Faiz Ahmed Faiz and the Bangladesh Liberation War (1971)
By Mosarrap H. Khan
After a brief visit of about ten days, I returned from Dhaka at the end of 2011, which happened to be the fortieth birth anniversary of Bangladesh. During my stay, I interacted with academics, scholars, and lay people about the legacy of Bangladesh Liberation War (1971), which severed Pakistan into two distinct countries. While in the genteel and more cultivated circles, the schizophrenic nature of Bangladeshi nationalism embodied itself as an entrenched ideological battle between the secularists and the Islamists (some of these Islamists have since been hanged following a controversial tribunal), this divide took on a more visceral turn on the streets of Dhaka, as bombs exploded and cars were set on fire. The recent killings of ‘secular bloggers’ have further intensified this divide. As I boarded the Friendship Bus (Souhardya) plying between Dhaka and Kolkata, I remembered Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s prophetic words in his poem, “Hum Ke Thehre Ajnabee”:
“Kab nazar men aayegi baidaagh sabzey ki bahar
Khoon ke dhabbey dhulain gain kinti barsaatoon ke baad”
(When will we see the unsullied green of spring?
After how many monsoons will the stains of blood be washed?)
Faiz – a humanist, a committed Marxist, and a poet of the oppressed – wrote this after his return from Dhaka in 1974. After forty years, Bangladeshi nationalism, like many of its Third World counterparts, still periodically reenacted its founding violence of 1971.
As an admirer of Faiz and his vision of justice, I have been asking myself: What was Faiz’s particular position on the Pakistani Army repression in East Pakistan which began on 25 March, 1971? What was his view on the East Pakistani resistance that culminated in the death of millions (this number has been contested often and no consensus exists) and rape of thousands of women? Faiz had already been a well-known poet in East Pakistan and many of his poems had been translated into Bangla. He was introduced in East Pakistan by Munir Chowdhury, a well-known professor in Dhaka and Faiz’s friend. During that official trip of 1974, where he accompanied the Pakistani Prime Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, many of Faiz’s friends didn’t show up, either because they had disappeared during the Pakistani Army excesses or had decided to stay away because of what they had felt Faiz’s deliberate silence about army repression. As Bangladeshi journalist, Afsan Chowdhury, writes, “During those days, those who knew would ask, ‘What did Faiz say? Did he protest? Did he give a statement saying it was wrong?’ In fact, we do not know what Faiz did.”
To his defense, one could cite two of Faiz’s poems, written after the Pakistani Army crackdown started in East Pakistan. His most famous poem during this time was “Hazar Karo Meray Tan Se” (Stay Away from Me, Bangladesh – I), published in March, 1971:
“Saje to kaise saje qatl-e-aam ka mela
kise lubhaeega mere lahuu kaa vaavailaa
mire nazaar badan men lahuu hii kitna hai
charaagh ho koi raushan na koi jam bhare
na is se aag hi bhadke na use pyaas bhujhe
mere figaar badan men lahuu hi ktina hai”
(How can I embellish this carnival of slaughter,
how decorate the massacre?
Whose attention could my lamenting blood attract?
There’s almost no blood in my rawboned body
and what’s left
isn’t enough to burn as oil in the lamp
not enough to fill a wineglass.)
Does this tone of resignation surprise the reader? This is so uncharacteristic of Faiz, the fiery poet of revolution. In 1971, he had already turned sixty-one and one could sense the poet was struggling to draw a parallel between the collective bloodbath in East Pakistan and his individual lack of vigor (‘no blood’) to hold the powers accountable.
He wrote another poem in April, 1971, “Bangladesh – II”:
This is how my sorrow became visible:
its dust, piling up for years in my heart,
finally reached my eyes,
Let it flow. Should it be dammed up,
there will only be hatred cloaked in colors of death.
Don’t let this happen, my friends,
bring all my tears instead,
a flood to purify my dust-filled eyes,
to wash this blood forever from my eyes.
Even this second poem, which captures his emotional pain through the image of flowing blood, is steeped in a tone of passive resignation. The revolutionary poet feels ‘sorrow’ and wants the agony of the heart to be washed off by tears. Perhaps, his two poems, obliquely commenting on the Pakistan Army excesses, were too little for his followers in East Pakistan, who had expected a stronger condemnation of the events from a man they immensely admired. (While a mere reference to two of his poems written during this period is not sufficient to ‘condemn’ a poet about his passive collusion with the Pakistani nation-state, this author is uniquely unsuited to undertake a detailed study of Faiz’s other views and utterances around this time. For an account of Faiz’s comprehensive views on the civil war, we will have to conduct archival and ethnographic research among his acquaintances in Pakistan and in the newspaper offices. This rigorous task is outside the purview of this short piece.)
If his poetic output on 1971 appears too little, we could additionally ask: What was Faiz’s engagement with the events in East Pakistan leading up to the boiling point? Immediately after Independence (1947), the Pakistani government declared Urdu as the sole national language, sparking huge protests in East Pakistan. The distress over this announcement gradually snowballed into a Language Movement (Bhasha Andolan) in the east wing and culminated in police killings on 21 February, 1952, when students at the University of Dhaka and other activists organized a protest march. The Pakistani government capitulated and accorded Bangla official status in 1956. However, the language movement had effectively sowed the seeds of ethnic Bengali nationalism, fast-tracking the demand for autonomy and, finally, the demand for a separate country.
While the Language Movement in East Pakistan raged on, Faiz spent time in jail from 1951-55 on the charges of sedition in a bizarre incident, which has come to be known as the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case. Faiz, along with fellow communist, Sajjad Zaheer, was sent to jail for their support of an attempted coup, led by General Akbar Khan, who was dismayed with the Pakistani establishment’s handling of Kashmir invasion in 1948. As Afsan Chowdhury points out, this incident itself was in contradiction with Faiz’s avowed internationalism and communism, “What was Faiz trying to do? Gen Akbar, leader of what has since become known as the Rawalpindi conspiracy, was a rabid Pakistani nationalist. He wanted to take over Pakistan – not because he wanted a new form of the state, but because he was frustrated with the Pakistani leadership, considering it too moderate in dealing with India. How did Sajjad Zahir and Faiz get involved with such a person?” One wonders what could have been the common ground between an ultra-nationalist and the communists.
In jail, Faiz found uninterrupted time to write. During this phase, he wrote poems which displayed a distinct concern for global anti-colonial movements, ranging from Asia to Africa. In his collection, Dast-e-Saba (Fingers of the Wind), published in 1952, the year the Language Movement in East Pakistan reached a flashpoint, Faiz published a poem, “Un Talaba Ke Naam” (“To Some Students”), also known as “Irani Talaba Ke Naam”, a poem dedicated to the political upheaval and turmoil in Iran. The subtitle to the poem reads, “jo aman aur azadi ki jiddo-jahd men kaam ae” (“who perished in the struggle for peace and freedom”). This poem salutes the spirit of youth and students, who had stridently opposed foreign (American and British) intervention and control of Iranian oil reserves. The Shah had been attempting to overthrow the popularly elected government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, who was a strong supporter of oil nationalization. He was finally overthrown in 1953 with the help of American and British intelligence agencies. What could have possibly aroused Faiz’s interest in the events in Iran was the involvement of the communist Tudeh Party, which had supported erratically Mossadegh’s campaign to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). Faiz wrote with characteristic verve and courage:
“Ai puchhne-wale pardesi!
Ye tifl o jawan
Us nur ken auras moti hai,
Us aag ki kachchi kalian hain,
Jis mithe nur aur karvi aag
Se zulm ki andhi raat men phuta
Subh-e-baghawat ka gulshan,
Aur subh hui man man, tan tan.”
(Oh questioning foreigner,
These boys and youths
Are fresh-grown pearls of that light,
New-budded shoots of that flame,
Soft light and devouring flame,
From which amid tyranny’s dense night sprang
The rosebud dawn of revolt,
And dawn was in every nerve and soul.)
After release from jail in 1955, Faiz published his next collection, Zindan-Nama (Prison Thoughts, 1956), which included his famous poem, “Aa Jao, Aifriqa” (“Africa, Come Back”).
“A-jao, main-ne sun li tere dhol ki tarang,
A-jao, mast ho-gai mere lahu ki taal –
Panje men hathkari ki kari ban-hai gurz,
Gardan ka tauq torke dhali hai main-ne dhal –
Dharti dharak rahi hai mere saath, Aifriqa,
Darya thirak raha hai to ban de raha hai taal;
Main Aaifriqa hun, dhar-liya main ne tera rup,
Main tu hun, meri chaal hai teri babar ki chaal:
Ao babar ki chal –
(I have caught the madness of your drum,
My wild blood beats and throbs with it –
The shattered manacle is my mace,
From the broken fetter I forge my shield –
The earth’s heart, Africa, beats with mine,
The river dances, the woods keep time;
I am Africa, I put on your mask,
I am you, my step is your lion thread,
Come with your lion tread,
While this poem is redolent with images of Africa as a primitive place, some scholars have suggested that Faiz was drawing on the ethos of ‘Negritude’, a decolonization movement that had ‘Black is Beautiful’ as its slogan.
While “Un Talaba Ke Naam” and “Aa Jao, Africa” show Faiz’s growing international and anti-colonial concerns, it is puzzling to notice that he hadn’t written anything about the pressing issues closer home in East Pakistan, where the youth and students had been resisting Pakistan government’s imperial designs to impose Urdu as its national language. One could only surmise if his jail time on the charges of sedition had made him cautious on commenting about the proceedings in East Pakistan.
Faiz did substantially engage with East Pakistan one more time before the Bangladesh Liberation War. In 1959, he wrote the screenplay and lyrics for an adaptation of Bengali novelist, Manik Bandopadhaya’s novel, Padma Nadir Majhi (The Boatman of the Padma), based on the lives of poor fishermen in East Pakistan. Directed by A.J.Kardar, the Urdu language film, Jago Hua Savera (The Day Shall Dawn, 1959), employed ‘social realism’, a mode of representation that must have been quite familiar to Faiz, since he was an important part of the Progressive Writers’ Movement. While the ethno-nationalism of the Language Movement might not have captured his attention, the struggles of the poor fishermen appealed to him. Some critics have suggested that the film failed to capture the spirit of the Bengali fishermen because Faiz didn’t have a direct experience of living in the delta. Despite these limitations, this was one moment when Faiz made a serious effort to understand life in East Pakistan.
A clip from the film, ‘Jago Hua Savera’ (1959)
From the little we know, how do we make a final appraisal of Faiz’s stand on Bangladesh Liberation War (1971)? There seems to be two divergent ‘Faizs’, one who remained aloof during moments of turmoil in East Pakistan and the other, who only sporadically engaged with it. It is no wonder that he is called one of the ‘great unsolved enigmas’ of South Asian literature. Afsan Chowdhury aptly questions Faiz’s contradictory selves, “Where does Faiz the poet end and Faiz the politician begin? Where does the pan-Southasian Marxist end and the Pakistani begin?”
Perhaps Faiz, despite all his revolutionary zeal and good intentions, remained a prisoner of Third World nationalism. Depicting the disillusionment of Partition, Faiz ends one of his most memorable poems – “Subh-e-Azadi” (Dawn of Freedom, August 1947) – on a note of deferral, a promised dawn that has not yet arrived:
“Abhi girani-e-shab men kami nahin ai,
Najat-e-dida-o-dil ki ghari nahin ai;
Chale-chalo ke vo manzil abhi nahin ai.”
(Night’s heaviness is unlessened still, the hour
Of mind and spirit’s ransom has not struck;
Let us go on, our goal is not reached.)
The deferral of true freedom was also an opportunity for a longer struggle (‘Let us go on, our goal is not reached’). Twenty-seven years later in 1974, Faiz was, as if, resuming this metaphorical journey. After returning from Dhaka, he wrote a sorrowful poem (I have already referred to this poem at the beginning of this piece) – “Hum Ke Thehre Ajnabee” – in which he lamented how he felt like a stranger amid his friends in Bangladesh, who doubted his integrity and revolutionary zeal:
“Hum ke thairey ajnabi itni madaratoon ke baad
Phir banain gain aashnaa kitni mulaqatoon ke baad.
Un jo kehney gaye the ‘Faiz’, jaan sadqa kiye
Unkahee he reh gai voh baat sab baatoon ke baad.”
(After those many encounters, that easy intimacy,
we are strangers now –
after how many meetings will we be that close again?
Faiz, what you had gone to say, ready to offer everything
even your life –
those healing words remained unspoken after all else had been said.)
While his poem in 1947 postulates a note of deferral and exhorts his fellow-travelers to press on toward a shared utopia, his 1974 poem reflects a deep sense of despair. The fellow-travelers have now turned strangers (‘ajnabee’). Perhaps, Faiz, once the internationalist, had grudgingly accepted that suspicion, violence, and betrayal are the fates of Third World nationalism.
Mosarrap H. Khan is a doctoral candidate in the Dept. of English, New York University. He researches in the area of Muslim everyday life in South Asia. He is an editor of Cafe Dissensus.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.
I did not know about Faiz’s larger engagement with East Pakistan and then Bangladesh, my knowledge being limited to his famous nazm after his return from Bangladesh.
Whatever be his vision as a person and a politician of sorts, he is remembered for his poetry. After all, his poetry seems to capture the turmoil and the criss crossing fault lines of nation, class, language and religion, that are so endemic to South Asia, much better than any political stance can.
I agree, Bhupinder. Faiz should be regarded for his poetry above all else. However, he was a political poet, a poet of protest and revolution. That’s why his stance on 1971 nagged people in East Pakistan. As an admirer, I was also interested in the question. And once I started writing, I found how little we know and how little there is out there on this question. One must undertake a longer project on this. Thanks for reading. (Mosarrap)
Completely agree on the need to know and understand more about Faiz. Reading through some of the articles in this issue, I am realizing how little we know about him. I can’t thank Cafe Dissensus enough for bringing out this issue.
Thank you for your kind words and thank you for writing a lovely piece.
Also, personally, I would be keen to explore this question more. However, I have a couple of limitations:
1. I can’t read the Urdu script. That severely limits any intention for archival work where most of the things would be in Urdu. A translator can be a help only up to a certain point.
2. Most of the research would have to be undertaken in Pakistan. And with severe constraints on border-crossing, that doesn’t appear practical, at all.
But somebody someday should do this. A part of Faiz would be illuminated for many of us and his admirers in Bangladesh.
A well research article, but the writer could have interviewed or had a talk with Faiz’s close friend to find more about Faiz perpective on East Pakistan issue.I know Bengalis did suffer by West Pakistani back governments but remember History is always written on the winner’s perspective.There are hundreds of people still alive who saw the massacre of West Pakistanis by Mukhti Bhani.Many people migrated to Karachi before 25March ’71 as there was blood shed of people belonging to west Pakistan.But remember many of them belonged to that community from Bihar ,Assam and West Bengal who had migrated directly to East Pakistan from India during partition.After the surrender of Pakistan army again there was killings of non Bangalis, they were not label as Punjabis whom the Bengalis hated but were labelled as Biharis.Thousands reached Pakistan through Nepal and India.Theirstories of their plight and sorrow reached everyone in Pakistan.Maybe Faiz was affected more by their plight and chose to be neutral as still to many people of this side blood shed had been done by both side.
Thanks for the thoughtful and reflective analysis. My note of dissent though — is it fair to place so much burden on one person’s shoulder (and pen)?
Faiz, through his poetry tries to protest against dictatorship, social inequality, suppression of the common person…all while moving in and out of jails, multiple exiles, and raising a young family…
Is it that the more a person does — the heavier the burdens and expectations that we place on him?
Was Bangladesh his cross to carry? (Although to the extent that he could — he did carry that cross and with great dignity too, even in face of rejection by his friends in Bangladesh.)
Thank you for reading and for your comment. While I agree with your sentiment, we do have this urge to ask what a towering figure like Faiz said and did during such a momentous event. It is out of this curiosity this essay was born.