Last week, a professor at IIT-Kanpur alleged that students protesting on campus against the police action in Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia were “spreading hate against India”. The complaint was provoked by the use by students of a couple of lines from the late Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s poem Hum Dekhenge.
The poet and his poem
Faiz’s poem, Wa-yabqa-wajh-o-rabbik, a Quranic verse from Surah Rahman meaning, literally, ‘The face of your Lord’, is popularly known by its refrain, “Hum Dekhenge”. In South Asia, the mythology around the poem and one particular rendition by the Pakistani ghazal singer Iqbal Bano (an audio recording is available on YouTube) is embellished by every new protest, which recalls the revolutionary verse.
Faiz was a communist who employed traditional religious imagery to attack political structures in his quest for revolution. In Hum Dekhenge, the description of Qayamat, the Day of Reckoning, is transformed sharply into the communist day of revolution.
The religious symbolism in the poem, which was written in 1979, is to be read in the context of Pakistan under the military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq. Zia had deposed Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in a coup in 1977, and declared himself President of Pakistan in September 1978. Zia’s dictatorship soon took a powerful religious turn, and he used conservative Islam as an authoritarian and repressive tool to tighten his grip over the country. In Hum Dekhenge, Faiz called out Zia — a worshipper of power and not a believer in Allah — merging the imagery of faith with revolution.
Hum Dekhenge was censored, with one verse being permanently excised, even from Faiz’s complete works, Nuskha-e-Ha-e-Wafa. A Coke Studio performance of the poem last year omitted what is arguably the most revolutionary part of the poem:
“Jab arz-e-Khuda ke Ka’abe se, sab buutt uthwaae jaayenge / Hum ahl-e-safa mardood-e-haram, masnad pe bithaaye jaayenge / Sab taaj uchhale jaayenge, sab takht giraaye jaayenge”, roughly translated as “From the abode of God, when the icons of falsehood will be removed / When we, the faithful, who have been barred from sacred places, will be seated on a high pedestal / When crowns will be tossed, when thrones will be brought down”.
The singer and the context
Hum Dekhenge was a powerful and popular poem, but it assumed iconic status and became a universal anthem of protest and hope after it was rendered by Iqbal Bano in 1986, and live recordings of that performance were smuggled out of Pakistan. That performance inextricably linked her voice and rendition with the poem — indeed, it was Iqbal Bano who made Faiz’s revolutionary nazm immortal.
The most authentic description of that performance — at Lahore’s Alhamra Arts Council on February 13, 1986 — comes from Faiz’s grandson, Ali Madeeh Hashmi.
Faiz had passed away in November 1984, and the occasion was the ‘Faiz Mela’ organized on his birthday by the Faiz Foundation. The open air mela would be held in the day and, in the evening, there would be a concert.
The 1986 concert was given by Iqbal Bano. Hashmi recounts that the hall — with a capacity of either 400 or 600 — was full even before she came on stage. (From Hashmi’s account, it appears that the popular story of 50,000 people being in the audience is untrue.) There was commotion after all seats were taken, so the doors were opened and people streamed in, packing the hall completely.
Iqbal Bano sang several of Faiz’s poems, and Hum Dekhenge received the loudest cheers. She finished the concert, but the audience refused to let her leave, begging for an encore of Hum Dekhenge. She obliged, and a technician in Alhamra surreptitiously recorded the encore — this is the recording that survives today.
The clapping and cheers were so thunderous, Hashmi says, that it felt at times that the roof of Alhamra hall would be blown off. Iqbal Bano had to stop repeatedly to allow the cheers and slogans of “Inquilab Zindabad” to subside before she could carry on singing. The applause was the wildest for the verse “Sab taaj uchhale jaayenge, sab takht giraaye jaayenge”.
After the concert ended
The poet Gauhar Raza has written of a Pakistani friend who attended the concert. Raza’s friend had received a late-night call from someone he knew well in the Pakistani armed forces. The caller advised Raza’s friend to not stay at home for the next two or three days. He took the advice, and in the days that followed, many of those who were present at the Lahore auditorium were questioned, and some were detained. His home was visited in the middle of the night by the military police.
Many copies of Iqbal Bano’s rendition were confiscated and destroyed. An uncle of Hashmi’s had managed to get hold of one copy — which he handed over to friends who smuggled it out to Dubai, where it was copied and widely distributed.
Before leading a mass singing of “We shall overcome” in Atlanta in 1967, the American folk singer and social activist Pete Seeger said, “Songs are sneaky things, my friends. They can slip across borders. Proliferate in prisons. Penetrate hard shells. The right song at the right time can change history.”
Iqbal Bano sang Faiz’s Hum Dekhenge in 1986. Two years later, in August 1988, Zia was gone, his 11-year rule ended by a plane crash.
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