Tag Archives: Pakistan

Politics and the Poet


My relationship with Iqbal has been an ever evolving one. When I began reading Iqbal, I found his verse to be a welcome release from the dismal, dreary air of classical Urdu poetry. Iqbal brought Urdu out from its assemblies into the mountains and tulip fields. His verse married Longfellow and Wordsworth to Rumi and Hafiz. He also refashioned Urdu’s classical metaphors of the moth, rose and nightingale, giving them a salience in modern times.

Many of my Pakistani friends thought differently about Iqbal. They had grown up in a Pakistan where Iqbal’s poems were shoved down their throats since primary school. I had been allowed to relate to Iqbal’s poetry as an adult born outside of Pakistan: I didn’t think of him in nationalist terms as Pakistan’s “spiritual founder.”

First, Iqbal died in 1938, nine years before Pakistan came into existence. In fact, he died before the Lahore Resolution of 1940 which many Pakistani nationalists consider as the historic declaration of a separate state for the Muslims of India.

Second, Iqbal’s pronouncement of an autonomous state of Muslim-majority provinces in the north-West of India was not the spiritual birth of Pakistan. Indeed, he disavowed any association with the Pakistan movement in his letter written to Edward Thompson on March 4, 1934:

“You call me protagonist of the scheme called ‘Pakistan.’ Now Pakistan is not my scheme. The one that I suggested in my address is the creation of a Muslim Province, i.e. a province having an overwhelming population of Muslims – in the north-west of India. This new province will be according to my scheme, a part of the proposed Indian Federation.”

Third, the interpretation of Iqbal’s poetry by Pakistan’s nationalists in largely Islamic terms fails to consider the poet’s context. His pan-Islamic sentiments arose when the Muslim world was in decline. For instance, Shikwa was written upon the defeat of Ottoman Turkey by Italy in Tripoli in 1912. Tulu-e-Islam was written after World War I when the Caliphate was abolished, and the Ottoman Empire dismembered.

Iqbal’s pan-Islamic tenor reached its crescendo in Bal-e-Jabreel. It slowly diminished thereafter in Zarb-e-Kaleem and Armaghan-e-Hijaz, which became more critical of materialism, European politics and imperialism. These later poems figure less prominently in the nationalists’ discussions on Iqbal’s career.

Unlike the idea of Pakistan moreover, Iqbal’s Islam was a cosmopolitan one. His verses carry the dust of Samarkand, the mountains of the Himalayas and the rose gardens of Persia. His poetry is a memoir of this cosmopolitanism whether gazing along the banks of the Neckar in Heidelberg or navigating the alleys of Cordoba.

If Iqbal’s poetry is to be understood, it must be read as the poet’s very own. If Nietzsche can be appreciated with disregard for his later appropriation by the Nazis, then so too can Iqbal be enjoyed without reading in to his poetry the politics of the land of the pure.

– For my brother, H. Nizamani, for our discussions over the years.







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The 70th Anniversary of the Partition of India


Seventy years on, there’s still hope.

On October 6, Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmad spoke on the 70th anniversary of the Partition.[1]

Ahmad’s argued that the truth about the Partition must be known before there can be any meaningful reconciliation between India and Pakistan. Only if Indians and Pakistanis confront and accept what happened in 1947, can there ever be light.

For instance, many Sikhs revere the Maharaja of Patiala, Yadavindra Singh (1914-1974) as the icon of a bygone age. Some have suggested that he even gave sanctuary to Muslims during the violence of the Partition.[2]



Ahmad’s research in the The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed (which includes eye-witness accounts from Patiala including from members of the Sikh community), shows a Maharaja who planned to cleanse his kingdom of his Muslim subjects.[3]

This was a shock even for some of my better educated friends in Patiala to learn. Maybe it’s time to pierce the veil of lies and illusions both India and Pakistan have woven these past seven decades. The Partition has scarred the subcontinent. Now it’s time to heal. Seek the truth. Study extensively, inquire carefully, sift clearly, and practice earnestly.[4]



[1] The lecture was part of a conference presented by the South Asian Film Education Society and the South Asian Network for Secularism and Democracy presented at the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University between October 5th to the 8th.

Dr. Ahmad is a now retired professor who taught Political Science at the University of Stockholm in Sweden. He was also a visiting professor at the National University of Singapore and the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)

[2] This last point is suggested by filmmaker Sara Singh in The Sky Below.

[3] Ahmad’s research has also been cited and excerpted in magazines and editorials like in the Hindustan Times, Frontline and Caravan.

[4] The words of the Chinese philosopher, Zhu Xi (1130-1200)


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Filed under India, Muslims, Pakistan, Partition, Punjabi, Sikhs, Uncategorized, Violence

Punjabi Poetry: Ustad Daman


Written by Randeep Purewall

Ustad Daman (né Chiragh Din) was born in Lahore in 1911. As a boy, he worked at his father’s tailoring shop while also attending school. Daman learned classical Punjabi poetry at home and was educated in Urdu. He also learned Persian and English including Shakespeare, Keats and Hardy.

Having participated in school poetry recitals, Daman began attending musha’ara in the parks, fairs and bazaars of Lahore as a teenager during the 1920s. The movement for India’s independence had already begun. In 1929, the Indian National Congress made its Declaration of Independence from Lahore. The city was also home to Marxist groups like the Kirti Kisan and anti-colonial and revolutionary groups like the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association.


Daman recited his own revolutionary and anti-colonial poetry at the musha’ara. While attending one such gathering, Jawaharlal Nehru referred to Daman as the “Poet of Freedom.”

‘In China the Chinese are grand,
In Russia they do as they have planned.
In Japan its people rule over its strand.
The British rule the land of England,
The French hold the land of France,
In Tehran the Persians make their stand.
The Afghans hold on to their highland,
Turkmenistan’s freedom bears the Turkmen’s brand,
How very strange is indeed this fact,
That freedom in India is a contraband’
(Trans. F. Sharma).

Daman remained in Lahore upon the creation of Pakistan in 1947. The riots of the Partition had consumed his shop and library and he lost his wife and son to illness. His first act of political defiance came in 1958 when he made fun of Pakistan’s first military coup under Ayub Khan. Daman’s arrest however did little to temper his criticism of Pakistan’s military dictatorships and the corruption of its civilian governments in his poetry.

Daman wrote in Punjabi and the form, rhythm and metaphor of his poetry bears the influence of the classical and folk Punjabi tradition. If he could be sober and thoughtful in writing on the Partition, he could also adopt a more comic and satirical note in criticizing General Zia. He maintained a friendship with poets like Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Habib Jalib, but lived unassumingly in an old apartment in the precinct of the Badshahi Mosque.

Daman died in 1984. His poetry was published after his death by his friends and followers. The room he lived in near the Badshahi Mosque has since become an academy in his name.

Selected Poems (Trans. F. Sharma)

We may not say it but know it well
You lost your way. We too.
Partition has destroyed us friends.
You too, and us.
The wakeful have quite plundered us.
You slept the while, and we.
Into the jaws of death alive
You were flung. We too.
Life still may stir in us again:
You are stunned yet, and we.
The redness of the eyes betrays
You too have wept, and we.

What a house, this Pakistan!
Above live saints, down thieves have their run
A new order has come into force
Up above twenty families, below the hundred million.
Other people conquered mountains,
We live under the divisions heavy ton.
Other people may have conquered the moon.
But in a yawning precipice a place we’ve won.
I ran and ran and was aching all over,
I looked back and saw the donkey resting under the banyan.

Two gods hold my country in their sway
Martial law and La Illaha have here their heyday.
That one rules there over in the heavens
Down here this one’s writ runs.
His name is Allah Esquire.
This one is called Zia, the light of truth in full array.
Hurrah, General Zia, hip hip hooray,
Whoever can make you go away.

Ecstacy does my land surround
All around the Army is to be found.
Hundreds of thousands were surrendered as POWs.
Half of the land was bartered away in the fray.
Hurrah, General Zia, hip hip hooray,
Whoever can make you go away.

On TV you give recitations from Quran
With fables and traditions you go on and on.
Here we are engulfed in a brouhaha
While up there you are still there, my Allah
A pretender has staked his claim today
Hurrah, General Zia, hip hip hooray,
Whoever can make you go away.

Thankful are some if they can chop wood
The others, on them, their orders bestow.
Why have the people lost their mind?
For every one the Almighty has a loving glow.
People are the real masters of this world
Orders do not from the handle of a sword flow.
The ones, Daman, who have forsaken God,
Those Nimruds are laid low at the very first blow.

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Filed under India, Literature, Pakistan, Poetry, Punjabi, Randeep Singh, Uncategorized

Goodbye Sabri


Written by Randeep Singh

I was not a fan of Amjad Sabri. I don’t know any of his tunes. Why am I mourning his passing?

Sabri was one of the leading singers of qawalli in the subcontinent. As part of the Sabri brothers, he performed in dargahs, concert halls and stadiums around the world.

He was shot dead today in Karachi. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility. In the past ten years, Pakistan’s Sufi Islamic culture has been bombed, murdered and assailed. Shrines are attacked, worshippers are killed and festivals are fired on.

No one is pure in the Land of Pure. Not Sabri, a devotee of Allah and His Prophet. Not Farid or Data Ganj, Sufi poets and cultural icons of Pakistan. Only the new guardians of Islam show the straight path. They are the masters of the day of judgement …

Goodbye Sabri. May your voice lift the spirits of those you left behind. May Pakistan preserve your legacy and the spirit of its culture.

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Filed under Music, Pakistan, Randeep Singh, Uncategorized, Violence

(Na)Pakistan: The Land of the (Im)Pure

Written by Saeed Umer Abassi

The case for separation of religion and state in Pakistan has been made by atheists, agnostics and non-believers.

I argue that case, as a believer.

In Islam, God is the supreme authority. His Will creates, sustains and destroys the Universe. He is the ultimate judge of human beings based on their thoughts, words and deeds.

What need has this Almighty God for mortals to legislate in His name? What does it benefit Him whose Law is eternal and universal to have the laws of men perpetrate injustice and cruelty?

The teachings of religion on love, benevolence and justice can better politics; but why otherwise corrupt the sanctity of religion with blood, power and greed? Why further divide humanity “in creation of one essence and soul?”

Why do Pakistanis need a state to save their souls when it does not fill their bellies? What need has Islam or God for the Hudood Ordinance, the Blasphemy Law and the murder of its people in His name? What has sixty-eight years of Pakistan done in the name of Islam and God?

The Persian sage and poet Sadi remarked in the Gulistan:

Oh! Though above all human though supreme,
Above our every word or deed or dream,
Thy service closes and we quit the Mosque
Yet of Thy meaning, scarce have caught a gleam

If the mosque has failed to bring Pakistan closer to Islam or to God, then nor will all of the Islam-pasand politicians, mullahs and mujahideen of the Land of the Pure.
Sign this petition for a secular Pakistan
Separate Religion from State. Remove Article 2 of the Constitution of Pakistan. Declare Pakistan to be a Secular Democracy

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Book Review – Punjab: A History From Aurangzeb to Mountbatten


Written by Randeep Singh

Punjab: A History From Aurangzeb to Mountbatten (Rajmohan Gandhi, Aleph Book Company, New Delhi: 2013).

Gandhi’s Punjab surveys the history of the region from the decline of the great Mughals to the invasions of Afghan rulers and Nadir Shah to the reign of Ranjit Singh and the British Raj to the creation of independent India and Pakistan in 1947. The book is engaging, commendable for its scope and brings to the foreground figures like Adina Beg Khan, Ganga Ram and Fazl-i-Hussain who are otherwise passed over in Indian histories on the region.

From the outset, Gandhi underlines the importance of understanding a common Punjabi identity (‘Punjabiyat’) through centuries of foreign invasion and colonial rule. Unfortunately, his history, coloured by colonial and nationalist historiography, produce a distorted picture of the Punjabi.

In categorizing Punjabis before the 19th century as either Hindu, Muslim or Sikh, Gandhi replicates the colonial-era practice of classifying Punjabis (and Indians at large) solely by their religious identity forgetting that Punjabis before the colonial era typically defined themselves by their clan, village and caste. Such a categorization overlooks the diversity amongst and overlap between Punjabis and the extent to which they cooperated with one another across religious lines as under Adina Beg Khan, Ranjit Singh or in the Punjab’s Unionist Party.

Gandhi’s chapters on independence and partition moreover largely follow the contours of the Indian nationalist narrative. He adopts a critical tone towards the Muslim League in the making of the Partition without questioning in the same breadth the politics of the Indian National Congress and the British. Such a filtering of history is unlikely to advance understanding between Punjabis of India and Pakistan.

All this despite Gandhi’s reminder to us throughout of  a Punjabiyat symbolized by Farid, Waris Shah, Amrita Pritam and Shiv Kumar. His own history could have contributed greatly to that Punjabiyat and to Punjab studies. One can only hope that Gandhi’s Punjab will inspire more balanced histories on the region in the years ahead.






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Modern Punjabi Poetry: Poetry from West Punjab

Translated by Randeep Singh

Punjabi poetry from Pakistan (West Punjab) include Sharif Kunjahi (1915-2007) and Ustad Daman (1911-1984) and poets who began writing after Pakistan’s independence in  1947 including Ahmad Rahi (1923-2002), Ahmad Saleem (b. 1945) and Mir Tanhai Yousafi (b. 1955).

Munir Niazi


Born in Khanpur near Hoshiarpur, now East Punjab, Munir Niazi (1926-2006) migrated to Sahiwal after 1947. A leading poet in Urdu and an acknowledged film song-writer, Munir wrote three books of poetry in Punjabi:  Safar Dī Rāt (‘The Night’s Journey), Char Chup Chīzāñ (‘Four Quiet Things’) and Rastā Dasan Vāle Tāre (‘The Path-Telling Stars’).

Paths (‘Raste’)

These paths
These winding paths
Where do they lead?
To ancient palaces
Into the arms of old friends?
Or into deep dark forests
Terrifying us, like a beast?
Or after making us wander aimlessly
Back to where we began?

Ih raste ih lambe raste
Kihṛe pāse jānde naiñ
Bahut purāne mahilāñ andar
Vichṛe yār milānde hain
Uchiyāñ ḍūngiyāñ jangle andar
Sherāñ vāng ḍarānde naiñ
ñ phir aiveñ ghum ghumā ke
Vāpas moṛ liānde naiñ

Means of Being (‘Honī de hīle’)

Some desire I had for a love not of this world
Some days I knocked on each door in search
Some friends never let go their faults
Some rivals stirred in their poison
Some company in separation I found
Some lovers gave me a pain profound
Some of my misfortunes withered away
Some distance brought love closer
Some of those paths were difficult
Some collars of grief I bore
Some townsfolk were tyrants to me
Some too I was fond to slay

Kujh shoq sī yār faqīrī dā
Kujh ishq ne dar dar rol dittā
Kujh sājan kasar na choṛī sī
Kujh zahar raqībāñ ghol dittā
Kujh hijar firāq da rang chaṛhīā
Kujh dard māhī anmol dittā
Kujh saṛ gaī qismat bad qismat dī
Kujh pyār vich judāī rol dittā
Kuch unj vī rāhvāñ aukhiyāñ san
Kuch gal vich gham dā tauk vī san
Kuch shahar de lok vī zālim san
Kuch maiññ maran da shauq vī sī


Najam Hussain Syed

Najam Hussain Syed (b. 1936) was born in Batala, East Punjab and moved to Lahore after 1947. He has written more than a dozen books of poetry in Punjabi (including Rutt Da KammChandan Rukh Da Vera and Bar Di Var) as well as plays in Punjabi and books on literary criticism, including Recurrent Patterns in Punjabi Poetry.



Colours (‘Rang’)

Come, celebrate colours
Colours of new leaves
Again and again
New leaves gleam
A message of warmth
Place the warmth in your heart
The gleam in your eye
Come celebrate, again and again
If winter’s arrived, spring shall too
If smoke smoulders, the fire too shall blaze …
Come, celebrate
Again and again
Those who every day decay
Without becoming new
Live a life of death
Reds and greens come out
When they cast off old skins
Come celebrate the colours
Again and again

Naviāñ pattrāñ de
Aāo rang manāīe
Naviāñ pattrāñ de
Vāre vāre jāīe
Naviāñ pattrāñ dī lishk sunehā
Lishk ‘cho’ simdā sek sunehā
Sek dil de andar dharīe
Lishk akhīñ nāl lāīe, rang manāīe
Naviāñ pattrāñ de vāre jāīe
Chaṛiā māgh, vasākh vee āvsī
Dhukde rahe tāñ mach vī pavsī
Pelo pairīñ āondiāñ age
Dam dam tel chavāīe, rang manāīe
Naviāñ pattrāñ de vāre vāre jāe
Mar mar nit jihṛe naveñ na hoe
Uh tāñ rahisan jionde moe
Sūhe sāve niklan tāhīoñ
Haḍ gae jad lāīe rang manāīe
Naviāñ pattrāñ de vāre vāre jāīe


Zubair Ahmad

Zubair Ahmad (b. 1958) is a Punjabi poet, essayist, critic and short story writer. A former journalist, editor and previously active in Punjabi street theatre, Ahmad is currently a professor at Islamia College, Lahore. In addition to two short story collections, he has written two books of poetry in Punjabi: Koi Dam Yaad Na Keeta (‘A Breath Not Remembered’) and Sadd (‘The Call’) from which the following poems have been taken.

Feel Me Always, Like This (‘ Roz maiññ inj jāpe’)

Feel me always, like this
Like the evening
Creeping across the river
And the dawn
The quivering day
The furtive night

Roz maiññ inj jāpe
Jiveñ shām
Daryāoñ pār tūñ āve
Te savere dī
Darya darya din āve
Chorī chorī rāt

How Do I Tell Your Story? (‘Teri Kinj Kahānī Karīe’)

How do I tell your story, dear?
We’ve been apart for so long

We picked clean the cotton
Without spinning it into thread
We left with no goodbye
No candles on the sill
For the other to return home
How do I write this tale?
My words and speech have fled
We’ve been apart for so long

A strange evening came to town
When passing that final door
Closing its window to the world
I saw it all in a dream that night
Had my eyes hung on to that night!
But they broke under pain’s water
We’ve been apart for so long

Terī kinj kahānī karīe uṛīe
Rut purāne kar baiṭhe āñ

Pūnī pūnī kar jo katiā
Ohdā tān nā tanīā
Chaldiāñ vidā na kittā
Kakh bāl banere na dharīe
Kinj likhīe rām kahānī
Sabh sukhan zabānī kar baiṭhe āñ
Rut purāne kar baiṭhe āñ

Ajab shām nagar vich āī
Būhā pichlī jo langh āī
Os ḍhoī ḍar dī tākī
Sapan rāt akhīñ vich pāī
Ih raat akhīñ rakh lende
Akhāñ dardāñ pānī kar baiṭhe āñ
Rut purāne kar baiṭhe āñ



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