Early in the summer of 1982, an aging but still youthful man sat on the floor of Lahore Jail holding a pen and a few sheets of paper. He would write in fits and starts: scribble a few lines, stand up, pace around his cell, hum to himself in an indistinct yet audible voice, return to his floor-mat, cross out what he had written earlier, and start again. His cellmates, some of whom I met many years later, recount how he managed to survive – and how he helped others survive – the demoralizing environment of captivity that had shaped their lives and those of their countrymen. His poetic compositions mythologize the ‘struggle’ for which he and his comrades were being held captive at the time. In the simple metaphor gumbad-e-baydar (a dome with no exit) is a bird’s-eye perspective of the misery of the moment; it was to become the title of his third volume of poems.
The man was Habib Jalib and jail was not an alien place to him. This was to be the seventeenth time that Jalib would be released from prison, only to return for an eighteenth stint a few years later. His ‘crime’, the martial law administration declared, was having written ‘inflammatory’ poetry that could potentially ‘destabilize’ Pakistan. For Jalib, however, disrupting the synthetic sense of ‘security’ and ‘stability’ propped up by General Zia-ul-Haq’s martial law regime – as indeed by all preceding dictatorships – was no trivial matter. It had to be done immediately and consistently if Pakistan were to be salvaged from the troika of Islamic fundamentalism, military dictatorship and US imperialism that gripped the country at the time.
We live in a time when most of Jalib’s fears have become an experiential reality
Unfortunately, we live in a time when most of Jalib’s fears have become an experiential reality: religious bigotry, the curtailment of free thought, mindless nationalism, poverty, and the perpetual loss of economic and political sovereignty to foreign powers and agendas are some of Pakistan’s defining characteristics today. Consequently, it has become even more urgent for young people who wish to change these miserable outcomes to revisit Jalib, to understand what he stood for and retrace his footsteps. Today, 22 years after his death, it is important to understand his life and the set of historical and personal circumstances that made him who he was: a rebel, an iconoclast, and a communist in the spirit of Mansoor Hallaj.
Born Habib Ahmed in 1928 in Hoshiarpur, northeastern Punjab, Ahmed’s evolution to ‘Jalib’ – his penname – took place over the course of an era that spanned the end of British colonialism, the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan, and continued into the gradual decay of the ideals of freedom and equality that had originally shaped the anti-colonial movement. Like millions of other people across partitioned Punjab, the nineteen-year-old Ahmed was forced to leave his native village amid the communal madness that ensued in the wake of Partition in 1947. Youngsters such as Ahmed, who had grown up in colonial servitude, had been promised a new world after independence, and while he was deeply upset at the loss of childhood friends and memories during Partition, there was hope that the loss would be reparable in time and with the newfound ‘independence’ that the sovereign country of Pakistan promised.
Years later, Jalib would recall this time of his life and describe it as a ‘story of migration and shattered dreams.’ In a masnavi written in 1975 and published in his second major work, Zikr Behte Khoon Ka, Jalib reminisces about his early life:
Ik haseen gaaon tha kinaar-e-aab…
Kitna dildaar tha, dayaar-e-aab
Kya ajab, beniaaz basti thay…
Muflisi mein bhi aik masti thay…
Kitne dildaar thay hamaaray dost…
Woh bechaaray, woh besahaaray dost
A beautiful village by the banks of the river…
How dear was that watery realm.
What wondrous, carefree lives they led.
In poverty too a playfulness.
How dear were our friends,
Our hapless, unmoored friends.
Once in Pakistan, Jalib moved to Karachi and became a proofreader for the Urdu newspaper Imroz whose chief editor was the Lenin Peace Prize-winning poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz. This interaction had a deep impact on Jalib and, in many ways, marked a paradigm shift in his understanding of art and its purpose and place in society. It was in the company of Faiz and his Progressive Writers Association (PWA) peers that Jalib found himself yearning to produce quality, inspirational art: art that did not serve the contemplating bourgeoisie but, rather, aroused the public to the notion that it was right to rebel. Consequently, Jalib – who had been writing Urdu poetry since primary school – turned his poetic attention away from personal ‘romance’ to the cause of human emancipation. This dismayed some of his contemporaries who argued that the artist should occupy himself with the tranquility and tremors of personal love and use poetry to depict the lighter side of life and romance in the classical Urdu tradition. They criticized him for writing in, what they considered, a ‘commoner’s’ tone and a style unsuited to the ‘intellectual’ poet. To this, Jalib responded:
Jo sadayain sun raha hun, mujhe bus unnhi ka ghum hai
With an official ban on the Communist Party and the PWA in the aftermath of the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case in 1951, the writing and dissemination of anti-status-quo material became a crime in Pakistan. If the ruling military junta had hoped to finally curtail any dissent, it soon received a rude awakening. Barely a year after the Ayub dictatorship had taken over in 1958, a mushaira organized and aired by Radio Pakistan from Rawalpindi broadcast the following words:
Kahin gas ka dhuan hae
Kahin golion ki barish.
Tujhe kis tarah sarahein?
Here, the stench of teargas,
There, a hail of bullets.
In the twilight of such darkness,
What praises must we sing of You?
Jalib was immediately arrested and banned from participating in any publically aired programs on Radio Pakistan. This did not deter him and he was once again imprisoned three years later for reading Dastoor (The Constitution) – a powerful and moving critique of the anti-poor Ayub constitution of 1962 – at a public rally.
‘Mein nahin maanta, mein nahin jaanta’
(I refuse to acknowledge! I refuse to accept!)
The poem effectively went viral: in a matter of days, the slogan ‘Mein nahin maanta, mein nahin jaanta’ (I refuse to acknowledge! I refuse to accept!) became an idiom of resistance to General Ayub Khan’s regime across Pakistan. The tug-of-war between pro-democracy forces and the dictatorship culminated in the 1965 Ayub-versus-Fatimah Jinnah election campaign, in which Jalib stood firmly by the Quaid’s sister. While Ayub was able to defeat Jinnah in a rigged election, the military regime failed to curtail the popular sentiment that eventually led to the people and students’ revolt of 1968/69. Most of Jalib’s poetry from this period was published in his first collection, Sir-e-Maqtal, and remains key to grasping the social and political context of the time.
The rise of General Yahya Khan, and later Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, led to the breakup of Pakistan in 1971. Jalib saw this as a product of the ethnocentric and elitist policies of a central government that was monopolized by an agrarian feudal elite and an army unwilling to cede political space to genuine nationalist movements. While many left-leaning intellectuals became inspired by Bhutto’s ‘socialist’ reforms, Jalib remained a firm critic. On one particular occasion, Bhutto personally asked Jalib to join the Pakistan People’s Party, to which the poet responded: ‘Kabhi samandar bhi dariya mein utray hain? (‘When has the sea ever merged with the river?’). Despite remaining a vociferous critic of Bhutto’s policies during his regime, Jalib remained true to his creed and immediately joined the Movement for Restoration of Democracy, which was launched in the aftermath of Zia’s dismissal of the Bhutto government in 1977. For most of the 11 years that Zia ruled Pakistan, Habib Jalib remained in jail; his books Zikr Behte Khoon Ka and Gumbad-e-Baydar were published and subsequently banned during this period.
When democracy returned in 1988/89, Jalib reminded his people that this was not the destination, but rather, the means to the end:
Habib Jalib died 22 years ago today on 13 March 1993 at the age of 64. As a third-generation descendant of migrants from the same district of Hoshiarpur and Jullundur to which Jalib, too, belonged, I have found in his poetry an explanation of what my grandparents would also talk about in their tales of shattered dreams and solitude. But Jalib did not just interpret the world as he saw it. He was not a pacifist who merely sought to ‘explain.’ In fact, Jalib embodied the Marxian dictum that we must not only interpret the world, but also actively seek to change it. This is why Jalib must be read and sung and his message communicated to the widest possible audience. Now more than ever.