I discovered Faiz years ago, around 18-19 years ago, as a young man exploring his interest in music and poetry. As could be the case with most guys of my generation, you are drawn towards this genre of poetry due to Jagjit Singh, whose selection of ghazals were simple and not too difficult to understand. Jagjit Singh further made it easy with his effortless style of singing and his velvety voice. Once initiated by Jagjit Singh into this genre, you start discovering other singers like Ghulam Ali and Mehndi Hassan, and finally, you start noticing the ones who wrote those beautiful, mostly romantic, ghazals.
I loved “gulon mein rang bhare” in the voice of Mehdi Hassan, though that was not enough to discover Faiz. I discovered more about him when someone who had better knowledge and deeper interest in poetry revealed to me that the famous classic Bollywood song “teri aankhon ke siwa duniya mein rakkha kya hai” – sung by Mohammad Rafi and Lata Mageshkar (but not as a duet) – was actually a line borrowed from a nazm originally written by Faiz.
Both “gulon mein rang bhare” (as written by Faiz Ahmed Faiz) and “teri aankhon ke siwa” (as written by Majrooh Sultanpuri) are deeply romantic poems, but when you read the nazm of Faiz – mujhse pahle si muhabbat mere mehboob na maang – from where the latter line was borrowed by Majrooh, you discover the “revolutionary” poet Faiz. Or in modern lingo, the “woke” Faiz.
The woke Faiz appeared more attractive. I loved the aforementioned nazm and its intensity. I also loved his other nazms like “chand roz aur meri jaan”, “bol ke lab aazaad hain tere”, and obviously, “hum dekhenge”. He had also written a nazm titled subah-e-aazaadi that said “woh itnezaar tha jiska yeh woh sahar toh nahi” (this is not the morning that we awaited) in August 1947 when India and Pakistan got independence post partition, hinting that he did not like partition based on religion and thus he couldn’t be an Islamist.
I was told by my learned friend that Faiz was not happy with Zia’s Pakistan, and at one point in time, he apparently had even considered moving to India after Zia captured power through a military coup. However, he chose Lebanon for asylum because had he taken refuge in India, rest of his “revolutionary” poets or relatives would have been targeted by the Zia regime after being branded as people who secretly loved India, the eternal enemy of Pakistan.
With such background and history, when the controversy regarding the recitation of “hum dekhenge” at IIT Kanpur campus broke, my first reaction was the same as that of the “liberals”. This is going to be embarrassing, I thought, and I asked Nupur, OpIndia Editor, not to make herself a laughing stock by painting Faiz or his poetry as some Islamist project, even though on Twitter I continued to provoke the liberals, which is my favourite pastime.
However, I didn’t put any veto either on the topic. Earlier, during the BHU controversy, when many even on the ‘right’ side of the ideological divide were castigating the students for allegedly opposing a Muslim teacher, my first reaction too was that ‘maybe the students are being unreasonable’. However, OpIndia’s reporting on the issue was really good and it forced me to change my initial stand. Basically, I was proven wrong, and I thought that what if I’m wrong again about Faiz too?
After almost two weeks, do I now think that I was wrong about Faiz? Do I now think he was an Islamist? If media reports are to be believed, a panel at IIT Kanpur has been formed apparently to decide if Faiz was anti-Hindu.
First of all, that is fake news. The panel at IIT Kanpur has been formed to investigate administrative issues around the event where Faiz’s poetry was recited. The panel will analyse if proper permissions were taken if any rules were broken by the organisers or the participants if some indiscipline took place, and if at all some action needs to be taken, etc. It has not been constituted exclusively to psychoanalyze Faiz or his poetry.
However, why not do that only now that the media has imagined that to be the case? Why not be truly liberal and start questioning our long-held beliefs? Why not dig a little about Faiz beyond his poetry?
Faiz and his politics
Faiz is supposed to be a Marxist and leftist poet. He has been a recipient of the Lenin Peace Prize that was awarded by Soviet Russia, the erstwhile communist superpower. For someone who had seen how Indian Marxists and left behave, perhaps this itself could appear as a proof that Faiz was anti-Hindu, for communists in India are indeed anti-Hindu. However, Faiz was a leftist in Pakistani setup, not in the Indian setup. There is nothing really that can prove that he was anti-Hindu.
In fact, a leftist in an Islamic society should be sympathetic towards Hindus, as they are the marginalised and persecuted community there. Take for example the Pakistan born author and commentator Tarek Fatah. Fatah is a leftist in a Pakistani setup and he is anything but anti-Hindu. Similarly, many left-leaning activists and journalists in Pakistan have been highlighting the plight of Pakistani Hindus, even as the Indian secular ecosystem is rioting in the streets against CAA that awards citizenship to a handful of Pakistani Hindus who could escape to India by December 2014.
Honestly, I am not aware of any activism by Faiz in support of minority Hindus of Pakistan. I don’t think he ever wrote anything revolutionary highlighting their plight. I will be happy to be proven wrong, but the “revolutionary” Faiz appears to be faltering on such activism. Forget Hindus, there is no recorded activism – if not writing poems in support of the cause, then at least stuff like award wapsi or at least sitting on some dharna – by Faiz even in support of Ahmediyas, a Muslim sect.
Contrary to the popular belief that Ahmediyas were declared non-Muslims by the military dictator Zia-ul-Haq, it was actually the democratically elected government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto that declared Ahmadis non-Muslims via a constitutional amendment in 1974. Zia just improved that constitutional amendment via an ordinance 10 years later and made the life of Ahmediyas even worse. The original sin was committed by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and guess what, Faiz Ahmed Faiz was an aide of Bhutto. In fact, Faiz worked in various ministries in Bhutto government in advisory and senior roles. He did not resign to protest what Bhutto did to Ahmediyas. A revolutionary poet should have done at least that, no?
His activism similarly appears absent when the Pakistan Army was involved in a virtual genocide in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). An article in The Hindu published in 2018 tries to argue that Faiz was not so bad with activism during wartime. It says, “Faiz consistently refused to write ‘patriotic’ poems to boost the morale of the Pakistani army.” That is too long a rope given to a “revolutionary” poet, no? An act of revolution actually will be to write poems against injustices, even if done by your own army. Woke Indian fans of Faiz never shy away from attacking Indian army, but don’t expect Faiz to attack an army that killed and raped millions? Just his assumed “refusal” (who had asked him, where is the proof?) to write poetry is seen revolutionary enough?
Unfortunately, Faiz’s revolutionary streak appears limited to opposing Zia-ul-Haq only, and one can argue that it could be triggered by a selfish reason because Zia had ousted Bhutto, a friend and patron of Faiz, from power. If Faiz were in principle opposed to Islamism, he should have opposed his friend Bhutto for his law against Ahmediyas and if he were religiously opposed to the tyranny of those in power, he should have opposed what was done to people in East Pakistan. I couldn’t find any record of active or vocal opposition by him on either of these two fronts. And obviously, nothing where he spoke up for Hindus of Pakistan.
Still, this does not make Faiz anti-Hindu. At worst, he can be accused of being blind to the Hindu plight and sentiments, and that’s precisely what people are opposing in “hum dekhenge” because it uses metaphors where Islam prevailing over idolatry is being equated with an act of revolution.
Poem and the poet
Regardless of what the politics of Faiz was, a poem becomes independent of the poet over time. People who are taunting “illiterate Sanghis” of not knowing Faiz should definitely know this. Don’t the same people justify the adoption of the poetry of Allama Iqbal by Indians, even though Iqbal was an Islamist and a key person who worked towards the creation of Pakistan?
Iqbal was someone who went from “Hindi hain hum, watan hai Hindustan humaara” to “Muslim hain hum, watan hai saara jahaan humaara”, but that doesn’t invalidate either of his poems. They essentially become independent of him and are used by people who believe in the inherent meanings and respective sentiments as understood by them.
A 1994 Italian language movie named Il Postino (The Postman) has a dialogue that beautifully expresses this thought. The movie is a fictional tale where a young postman gets to regularly meet poet Pablo Neruda and becomes interested in his poetry. He later passes off some of Neruda’s poems as his own to impress a local girl whom he loved and wanted to marry. When Neruda comes to know of it and confronts the postman, the young man justifies his deed saying “Poetry doesn’t belong to those who write it, it belongs to those who need it.”
Indeed. When Iqbal says “kuchh baat hai ki hasti mitati nahi humaari” (there is something that has kept Hindustan alive), this line doesn’t belong to him anymore as he had morphed into someone who wouldn’t care about existence of Hindustan but belongs to those who need it as assurance that their nation will survive despite all odds.
Basically, words of an Islamist Iqbal can be used by a “Sanghi” to reassure himself that Hindustan – the land of Hindus – is going to survive even when contemporary civilizations have vanished. And similarly, words of a ‘revolutionary’ Faiz can be used by an Islamist to reassure himself that Ghazwa-e-Hind is waiting to happen.
Faiz’s words use the metaphor of Islam prevailing over idolatry. It uses the imagery of pre-Islamic idols at Kaaba being destroyed and supremacy of Allah being established.
How exactly are they appropriate when used for anti-CAA protests? Remember that such protests have witnessed crowds that shout “tera mera rishta kya, la ilaahi illallah” and “kaafiron se aazaadi”, apart from the fact that an idol of Lord Hanuman was destroyed in Patna – that is the context that is relevant here, not Faiz.
One may argue that the poem was recited at IIT Kanpur, where the crowd did not shout such slogans. However, that becomes irrelevant in the “liberal” scheme of things. Let me explain. These days groups like Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle (APSC) and such are gaining a foothold in campuses like IITs. They oppose events like celebrating Ramayana just because they think it’s offensive to their sentiments, irrespective of what is felt or believed by those celebrating it.
The imagery of Ravana being burnt is also a metaphor of victory of good over evil, it can be argued to be similar to the metaphor of idols being removed from Kaaba. But groups like APSC oppose this imagery as in their worldview, Ravana is a Dravid/Dalit king and the whole thing is not about good over evil but about the supremacy of Aryans/Upper Castes. They would rather burn Ram’s effigy. It doesn’t matter to them that those celebrating Ravana’s fall don’t even consider him as Dravid or Dalit (he was, in fact, a Brahmin) character but see him just as a villain.
Such opposition to religious imagery has attracted support from “liberals” and “wokes”. Similar thought process and arguments have been employed to worship Mahishasur and oppose Durga Puja on campuses like JNU. The liberals have supported such stuff in the name of “alternate history” and various intellectual sounding claptrap. However, what they have done is to essentially normalise opposition to an event or idea regardless of what is believed by those celebrating or organising it.
So why should those opposing Faiz’s poetry care about what the poem means or who Faiz was or beliefs of those who organised the event? Their own sentiments and beliefs against the imagery of idols being destroyed and only Allah’s name prevailing should be enough to oppose it. Or liberals should declare that some sentiments are more important than others.
It is rather tragic that Faiz has been caught in all this, but it is not a fight against Faiz. It is a fight against an old entrenched establishment, which demands that “jaahil” people must submit fully to what it prescribes them to read, how it prescribes them to think, act only when it prescribes them to act, and not question anything that is being fed to them despite glaring double standards. They don’t realize that the jaahils have now decided to take note and speak up. They have decided to push back. They are not ashamed of their assumed “jahiliyat”. Or in words of Faiz, jaahils have declared that:
ham paravarish-e-lauh-o-qalam karte rahenge,
jo dil pe guzarati hai raqam karte rahenge