Censorship

Fear of ideas

Print edition : October 27, 2017

Avtar Singh Sandhu, who wrote under the pen name Paash. Photo: Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Paash's poem "Sabh Tun Khatarnak" in his own handwriting.

The Sangh Parivar ideologue Dinanath Batra has demanded the removal of a poem by Paash, the revolutionary Punjabi poet, from an NCERT textbook, claiming it will “pollute” young minds.

OVER the past few weeks, walls in New Delhi have suddenly started sprouting slogans about a revolution that is around the corner. Usually the slogans are in Hindi, occasionally in English, and seldom in Punjabi. The words “ Sub tun khatarnaak hunda hai” (Everything is dangerous) strike a chord in many at a time of unmitigated suffering for the common man. At the bottom of every slogan is the word “Paash”.

Paash is the pen name of Avtar Singh Sandhu, the Punjabi poet who could rouse people with his words just as efficiently as he could draw peaceful rural imagery. He died at the hands of Khalistani extremists in 1988, aged 38. His crime? He confronted the terrorists with the written word. His bold imagery set him apart from others, and the early influence of Naxalites on him seeps through his works. He rejected popular notions of nationalism in a poem following misbehaviour with Sikhs on the roads of Punjab during the 1982 Asian Games. The poem, titled “A Petition for Disinheritance”, created a stir. He was called the most vicious of names and even branded a radical. Sushma Swaraj had, as an opposition leader, dubbed Paash “a Naxalite poet”.

His was a voice of protest, the engine of dreams. He spoke up against state terrorism and the terrorism of extremists. Little wonder he had to shift to the United States at the height of the insurgency in Punjab in the 1980s following threats from Khalistanis. He was visiting his native village in Ludhiana when Khalistani terrorists killed him. Ironically, that was to be the last day of his visit.

A collection of nearly 200 poems was published after his death. A prose collection, titled Talwandi Salem Nun Jandi Sadak (The Road to Talwandi), was published a few years later.

Paash is back in the public consciousness today, thanks to the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) ideologue Dinanath Batra, who continues tirelessly to get non-Hindutva voices out of academia and textbooks. First, Batra focussed on removing the legendary Urdu poet Ghalib’s couplets from textbooks. Then he turned his attention to Rabindranath Tagore. Now, he has reserved his ire for Paash, the only Punjabi poet to be translated into Hindi for schoolgoing students. Paash’s voice against fundamentalism is sought to be muzzled. Incidentally, a little more than a decade ago, the Hindi translation of Paash’s popular poem “Sabh Tun Khatarnak” (The Most Dangerous) was included in a textbook for Class XI students. The poem, with its rich philosophical overtones, speaks against oppression in society, an oppression that threatens to take away the power to dream.

Batra has demanded the removal of the poem from National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) textbooks as it could “pollute” young minds. Well, if obfuscation was on his mind, he has not succeeded, as Paash now occupies prime space at public squares not just in Delhi but also in places like Jaipur and Chandigarh. And students of Delhi University are planning to join hands with their counterparts from Panjab University and Jamia Millia Islamia to stage a series of programmes in a three-day Mahotsav towards the end of the year. Meanwhile, the Haryana government has quietly closed the Paash library in Karnal.

The controversy around one of his poems would have amused Paash. Throughout his brief life, he was seldom away from controversy. His intrepid ways and his revolutionary words were never ignored. Born in Jalandhar in 1950, he penned Loh Katha (Tale of Iron, 1970), which had a strident anti-establishment tone, enough for the government to charge him with murder. He was acquitted a couple of years later. The time spent in jail did nothing to douse the fire. Paash soon joined Punjab’s Maoist struggle. A little later, he became part of the Anti-47 Front in the U.S. and opposed Khalistani violence. None of these acts would have gone down well with conformists or even the advocates of Khalistan then.

Nearly 30 years after his death, Paash continues to get attention for what he stood for. Says Prof. Chaman Lal, who has been associated with Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Centre of Indian Languages: “Paash was a progressive Punjabi poet, a product of the 1970s Left radical period. He became instantly popular with his first collection, Loh Katha, [which he wrote] at the age of 20. The freshness of rural imagery in his poetry gave him a distinctive look.”

What is surprising is that nearly three decades after he breathed his last, Paash continues to be anathema to the RSS. “Paash is anathema to the RSS as any progressive writer with artistic depth is. The RSS, or any other religious fundamentalists like the Khalistanis, have no sense of either literary merit or any other aesthetics. Any progressive writer or idea in literature or other arts becomes anathema to them, just as M.F. Husain was targeted by these people. As Paash’s poetry is a voice against oppression and religious fundamentalism of all hues, the RSS wants to keep him away from young minds,” says Lal, who translated Paash’s complete poetry into Hindi and was awarded the Translation Prize by the Sahitya Akademi. Incidentally, he returned the award, along with other authors and poets, in protest against the climate of intolerance in the country a couple of years ago.

Lal believes the RSS’ objection to Paash in textbooks stems from ignorance. Paash is taught in many universities. His works have been translated into most Indian languages, including Malayalam, Telugu, Marathi, Bengali and Gujarati. Incidentally, the University Grants Commission, too, had recommended Paash for its model course as one of the important Indian voices in the world of poetry, when A.B. Vajpayee was the Prime Minister.

If Batra does succeed in getting the NCERT to remove Paash’s poem, a voice against oppression will fall silent. And, as Lal sums it up: “The younger generation in schools will be deprived of a humanist orientation of mind.” Batra’s five-page note recommending the omission of Paash should not be taken lightly. In the past, he, along with the RSS-afiliated Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Niyas, had succeeded in getting A.K. Ramanujan’s book Three Hundred Ramayanas removed from the syllabus of Delhi University. The book questioned the popular notion of the Ramayana being a singular monolithic epic of Hinduism. Batra was also instrumental in the withdrawal of the American Indologist Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History from the market.

If Paash’s poem meets a similar fate though, perhaps he himself would not have complained. After all, he has been put in the company of M.F. Husain, Rabindranath Tagore and Ghalib.

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