The Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur has set up a panel to consider whether the poem ‘Hum Dekhenge’ by the famous Urdu poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz is “anti-Hindu”. This followed the recitation of the poem by students on December 17, 2019 on the IIT Kanpur campus during their gathering in support of the students of Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi who were assaulted by the police during their anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act agitation.
In 1947, the British, hastening to grant the people of the Indian subcontinent their independence, split the region of Punjab between Hindus and Muslims so that each religious group could have their own place: India and Pakistan. Faiz documented the Indian subcontinent in the midst of uncertainty, tension, and horrific violence. Since the election, his poems, both nourishing and rousing, have kept many company as they struggled to find words to articulate their anger, grief, and indignation at the nightmarish realities of the country.
Who Was Faiz Ahmad Faiz?
Faiz was born in 1911 in Sialkot, in a region of Punjab that sits along the fault line of Partition. His upbringing was Muslim, he was trained in the classical Persian poets Rumi and Hafiz, and he learned to read English, French, and Russian literature while growing up. He has achieved today an iconic legacy, his name carrying a distinctive ring that many Pakistanis and Indians hold within their hearts.
Faiz’s poetry found a place among many local cultural traditions and also beyond. He not only navigated the space between Hindu and Muslim, but was also deeply influenced by British poets like W.H. Auden. Faiz’s poetry merged styles across centuries, weaving together classical forms like the 14th-century ghazal (notably drawing from Punjabi poetic ideals like loss and longing, as well as from Sufi philosophy) with 20th-century forms like free verse that the British had been importing into the subcontinent since the Raj took hold of it a century earlier.
Faiz’s work responded to contemporary moments of crisis made his poetry distinctively critical in two ways. His verses both challenged structures of power and the failure of governments to heed the concerns of the downtrodden, and they reflected a new direction for poetry itself—a revolutionary one. Most importantly, Faiz adopted and adapted the forms, images, and themes of Urdu poetry to criticize readers against the oppressive political regimes threatening the subcontinent while the British were drawing their line in the sand and splitting the land apart.
Faiz belonged to the Progressive Movement, a collective of writers and poets who, in the decade leading up to the 1947 independence of India and Pakistan, embodied a revolutionary aesthetic. This group of writers and thinkers believed suffering could be done away with through action. What’s more, their community couldn’t disentangle art from responsibility. Each line they wrote was an active commitment to the issues of the time and also an attempt to empower their audiences. Art took on an activist sentiment, readers implicated in the progressives’ writing couldn’t look on silently as spectators to injustice.
Urdu poets often expressed their thoughts not in direct language but indirectly, by hints and allusions. Urdu ashaar (couplets) often have a literal, superficial meaning, but also a deeper, real meaning which is conveyed by indication, insinuation, suggestion and metaphor. It is this deeper, real meaning which the poet is seeking to convey, but to understand it one has to ponder deeply. This is particularly done by poets in times when it may be dangerous to talk directly, such as during martial law (when this poem was written).
Why Is Faiz's Poetry Relevant Today?
It's crucial to keep in mind that Faiz Ahmad Faiz's poetry emerged during a time of militant rule under Zia-ul-Haq. The poems gave a voice to those who were subject to atrocities and misfortune under the regime. Most of his poetry has themes of liberation, promise and political questioning, all of which were the pillars of revolution at the time.
Today, in the political climate we live in it's vital to bring back these sentiments. Through internet shutdowns, Section 144 and police crackdowns, we can only live through with words as our weapons.
As Faiz's own daughter, Ms Hashmi said, "In itself, poetry cannot fight fundamentalism but it can create circumstances for change by helping in mobilising people, giving them a sense of shared aspirations and dreams of a better future."
As we observe several protests across the country we can see that the one factor bringing everyone together are the songs, speeches, texts and verses. Every protest observed this pattern, picking up apt songs and speeches and reciting poetry is what has kept the protests going.
Aprtim, 27, a Mumbai protestor told us, "I went to the protest at Gateway yesterday night, we were there to hold a simple candle march but it feels empty and unfruitful when you just go there, light the candles and leave. The one thing that keeps all the protests going are songs, poetry and sloganeering. Those are the pillars of our protests, without the words, there's only emptiness. We have to use our words for those without voices, and for those whose voices may be hushed."
"Hum Dekhenge" and "Bol Ki Lab Azad Hai Tere" are both poems from Faiz that have been used across the country during protests. The need for these poems and proses is essential, they are the fundamental backbone of the protests currently happening.