This Article is From Jan 03, 2020

IIT-Kanpur's Crisis Of Conscience And The Faiz Controversy

Only the very uninformed or, in the case of today's India, the very brazen, would have the gumption to accuse Faiz Ahmed Faiz and his writing of being even remotely communal. Yet this is what a complaint made by Dr. Vashi Mant Sharma, a faculty member at IIT-Kanpur, alleges. This followed the recitation of Faiz's iconic poem "Hum Dekhenge" by the institute's students on December 17 as part of a solidarity march with Jamia students. According to reports, Sharma's complaint cites some lines of the poem as "hurting the sentiments of Hindus."

The Director of the Kanpur IIT is making himself and his most prestigious institution a laughing stock in the eyes of the world by paying heed to such an absurd complaint. Instead of including this complaint in the inquiry he has instituted into the student protest march on the IIT campus, he would have done better to educate the complainant about who Faiz Ahmed Faiz was. Admittedly, this would be a challenging task going by the vitriolic and Islamophobic blog Sharma has subsequently written elaborating on his objections.

Faiz, recognized widely as one of the most brilliant revolutionary poets of the sub-continent with a following across communities and countries, his work translated into several languages and a nominee for the Nobel Prize for Literature, was a towering communist intellectual, and for several years the leader of the trade union movement in Pakistan. He was imprisoned by Liaquat Ali in 1951 on charges of sedition and, along with many other communists in Pakistan, was jailed for four years. The Communist Party was subsequently banned in Pakistan. He was again arrested in 1958 for "spreading communist ideas." He was then forced to leave Pakistan for several years but returned only to be constantly harassed. But Faiz never gave up his belief and commitment to socialism and this belief informed his writings throughout his life.


Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz

Sharma needs to read Faiz - translations of his work in English are easily available. He should read "Subh-e-Azadi", the poem Faiz wrote of the pain and anguish of Partition. During the Bangladesh war, his was one of the most powerful voices from Pakistan in support of the liberation war of the people of erstwhile East Pakistan and against the terrible violence and bloodshed unleashed by the Pakistani armed forces. In one of his poems titled "Stay Away from Me", he speaks in the voice of the nascent Bangladesh: "There's a poverty of blood in my ravaged body, a terrible poison now runs in it...the burning seal of a rage hushed up for years, beware of me..."

One of the reasons he was so hated by the right-wing forces and fundamentalists in Pakistan was because his style of writing included the use of religious metaphor to convey a revolutionary message which was extremely popular and effective. The particular poem being quoted in the IIT professor's complaint, "Hum Dekhenge", was written in 1979 and was a political call against the dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq who ruled in the name of Islam, using religion as cover for a most repressive regime. Faiz challenged him, using religious symbolism to call for revolution. The stanza reportedly quoted by Sharma as "hurting Hindu sentiments" is directed against those who take the name of religion to mislead people. Stripping the poem of its context and calling it communal because of the words "only Allah will remain" reflects a poverty of intellect and a wealth of bias. The poem envisages a time when "crowns will be tossed and thrones will be overturned and the people will rule."

In a widely reported interview, Faiz's grandson Ali Madeeh Hashmi relates his experience at a concert in Lahore when the legendary singer Iqbal Bano sang Faiz's poems to a packed auditorium in 1986. It was two years after Faiz had died. When she sang the revolutionary poem, there were loud cheers and slogans of "inquilab zindabad". The encore of the song rendered by her was secretly recorded and made its way out of Pakistan. It stands as testimony to how Faiz's words inspire the will to fight for justice. It is also known through published personal accounts of those who attended the concert how several of them were later shadowed by the police; many were threatened with arrest.


Students of IIT-Kanpur read out Faiz Ahmad Faiz's poem "Hum Dekhenge" at the protest march last month

The slogans chanted decades ago, in that packed hall in Lahore, of "inquilab zindabad", of "hum dekhenge"...we will too witness the day when the rule of despots ends.. found its resonance on the paths of the IIT campus in Kanpur. The struggle for justice has many words in many languages. Faiz provided words which retain their relevance. And now after the IIT inquiry, his poem will surely be the war cry at the beginning of every protest meeting...hum dekhenge.

However the question remains as to why the work of a poet so hated by the Pakistani military rulers should face an equal hostility by those who are in charge of a premier institution in India. In our history we can find many examples where fundamentalists functioning under different religious hues adopted a common stance against the united struggles of the people for justice and progress. Ruling elites thrive on people's disunity. The present protests and especially the large and spontaneous participation by young people have surprised and shaken the ruling regime Their only answer is to communalise the protests, to turn it into a Hindu-Muslim issue. That is why even Faiz is not spared. 

(Brinda Karat is a Politburo member of the CPI(M) and a former Member of the Rajya Sabha.)

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