From Zia to Modi, the poem has become a subcontinental anthem of protest
From the House of God
Every idol will be removed
We, the pure, the faithful
Who were barred from His house
Will be made kings
Their crowns will be flung in the air
And thrones will be smashed
We shall bear witness
Ali Madeeh Hashmi, the grandson of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, writes that when these lines were sung by Iqbal Bano in 1986, the crowd went into raptures.
The poem was one of modern Urdu’s most famous – “‘Wa yabqa wajh-o-rabbik”, a verse from the Quran that means “the face of your Lord”. But it is more commonly known by its refrain: Hum Dekhenge. We shall bear witness.
Written by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the work uses one of the most salient events in Islamic history to construct a call to arms against tyranny and oppression.
The nazm recounts Prophet Mohammed’s conquest of Mecca. After the Islamic Army had won victory, Prophet Mohammed stepped into the Kaaba – according to Islamic tradition, the world’s first mosque built by the Prophet Ibrahim. Over time, however, the people around the Kaaba stocked it with idols, disregarding Ibrahim’s injunctions. The Prophet Mohammed removed the idols, saying, “Truth has come and falsehood has vanished.”
However, to truly understand why the crowd was so ecstatic, the poem must be situated in the politics of Pakistan. Faiz wrote the poem in 1979 – two years after a military coup by General Zia-ul-Haq. Not only did Zia strangle Pakistan’s fledgling democracy, sentencing to death the charismatic prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, he turned Pakistan sharply towards the right, fashioning it as an Islamic state.
With Hum Dekhenge, the Communist poet turned Zia’s religious symbolism on its head, using Islamic iconography to attack the Islamist military dictator. Similar attempts have been made to criticise the Hindutva of the Sangh Parivar in India using Hindu iconography.
In 1986, when Hum Dekhenge was sung be celebrated singer Iqbal Bano in Lahore, the crowd erupted. Fazi’s powerful words channelled Pakistan’s frustration with Zia’s Islamist dictatorship.
It was so heady that Bano “had to stop repeatedly to allow the cheers and loud slogans of ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ to subside before she could carry on singing,” writes Faiz’s grandson, Ali Madeeh. “The clapping and cheers were so thunderous that it felt at times that the roof of Alhambra hall would blow off.”
The crowd asked – begged – for an encore. When Bano sang the poem again, a technician recorded it – a copy that survives till today. You can listen to it – complete with cheers and cries for revolution – on YouTube today. Here’s an English translation for anyone who falters with the heavily Persianised Urdu used by Faiz.
Hum Dekhenge is now an anthem of protest across Pakistan and the Hindi-Urdu speaking parts of India. The poem was, in fact, used during the ongoing protests against the communal Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens.
Ironically, when the song was sung at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, on December 17 during a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act, a professor made a formal complaint that the poem was anti-India and communal. After that, the poem’s use of Islamic imagery was criticised in Hindutva circles. IIT Kanpur has now set up a panel to investigate if the poem is “anti-Hindu”.
The characterisation of Hum Dekhenge – a poem written by a Communist to combat an Islamist dictator – as communal is absurd. But then again maybe that fact fact that the poem stings the religious right in India is not unexpected. It’s clear that right from Pakistan in the 1980s to India in 2019, the poem continues to be a beacon to those who want to battle tyranny.
(This article first appeared on Scroll.in)