Poetry for Misery

La haine à nos trousses et la faim qui nous pousse, la misère 
(The hatred on our backs and the hunger that drives us, the misery).

The people of Pakistan are no strangers to misery; from the deepening poverty visible on the streets to the empty stomachs and shattered hopes of the working people, the women, and the religious minorities, Misery is a plague which has infested the very foundations of this country. In such hopeless and depressing circumstances, it is important for us to reflect back on those who resisted; those who demanded change, and those who expressed the plight of the people. One such figure was Habib Jalib, a poet who became the voice of the miserable.

Habib Jalib was born on 24th March 1928, into a peasant family in Hoshiarpur, United India. After the partition of India, Jalib migrated to Pakistan and worked for the Daily Imroze in Karachi. He was a progressive writer who rose to fame through his simple yet eloquent recitation of poetry, which embodied the socio-political and economic plight of the working class. As a staunch Marxist-Leninist, Jalib’s poetry aimed to illustrate the misery of the masses stricken by poverty and hunger. He was also a part of the Progressive Writers’ Movement and the Communist Party of Pakistan. 

Throughout his life, Jalib remained a symbol of resistance against totalitarianism and military oppression.  After Ayub’s coup, the military establishment was quick to suppress the voices of dissidence. In 1963, Ayub enforced his Press and Public Ordinance, which made compulsory the state’s permission for the publication of any media. Under this law, Ayub seized the Progressive Paper Limited (PPL) and Associated Press of Pakistan (APP) amongst numerous other progressive news outlets which were hijacked or banned. However, poets such as Habib Jalib remained undeterred; Jalib became a strong force of opposition against the regime. In 1959, in a mushaira broadcasted live, a young Jalib decided to abandon the official script and sang the following, 

Kahin gas ka dhuan hai

 Kahin golion ki barish 

Shab-e-ahd-e-kam-nigahi tujhe 

kis tarah sarahein?

(Here, the stench of teargas,

There, a hail of bullets.

In the twilight of such darkness,

What praises must we sing of You?)

The mushaira was taken off the air and the poet was arrested. 

Moreover, in a courageous act of rebellion, Jalib protested against Ayub’s constitution of 1962, in his poem “Dastoor” (the Constitution) where he says, 

     Aisay Dastoor Ko, Subh Benoor Ko, Mein Nahi Manta, Mein Nahi Jaanta.

(This constitution, This dawn without light I refuse to acknowledge, I refuse to accept )

The poem shook the foundations of Ayub’s dictatorship and led to the poet being imprisoned again. As Jalib’s influence grew stronger, he was one of the few voices who openly denounced the brutality and oppression imposed by the military, upon the people of East Pakistan.  

Mohabbat golion se bo rahe ho

 Zameen ka chehra khoon se dho rahe ho

 Gumaad tum ko ki rastha kat raha hai 

Yakeen mujhko ko ki manzil kho rahe ho

(You plant love with bullet-lead 

You wash the land with blood 

You feel that a solution is ahead

 But I know that the dream is dead.)

It was thought that under the leadership of Bhutto, Jalib would enjoy some tranquility, given Bhutto’s socialist view of combing Islam, democracy, and socialism to form a government for the people. However, Jalib soon realized a betrayal of these values. Thus, he began criticizing Bhutto’s government and was subsequently imprisoned. Despite his imprisonment and relentless criticism of Bhutto’s government for failing to live up to its promises, the poet held him in high esteem.  

Jalib, bound by his nature, did not accept Zia’s martial law either. For him, the fundamental threat was not Ayub or Yahya, but the very existence of a dictatorship. Under the iron fist of Zia, media censorship had reached its peak and any criticism of the dictator was tantamount to treason. However, these blatant acts of fascism would prove to be futile in front of the poet’s rebellion. Zia tried to suppress Jalib by banning his books, and frequently jailing the poet, making the confines of the prison his second home. Moreover, Zia held himself in high regard, considering himself to be a soldier of God and Islam. In his poem “Zulmat ko Zia”, Jalib challenged this illusion by stating, 

Zulmat ko zia, sar sar ko saba, Banday ko khuda kya likhna

(Darkness as light, Hot desert wind as a morning breeze
How can I write a human as God?)

Jalib’s influential poetry also dominated music production. He used to recite/sing his poetry in an enthusiastic manner, which enabled him to flawlessly illustrate the misery of the working class. Today, Jalib’s poetry remains popular among young leftists and revolutionaries. His poems on Youtube, such as: Dastoor, Hukmaran ho gaye kaminey log and Musheer enjoy immense popularity, especially after the video of JNU students singing Dastoor went viral. The band Laal produced various renditions of his poems including, Musheer and Zulmat ko Zia. Recently, Jalib’s daughter, alongside Taimur Rehman, sang her father’s iconic Dastoor.

Jalib was truly a poet of the masses and upheld his undying allegiance to them till his last breath, a feat which has rarely been observed in the recent history of this country. This is why Jalib and his words remain entirely relevant today. The “dastoor” Jalib stood against has not yet perished, nor have the dictators or the savagery of capitalism. Therefore, as long as misery in this country exists, Jalib will remain the voice of the miserable.  

Faran Faisal
TLC Writer

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