Revolution is a Poem: Why a Punjabi poet killed by Khalistanis is ruffling feathers in contemporary India?

Avtar Singh Sandhu, the poet better known as Pash was assassinated in 1988 because he spoke up against Khalistani militants. Sab Ton Khattarnak one of his most powerful poems is an integral part of “resistance” politics.

Written by Nirupama Subramanian | Updated: October 8, 2017 10:30 am
In recent months, Pash’s work has come under a cloud over alleged plagiarism. The charge, mainly on social media, is that Sab Ton Khattarnak mirrors Neruda’s Die Slowly.

On the highway from Jalandhar to Nakodar, Talwandi Salem village declares its link to one of Punjab’s most famous poets through the Pash-Hansraj Memorial Complex that comes up just ahead of the village. “Complex” is an aspiration for this dusty open ground, a raised platform at the far end, and a small room to each side of the dais. Behind it is the village where Avtar Singh Sandhu, the poet better known as Pash, was born and lived most of his life. In one of its fields, now lush green and fragrant with rice, he was shot dead by Khalistanis on March 23, 1988.

A group of teenaged boys shooting the breeze under the shade of a tree nearby zone out when asked about Pash. With effort, one of them vaguely recollects that he had studied a poem by Pash in Class XI. Struggling to remember the name, he says, “Bomb-wala tha koi”.

Sab Ton Khattarnak (The Most Dangerous) does not mention the word bomb in its 47 lines. But it is not just the teenager in Talwandi Salem who thinks that Pash’s last poem, written in 1987, is explosive.

Excluding the poet’s most widely known work from the Class XI syllabus was one of the many recommendations to the NCERT by Dina Nath Batra, who used to head the RSS education wing Vidya Bharti, and now runs Shikhsha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas, also affiliated to the RSS. The NCERT had sought suggestions on the syllabus from members of the public, and Batra sent in a five-page list, which included lines from Ghalib and Tagore and Pash’s poem prescribed for the Class XI Hindi textbook, among others. As protest, the Punjab Lok Sabhycharak Manch, a leftist organisation, has turned the poem into a poster to be distributed in colleges and universities in the state.

Nirupama Dutt, the Chandigarh-based writer-journalist who has translated some of Pash’s poems into English, says Sab Ton Khattarnak is perhaps his most powerful. “His other poems were more direct attacks against oppression and oppressors. They were akin to slogans in blank verse. This one was more metaphor, with greater rhythm than any of his other work,” Dutt says.

Sab Ton Khattarnak has been translated into Marathi, Bengali, Tamil, Telugu and Hindi, and is an integral part of “resistance” politics. “You can hear his poems wherever there is a students’ movement or a workers’ movement. It’s catchy and direct, and captures the imagination of the young,” says Chaman Lal, who was professor of Hindi at Jawaharlal Nehru University and knew Pash through their common association with leftist politics.

Lal’s Hindi translation of the collected poetry of Pash won him the Sahitya Akademi award, and he was among those who returned it in 2015 in protest against intolerance. “He is one of the major Punjabi poets. His poetry has been compared to that of Pablo Neruda and Garcia Lorca, and he was murdered for confronting Khalistani terrorists directly through his poetry,” says Lal.

If Batra could be so riled by Sab Ton Khattarnak, a poem specifically located in the Punjab of the 1980s, what would the proponents of the new and aggressive nationalism that pervades India these days say about Bharat, Pash’s first poem?

The poet starts by saying that the name Bharat is “so deserving of my highest reverence, whenever uttered, all other names become meaningless”. He goes on to say: “Whenever someone speaks/of ‘national unity’/I feel like/Sending his cap tossing in the air/Telling him/That the spirit of Bharat/Resides … in the fields/Where peasants grow food /And robbers break in.”

“When you read his poetry, you start thinking, you start learning to challenge the system. They don’t want that,” says Harsharan Singh “Didho” Gill, Pash’s brother –in-law.

This is not the first time that Pash has been labelled dangerous. The issue came up once before in the Rajya Sabha in 2006, when a BJP member, now also a minister, said the Pash poem should be removed from school books because he was a Naxalite.

Born on September 9, 1950, Pash came of age just as the Naxalite movement began and established roots in rural Punjab, a state where there was already a modern history of revolution, starting with the Ghadrites. After independence, Punjab was among three states where a peasant rebellion was put down fiercely by newly independent India. Naxalism, which followed 20 years later, was Pash’s political awakening.

According to Rana Nayar, former professor of English at Panjab University, it is also possible to see Pash’s work as part of an evolutionary chain beginning with the Gurmat Sahit (of the Gurbani) literary tradition. “All the Sikh Gurus faced harsh social and political realities and all of them responded to these realities. Gurmat Sahit has a very strong component of social and political commentary. Pash realised its revolutionary potential and gave it a new twist,” says Nayar.

His first collection of poems was called Loh Katha (Tales of Iron) and was published in 1970, when he was 20. It earned him accolades and immediate stardom. There were two other collections by him that same decade, with which he firmly established his place in Punjabi poetry.

He was arrested thrice, once in 1970, and was in jail for about a year for his alleged Naxalite links; in 1972, during student unrest in Punjab; and once again in 1974, during an all-India railways employees’ strike. It is not clear if he was arrested during the Emergency. Lal says “Naxalite” is too narrow a word to describe Pash’s ideology. He describes him as a “progressive-radical”. He questioned the right and the left; for a period, Osho Rajneesh too was an inspiration.

In recent months, Pash’s work has come under a cloud over alleged plagiarism. The charge, mainly on social media, is that Sab Ton Khattarnak mirrors Neruda’s Die Slowly.  Chandan, poet and friend of Pash, rules out any plagiarism in Sab Ton Khattarnak. But he concedes that “three or four lines” in Main Ghaas Hoon have been clearly copied from Grass by Carl Sandburg. “The controversy is political, not literary. In any case, allegations about one or two poems do not take away from his legacy,” he says.

Pash did not publish any more collections after 1978. He continued writing but dedicated himself to running a school in the village next to his. To augment his earnings, he also ghost-wrote Olympian Milkha Singh’s autobiography. When the Khalistan movement gathered momentum in the 1980s, Pash made hand-written posters with universal messages from the Gurbani to counter the religious fundamentalist propaganda of the Khalistanis, and pasted them on the walls in Talwandi Salem.

But it was clear to Pash that the Khalistanis were out to get him. So, he left for the United States sometime in 1986, with his wife and daughter. His sister Pammy and brother-in-law Didho, who were already in the US, sponsored the visit. Didho had by then founded an anti-Khalistan movement called the Anti-47 Front.  “Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale had risen by then, and people were saying there would be a Partition between Hindus and Sikhs. It was 1983, and we decided we would do everything we could to oppose a second Partition,” Didho says.

Pash’s arrival in the US caused a flutter in the Sikh diaspora. The front had brought out two pamphlets, but now he took over its editorship. He wrote the third one, and it sent shock waves in Sikh communities across the world. He described the Khalistanis as “kanak vich ugi kangyari” — parasitic weeds growing in the wheat. “It was a strong rejection of Khalistan and everything it stood for. We printed 1,500 copies and distributed it in every gurdwara in California, and all the gurdwaras in Canada and the U.K. His name shook them,” recalls Didho.

But being on a visitor visa meant he had to leave the US periodically to be able to renew it. On one such visit out, he was not allowed to deplane at Los Angeles, and was deported to India. Back in Talwandi Salem, he made desperate efforts to return to the US, managing finally to get a visa for Brazil through a travel agent.

Pash was shot on March 23, the day before his departure, near a tubewell in a field. It was his favourite place to hang out with his friend Hansraj, who was also killed. The day of his killing was also the day of Bhagat Singh’s martyrdom.

The tubewell where Pash was shot still exists. It is easy to imagine the poet sitting under the shade of the tree at the well with his friend, next to ripening fields of wheat, the sudden appearance of an assassin and the burst of bullets.

On September 9, Pash’s birthday, a few of his friends lit candles there, as they do every year. But this year, the ceremony had an immediacy. Four days earlier,
journalist Gauri Lankesh had been shot dead in Bengaluru.  It seemed to his friends as if they were living the poet’s killing all over again.

The Most Dangerous
(A few paras translated by Tejwant Singh Gill)

Being looted of one’s labour is not the worst thing.
Nor is police torture
Even betrayal out of greed
And arrest without warning
Are not the most terrible
To be frightened into silence is bad
But not really dangerous
To be drowned in the noise of corruption
Even when one knows one is right is no doubt bad
Reading in the feeble light of
a glowworm
Going through life with a frown are also no doubt bad
But they are not the worst
Most harmful to oneself is to reduce life to passivity
To lack intensity of desire
To bear everything
To become a creature of routine
Most dangerous of all is the death
of our dreams…

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