When IIT Kanpur convened a panel to investigate the possibility of your nazm, ‘Hum Dekhenge’ being ‘anti-Hindu’ and by implication, ‘anti-national,’ I really remembered my late father. He would have quickly penned down a response to this news as a Becket absurdist tragedy in a short story, presumably titled ‘When Faiz became Muslim’.
Keenly watching the debate on the allegations against your nazm, Ammi exclaimed, “I lived to see this day. What a pity! Despite his best intentions to be a communist, in today’s India, alas, Faiz can only be Muslim.”
It would hardly surprise you that the verses that earned the ire of potentially being anti-Hindu are the very same ones that drew flak from the clergy in Pakistan for being anti-Islam. Who, but a committed communist offends all religions equally without discrimination? Only someone who is anti-Muslim in Pakistan can be anti-Hindu in India!
Your nazm, ‘Hum Dekhenge’ was already a celebrated protest slogan in India. In the wake of the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests, it found its renewed momentum in the chants of the young and old, women and children that stormed the streets of the country reclaiming their democratic rights to resist. But something unprecedented happened when IIT Kanpur decried your nazm; it became an anthem.
‘Hum Dekhenge’ was no longer only the nazm that you authored. Perhaps, for the first time in independent India, it became the anthem that Iqbal Bano sang at Alhamara Arts Council protesting against the oppressive regime of Zia ul Haq when your poetry was banned in 1986 in Pakistan. More than three decades later, Indians echoed Bano’s unflinching resolve as they sloganeered, hummed, sang, yelled, played or mused to ‘Hum Dekhenge’ and joined the larger discourse of resisting oppression through the searing courage of poetry.
I was a bit surprised, though, with the fame of this particular nazm. For me, your nazm ‘Aaj Baazar Mein’ resonated more with the spirit of the protest.
“Let us walk in bazaar in shackles
wet eyes and restless soul is not enough
being charged for nurturing concealed love is not enough
let us walk in bazaar in shackles.”
It is an apt description of the silent proclamation of the rebel-protester to their cause. But the anti-CAA protests weren’t only about registering discontentment, recording dissent or even rebelling against the blatant discrimination against Muslims. It was about something more subtle and perhaps more fundamental. They were about remembering – remembering the despair that led to the discontentment, the muzzling of voices that propelled the dissent, and the oppression that brought out the rebellion.
Exhausted with our ability to consume dehumanising violence and playing mute spectators to the degradation of our souls, we chose an anthem that gave us some agency. It allowed us to be witnesses who weren’t only survivors of the end of the world but also the ones who remembered the envisioned justice of Judgment Day. Only poetry can foster hope ‘till’ and perhaps ‘in’ the end of the world.
The panel has come out with its analysis. It says that reciting your nazm was “unsuitable to the time and place,” and it “hurt religious sentiments” as it “spoke of Mughal invasion of India”. While singing your nazm was precisely highlighting the ‘unsuitability’ of times we are increasingly coming to inhabit, its analogy with Mughal rule only suggests the impending rule of the oppressed. By that logic, you are calling for the future of Hindu rule in India! But then, I remember your Muslim name, and your communist credentials. Of course, you are anti-Hindu.
However, my concern, and the reason of writing you this letter is the accompanying recommendation of the panel. It has asked the students and the teachers who recited the nazm to be “counselled by the university”.
While some will laugh at the prospect of calling these people “in need of counselling”, the rest may denounce the categorisation of dissent as possible mental instability. As a psychoanalytic therapist, I am simply curious. I am curious about what such counselling would entail and what a therapist would say to ensure that these inarticulate people find suitable times and place to sing the nazm.
What if, Faiz Sahab, some of these students were sent to me for counselling with the instruction of ensuring they realise how inappropriate their actions were? What would I say to them? As therapists, we are supposed to be neutral just as the government is supposed to be secular. The demands of secularism permeate Ammi’s headscarf in the usual way, who finds this recommendation to my benefit. She says that perhaps they will need to send these “people in need of counselling” to a Muslim therapist who understands your nazm enough to explain to these offending engineers how your use of Islamic symbolism affronted Muslims as well. Who carries the burden of ensuring secularism is maintained and demonstrating how protest songs offend all religions even if they are penned by a Muslim, but a Muslim therapist?
What she doesn’t know is that in my decade-long experience, I have consistently evoked verses of Urdu poetry in sessions to articulate patient’s overwhelming feelings of despair. In fact, I have specially used your Kuch Ishq Kiya, Kuch Kaam Kiya, Mujh se Pheli se Mohabbat, and Aaj Bazar mein to make sense of the complexity of love, loss, aspiration and pain. Some patients, I suspect, have started reading Urdu poetry to make sense of their feelings and no longer need a therapist. Who knows, I might be accused of being a communist therapist!
Let’s say some well-intentioned secular parents, emboldened by this recommendation, bring their teenage engineering student for therapy for hurting their religious sentiments because they overheard them humming ‘Hum Dekhenge’ at home. Let’s say they bring them to me, because like Ammi they feel a Muslim therapist is best to demonstrate the urgency of practicing secularism by denouncing other Muslims. What would I say to them?
A few years ago, eavesdropping on my preparation of your introduction for a poetry event, Abba expressed great objection. He heard me call you “the great Pakistani poet”. “Since when did poets belong to nations?” Abba protested and then went on to elaborate how “poets only belonged to languages”, instructing me how I should introduce you as the poet of Urdu language.
When the panel hailed your nazm as potentially ‘anti-national,’ people not only found their protest anthem, as I had told you earlier. They also found within themselves the invisible labour and love of the translator and furiously translated your nazm. From Bhojpuri, Khardi Boli, Bengali, Marathi, Kannada, Tamil and Telegu, ‘Hum Dekhenge’ was translated in all possible Indian languages and sung across protests sites. Indians authored their own protest in your translation. If Abba was right and it is through language that poets get their identity then Faiz Sahab, you became a poet of all Indian languages.
I have a sense of what I might do in the therapy session dominated by the pervasive demands of secularism. I might recommend the distracted engineering student read you in Awadhi.
Ammi isn’t convinced. “What if they will know that they are still singing Faiz?” Amma exclaims.
“Don’t worry, Amma. Till the time it is not Urdu, we are good. Also, the ones objecting, haven’t read ‘Hum Dekhenge’, they are less likely to know the translation, especially in Awadhi.”
Zehra Mehdi is a psychotherapist and PhD candidate at Columbia University.