Poetry has been a powerful medium of expression, be it for conveying love or disappointment, for spreading general cheer, or for voicing dissent. In 1959, a year after General Ayub Khan (the second president of Pakistan) had imposed martial law on Pakistan and the state machinery was bowing to his rules, radio waves were under his control and rosy pictures of the country were being painted, a young man participating in a mushaira that was aired live from Rawalpindi studio of Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation voiced his dissent against military dictatorship in his country.
Kahin gas ka dhuan hai kahin goliyo’n ki barish
Shab-e-ahd-e-kamnigahi tujhe kis tarah sarahe’n
The air is thick with teargas and the sound of raining bullets
How can I praise thee O night of the era of short sightedness
The mushaira had to be taken off air. That man was Habib Jalib (1928-1993), who had migrated from India to Pakistan with his family during Partition. He had been educated in Delhi at the Anglo-Arabic School and had taken his penname from Jalib Dehlvi. Jalib means “attractive”.
In 1962, when Ayub Khan enforced his constitution upon Pakistan’s people, Jalib wrote his famous poem Dastoor (Constitution):
deep jis ka mahallat hi mein jale
chand logo’n ki Khushiyo’n ko le kar chale
wo jo saye mein har maslahat ke pale
aise dastur ko subh-e-be-nur ko
main nahin manta main nahin jaanta
That which only lights up palaces
That which only takes the happiness of a few into account
That which is nurtured in the shade of compromise
That constitution of a dark dawn
I do not accept, I do not recognise
Not surprisingly, he spent many years in jail, first under the regime of Ayub Khan, then under General Zia ul Haq’s government. However, his revolutionary fervour wasn’t dimmed. The people’s poet, as he was called, continued fighting for his principles, for his right to speak and for his people against repressive regimes and the stranglehold of capitalism and religion over his country.
He used his pen to support Fatima Jinnah, who stood for presidential elections against General Yahya Khan in 1964, and her rallies drew large crowds. She didn’t succeed, but his verses remain undefeated even today. There’s a famous anecdote about a time when he was imprisoned and the jailor taunted him saying he will ensure he is deprived of pen and paper.
Habib Jalib famously said that he would recite it before the guard, who would then recite it before the town square, before the people of Lahore. Another military ruler, General Yahya Khan (the third president of Pakistan), succeeded Ayub Khan as head of state. At a mushaira in Muree, Habib Jalib looked at the general’s photograph, which was prominently displayed, and recited one of his iconic verses:
Tum se pehle woh jo ik shakhs yahan takht nasheen tha
Us ko bhi apne khuda honay pe itna hi yaqeen tha
The one who was enthroned before you
He too was convinced he is God.
Later, under Zai ul Haq’s regime, he wrote his famous nazm:
zulmat ko ziya sarsar ko saba bande ko Khuda kya likhna
patthar ko guhar diwar ko dar kargas ko huma kya likhna
How can I describe darkness as light, a storm as a zephyr or a man as God?
How can I describe a stone as a gem, a wall as a door or a vulture as a phoenix?
His fight was against dictatorship, against authoritarian regime. He criticised Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and his daughter Benazir Bhutto for their anti-people policies. His fight was against injustice of every kind, and the clergymen — who he felt were busy misleading people in the name of religion — got a tongue-lashing in verse too:
Bahut mein ne suni hai aap ki taqreer Maulana
Magar badli nahin ab tak meri taqdeer Maulana
Khudara Shukr ki talqeen apne pass hi rakhen
Yeh lagti hai mere seene pe ban kar teeer Maulana
I’ve heard your speeches long enough, Maulana,
But there’s still no change in my fate, Maulana
For God’s sake keep your preachings of gratefulness to yourself
They pierce my heart like an arrow, Maulana
Since time immemorial, religion has been used as a tool to legitimise dictatorship and Jalib led the fight against it from the forefront. Those who think religion is in danger, would do well to read his verse:
Khatra hai zar daron ko
Girti hui diwaron ko
Sadiyon ke bimaron ko
Khatre mein Islam nahin
Sari zamin ko ghere hue hain aakhir chand gharane kyon
Naam nabi ka lene wale ulfat se begane kyon
The rich landlords are endangered
Crumbling walls are endangered
Revolting customs perpetuated on people [in name of religion] for centuries are endangered
Islam is not in danger
Why is our wealth concentrated in the hands of a few families?
Why are those who love the prophet bereft of joy?
When the slogan “Pakistan ka matlab kia, La Ilaha Illilah” was used to combat Pakistan Peoples Party under Zulfiqar Ali bhutto, Jalib responded with:
Khet wadero’n se le lo, mille’n lootero’n se le lo
Koi rahe na Aali-jah,
Pakistan ka matlab kia, La Ilaha Illilah’
Take the land away from the landlords, take the mills from the exploiters,
No one should remain a priveleged lot
That’s the real meaning of Pakistan, La Ilaha Illilah’
Jalib died on March 12, 1993 and his verses are still as popular the world over. Perhaps, every democratic country facing a challenge to its democracy, liberty and freedom needs such a poet.