From Dushyant Kumar to Habib Jalib and Rahat Indori, the verses of a number of poets are being invoked at the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests across the country, but no one has quite riled some sections of the society as Pakistani revolutionary Faiz Ahmad Faiz. His
nazm “Hum dekhenge”, after it was sung at the protests at Indian Institute of Technology-Kanpur campus, is now being examined for allegedly being “anti-Hindu”.
Faiz, a prominent member of the Taraqqi Pasand Tehreek or Progressive Writers’ Association, was a prominent critic of autocratic regimes and establishment politics that abandoned the masses. His poetry was banned during the reign of military dictator Zia Ul Haq who wanted to shape Pakistan into his crude conception of an Islamic state.
In December, 1984 Zia Ul Haq, averse to holding elections, conducted a
referendum in a bid to give his regime legitimacy and continue in power for five more years. The referendum had one but loaded question that essentially asked “Do you want Pakistan to become an Islamic society” and gave the respondents the option to either mark yes or no. Memorably, Jalib called the referendum “Zia Ul Haq versus Zia Ul Haq” and disparaged the exercise in his nazm “Referendum”, in which he mocked the lack of turnout at the disingenuous undertaking.
Shahr me hu ka aalam tha
jinn tha ya referendum tha
qaid the divaron men log
bahar shor bohot kam tha
marhumin shareek hue
sachchai ka chahlam tha
[the city was deserted
were it djinns or a referendum?
people were trapped in walls
there was barely a sound in the streets
the dead participated in the exercise
to mark the demise of truth]
Back to Faiz, “Hum dekhenge” is dripping with Islamic imagery, ranging from events in the life of Prophet Muhammad to Quranic descriptions of the last day, and to argue against its religious underpinnings would be disingenuous. However, reading it exclusively in the light of religion would be deceitful.
That Zia Ul Haq felt threatened by a poem loaded with Islamic tropes proves just that.
Now the same poem is raising the hackles of those supporting a staunchly Hindu nationalist regime in India. It is the surest sign for the discerning that the poem is not about religion but anti-establishment and hence threatening to those in power.
Two particular lines from the poem have been singled out for being “anti-Hindu”: s
ab but uthwae jaenge and bas naam rahega Allah ka.
For context, this is how the first line appears in the poem:
Jab arz-e-Khuda ke kaabe se
sab but uthwae jaenge
hum ahl-e-safa mardood-e-harm
masnad pe bethae jaenge
sab taaj uchale jaenge
sab takht girae jaenge
[From the abode of God
when icons of falsehood will be taken out,
when we, the faithful, who have been barred out of sacred places
will be seated on high cushions
when the crowns will be tossed,
when the thrones will be brought down.]
The religious imagery invoked by Faiz is when Prophet Muhammad, faced with a hostile environment, had to leave Makkah with his companions, their eventual return to the sacred land and cleansing the Kaaba of idols.
In the context of the political regime at the time, Faiz, an active member of the communist party and awarded with the erstwhile Soviet regime’s Lenin Peace Prize, is taking broadsides at the false gods erected to serve the interests of a few. He is talking about the exclusion of the common folk from the state’s policies, their eventual triumph against the oppressive regime when the modern idols of class and privilege will be brought down.
Bas naam rahega Allah ka
jo ghayab bhi hai hazir bhi
jo manzar bhi hai nazir bhi
utthega an-al-haq ka nara
jo mai bhi hoon tum bhi ho
aur raaj karegi khalq-e-Khuda
jo mai bhi hoon aur tum bhi ho
[only God’s name will survive
who cannot be seen but is also present
who is both the spectacle and the beholder
I am the truth - the cry will rise,
which is I, as well as you
and then God’s creation will rule
which is I, as well as you]
In this stanza, Faiz describes god in Islamic terms: an entity that cannot be seen but sees everything and the one who is the spectacle as well as the beholder. In the last couple of lines, he writes about the mystical line from Islamic history: "I am the truth”.
Faiz uses the stanza as a metaphor for when the people have triumphed over tyranny’s rule and they are no longer beholden to an autocrat devising and implementing policies that benefit the few. He invokes a triumphant egalitarian utopia: a true democracy where the wishes and desires of the common man find resonance in the state’s policies.
But in times of binaries and hyper partisanship, deciphering literature and appreciating its nuances is not natural. It is much easier to apply labels and denounce what doesn’t fit narrative that one wishes to advance.Invoking Faiz at events that aim to uphold democracy and denounce inhuman policies will keep spurring the immortality of his verses, but also comes with the realisation that not much has changed in the 35 years since his passing.