Ghalib – 16: On Monarchy and Democracy

Only Ghalib could pack so much meaning in a mere ten words:

saltanat dast bah dast aaii hai
jam-e mai khaatim-e Jamshed nahiiN

the kingship has come from hand to hand
the glass of wine; the seal of Jamshed is not

Even the well-known Ghalib scholars have pondered over the many possible meanings as mentioned in A Desertful of Roses and in our companion blog Mehr-e-Niimroz.

In this post, we use the verse as a mirror to reflect on the state of governance in South Asia today.

Ghalib has tossed three balls in the air for us to ponder – the metaphors of kingship, the glass of wine, and the seal of Jamshed. If we translate dast bah dast as hand to hand, an interpretation would be that both kingship and the glass of wine are passed from hand to hand while the seal of Jamshed belongs to Jamshed alone.

But it would be quite unlike Ghalib to be so simple. The complexity is embedded in dast bah dast: It does mean hand to hand but the Persian dast bah dast amadan also indicates acquiring by force.

And this is where Ghalib seems to be making the crucial distinction. Kingship can be acquired by force or ruse or trickery while the glass of wine loses its meaning when it ceases to be circulated from hand to hand. The contrast is between the lack of any moral rules in the acquisition of kingship and the democratic mores that govern the assembly of the tavern which itself was a common metaphor for the sufi order.

The bottom line is that kingship can easily go to the undeserving or the rogue or the strongman while entry into the company of mystics is both meritocratic and democratic. In this sense the latter is to be preferred to the former – the glass of wine is superior to the crown. And both are distinct from the seal of Jamshed which is private property.

This observation must have made abundant sense in Ghalib’s age, the declining years of the Mughal Empire, when all sorts of knaves and fools and musclemen laid claim to the throne of Delhi while the sufi orders retained their scholarly eminence and mass respect.

When we look at contemporary politics we see still the shadow cast by Ghalib’s age. All sorts of charlatans keep ascending to the throne, at times with the help of guns, at others with glib rhetoric, at yet others with faked inheritances.

Contrary to all appearances, in South Asia we are still in the age of monarchy and very far from any notion of democracy. That is why we continue to be burdened by incompetent, undeserving and uncaring rulers who do not command the respect of the ruled. And an honest person would much rather enter the tavern than the world of politics.


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