Poetry Of Resistance In Pakistan Through The Ages

"While Ayub Khan, ZA Bhutto or even Benazir Bhutto inspired poems critical of their rule, it was General Zia-ul-Haq that became special target for condemnation"

Poetry Of Resistance In Pakistan Through The Ages

The language of poetry is very powerful. Poets carry some of the most robust social and moral sticks. Where a prose writer like this author struggles to state his mind in a paragraph or a whole article, the poet conveys that sense in one lyrical verse. This strength of poetry plays an immensely effective role in defying tyranny and influencing public opinion. That is precisely the reason that while dictators ignore prose writers, critical poets always attract their wrath.

Poets of resistance have been jailed, tortured and kidnapped; not only in Pakistan but also under other dictatorships and military juntas around the world. Although the later know that their cowardly oppressive actions would stain their character and reputation forever but the emotional wound inflicted by a sardonic verse is more painful than a thousand healable cuts.

“Sardonic” is an apt word for sarcasm. It derives from the Greek adjective Sardonios, which  was the name of a plant from Sardinia that whose sting supposedly made victim’s face contort into a horrible grin – right before he or she died from its poison. One can visualise General Zia-ul-Haq reading Jalib’s “Zulmat ko Zia, Bande ko Khuda kya Likhna” (“Why call darkness as light and a human as God?”), the sardonic verse generating a sadistic grimace on his face on comprehending the pun on his name and then his hand reaching for the phone to his minions ordering them to pick up Jalib through “Namaloom Afrad” (incognito agents). The hurting grin on the face of the target betrays their knowledge that the import of the satirical words would perpetuate long after their departure from this earth.

Every nation has produced poets who rebelled against injustice. In the US, many poets have written satire against racism. These poems include, among many more, “Ballad of Birmingham” by Dudley Randall, “Riot” by Gwendol by Gwendolyn Brooks, “I Am Not The Indian You Had In Mind” by Thomas King, “White Privilege" by Gabriel Ramirez, “Tradition” by Jericho Brown and “Rosa” by Rita Dove.

This authors’ personal favourite among the US poets is Maya Angelou. She read “On the Pulse of the Morning” at the presidential inauguration of Bill Clinton in 1993. In her famed poem titled ‘Caged Bird’, she says:

The caged bird sings, with a fearful trill, of things unknown; but longed for still

and his tune is heard on the distant hill; for the caged bird sings of freedom

Chile had its share of military dictatorship from September 1973 to March 1990, after a CIA-sponsored coup toppled the democratically elected socialist government of President Salvador Allende and replaced it by General Pinochet’s military junta. Pablo Neruda, Chile’s most renowned poet and Noble Prize winner wrote a number of poems of defiance. In ‘The Mountain and the River; he implores;

And they say to me:

“Your people, your unlucky people,
between the mountain and the river,
with hunger and with pains,
they do not want to fight alone,
waiting for you, friend.”

Come with me.

In India, during the dark days of Indra Gandhi’s emergency, Kalim Aajiz read the famous poem, risking the ire of the government. His following verse is immortal;

“Daaman pe koyee chheent na khanjar pe koyee daagh

Tum Qatl karo ho ke karamat karo ho”

(There is no spot on your dress, or on your knife

You do not commit murder; you perform miracle)

In India again, during BJP’s imposition of the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA), Rahat Indori wrote the following forceful lines;

“Sabhi ka khoon shamil hai yahan ki mitti mein

kisi ke baap ka Hindustan thodi hai

(“We all have our blood seeped into its soil.

Hindustan (India) is no one’s ancestral property”)

Pakistan has had more than its share of dictatorships, martial laws, hybrid regimes, press restrictions, draconian political laws and heavy-handed extra judicial repressions against dissent. It has, therefore, given rise to a number of poets of resistance. A survey of resistance poetry in Pakistan shows that while Ayub Khan, Bhutto or even Benazir inspired poems critical of their rule, it was Zia that became special target for condemnation. This denunciation is well deserved because he, being hypocritical, tyrannical and dictatorial, was an epitome of Machiavellianism. For all his crimes against the nation, the wily general gets credit for creating a suffocating environment that generated some of the best intrepid poetry. His rule brought out the best in Faiz, Jalib, Daman, Faraz, Khalid Javed and many others.  

Throughout his writing career, Faiz remained true to his convictions of a pro-people poet. His entire poetry is a voice against oppression and exploitation. Some of his revolutionary poems are matchless in this genre. Take for example his poems titled, “Mujh sey pehli si mohabbat meray mehboob na mang” meaning “My beloved! Do not expect the same old love from me” and “Aa key wabasta hain us husn ki yadain tujh sey” which translates as “You remind me of my lost love.” Both poems are divided in two parts. The first part recalls the pleasures of the world that the poet has forsaken to attend to the ugly realities of his society, as depicted in the second part.

Ustad Daman and Faiz Ahmed Faiz

His other great poem is “Hum dekheN gey” (We shall witness). One of the greatest renderings of this resistance poetry is by Iqbal Bano. Sung during the darkest days of Zia’s dictatorship in Al-Hamra arts council Lahore in February 1986, it has become an anthem of hope for the politically oppressed. In it, the following verse gives hope to the oppressed;

Sab taaj uchale jaenge, Sab takht giraye jayenge, Hum dekheeN gey

(We shall witness crowns and throne being humbled)

Faiz, Jalib, Faraz and Daman are remembered not only for their wonderfully composed poetry, but also for the way they caused indignation and agitation in the corridors of power

Then there was the inimitable Ahmad Faraz. He came in his revolutionary element in ‘Muhasra’, meaning Siege. As per the story, Faraz was asked by Zia’s military cronies not to oppose the junta. In response, he wrote this poem in defence of integrity of the pen. One stanza of the poem is quoted here,

Mera qalam nahiN kirdar us muhafiz ka, jo apnay shehar ko mahsoor kar key naaz karay

Mera qalam nahiN kasa kisi subal sir ka, jo ghasboN ko qasidoN sey Sarfraz karay

(My pen doesn’t defend those who place their own city under siege

My pen is not a begging bowl of those who shower praise on the usurper)

In another poem during Zia regime, Faraz says[

Aashna haath hi akser meri janib lapkey;

Merey seeney mein mera apna hi khanjar utra

(I am tortured by some familiar hands;

My own dagger is stabbed into my chest)

Another glorious poem by Dr Khalid Javed Jan, is "Mein Baghi hooN" meaning "I am a rebel." It is a veritable anthem for poets of resistance. It was written, or became popular, during the Zia regime.

Mere khoon ka suraj chamke ga; to bacha bacha bole ga

mein baghi hoon, main baghi hoon; jo chahe mujh pe zulm karo

(My blood will shine like a sun and every voice shall rise

I am a rebel, I am a rebel; torture me as much as you want)

Ahmed Faraz

One of the very honourable and steadfast revolutionary poets of our land was Habib Jalib. He has the unique distinction of being arrested during Ayub, Bhutto and Zia governments. One of his most popular poems was during Zia era, titled ‘Kya Likhna’. He created a great pun by using the word zia (light) in his opening verse and calling it zulmat (darkness). The verse goes like this;

Zulmat Ko Zia, Sarsar Ko Saba, Bande Ko Khuda Kya Likhna

Path’ar Ko Gohar, Diwaar Ko Der, Kargas Ko Huma Kya Likhna

(Why call darkness as light, hot wind as cool breeze, a man as a God?

Why term stone as a gem, a wall as an opening, a vulture as an eagle?)

Jalib reminded Zia and all dictators that their power was ephemeral;

“tum se pahle vo jo ik shaḳhs yahāñ taḳht-nashīñ thā

us ko bhī apne ḳhudā hone pe itnā hī yaqīñ thā”

(The one occupying the throne before you,

He too had conviction of being a God)

Jalib was known as a good poet since partition but was catapulted to fame with his poem against Ayub Khan’s self-serving constitution that Jalib vehemently opposed.

diip jis kā mahallāt hī meñ jale

chand logoñ kī ḳhushiyoñ ko le kar chale

vo jo saa.e meñ har maslahat ke pale

aise dastūr ko sub.h-e-be-nūr ko

maiñ nahīñ māntā maiñ nahīñ jāntā

(Whose light shines only in the palaces

A moon that walks away with people’s happiness

That which is raised under compromise

That constitution, that dawn without light

I do not accept, I do not accept)

Jalib’s family suffered a lot due to his convictions and poetry. His children had a rough and neglected upbringing that left them without advanced education and vocation, but he didn’t waver from his honest opinion.    

Another illustrious name in the genre is Ustad Daman. A proponent of a united India, Daman belonged to Lahore and composed his poetry in Punjabi. He was a poet of the people, speaking their language and writing in the idiom that they readily understood. Consider this verse;

saaday des deeaN moojaN e moojaN, charooN pasay faujaN e faujaN

(Our country is blessed; It has army all around)

During the Zia regime, he wrote with brutal honesty;

“Meray mulk dey do khuda, la illah tey martial law, 

Ohda naa e Allah mian, Ehda naa ae general Zia”

(Our country has two Gods; One in the heavens and the other, martial law

One is named Allah the merciful; and the other is called General Zia)

Observing the dictatorial ways of Bhutto, he wrote the following difficult to translate verses;

sach di gal karan tou ookhay, JeeN tou ookhay, maraN tou ookhay,

eh Bhutto insaf da mandar, rani bahar, rana andhar, damaN dam mast qalandar

(To speak the truth, we are distressed; distressed in living; distressed in death;

Bhutto is a temple of justice; he lets the wife free but imprisons the husband;

Glory be to you, oh Lord.)

Hearing this poem, Bhutto had him locked up on charges of – what else? – terrorism.

The above-mentioned poets wrote critical poetry throughout their lives but there are others who occasionally expressed themselves against tyranny and injustice.

Israr-ul-Haq Majaz, addressing the women of India, wrote;

“Teray maathe peh yeh aanchal bahut hi khoob hey laikin,

tu is aanchal sey aik parcham bana leti tu achcha tha”

(Your head scarf, oh girl, is very pretty but

It was better if you had turned it into a flag [of rebellion])

Sahir Ludhianvi, too, was expressive against injustice. His famous couplet is;

“Zulm phir zulm hey, bharta hey to mit jata hey,

khoon phir khoon hey, tapkey ga to jum jayeega”

(Tyranny is transient; as it escalates, it begins to terminate

Blood has a strange characteristic; as it drips, it solidifies)

In our own time, there are a couple of poems by a little-known poet, Ahmad Farhad. His following poem reminds one of the book Fahrenheit 451 and is an everlasting addition to poetry of resistance;

“Ye apni marzi se sochta hai isey utha lo

Uthanay walo se kuch juda hai isey utha lo

Isey bataya bhi tha keh kya bolna hey, kia nahin

Laikin, yeh apni marzi sey bolta hai isey utha lo”

(He has his own mind, lock him up

He is different from those in power, lock him up

He was told what he could and could not speak

But he speaks conscientiously, lock him up)

Another of his poems is:

maiñ pūchhne lagā huuñ sabab apne qatl kā

maiñ had se baḌh gayā huuñ mujhe maar dījiye

kartā huuñ ahl-e-jubba-o-dastār se savāl

gustāḳh ho gayā huuñ mujhe maar dījiye

(I am asking the reason for my murder,

I have crossed my limits, eliminate me.

I question the powerful of my land,

I have become vociferous, eliminate me)

Those in the public domain must have thick skin. They should have the fortitude to listen to people’s complaints, in whatever form they may be presented. The wise course of action in case of adverse critique, opinion and poesies de la resistance is inaction. Ignore it and, hopefully, it would stay away from public eye; at least for most part.

Faiz, Jalib, Faraz and Daman are known and remembered not only for their wonderfully composed poetry, but also for the way they caused indignation and agitation in the corridors of power, leading to their persecution. History indicates that Ayub, Bhutto and Zia have earned contempt for persecution of these poets. They should have smiled them away, even given them a pat for great poetry.

Our era of internet and mass communication offers multiple platforms to register resentment. Social media, online memes, photoshopped images, and cartoons are new tools to target the powerful. They also have the ability to spread to every corner of the world in a very short time. History says ignore them. However, history is the most ignored discipline, especially for the powerful, when they are in power.

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: parvezmahmood53@gmail.com