What happened in India on the eve of 2020 is unbelievable even given India’s decline into religion, especially for Pakistanis who have been suffering under Islamic extremism for decades. The Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, has reportedly taken offence at Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s famous poem “Hum Dekhenge” recited by students there protesting the Citizenship (Amendment) Act on campus in December. At Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi, too, a professor complained “that protesting students had made communal remarks at the event”.
The verse that gave offence was: Jab arz-e-khuda ke ka’abe se, sab buut uthwaae jaayenge / Hum ahl-e-safa mardood-e-haram, masnad pe bithaaye jaayenge / Sab taaj uchhale jaayenge, sab takht giraaye jaayenge/ Bas naam rahega Allah ka… (From the abode of God, when the idols 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, only Allah’s name will remain.)
The objection was to the word “buut” (idol) which was taken as a reference to Hindu “murti” and was therefore seen as a communal insult — and perhaps Allah. Back in Pakistan, everyone was surprised. Faiz was a deeply secular person, a recipient of the Lenin Peace Prize under the Soviet Union, and much maligned by Islamist Pakistanis under General Zia ul Haq, who were particularly peeved by Faiz’s use of Islamic symbols to write his “protest poem” against an intolerant religious order. The title of the poem written against religion, “Hum dekhenge” (We will see), was taken from the Quran.
General Zia is gone, killed suspiciously in an air crash, but his order endures through Islamic amendments of the legal codes. What is tragic is that some Pakistanis see their triumph in India’s turning to religion: “See, we were right in announcing our belief in the two-nation theory that created Pakistan; now India is taking that road”. The theory didn’t survive too long after 1947. Bangladesh found itself to be a nation separate from Pakistan, broke free and adopted a secular constitution and a wonderfully “inclusive” national anthem written by Rabindranath Tagore. Pakistan didn’t survive its famous two-nation theory and broke up. Will India survive?
India is, in fact, not offended by Faiz’s “communalism”; it is offended by Faiz’s pluralist message in 2019. It started disliking his message some time back. In the fall of 2016, when the Jio MAMI 18th Mumbai Film Festival decided to ban the showing of the film Jago Hua Savera, written by Faiz Ahmad Faiz, and boasting a galaxy of Indian actors, including Padma Shri recipient Tripti Mitra of the Indian People’s Theatre Association.
Then in 2018, Moneeza Hashmi, daughter of Faiz Ahmed Faiz and trustee of the Faiz Foundation Trust in Pakistan, was not allowed to attend the 15th Asia Media Summit held in New Delhi on May 10 even though she had been invited to speak at the event. Moneeza, once a TV producer, was to speak on “Should all good stories be commercially successful”; but when she arrived at her designated hotel in New Delhi she was told that no room was booked in her name as “no Pakistani was invited to the event”. “No one was willing to register me for the summit despite being a guest speaker,” she said as she left India.
India is walking away from the ethos that compelled it once to adopt Vande Mataram as its national song by deleting all its verses except the first two because they were deemed offensive to Muslims. Sadly, the polarisation is so glaring today that a Muslim Samajwadi Party MP Shafiqur Rahman Barq actually said this in Lok Sabha: “Vande Mataram is against Islam, we cannot follow it”. His statement was met with chants of “Vande Mataram” and “Jai Shri Ram” by several leaders in Parliament.
This is a far cry from what Indians were before Partition. In 1918, a group of countries in Europe decided to defrock the Caliph of Islam. Since the caliph of Turkey was a caliph of all Muslims, there was a reaction in British India. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, who was to become a minister of India after Independence in 1947, called for agitation. The Khilafat Movement became the biggest movement of Muslims in history and was led by a Hindu remembered by all Indians today as Mahatma Gandhi, while the Muslim leaders Allama Iqbal and Jinnah stayed away. The movement was significant because Hindus participated in it. This unprecedented cooperation laid the foundation of the Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi, one of the functions of which was “to promote true Islamic and Indian values” among Muslims. The university remains one of the leading academic institutions in India. Gandhi gave its vice-chancellorship to poet Allama Iqbal which he declined.
Ali Hashmi, a grandson of Faiz, wrote an article after his mother’s ouster from a conference in New Delhi, lamenting “the rise of bloodthirsty jingoism on both sides of the Indo-Pak border” and pointed out the obvious: Faiz belonged as much to India as he did to Pakistan. While he was born and raised near Sialkot in Pakistan, Faiz’s first job out of college was in MAO College, Amritsar; he served in the British Indian Army in Delhi during World War II, got married in Srinagar and maintained a deep affection for the land that became India after 1947. Both his daughters were born in what is now India.
Ali Hashmi concludes: “While Faiz never proffered an opinion about Partition per se, his editorials in The Pakistan Times from 1947 make clear what he thought of the communal bloodshed. At one point, he wrote, ‘The Muslims have got their Pakistan, the Hindus and Sikhs their divided Punjab and Bengal, but I have yet to meet a person, Muslim, Hindu or Sikh who feels enthusiastic about the future. I can’t think of any country whose people felt so miserable on the eve of freedom and liberation’.”
The writer is consulting editor, Newsweek Pakistan
This article first appeared in the print edition of January 4, 2020 under the title “Faiz and a dying pluralism”
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