With fans in Mumbai: Amitabh Bachchan is also visible.

It is an anomalous fact of history that revolutionary poets and icons often if unwittingly usher reaction, which then becomes their patron of sorts. Who would have thought that military usurpers and religious bigots would flaunt Jinnah as their hero, or Gandhi would become the poster boy of zealots that assassinated him.

A similar fate befell Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Pablo Neruda, Bhagat Singh and Hafiz Shirazi too in a way. I once saw strikingly beautiful picture of Che Guevara adorning the work desk of the then CIA station chief in Delhi.

Though credit is seldom given to Neruda, his poetry single-handed fired up South Asia’s Progressive Writers’ Association of which Faiz was a pivot. Neruda stood down as presidential candidate to pave the way for his comrade Salvador Allende to become Chile’s first leftist leader to be elected as head of state. Chile has not recovered from the reaction that came with the CIA-backed military coup.

Bhagat Singh’s revolutionary slogan – Inquilab Zindabad – today leads rallies of blacklegs who broke the workers’ unity in India. It seems ironical that Shirazi survived religious edicts that subverted the sweeping political unity of Iranians to bring in their miraculous revolution. Iran continues to lead the anti-imperialist corner in its own obscurantist way. Credit perhaps goes to Hafiz and other great iconoclasts of that land who evidently continue to mean more to the people than the promise of paradise the mullahs offer.

“And now the national anthem, but you need not rise,” said Frank Sinatra in a live performance in New York as he began to sing My Way. Faiz’s Ham dekhain ge has turned into something of a national anthem too though of people of several countries, not one. The promise of the hereafter in this poem has inspired everyone in India (as it did in Pakistan) from the left to the right of the spectrum. Here is how Arundhati Roy experienced it amid Maoist rebels in the forests of Chhattisgarh. An excerpt from her essay Walking Among the Comrades:

“Comrade Sukhdev asks if he can download the music from my Ipod into his computer. We listen to a recording of Iqbal Bano singing FaizAhmed Faiz’s Ham Dekhain ge (We will Witness the Day) at the famous concert in Lahore at the height of the repression during the Ziaul Haq years. The home minister has been issuing veiled threats to those who ‘erroneously offer intellectual and material support to the Maoists’. Does sharing Iqbal Bano qualify?”

Away from the glare of India’s corporate media, Faiz has enthused the left-liberal campaign to free Dr Binayak Sen, convicted in Chhattisgarh on sedition charges for alleged proximity with Maoists. Now here is an irony. The undivided communist party in India lionized Faiz. Then the party split into many splinters, which weakened and eventually all but erased its cultural bulwarks like IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association). The bitter truth is that Faiz’s splintered partisans are now lunging at each other. I have seen his family members being feted by the Communist Party of India (Marxist, CPI-M and others) in parliamentary left. However, Faiz is perhaps better embraced by the so-called hardliners within the left, who do not see eye to eye not with the CPI-M leaders.

An open letter from Ilina Sen, wife of Binayak, shows Faiz’s continued relevance to the left. Excerpts from the letter:

“Dear Friends, “…Speaking out against the conviction and incarceration of Dr Binayak Sen has to be seen in that larger context of lending our voice against the gross injustice that we witness as a daily happening in India day after day. “Today when we demand his release we must also raise our voice against all those who remain hungry, malnourished, and without secure means of livelihood, as well as those who have been dispossessed, killed, tortured, humiliated, disappeared, threatened, arbitrarily detained and arrested, falsely charged and under surveillance because of their legitimate work in upholding democratic rights and fundamental freedoms... “I would like to end with a verse of Faiz: Bol ke lab aazaad hain tere/ bol zabaan ab tak teri hai/ tera sutvaan jism hai tera/ bol ke jaan ab tak teri hai…”

Smug Indian commentators like to contrast the supposedly superior democratic culture of India’s people with the supposed passivity of Pakistan’s people – but it is Pakistan that gave us that immortal moment of democratic culture – where thousands of people sang of revolution courtesy a communist poet, who had drawn upon progressive traditions within Islam to confront the zealot Zia. Iqbal Bano’s – as the people of the subcontinent confront the tyrannies of their governments, of imperialism and of jingoistic hate-mongering — will be the voice that will reflect their unity, their defiance, their confidence that one day, tyranny will be defeated and the people will triumph.

Faiz’s links with India evolved with its politics. Between the ‘50s and ‘70s, Sheila Bhatia, Champa Mangat Rai, Mariam Bilgrami led the women’s flank of the Faiz Ahmed Faiz fan club in India. Fawning men came from the sprawling communist movement, progressive writers’ club, leftists from the Congress party, the Lahore school tie, most notably those perched high up in the Indian bureaucracy. Those who can still remember can be tapped to vividly recount the soirees late into the night when Faiz was loved and lionized in Delhi.

Syed Mohammed Mehdi, pushing 90, recalls one such evening after theatre diva Sheila Bhatia staged the play ‘Dard Ayega Dabe Paon’, based on Faiz’s work. Sheila and her partner Haali Vats, a former underground gunrunner for the communist party, had known Faiz from Lahore and they were his constant hosts in Delhi. Punjabi folk singer, the strikingly beautiful Madanbala Sandhu recited Faiz all night. Sheila danced with the troupe. Faiz sipped and smoked. And then he whispered to Mehdi: “With so much love coursing through my veins and with such doting friends surrounding me, I won’t mind dying tonight.”

Not too long after that, in a manner of speaking, Faiz was all but killed in India anyway, not by a magical night that overwhelmed his finer senses but by the palpable failure of the left movement. Indira Gandhi had inherited a leftward leaning aura from her father. And so her cabinet did reflect that politics. D.P. Dhar and Inder Gujral were among Faiz’s admirers. With Rajiv Gandhi’s advent the battle for the left was all but over.

The last time I heard Faiz in a major public rally was in 1990 when it was led by rightwing upper caste Hindus who were agitating against the affirmative action proposed in the Mandal Commission report. Rajiv Goswami, a Brahmin opposed to the Mandal report, had set himself on fire. There was commotion and police firing. News Track video magazine (parent of Headlines Today and Aaj Tak) was running the story with the chant of Iqbal Bano’s anthem penned by Faiz.

—The writer is Dawn’s Correspondent in Delhi


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