Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Faiz Ahmed Faiz: A poet of defiance, transcending ideology

Print edition : January 31, 2020

Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Salima Hashmi, Faiz’s daughter. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

More than 35 years after his death in 1984, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the Pakistani Marxist poet, has become the toast of India. From Delhi to Ahmedabad, Mumbai to Kolkata, Kerala to Bihar, Faiz is on everybody’s lips. More accurately, his poem titled “Hum dekhenge” has become the anthem of the resistance to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA).

As protesters assemble in places such as Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi and the August Kranti Maidan in Mumbai, holding aloft placards declaring “Down with fascists” and “Second freedom struggle”, “Hum Dekhenge” unites them all.

Faiz wrote the poem as a mark of defiance in 1979, taking on the might of Pakistani President Zia-ul-Haq, a dictator who was opposed to the freedom of expression. The poem attained iconic status after it was rendered by the famous singer Iqbal Bano. Today, protesters in the world’s biggest democracy are singing the same song.

Faiz is part of a collective heritage, a shared past, according to the protesters. Every evening, often with candles in hand, they sing “Hum dekhenge”. There are no musicians or trained vocalists, it is just the mood of the moment that drives them. There have been rumblings of discontent ever since the poem was first heard at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi as part of a “Not In My Name” protest. As more and more young protesters did a quick google-search, listened online to Iqbal Bano and came armed with the poem to recite at the gathering, not everybody was happy.

Some members of the right wing said that the poem was anti-Hindu. Almost all his life, Faiz had taken on organised religion and defied religious dictates. Faiz’s daughter Salima Hashmi told the media that her father’s work was timeless. “A poet never dies and neither does his work,” she said. His grandson Ali Madeeh Hashmi said: “While we are used to his poems, or a part of them, being censored in Pakistan, to have it in India is astonishing.”

Members of the right wing insisted that “Hum dekhenge” hurt their sentiments. They referred particularly to the lines: “Jab arz-e-khuda ke kaabe se/Sab but uthwaye jaenge” and “Bas naam rahega Allah ka”.

Vashi Sharma, an Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) professor, sought a ban on the poem, arguing that “Bas naam rahega Allah ka” hurt his sentiments. He filed a complaint against students reciting the poem at the protests. When Faiz referred to “but”, he was referring to dictators rather than idols.

Before the gravity of the moment could strike the protesters, IIT Kanpur issued instructions for a probe into the poem as the students on the campus recited it as part of their anti-CAA protests.

The poet Javed Akhtar said: “Those asking for a ban on the poem do not know Urdu or the tradition of Urdu poetry. They have no idea about the circumstances in which Faiz composed ‘Hum dekhenge’. The poem was an act of resistance against an autocratic ruler.”

The film-maker Vishal Bharadwaj scoffed at the demand to ban the recitation of the poem at protests. “To understand the poetry, you need to feel it first. You need a certain standard of emotional intelligence which seems to be completely lacking in those who are interpreting it as pro-Muslim and anti-Hindu.”

Following outrage among students and the teaching community, IIT Kanpur clarified that it was not investigating whether “Hum dekhenge” was an anti-national poem or a communal one. Rather, the focus of the probe was on the students and their posts in social media. “The committee is looking into several complaints of inflammatory actions/posts and will decide if there was a deliberate attempt to disturb the harmony at the institute,” the institute said.

The controversy, however, refused to die. People pointed out that the authorities have had an uneasy relationship with Faiz ever since Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in 2014. In 2016, at the Mumbai Film Festival, a film called Jago Hua Savera, written by Faiz, was banned from screening. In 2018, his daughter Moneeza Hashmi was not allowed to attend the Asia Media Summit in New Delhi.

Faiz was a man who defied stereotypes. A well-known Marxist, he, however, led prayers once in Kala Qader, some 100 kilometres from Lahore, at a mosque built by his father. It surprised many who had known him as an agnostic. (The mosque, to this day, has a Persian na’at, or song in praise of the Prophet Muhammad, engraved on it. The na’at was composed by Faiz.) A day later Faiz died and thousands of people turned up to pay their last respects. The mourners turned from a trickle to a flood, with politicians and military generals also joining the mile-long funeral procession.

His Marxist friends objected to a traditional Muslim funeral. In the authorised biography, Love and Revolution: Faiz Ahmed Faiz, his daughter says: “They were very angry. They said, as an atheist, he would not have agreed to that (traditional burial). But I said, Abba organised that for anyone in the family who died. His sister passed away, his mother passed away, all of that was done…. But those diehard communists, they weren’t convinced.”

That was the life of Faiz, full of ironies. Many sought to possess him. Many were outraged by his works. As Ali Hashmi told this correspondent once: “Faiz need not be elevated to the level of a superhero. He ate and drank. He fell in love and fell out of love. He loved to write poetry. I am sure we can love, admire and respect him for what he wrote without needing to turn him into some kind of an icon. He did not believe in any dogma. He transcended the limitations of any one ideology.”


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