Every poem is political, even the ghazal, which is supposed to be about love and relationships. As the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizenship (NRC) spread in India, more and more protesters, especially students, are using poetry to express their anger against the high-handedness of the authorities.
Decades-old poems by Pakistani poets Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Habib Jalib, both known for their revolutionary ideas, have resurfaced. Faiz’s poem commonly known as ‘ Hum Dekhenge’ (We will see) has run into controversy while Jalib’s poem, ‘ Dastoor ’ (Constitution), has been made famous by the JNU student and councillor of the university students’ union, Shashi Bhushan Pandey: the video where he sings it in Jalib’s style has gone viral.
Faiz’s poem was recited by the students of IIT Kanpur during a protest on December 17 to express solidarity with their peers at Jamia Millia Islamia. The poem was termed anti-Hindu and a ‘war cry’ by Muslims because of its contents and metaphors drawn from Islamic history. An inquiry committee was set up by the institute to investigate whether the poem was inflammatory.
The actual title of Faiz’s poem is not ‘ Hum Dekhenge’ : it is rather the Arabic, ‘ Wa yubqa wajho rabboka’. Urdu scholar Ashfaq Hussain writes in a recent article that Faiz had written this poem in 1979 in celebration of the Iranian revolution during his stay in the U.S. When it was first published in his book, Meray Dil, Meray Musafir (1981), people learnt it by heart and singer Iqbal Bano made it even more famous by singing it in a live programme.
Later, it became a voice against General Zia-ul-Haq. The poem was deemed so dangerous that the government removed it from the collected poems of Faiz ( Nuskha Hai Wafa ) published in 1984 during Zia’s regime. The missing poem could only be republished in the 2006 pocketbook edition of Faiz’s collected works 22 years later when General Pervez Musharraf was in power. It’s interesting to see how a poem banned in Pakistan is inciting similar sentiments in India.
Habib Jalib’s poem ‘ Dastoor’ is also making the rounds these days. The poem starts with, Deep jiska mahallat he mein jallay/ Chand logon ki khushyon ko lay kar challay/ Aisay dastoor ko/ Subh-e-benoor ko/ Mein nahi manta, mein nahi manta (The constitution whose light only enlightens the rich/ That which gives happiness to the select few/ Such a constitution/ Such a dark dawn/ I refuse to accept). In this poem, Jalib rejects not just law but the whole constitution if it gives “happiness to the select few”. No wonder it resonated with Indians in the context of the CAA. The poem is a clear call for rebellion, which always speaks to the youth.
Jalib had written this poem to protest against the constitution of 1962 enforced by the military dictator, General Ayub Khan, to serve his own interests. It touched the right cords in people’s hearts when Jalib read it. He faced persecution and imprisonment because of his activism. Incidentally, Jalib was born and spent his youth in India: he migrated to Pakistan after Partition. It’s fitting that his poem should speak for the right to coexist in India, years after his death in 1993.
One of Urdu poet Rahat Indori’s ghazals is also being heard everywhere, from the social media to Parliament. People have taken to two couplets of this ghazal that sound like a warning to the government: Jo aaj sahib-i-masnad hain, kal nahi hongay / Kiraey daar hein, zaati makaan thodi hay (Those holding the reins today won’t be in the chair tomorrow/ They are just tenants, not owners) and Sabhi ka khoon hain shamil yahan ki mitti mein/ Kisi kay baap ka Hindustan thodi hai (Everybody’s blood is in this soil/ Hindustan isn’t anyone’s personal property).
Indori has not only inspired the protesters but also another young poet, Varun Grover, who has written his own Hindi poem, ‘ Hum kaghaz nahi dekhaen gey’ (The NRC papers, we won’t show), which voices the sentiments of many today.
While one cannot predict what will come of the protests, one thing is certain: poetry has brought Indians together. It’s thrilling to see Indian writers, intellectuals, poets and students standing up for what they consider right. Indori has been quoted as saying, “If I don’t write on what’s happening around us, what will be the difference between me and Nero? There is a fire raging through my city, my country and if at this time I write about my mehboob’s zulf (beloved’s tresses), I must be either blind or deaf”.
Strangely, this cross-pollination of poets and poetry has also brought together the people of India and Pakistan even as their governments fight. Culture, art, language and poetry have always connected people regardless of the borders that separate them, and this connection cannot be broken by arbitrary government diktats.
The writer is a journalist and poet based in Lahore.