Why Faiz Bothers Them

Raza Naeem believes the attacks on Faiz from India’s Right will not change what he stood for

Why Faiz Bothers Them
The eminent writer, critic and intellectual Dr. Namwar Singh, paying tribute to Avtar Singh Sandhu aka Paash had said about the latter that he was a poet who had been cursed by someone.

Paash, the writer of a poem like Sab Se Khatarnaak He Hamare Sapnon Ka Mar Jana (“The Most Dangerous is the Death of Our Dreams”) was a revolutionary poet of the Punjabi language. After Amrita Pritam, Paash is only the second Punjabi poet who is as understood and respected by Hindi speakers as much as by Punjabi speakers.

Paash had written on the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984, “The whole nation is participating in this shock today, then delete my name from such a nation. If some Bharat belongs to it, then cut my name from such a Bharat.”

But what a strange coincidence that the writer of such a poem about Indira Gandhi was killed by Khalistani extremists on the 23rd of March 1988 when he was reciting this poem. He was only 38 at the time.

Perhaps this was the reason that Dr. Namwar Singh had said about Paash that he had been cursed.

Actually one of the grandest institutes of technology in India, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur has ordered an investigation into an extremely popular poem Hum Dekhenge (“We Will See”) by a great poet of Urdu, Faiz Ahmed Faiz. The investigation committee has to decide whether his poem is anti-Hindu or not.
To order an investigation against the poem is a clear indicator that the ideology of the Indian ruling elite is at least as obscurantist as that of Pakistan at the time when Faiz had written Hum Dekhenge – i.e. the Zia regime

There are protests occurring all over India against the Citizenship Amendment Act, and the whole country has virtually become a prison. On the 15th of December 2019 there was a demonstration against this Act in the Jamia area of Delhi in which some students of the Jamia Millia Islamia also participated. In the meantime, the police forcibly entered the University library and hostel, and inflicted extreme torture on the students.

After this act by the police, not only the whole of India, but prominent universities on the global level like Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and New York University had demonstrations in support of the Jamia students.

Faiz with Atal Bihari Vajpayee

After the use of intense torture by the police in Jamia Millia University by the police, like in other universities around the world, the students of IIT Kanpur held a demonstration on the 17th of December in the compound of the Institute. During this demonstration, some students sang Faiz’s poem Hum Dekhenge.

According to the Deputy Director of the Institute Maninder Agrawal, some students complained in writing to the Director afterwards that an anti-Hindu poem was also recited during the demonstration which had hurt the sentiments of the Hindus, hence legal action should be taken against the students who had read this poem.
Faiz is neither a stranger to controversy, nor to immense love from his fellow South Asians

As soon as this complaint was received, the Institute created a committee which will investigate about this complaint.

It is a strange coincidence that Faiz was an avowed communist. He had written his famous poem Hum Dekhenge in the January of 1979 while he was visiting the United States and the country’s first democratically-elected prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who had been overthrown in a coup by General Zia-ul-Haq in 1977, was about to be hanged. Apart from writing this poem against the Zia dictatorship, Faiz had also meant this poem to be for the Iranian people who were struggling against a dictatorial monarchy in Iran in those days.

We Will See

It is incumbent that we too will see

The Day which it has been promised will be

Which is written on the Tablet of Eternity

When the earth will palpitate in apprehension

Beneath the feet of the ones bowed in subjugation

And over the head of the ruler

When lightening claps with thunder

When all the objects of idolatry

Will be lifted from the Kaaba of God’s country

When we, the pure-hearted, the rejects of the holy sanctuary

Will be made to sit on the throne of royalty

All the crowns will be thrown

All the thrones will be strewn

Only the name of God will have eternal presence

Who is Absent, but also in attendance

Who is the Beholder as well as the Countenance

The cry of ‘I am Truth’ will rise

Who is me and you likewise

And there will be the reign of God’s creation

Who is Me and You even’

Faiz passed away in 1984 and the famed singer Iqbal Bano immortalized this poem by singing it to a packed audience in 1986 in the auditorium of the Alhamra Arts Council in Lahore. It should be remembered that during the dictatorship of General Zia, the regime took a dim view of Pakistani women wearing the sari because it had been deemed an un-Islamic dress. Opposing the military dictatorship, Iqbal Bano sang this poem wearing a white sari. A recording of this poem done secretly was smuggled from Pakistan and then reached the world.

A poem written by an avowed communist in opposition to a fundamentalist dictator is now being labeled by some people as anti-Hindu. It is unknown what the IIT committee will say in its decision, but to order an investigation against the poem is a clear indicator that the ideology of the Indian ruling elite is at least as obscurantist as that of Pakistan at the time when Faiz had written Hum Dekhenge – i.e. the Zia regime.

This iconic poem forms part of Faiz’s collection Mere Dil, Mere Musafir (“My Heart, My Traveller”). The shadow of remembering the homeland is very deep in this poem. Such, too, was the demand of the time. But in this sorrow, there is not a trace of dark despair or defeat. The very same confidence in the rise of humans and the same glad tidings of the victory of truth in the battle between good and evil – which were the basis of the philosophy of his thought and art – are also dominant in this poem.

Dilip Kumar with Faiz

Like many other poems written during Faiz’s incarceration, his poems abounded with Sufi metaphors; for example, he incorporated Mansur al-Hallaj’s famous declaration Ana-al Haq (I Am the Truth) as a political cry in Hum Dekhenge. This poem became as much the anthem of Pakistanis struggling for democratic rights and civil liberties under Zia-ul-Haq as it has become for the current generation of Indians under the Modi regime. This poem is the closest one can get in Urdu to an equivalent of Shelley’s equally iconic poem Ozymandias, positng the inevitable decline of rulers with their pretensions to greatness. The reference to the “objects of idolatry” being “lifted from the Kaaba of God’s country” was not intended to demean the followers or sacred images of a particular religion; nor is the pious hope that “the name of God will have eternal presence” an advocacy of the religion Faiz was born into. In the circumstances of the period, where a dictator was claiming himself as following God’s path and depicting those who opposed him as infidels, it became necessary for Faiz to resort to such religious imagery to challenge Zia’s claims. So “the objects of idolatry” becomes a metaphor for all false and temporary idols like fundamentalism, dictatorship, oppression and injustice like Ozymandias for Shelley; while the invocation of God is the polar opposite standing for pluralism, humanism, democracy and justice – values which are destined to be permanent.

As there was no shortage of those slandering an enlightened, secular poet from the Right in Faiz’s own time, there is no shortage of such people in neighbouring India. Indeed such slanderers are the true connoisseurs of Faiz, these men of truth and purity, not people like this scribe and the readers. Just like it is the censor who better understands the hidden secrets of the tavern than the drinkers; in the same manner the abusers understand the dangerous mysteries of Faiz’s personality and poetry better than his admirers. Indeed Faiz had said,

With the censor indeed all is well

With his name, the names of the drunkards, bearer, wine, jar, measure all swell”

If there ever was a “Mount Rushmore” of Urdu poetry, Faiz’s face would be under serious contention for being carved in granite. Like Ghalib and Iqbal, Faiz has been written about, translated and commented upon relentlessly.

Faiz was a Ghalibian, a Gandhian and a Marxist rolled into one. His poetry was infused with an unsurpassed lyrical quality, but spoke evocatively and urgently against regimes of exploitation. He was an early member of the Progressive Writers’ Association, and formed a Punjab chapter in 1936. He wrote poems against colonialism, and after Independence/Partition, settled in Lahore. He was among the Pakistanis who traveled to India in 1948 to attend Gandhi’s funeral. His activism in the labour movement irked the right-wing elements in the Pakistani state, especially Ayub Khan. Months after Khan’s elevation to the position of commander-in-chief of the Pakistan Army in 1951, Faiz and several of his colleagues were imprisoned under trumped-up conspiracy charges. He was incarcerated for four years, during which he wrote some of his finest poetry. More than half of Faiz’s verses are the creation of his days in prison; almost all of the poems and ghazals of Dast-e-Saba (The Hand of the Breeze) and Zindaan Nama (The Book of Prison) were written between 1951 and 1955 in jails. His fourth collection Dast-e-Tah-e-Sang (Hand Under the Stone) also includes poems from his time in prison. Even after his release, he was subject to surveillance and harassment, and spent a lot of years in quasi-exile in the Soviet Union and the Middle East where his poetry developed a truly internationalist ethos. He won the Lenin Prize in 1962, and things came full circle when the Government of Pakistan eventually awarded him its highest civilian honour, the Nishan-e-Imtiaz (posthumously in 1990).

Faiz is neither a stranger to controversy, nor to immense love from his fellow South Asians. The first controversy regarding his poetry occurred when he wrote his famous poem Subh-e-Aazadi (“The Dawn of Freedom”). It roiled the Progressives because it was insufficiently progressive for them; while the conservatives censured it for being insufficiently “Pakistani”. On the opposite extreme, more recently, back in August last year, one of Faiz’s poems Falasteeni Bacchon ke Liye Lori (“Lullaby for Palestinian Children”) was adapted by Indian artists Dastaan Live into a moving performance using mixed media elements of shadow puppetry to create a powerful anti-war narrative. The song hardly elicited any attention or an “anti-national” rant from powers that be in India.

The question of Faiz’s Hum Dekhenge or his own self being anti-religious is as laughable as it is insulting. Even to say that he was an atheist, as progressives from across the border like Javed Akhtar and Rahat Indori are insinuating, is far from the truth. If Faiz had a religion, it was love. He never spoke ill of anybody while he lived. In fact, his closest friends longed for a riposte from Faiz to his opponents who kept writing against him, but he always said, “Let them write.” He never responded to his detractors or enemies.

Faiz used to say about religion, even in his final days, that two things are in great danger here in Pakistan; one is our Holy Koran and the other is Iqbal; whoever wants to do so, they extract their own meaning from either. He was a great scholar of Arabic and had a great attachment to Arabic, which increased after his visit to Palestine. He was greatly grieved about people who did not recite the Holy Koran properly or translate it incorrectly. He felt that such a holy and great book should not be used for petty ends.

Wherever Faiz lived, whether in Beirut, or the US or Moscow, he lived in the hearts of millions of his fellow South Asians, and will remain alive forever. He is our Nazim Hikmet and Pablo Neruda. Those whether in Pakistan or India intent on cutting this great poet’s girdle of truth and purity will never change what he stood for. By drawing a cultural Great Wall of China, we are further limiting the circle of our thought and art. We will have to pay a very heavy price for this mentality. If this tendency is not changed, the springs of our creative abilities and thought will dry up and we will limit our understanding of the world to the circle of the well like the proverbial frog. The attempts to reduce Faiz by selectively pruning him are also part of this mentality and if we keep on reducing Faiz and his legacy keeps on shrinking in this manner, the day is not far when Iqbal will be reduced to merely a poet of Sialkot rather than a universal man.

So 35 years after he passed away, Faiz’s spirit calls out from beyond the grave,

“Imprisoned in the cage, we are not alone, the morning breeze of the homeland every day

Arrives fragrant with memories, illuminated with tears it goes away”

Lest this couplet too be investigated for being anti-Hindu, let me hasten to add that Faiz’s poetry has always exhibited a strong metaphorical connection with the trope of qafas (cage) and the relationship of the prisoner with the saba or naseem (breeze). Faiz’s metaphor reflects his incarceration, and he reads signs of his garden’s (country’s) fate from the breeze that eventually reaches his cage (prison cell). Despite millions of compulsions and constraints, the prisoner’s heart receives solace from the thought that here at least, there is the fragrance of the homeland’s soil. The winds from the homeland indeed come in through the cracks in the cage. Whether it is the jangling of chains and fetters, or the cries of prisoners in the air, the tone of the pain is indeed in the same language.

Namwar Singh had said correctly about Paash that he was cursed by somebody because every poet, writer and artist who opposes those in power is indeed cursed by somebody.

Note: All the translations from Urdu are the writer’s own.

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader currently based in Lahore, where he is also the President of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached at: razanaeem@hotmail.com.

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached via email: razanaeem@hotmail.com and on Twitter: @raza_naeem1979