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Habib Jalib, Pakistan’s poet of dissent whose lines are now chanted on both sides of border

Pakistani poet Habib Jalib & his poem Dastoor became widely searched keywords in India after a video of a JNU student reciting the lines went viral.

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New Delhi: Wearing a denim shirt, surrounded by his comrades, Shashi Bhushan Pandey, a visually impaired student from JNU, is tapping his phone as he sings:

Main bhi khaif nahin taḳhta-e-dar se
Mai bhi Mansur huun kah do aghyar se
Kyuun Darate ho zindan ki divar se
Zulm ki baat ko jahl ki raat ko
Main nahin manta main nahin janta

(I am not afraid of gallows
I am Mansoor [a sufi saint who claimed to be god] tell this to my opponent
Don’t scare me from your jails
The tongue of oppression, the night of ignorance
I refuse to accept)

This video set social media on fire a few months ago with thousands of shares and views and Pandey became an overnight sensation, appearing on multiple news shows. The poem he recited is Pakistani poet Habib Jalib’s Dastoor. The video re-emerged after the recent JNU protests and the poet and the poem became widely searched keywords in India.

Interestingly, the lines main nahin maanta main nahin jaanta (I refuse to accept) from the poem, recited at Lahore’s Mochi Gate by Jalib, became a pro-democracy anthem during the first military rule in Pakistan. This made Habib Jalib a ‘people’s poet’.

The use of simple and plain words made his poetry accessible to people — the music of his voice coupled with the conviction of his words and sensitivity towards Pakistan’s socio-political context, moved his audience.

How Jalib become a ‘people’s poet’

In 1959, General Ayub Khan declared martial law in Pakistan. Almost all media houses were toeing the establishment’s line, censorship was at its peak and even the Writers Guild was with the establishment. In the midst of all this, Radio Pakistan held a poets’ symposium.

Most of the poets recited a ghazal or a couplet about Mehboob Pakistan or ‘Beloved Pakistan’. Then came the turn of an unknown poet, who deviated from the script:

Kahi gas ka dhuwan hai,
kahi golion ki baarish
Shab-e-ahd-e- kam nighayi
tumhe ye kis tarrah sunaye

(Here, the stench of teargas,
There, a hail of bullets.
In the twilight of such darkness,
What praises must we sing of You?)

The radio station was subsequently raided and the symposium was stopped right in the middle. The poet was arrested the next day along with the station director.

This is how Habib Jalib, Shair-e-Awam or the ‘People’s Poet’ came to fore in Pakistan. Jalib was banned from participating in any publicly aired programmes thereafter. However, this did not stop him from openly challenging General Ayub Khan’s new constitution through Dastoor. At a public rally, he recited:

Deep jis ka mehllaat hi mein jaley,
Chand logon ki khushiyon ko le kar chaley,
Wo jo saaye mein har maslehat ke paley,
Aisey dastoor ko, Sub-he-be-noor ko,
Main nahein maanta, Main nahein jaanta

(A lamp that sheds light only on palaces
That cater to the whims of a chosen few
That flourishes in the shadow of compromised
This system, this light-starved morning
I refuse to accept!)

Early life

Habib Jalib was born on 24 March 1928 in undivided India’s Hoshiarpur in Punjab, into a very poor family. His ambitious family moved to Delhi in 1943 so that their children could receive good education. Young Habib was immensely influenced by Delhi’s literary atmosphere through his elder brother Mushtaq Mubarik, and his father managed to establish a small trading unit in the city. However, Partition in 1947 forced the family to migrate to Karachi, ushering in another period of extreme poverty.

Jalib was also part of the Progressive Writers’ Movement — a left leaning organisation of prominent writers — along with Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Saadat Hasan Manto, Ahmad Faraz and Hameed Akhtar.

Jalib was a Marxist-Leninist and supported communist ideals throughout his life. He was a member of the Communist Party of Pakistan that was banned in 1951 after a failed coup by Major General Akbar Khan along with other left-wing politicians.

His quest for democracy & multiple imprisonments

In his pursuit to restore democracy in Pakistan, Jalib joined Fatima Jinnah — Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s sister — during the tug of war between pro-democratic forces and General Ayub Khan’s regime in the 1964 elections. People would come in flocks to listen to Fatima Jinnah and Jalib while they campaigned.

On Fatima Jinnah’s campaign he wrote — Maa ke pao talay jannat hai; idhar aa jao (There is paradise under mother’s feet).

However, Jinnah lost the elections amid allegations that they were rigged. General Ayub won the elections but his victory led to the revolt of 1968-69 and General Yahya Khan assumed control of the government.

However, Jalib did not shy away from criticising the next dictator either. He famously recited a poem titled, Taḳht Nashin tha (The Enthroned), while looking at a picture of Yahya Khan.

Tum se pehle woh jo ik shakhs yahan takht nasheen tha
Uss ko bhi apne khuda honay pe itna hi yaqeen tha

(The one who was enthroned before you
He too was convinced he is God.)

Habib Jalib reciting a poem at a protest in Lahore, February 12, 1983 | Credit: Twitter
Habib Jalib reciting a poem at a protest in Lahore, February 12, 1983 | Credit: Twitter

Jalib was also imprisoned for criticising the military action in West Pakistan (now Bangladesh) with the following lines:

Haryali ko aankhen tarsen bagiya lahoo luhan
Pyar ke geet sunaoon kis ko shehar hue weeran
Bagiya lahoo luhan

(Our eyes yearn for greenery, the garden is a bloody mess
For whom should I sing my songs of love, the cities are all a wilderness
The garden is a bloody mess.)

The poet shared an interesting bond with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s fourth president who took over from General Yahya Khan. Jalib supported Bhutto’s socialist views about Pakistan and pro-democracy campaigns. He even recited his poems at Bhutto’s rallies and the latter, at one point, asked Jalib to join the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) to which he responded:

Kabhi samandar bhi dariya mein utray hain?

(When has the sea ever merged with the river?)

However, Jalib criticised Bhutto as well. One such instance is when the Shah of Iran visited Pakistan and stayed as a guest at Bhutto’s ancestral home in Larkana. A film actress was asked to dance before the Shah but she refused and was later threatened by the government.

On this Jalib wrote:

Larkane chalo warna thaane chalo
Apne hoton ki khushbu lutane chalo
Geet gaane chalo warna thane chalo

(Go to Larkana or else go to jail
Go and have your honour stolen
Go and sing a song or go to jail)

During General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s era as Pakistan’s president, Jalib was arrested thrice because of his famous “welcome” to the dictator:

Zulmat ko zia, sarsar ko saba, bande ko khuda kya likhna?
(Why should one call darkness, zia [literally: light],
intense wind, gentle and a man, God?)

Habib Jalib, thus, made multiple rounds to multiple jails in Pakistan. Whoever the ruler was, be it an army dictator or a democratically chosen ruler, Jalib never missed a chance to hold the mirror up to them.

In 1981, Jalib joined ‘Restoration of Democracy’ — a movement led by Benazir Bhutto, PPP leader and Zulfikar’s daughter. He wrote a poem called “Dartay hain bandookon walay aik nihatti ladki say” (The people with guns fear an unarmed girl), referring to Benazir Bhutto and Zia-ul-Haq.

Despite multiple arrests, he never missed a chance to comment on corruption, mismanagement and injustice in Pakistan using his remarkable poetry.

In 1991, in a conversation with Shekhar Gupta, the Editor-in-chief of ThePrint, Jalib recalled how he was tortured by multiple leaders of Pakistan.

“There are whip marks from the era of Gen. Ayub to Yahya to Zia,” he said pointing to his back.

Habib Jalib died on 12 March 1993 in Lahore and received Pakistan’s highest civilian award, Nishan-e-Imtiaz posthumously.

Also read: Akbar Allahabadi, the satirist known for adding humorous touch to themes of love & politics


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  1. Mansour newer claimed to be God, that was mis-translation of his verses which led to his execution.

  2. After a long silence I heard the voices of freedom and liberty…especially in poetry which had no boundaries and narrow limitations.
    The freelance translation of Urdu to English is very much appreciated, though I don’t understand well Urdu the translation helped me much

  3. Ankita,

    Get well soon!

    Take tutions to understand poetry.

    Habib Jalib, Faiz, Saahir , Faraz are poets of HUMANITY not India or Pakistan

  4. The comrades in JNU find inspiration in Pakistan and the two-nation theory of Jinnah. No wonder they have a twisted and perverted world-view.

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