Soltan, a 26 year old student of Islamic Philosophy and a largely apolitical music enthusiast, by anonymous sniper fire has catalysed even more fervent opposition, and her memory seems to be in the process of being transformed into a symbol of the many who (especially the young) who have died or been gravely injured in the last few days.
And yet, we in India are surrounded by a silence about Iran. This silence cannot be explained away as indifference, as a lack of curiosity, as yet another sign of Indian narcissism. Because if it is any of those it also signals a deeply unhealthy refusal to engage with our neighbourhood, and with the wider world. Sometimes, this refusal to engage comes weighed down by a pathetic ignorance of the history of our neighbourhood. “What is happening in Iran cannot be real”, goes this line of thinking, because, “actually they are a country of acquiescent fundamentalists, the majority of whom will finally toe the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad line”.
What this pathetic willingness to capitulate to the Mullahcracy in Iran does not understand is that what is going on in Iran is nothing new. The Islamists lost their moral legitimacy in Iran a long time ago, they actually risk losing their power now. The recent history of Iran is a continuous narrative of the opposition by different sections of the population against this regime. The difference this time, is that all the different sections of the population, women, workers, intellectuals, students, young people, the urban poor, and even some elements in the establishment, seem to have come together to signal that they have run out of patience with the fraud perpetrated on the people of Iran in the name of the Islamic Republic.
Those who ignore this forget Iranian history. They forget that twenty thousand women had protested against the veil in Tehran as long ago as the 8th of March, 1979 (in the early days of the Iranian revolution).
That thousands of people participated in militant demonstrations against land evictions in Meshed ordered by the regime in 1992
That this year, marks the 10th anniversary of the brutal suppression of the protests in Tehran University campuses that left many students dead in dormitories.
That workers have struck again and again, in courageous illegal strikes, in key sectors of the economy, risking death and imprisonment.
That civil rights activists and dissidents such as Akbar Ganji and Saeed Hajjarian much like our own Binayak Sen have acted for many years, despite disabling imprisonment and assasination attempts, as beacons of conscience with their principled opposition to an increasingly cynical regime.
If we choose to forget, or ignore these realities, the people of Iran will never forgive us, and the thousands of years of things we have shared will drown in their bitter alienation from our lives. Our neighbours will shun us, because we shunned them when they needed us most.
Students in Indian universities, workers, teachers, intellectuals, activists, artists and anyone who cares for freedom, for decency in India, need to stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of Iran today. We need petitions to be signed, statements to be released, marches and demonstrations to be organized, sit-ins and boycotts of official Iranian delegations to be put into place. We need to put pressure on Indian corporations to explain their complicity with the brutal Khamenei-Ahmadinejad dictatorship, and we need to ask our government how it explains its complicity through silence with state terror in Iran. We need exactly what needed to be done in Delhi, Calcutta, Bangalore, Trivandrum, Bhopal, Lucknow and Bombay when South Africa practiced Apartheid, when Israel bombed Lebanon or Gaza, when the USA attacked Iraq and even, as my memory serves me, when the Shah of Iran came calling in 1978.
We need to say that today, we are all with the people of Iran. That our silence by rage, and our roar by night, will join the wave that has begun in Tehran. Then, and then alone can we repay the debt we owe, over thousands of years, to our friendship with the people of Iran.
We should remember this the next time, and whenever, anyone says ‘Inquliab Zindabad’ within earshot. For decades, those words, have brought together all those committed to liberty and justice in India, and even those who have pretended, or are pretending to be committed to liberty and justice in India. Both those words are taken from Farsi, the common and exalted language of Iran.
(Cross posted on Sarai Reader List)