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Poet Of Revolution: When Josh Malihabadi Was Banned On Govt Media

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It was very painful reading Farrukh Jamal address readers in the ‘Letters to the Editor’ section of Dawn, Pakistan’s leading English newspaper on a chilly rain-fed Sunday afternoon of December 27 yesterday regarding the callous treatment which the Pakistani government has consistently meted to his grandfather, the great revolutionary Urdu poet Josh Malihabadi in the case of naming a road surrounding the graveyard where the great poet has lain buried for 38 years in Islamabad. This revelation is especially galling given that the same newspaper reported last month that the entire poetic collection of Josh has now been published.

Reading Mr Jamal’s letter also reminded one of an incident which occurred 42 years ago today on December 28, 1978 when Pakistan’s Federal Ministry of Information and Broadcasting issued a notification according to which Josh had been blacklisted from government media. According to the announcement of the Ministry, in future neither would any writing of Josh be presented on radio or television and nor he would be permitted to present his verses himself through these institutions. This is not all, in fact in future neither any couplet or any line of Josh too would be published in any sort of government publications.

The background of this banning was that in 1974 Radio Pakistan had recorded an interview of Josh, before recording which the organizers of Radio Pakistan had promised Josh that this interview would be broadcast after his death. In this interview, Josh had narrated his ideas about Islam, the Koran, Quaid-e-Azam and Allama Iqbal with frankness and had also said that the advent of Pakistan had damaged the culture and values of the Muslims of the whole of India.

This interview of Josh Malihabadi was preserved at Radio Pakistan but when the portfolio of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting came under Mr Muhammad Azam Farooqi of the Jamaat-e-Islami, so somehow this interview got published in the weekly Zindagi (Life) of Lahore affiliated with the Jamaat. It should be noted that this was the same minister who had also banned leading kathak dancer Nahid Siddiqui’s programme Payal from state television. Zindagi not only published the ‘objectionable’ portions of this interview but also added sensational and suggestive headlines to them. Afterwards this interview was also published in some other right-wing newspapers. Zindagi and these other newspapers demanded from the government to blacklist Josh on government media. So the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting – which itself was probably the moving force behind the publication of this interview as well as the demand – immediately announced acceptance of this demand.

Enlightened literary and journalistic circles from all over Pakistan reacted intensely to this step of the government. Newspapers wrote editorials against this decision and the Karachi Press Club announced presentation of life-membership to Josh. These circles were saying that when this interview was obtained with the reminder that it would be broadcast after Josh’s death, then its publication in his lifetime is an immoral act; and then Josh is a poet, not some political leader that it is necessary to obtain guidance from him on such matters. So to have Josh surreptitiously spew out his views on religion or politics for the benefit of the radio audience was by itself an outrage.  After a short while, the period of the cabinet of national unity ended and Mir Ali Ahmed Talpur who was also a minister in the Federal cabinet, and was aware of the stature of Josh and other scholarly and literary people, reported matter to General Zia-ul-Haq, and Josh’s privileges restored anew.

Josh Malihabadi went on to live for another four years after this incident, passing away on February 22, 1982. The last days of Josh, who incidentally was born 122 years ago this month on December 5, were spent in an atmosphere reminiscent of the final years of the Chilean socialist poet Pablo Neruda; both passed away under their respective countries’ worst military dictatorships. The difference being that while no one was allowed to attend Neruda’s funeral, about a hundred-odd people did attend Josh’s funeral, led by the great socialist poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz. Josh has been christened as the Shair-e-Inquilab, the Poet of Revolution; for others it was his misfortune to be born in the same age as Pakistan’s national poet Muhammad Iqbal and other peers like Firaq Gorakhpuri, Majnoon Gorakhpuri and Jigar Moradabadi, which led to a lack of critical attention towards his voluminous work, and outright censorship and persecution in Pakistan, of which the blacklisting on state media is only a chilling footnote.

One may also mention a belated tribute to Josh by Fahmida Riaz, in a poem titled simply as Josh Malihabadi, which forms part of her last poetry collection Tum Kabeer and is being presented here in original English translation in the hope that it will stimulate new, deserved interest in Josh’s life and works for the younger generations in the 21st century, and acquaint the uninitiated about the stormy life of one of the greatest benefactors of the Urdu language.Riaz says in some especially moving couplets regarding the establishment’s fear of even Josh’s corpse and funeral:

Yeh baat avaakhir-e-umar ki hai, yeh tanhai voh seh na sake
Jab jaan sapurd-e-khuda kar di, mayyat se bhi haakim-e-vaqt darre
Khamosh lahad mein sote hain, khamosh janaza tha unka
Purse ke liye aaya na koi, har aik ko khauf tha khufiya ka

(When he came with a broken heart to the new land
He brought all the memories, values alongwith the luggage
The moist eyes of the poet had seen centuries melt
The known scene changed instantly, wonder how it felt
The mango gardens had that same fragrance, but there was no pleasure in living
What had one thought and what transpired, a deep wound in the bosom unbecoming
What game politics played, how much we lost in one move
Urdu was expelled from its home and courtyard at a night’s remove
We not only spoke Ganga-Jamuni, it too was the identity since centuries
The songs of freedom we sang, it was the life of songs verily
The spirit of the prince captive within this talking bird
When he had to flee the land, how well would Josh have fared
But in this new land indeed no one could recognize him
It had another map, which could not value him
If he was a blazing flame in the movement for freedom
Who would have cared here, it was a new time and a new direction
Everything upon which we felt proud, lost here its meaning
Those who acquired more, were considered fortunate
Those who inherited this land, were worse off
Than those who were their fellow-travellers, to prison who were carted off
Who indeed was there to value their passion and thought
Who could love them, put a healing hand much-sought
The old age knocked, nerves tired, hearts torn
Alongwith kids big and small, like flowers of the familial lawn
It was insisted here to live by being repentant about the past
That which we had loved all our life, the curses should forever last
The deaf among these classes were used to speak fearlessly
What to talk of freedom to write, here thoughts were guarded endlessly
Stormy rain, thunder and lightning, and the tired sailor in the boat
Dejected heart, amazed look, the oar lost to float
Then the flowing planks of the boat were at the mercy of the waves
So the life went, so the time was spent, days somehow spent like knaves
When the bond of restraint broke, when such speech issued
We became the target of arrows, stood accursed and subdued
This occurred towards the end of life, such loneliness he could not tolerate
When his life submitted to the Maker, the corpse caused the rulers to fear and hesitate
He sleeps silent in the grave, his funeral a silent affair
No one came to condole, everyone feared the secret informer
I remembered a forgotten tale, and memory is indeed fickle
This is the story of a poet, who got himself into quite a pickle.)

Note: All translations are by the author.


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