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Remembering poet Habib Jalib and his fight for a free Pakistan

He spoke out against the use of religion as a tool to legitimise dictatorship.

ART & CULTURE  |   4-minute read  |   24-04-2018

Poetry has been a powerful medium of expression, be it for conveying love or disappointment, for spreading general cheer, or for voicing dissent. In 1959, a year after General Ayub Khan (the second president of Pakistan) had imposed martial law on Pakistan and the state machinery was bowing to his rules, radio waves were under his control and rosy pictures of the country were being painted, a young man participating in a mushaira that was aired live from Rawalpindi studio of Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation voiced his dissent against military dictatorship in his country.

The mushaira had to be taken off air. That man was Habib Jalib (1928-1993), who had migrated from India to Pakistan with his family during Partition. He had been educated in Delhi at the Anglo-Arabic School and had taken his penname from Jalib Dehlvi. Jalib means “attractive”.

In 1962, when Ayub Khan enforced his constitution upon Pakistan’s people, Jalib wrote his famous poem Dastoor (Constitution):

Not surprisingly, he spent many years in jail, first under the regime of Ayub Khan, then under General Zia ul Haq’s government. However, his revolutionary fervour wasn’t dimmed. The people’s poet, as he was called, continued fighting for his principles, for his right to speak and for his people against repressive regimes and the stranglehold of capitalism and religion over his country.

He used his pen to support Fatima Jinnah, who stood for presidential elections against General Yahya Khan in 1964, and her rallies drew large crowds. She didn’t succeed, but his verses remain undefeated even today. There’s a famous anecdote about a time when he was imprisoned and the jailor taunted him saying he will ensure he is deprived of pen and paper.

Habib Jalib famously said that he would recite it before the guard, who would then recite it before the town square, before the people of Lahore. Another military ruler, General Yahya Khan (the third president of Pakistan), succeeded Ayub Khan as head of state. At a mushaira in Muree, Habib Jalib looked at the general's photograph, which was prominently displayed, and recited one of his iconic verses:

Later, under Zai ul Haq's regime, he wrote his famous nazm:

His fight was against dictatorship, against authoritarian regime. He criticised Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and his daughter Benazir Bhutto for their anti-people policies. His fight was against injustice of every kind, and the clergymen — who he felt were busy misleading people in the name of religion — got a tongue-lashing in verse too:

Since time immemorial, religion has been used as a tool to legitimise dictatorship and Jalib led the fight against it from the forefront. Those who think religion is in danger, would do well to read his verse:

When the slogan “Pakistan ka matlab kia, La Ilaha Illilah” was used to combat Pakistan Peoples Party under Zulfiqar Ali bhutto, Jalib responded with:

Jalib died on March 12, 1993 and his verses are still as popular the world over. Perhaps, every democratic country facing a challenge to its democracy, liberty and freedom needs such a poet.

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