The March 1970 cover of the weekly Lail-o-Nahar magazine featuring the verses of Josh Malihabadi | Photos by the writer
The March 1970 cover of the weekly Lail-o-Nahar magazine featuring the verses of Josh Malihabadi | Photos by the writer

“In the dark times/ Will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing… about the dark times.”— Bertolt Brecht

Till now, consciousness has reached only one destination
It is a situation of war, not a revolution
Something is shining on night’s forehead
It is a shadow of the sun, not the sun itself
How can one decide the title?
These are unsorted pages, not a complete book — Tehseen Sarwari

It was July 16, 1983, when I started studying at a state-run engineering university in Karachi. A few days earlier, my father had told me that I should not take part in student politics, as I was his only son and politics is the domain of the rich and the powerful. I was told that students from middle-income households were better off concentrating on their education and livelihood.

Meanwhile, on campus, two rival parties were eyeing the upcoming elections. While at the university for the admission process, I was co-opted by the National Students Federation (NSF), with my seniors-to-be deploying me to distribute pamphlets. My political activities started even before I had got admission. I was even labelled — by party members and opponents — as being “loyal to the cause” and a “not-for-sale, self-styled revolutionary.”

During a party meeting not long after, our ‘comrades’ were told that the NSF would contest the upcoming student body elections. The NSF was the weakest party on campus at that time and it was evident that we would not win in the elections.

Despite that, in our revolutionary zeal, we decided to make our presence felt. What followed was a long and arduous process similar to door-to-door canvassing, including corner meetings with students. In the process, I learned that the NSF was a powerful organisation, with union offices in three out of the five professional institutions of Karachi.

Meanwhile, on campus, the representatives of the two rival parties made fiery speeches in favour of their respective nominees. I saw many such congregations, particularly at the terminals for the local point (university-owned buses that pick and drop students on a predefined route).

As expected, the NSF lost the elections. To my amazement, we were ordered by our seniors to distribute another handbill early in the morning, the very next day, to the arriving students.

The crux of the handbill was that the NSF’s struggle against the oppressors and dictators would continue. The pamphlet culminated with a verse from Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi and it essentially said that it did not make any difference whether one saw the morning light or not, the struggle against the dark night would continue.

[My morality is unaware of defeat, Nadeem/ Whether I see the dawn or not, I will not surrender to the night]

At the age of 16, this was my first exposure to the verses of defiance.

Urdu resistance poetry has played a seminal role in the darkest of times, challenging the status quo, giving voice to the voiceless and uniting people in the pursuit of justice and equality. But it is also a reminder that the power to shape our destiny lies within us

A RALLYING CRY

Resistance poetry in Urdu has been a vital part of the Subcontinent’s and particularly Pakistan’s culture. Poets such as Asrarul Haq Majaz, Sahir Ludhianvi and Josh Malihabadi have defined new contours of resistance through their inspirational verses and couplets.

For instance, Majaz, who was also associated with the Progressive Writers’ Movement, highlighted the plight of the common people and called for social reform and resistance against colonial rule. His works often depicted the struggles of the working class and the need for revolution.

In his famous poem ‘Naujawan Khatoon Se’ [To a Young Woman], he said:

[The young rebels have drawn the spear/ You pick up the instruments of surgery/ This veil is admirable that adorns your forehead/ If turned into a flag, it would be better]

Sahir Ludhianvi was a prolific poet and lyricist known for his progressive and revolutionary poetry. His verses addressed various social and political issues, including poverty, inequality and the fight against oppression.

Songs such as ‘Jinhein Naaz Hai Hind Par’ [Proud Indians, Are We?] and ‘Woh Subah Kabhi To Aayegi’ [That Morning Will Come Sometime] reflect his spirit of resistance and hope for a better future. In his outstanding poem ‘Aye Shareef Insaano’ [O Decent Human Beings], for peace and against war, he said:

[Whether bombs fall on homes or at the borders/ The soul of progress is wounded/ When fields are burned, whether our own or someone else’s/ Life is tormented by famine/ Whether tanks move ahead or retreat/ The womb of the earth becomes barren/ Whether victory is celebrated or defeat is mourned/ Life sheds tears over the dead bodies]

Josh Malihabadi, who earned the title of ‘Shayar-i-Inquilab’ [Poet of the revolution], put the call for revolution with unprecedented valour and candidness.

[My mission is to bring change and I am named youth/ My slogan is: Revolution! Revolution! Revolution!]

 Sahir Ludhianvi’s poem on the cover of the August 1965 issue of Manshoor magazine
Sahir Ludhianvi’s poem on the cover of the August 1965 issue of Manshoor magazine

THE PROLIFERATION OF PERIODICALS

The era of the late sixties and seventies in Pakistan, like the rest of the world, was one of populist politics and of agitation, trade union activism and, above all, of ideological positions. The left-wing movement, under the influence of the red ideology, was a great source of inspiration to the middle-class youth, as it successfully provided a space of dissent to the rebels and an alternative to the mainstream state-sponsored narrative, the latter usually marked by tradition, a conservative approach and administrative imperatives.

Unlike in the modern day, printed material, like periodicals, were the major source of propagation at that time. To state the “party line” on contemporary local, national and regional political and economic issues in unequivocal terms used to be the mandate of such periodicals.

With diction inspired from Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong and the call for socialist revolution, such writings soon became popular with the assembly of believers of Marxist ideology.

Some magazines worth mentioning were Manshoor, Al-Fateh, Nusrat and Lail-o-Nahar. By and large, they used to be weekly magazines, with a price tag of even as low as 50 paisas. Run under the editorial expertise of revolutionaries such as Wahid Bashir, these magazines attracted accomplished writers such as Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Syed Sibte Hasan.

Scottish writer Grant Morrison famously said, “Truth speaks best in the language of poetry and symbolism.” The 444 poems of two major genres — ghazal and nazm — contained in the some 275 magazines published between 1965 and 1978, used different symbols to convey the message of revolt and the dream of a classless society.

The symbols of alam [standard] and jhanda [flag], zanjeer [chain], zindaan [jail] and salasil [bars], bazaar [market], maqtal [death row], sooli [noose], chaman [garden], qabar [grave], rahguzar [thoroughfare], qalam [pen], raat [night] and many others were used for defiance and struggle.

For instance, Habib Jalib’s poem ‘Dastoor’ [Tradition/Constitution] criticises the government over its corruption and misuse of power, using symbols such as chains and shackles to represent oppression.

Written in the late sixties, the following couplets by Anwar Ahsan Siddiqui best symbolises the era of tyranny and the determination to fight against it.

[This dark night will end in a little while/ And will rest in my chest; its grave/ Those who fear the cold breeze of the night/ Are frozen by the same breeze]

In one of his outstanding poems ‘Zanjeer’ [Chains], the thoughtful poet N.M. Rashid used zanjeer as a metaphor for hope and revolution, against the traditional interpretation of chains depicting serfdom and imprisonment.

[At last, in the tail of chains, a little movement is visible/ A voice is coming from the mountains and deserts/ Addressing the oppression-laden slaves/ Run away! Break your chains under the veil of night/ Tear apart the darkness prevailing in every direction/ And make this windy moment a source of surprise attacks]

A RESPONSE TO OPPRESSORS

Some other examples of resistance poems include ‘Hum Gunahgaar Auratein’ [We Sinful Women] by Kishwar Naheed, who is famous for her feminist resistance poetry. Her contribution to genre resistance poetry, addressing various forms of oppression, including political, ethnic and gendered oppression is phenomenal.

[It is we, the sinful women/ Who are not afraid of authority/ Do not sell our souls/ Do not bow/ Do not ask for pity]

The following verse by Qabil Ajmeri, who died very young, uses the symbol of the candle to signify the struggle against darkness and the demand for a complete revolution:

[The environment requires a complete revolution/ The flickering of a few candles doesn’t lead to dawn]

And without the crutches of symbolism, Kaifi Azmi, said it directly:

[Someone has to pay it off and take responsibility/ Of this revolution that still remains a debt upon us]

However, Ali Sardar Jafri consoles his audience and the revolutionaries by saying that:

[Don’t lose hope with the pace (of it), revolution will happen/ It may not be fast, but it’s not slow either]

Resistance poetry defies the confines of political boundaries as well. The students’ protest at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, singing ‘Hum dekhain gey’ [We Will See] by Faiz is just an example out of many. And its effect amplifies when it creeps in to other forms of art to challenge authority, raise awareness about political and social issues and mobilise communities.

Laal, a musical group known for progressive and socialist songs, singing ‘Umeed-i-sehar ki baat suno’ [Listen to the hope of dawn] is an effort to shape public consciousness, foster social change and inspire activism.

As the famous Urdu poet, Majrooh Sultanpuri, said:

[Keep placing the lamps of your heads on the gallows/ Until this deadly night of oppression ends]

A FLAME THAT FLICKERS FOREVER

In the annals of history, the power of resistance poetry stands as a beacon of hope, a testament to the indomitable spirit of humanity in the face of adversity.

From the streets of Karachi to the bustling lanes of Lahore, from the remote villages of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to the cultural epicentre of Punjab, the echoes of revolutionary verses have reverberated through the corridors of time, inspiring generations to rise against oppression and injustice.

In the words of Jan Nisar Akhtar:

[This, a moment of revolution/ In it, every ‘no’ is bigger than a ‘yes’]

The journey of resistance poetry in Urdu has been one of courage, resilience and unwavering determination. From the pre-Partition era to the present-day, poets have wielded their pens as swords, challenging the status quo and giving voice to the voiceless. Their verses have transcended boundaries, uniting people from all walks of life in the pursuit of justice and equality.

As we reflect on the rich tapestry of Urdu resistance poetry, it becomes evident that its significance extends far beyond mere words on a page. It is a call to action, a rallying cry for change and a reminder that the power to shape our destiny lies within each one of us.

Whether it is the fiery rhetoric of Faiz or the poignant imagery of Iqbal, each poem serves as a catalyst for transformation, igniting the flames of revolution in the hearts of millions.

As Faiz Sahib said:

[The grace with which one appears at the gallows remains/ This being is nothing and can be sacrificed easily]

In the face of oppression and tyranny, poetry has served as a lifeline for the oppressed, a source of solace and strength in the darkest of times.

As Khalid Alig wrote:

[For us, the worshippers of dawn, it is an old tradition/ Either to hold a pen in our hands or to have our hands chopped off]

The writer is a Karachi-based academic and board member at the Urban Resource Center. He can be reached at mansooraza@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 21st, 2024

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