If the protests in India against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the potential National Register of Citizens have proved one thing, it is this: poetry is the best language of dissent. Poet, comic, lyricist Varun Grover may have given us ‘Kagaz nahin dikhayenge’ as the new protest poem, but Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Hum Dekhenge is an evergreen – not just at Studio Safdar’s MayDay event, but at every Jantar Mantar and India Gate protest. The song of hope amid darkness, was sung against Dow Chemicals in Bhopal, anti-nuclear stir at Jaitapur, and at women’s marches.
Hum Dekhenge is now being sung in anti-CAA-NRC protests. And in Narendra Modi’s India, some think it’s anti-national. In IIT Kanpur, a professor found the lines from Faiz’s poem, which the protesters were chanting, as ‘objectionable’ and ‘spreading hate against India’. Now, IIT Kanpur is setting up a panel to decide if Hum Dekhenge is anti-India.
“Jab arz-e-Khuda ke Ka’abe se, sab buut uthwaae jaayenge / Hum ahl-e-safa mardood-e-haram, masnad pe bithaaye jaayenge / Sab taaj uchhale jaayenge, sab takht giraaye jaayenge/ Bas naam rahega Allah ka, hum dekhenge
(From the abode of God, when the icons of falsehood will be removed / When we, the faithful, who have been barred from sacred places, will be seated on a high pedestal / When crowns will be tossed, when thrones will be brought down, only Allah’s name will remain.)”
But what is the place for Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s lines in Hindutva-saturated India today? He is, after all, Pakistan’s controversial and unofficial poet laureate.
Moneeza Hashmi, Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s daughter likes to narrate an anecdote. Someone asked Faiz in the 1980s how he felt about his poetry, written years ago, remaining relevant and contemporary. He replied, laughing: “Hamne to likh diya, ab aapke halaat nahin badle to kya karen (I wrote what I had to, now if your circumstances are the same, what can one do).” Hashmi tells ThePrint on the phone from Lahore, Pakistan, “that is the genius of any talent, to remain relevant well after his death. And that is the tragedy of this subcontinent – the bigotry, racism, gender discrimination he talked about, the underdogs he wrote about, still exist”.
A lifelong Communist, Faiz was imprisoned for four years for planning a coup against Liaquat Ali Khan’s government in 1951. His nazm, Hum Dekhenge, written in 1979 as a protest against the rising Islamisation of Pakistan under Zia-ul-Haq, who had deposed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in a coup in 1977, has become the anthem sung by students across campuses in India, from Jamia Millia Islamia to Aligarh Muslim University. At many protests, the mass reading of the Preamble to the Constitution gave way seamlessly to Hum Dekhenge – ‘we the people’ to ‘we shall see/overcome’. Protest songs are the literature of people’s movements. But the best are those that age and travel well across causes, geographies and generations.
The nazm‘s most famous rendition, by Iqbal Bano, to a full house at Lahore’s Alhamra Arts Council in 1986 at the Faiz Foundation annual event, made it particularly famous. Legend has it that Iqbal Bano defied the ban on sarees by Zia and turned up in a black saree to sing it, but Hashmi says it is not true—Iqbal Bano never wore anything other than sarees.
“I have a picture of Faiz above my bed at home,” says Hashmi. “I look up at him and he is smiling. And I say to him, you’re enjoying this, aren’t you?”
The irony is that a nazm written in protest against Islamic fundamentalism, which even got a stanza unofficially banned from time to time, has raised the hackles of the custodians of student morality such as the IIT Kanpur professor. He objected to the same stanza that was banned by the Zia regime for quoting from the Quran.
Pakistan to India
Moneeza Hashmi believes the popularity of Hum Dekhenge arises from how simply it is worded: “Faiz was not a simple poet. He used Persian, Arabic, and his visual and verbal imagery was in the classical tradition. But this was an exception.” When a version sung by Pakistani artistes broke on Coke Studio in 2016, it won Faiz a whole new generation of fans.
This is not the only Faiz nazm that has caught the fancy of protesting students, most of whom were perhaps born much after the poet died in 1984. His Aaj Bazaar Main Pa-Ba Jaulaan Chalo written when he was taken in shackles across Lahore from his prison to his dentist in 1952 is also sung often, whether it is in the Jamia Millia Islamia sit-outs or Aligarh Muslim University sit-ins.
Words in exchange for violence, love in the time of lathis, the protests have thrown up a politically aware generation that wants to fight deep-seated hatred with stubborn love. As one of the placards at the protests said: Ma aur Mulk badle nahin jaate (The mother and the nation are never changed).
The young poet Sabika Abbas Naqvi is a fan of Faiz’s Hum Dekhenge. It makes me want to write new poems about dreams, she told The Print. “Dreams that will manifest into the new world that we are building with love, poetry, songs, graffiti, and togetherness. It establishes a distinction between those who oppress and those who rise, it gives us courage because it tells us that the victory of the marginalised is predestined because the reign of ‘haq’ is predestined. The world is meant to be equal, incisive and full of ishq. And ishq, inquilab, and azadi have already found a place on lauh-e-azal [Quranic term for the eternal slate on which the destiny of the whole universe from start to end has been recorded]. We are mere foot soldiers who will make it happen,” says Naqvi.
The Right-wing loathes it, she says, because they lack the will to dream anything that has love, that challenges the status quo. Only those who can dream can understand the strength the poem offers.
Hashmi says young people in Pakistan too are fighting the good fight against ultra conservatives: “They are coming forward and not toeing the line, not letting the hatred cloud their judgement.” Habib Jalib’s Dastoor and Fahmida Riaz’s Tum Bilkul Hum Jaise Nikle are also being sung, recited, and read. Poet and lawyer Saif Mahmood told ThePrint, it’s because these were written in and for similar political circumstances that we are going through now—both Jalib and Riaz were bitter critics of the rise of Islamic extremism in Pakistan. “The kind of suppression of dissent and societal regimentation we have started facing was being faced by Pakistan when these poems were written. They became songs of resistance for a people who decided to take on the oppressive regime. We in India are going through the same. Pakistan had its Narendra Modi in Zia-ul-Haq. This is our Zia-ul-Haq moment,” says Mahmood.
And what would Faiz himself say about the Zia-ul-Haq moment in India? “Unhe afsos hota,” says Hashmi, who spent many years in Pakistan Television Corporation. “Yeh to hona hi tha, woh kehte. Kab tak logon-ko dabaye rakhoge. (He would be sad. This was expected, he would say. How long can you suppress people?)”
Whether it is Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, Indira Gandhi or Zia-ul-Haq, the best time for poetry is in the worst of times. During the recent students’ protests in Pakistan, star activist Arooj Aurangzeb sang Sarfaroshi Ki Tamanna. When a song urges people to rise, it becomes a ‘seditious’ act – not because it brings powerful people to their knees, but because it promises the tantalising possibility of change. That possibility to dream is itself a powerful weapon to hold on to.
The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.