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COLUMN: The awakened and the awakener: Muhammad Ibrahim Joyo

October 14, 2013

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Amar Sindhu is a Sindhi-language poet and teaches philosophy at Sindh University, Jamshoro
Amar Sindhu is a Sindhi-language poet and teaches philosophy at Sindh University, Jamshoro

“A great man is great not because his personal qualities give individual features to great historical events, but because he possesses qualities which make him most capable of serving the great social needs of his time, needs which arose as a result of general and particular causes,” wrote George Plekhanov. “In his well-known book on heroes and hero worship, [Thomas] Carlyle calls great men beginners. This is a very apt description. “A great man is a beginner precisely because he sees further than others and desires things more strongly than others. He solves the scientific problems brought up by the preceding process of the intellectual development of society; he points to the new social needs created by the preceding development of social relationships; he takes the initiative in satisfying these needs. He is a hero but not in the sense that he can stop or change the natural course of things, but in the sense that his activities are the conscious and free expression of this inevitable and unconscious course. Herein lies all his significance; herein lies his whole power.”

This definition of beginners of history corresponds well with Muhammad Ibrahim Joyo, the voice of the century, as he is called by Mazhar Jamil, his biographer. Nearing a hundred, Joyo was born on August 12, 1915, in a landless peasant family. The renowned writer, scholar, teacher and public intellectual has spent his entire life trying to inculcate modern revolutionary thoughts and theories, such as secularism and socialism, in his land, Sindh. He has contributed in both Sindhi and English languages and has 32 books of translations to his credit, including the works of thinkers and writers like Rousseau, Plutarch, Stefan Zweig, Bertolt Brecht, Voltaire, Francis Bacon, Paulo Freire, Lord Byron, T.S. Eliot, Albert Camus, Shelley and Tagore. In addition to a large number of articles, pamphlets and letters, Joyo has written more than 50 books and dedicated himself to the service of the poverty-ridden and largely illiterate society. As a result, Joyo has been called the pioneer of renaissance and reformation in Sindh. He has successfully implanted the spirit of new ideas in the soil of Sindhi society, which has been under the influence of feudalist thought.

In the 1940s, Joyo travelled to Bombay for higher education. There he was intellectually influenced by the political upheavals and the social movements of the subcontinent. This was a glorious time for India with respect to the anti-imperialist movement which was in full swing and had achieved popular momentum across the country. Joyo truly was a product of that historical moment. This explains why, in his writings, he always seems eager and sentimental for both freedom and revolution.

During his stay in Bombay, Joyo encountered many great men of history but he was the most ideologically inspired by Marxist leader M.N. Roy. Joyo also admitted G.M. Syed as his spiritual mentor and supported socialism and nationalism under his influence. Highly inspired by the political doctrines of Roy and by Marxist ideology, Joyo joined the Radical Democratic Party.

The metropolis Bombay completely transformed and revolutionised the young Joyo. Calling himself a Marxist when he returned to Karachi, Joyo started to edit Freedom Calling, a political magazine of the Radical Democratic Party. His close literary friends used to call Joyo ‘Royist’ rather than Marxist. He contributed many articles on the nature of the freedom of colonial India. Unlike mainstream political parties, such as the Congress and the Muslim League, the vision of the Radical Democratic Party on the question of peasants was more clear and it demanded tenancy rights and the abolition of the zamindari system. In Freedom Calling, Joyo wrote that “in the final analysis, the problems of Sindh are not communal but essentially economic.” He added, “a landless peasant can demand nothing except what is morally and humanely due to him. His mute prayer, his unuttered demand is, give me back my land!” Joyo’s clarity of thought and vision can be seen in his booklet Save Sindh, Save the Continent: From Feudal Lords, Capitalists and their Communalisms.

While Joyo embodied the political ideologies of socialism, nationalism, secularism and the emancipation of nations, he also remained engaged with the forums of public discourse. From a young age, he was considered a vital force behind the politically motivated literary movements of Sindh. Joyo could also be seen in the midst or forefront of different ideological debates at literary forums.

During dictatorships, whenever the leading figures of literature came under attack from the orthodox mindset that wanted to curb the freedom of expression, Joyo’s pen came forward in defence of writers and poets. He acted as a shield for others.

Freedom of expression is a necessary precondition for art and literature to flourish and Joyo fearlessly raised his voice against the tyranny of Ayub Khan’s regime when across the country writers and poets such as Sheikh Ayaz, Ajmal Khattak, Gul Khan Nasir, G.M. Syed, Habib Jalib, Hyder Bux Jatoi and Rasoool Bux Palejo were held behind bars.

On behalf of the writers and poets of Sindh, Joyo presented a memorandum to the government of Pakistan through Sukkur’s deputy commissioner at a writers’ protest on January 5, 1969. In this memorandum, apart from demanding the unconditional release of writers of all languages, Joyo condemned the government for creating a class of servile flatterers in press and literature and also its tendency to encourage those who engaged in malicious propaganda against progressive writers. He wrote, “we, who have been engaged for a long time in creative work, know that art can only grow and flourish in freedom. The subjugation of mind results in stagnation of art on the one hand, and impoverishment of life on the other, for art is the mainspring of life.”

Joyo also played a role in safeguarding the interests of Sindhi language and literature, the vital components of Sindhi cultural and social identity. “For the promotion of Sindhi literature he has demonstrated a spirit similar to that of Maulvi Dr Abdul Haq’s for Urdu literature,” Syed said about Joyo. “In the fields of literature and language, Joyo has no match in India and Pakistan.”

Shah, Sachal, Sami, the treatise on the troika of great classical poets, is one of Joyo’s great contributions. It is a study of the vision of these three poets, Shah, Sachal and Sami, who form the foundation of Sindhi cultural identity. These poets symbolise the identity of Sindh, which is tolerant, peace-loving and plural in its essence. “Shah, Sachal, Sami were inimitable physicians who successfully diagnosed the malady which has pushed Sindhi society into a social and economic crisis that is causing the continuous slavery of an autonomous nation,” Joyo said.

Joyo feels that the poetry of these three can lead the suppressed nation to overcome its crises and put an end to the oppression and exploitation of the invaders: “the Sindhi society has to find and follow the way pointed out by these great dignitaries and ever-living saintly leaders,” he said. For Joyo, Sindh is still passing through the same unfortunate passage of history, therefore he has emphasised revisiting this identity of Sindh. Moreover, he has always emphasised the right of self-determination and the autonomy of all nations and remained critical of the Pakistani state. He questioned “whether a nation raises a state that serves it or a state holds a nation as tools for its power base and self-aggrandisement.” Further, in The Betrayal: Sindh Bides the Day for Freedom, Joyo argued that the founding principle of independence, as was promised in the 1940 resolution, was being betrayed: “the hard fact is that Sindh and Sindhi people in Pakistan have yet to bide their day for free rule, for free choice, for freedom,” he wrote.

“Like Nazrul Islam and Tagore, Chain Rai Sami and Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai are symbols of pride for Sindhi culture. Sami, happily for him, seems to have migrated to India after Partition with the rest of Sindhi Hindus leaving no trace behind, except in the hearts of people. Latif still continues to be a victim of a cruel joke.” Joyo once burst out in anger when a former governor of then West Pakistan remarked that Latif was one of those sufis who carried the message of Islam to the remote corners of the subcontinent, infusing the “real Islamic spirit in people”. In response, Joyo wrote that “this uncalled-for attempt, making a [preacher] out of Latif, essentially a sufi, and hence a secular poet, seems to be at variance with the facts as we know them.”

The discovery of Sheikh Ayaz as the poet of revolution, equality and social justice, and a zealous voice of Sindh, was another remarkable endeavor of Joyo. However, by quoting Mexican artist Diego Rivera in his well-known manifesto titled, For An Independent and Revolutionary Art, Joyo showed his belief in Ayaz as one of those artists who are “the natural ally of revolution.” Thus, for Joyo, Ayaz’s poetry sowed new dreams of freedom and revolution in the eyes of Sindhi youth.

All over the world, language has remained a matter of great sensitivity and the same is the case with Joyo. He never felt comfortable with the language policy of the government of Pakistan and was critical of it. He used to raise his voice at public literary forums such as the Sindhi Adbi Sangat, his own organisation, ‘The Servants of Sindh,’ and so on. He alleged that “a death-knell had been sounded in the 1973 Constitution for all the other languages except Urdu and English,” thus the people of Sindh owe an apology to the Sindhi language.

Always surrounded by youth and adored by his contemporaries, Joyo has been an iconic figure in Sindh. He still waits for the dream of a sovereign and prosperous Sindh to materialise.