Habib Jalib: The poet of the people

Disclaimer: The literal translations provided here are for a basic understanding of the poems, and in no way do justice to the poetic genius of Habib Jalib or to Urdu poetry. The poems are built around similes, metaphors and symbols that are difficult, if not impossible to translate.

Pakistan, 1959. Almost an year had passed since 'martial law administrator' General Mohammed Ayub Khan staged a bloodless coup, deposed the President of Pakistan and inaugurated into Pakistan's history its first military dictatorship. The military leadership under him was gearing up for a referendum to cement and legitimize its hold on power. Censorship was strictly enforced and the martial law was still in place. The dictatorship was tightening its grip on civil society. A 'Writers Guild' was formed which oversaw rewards for writers and intellectuals who chose to side with the regime. And those who didn't toe the official line ended up in jails. Pakistan's independent newspapers were brought under the National Public opinion was being manufactured under the guidance of the dictatorship with the aid of intellectuals. The radio in Pakistan had become an important medium of propaganda dissemination by the regime. The airwaves were filled with praises for the policies of General Mohammed Ayub Khan and the army. Poets, traditionally seen as anti-establishment chose to avoid controversial themes. Pakistani poetry was ripe with descriptions of scenic beauty and romanticism. Some even chose to praise the regime. The lie was in full swing. But then in 1959, one year into the military dictatorship, one year away from the planned referendum, in a mushaira* aired live from the Rawalpindi studio of Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation, a young poet deviated from the official script. He chose not to sing of the scenic beauty of his beautiful country or about the metaphysical reasons of existence. He chose to sing not about dreams or leaves or romance; for he had seen the blood on the streets. He chose to sing about the common man and his life; he chose to sing about the tyranny that was imposed on his land. His defiant voice resonated off radio speakers across Pakistan.

The men in khaki sat aghast. The lie lay shattered. The mushaira was taken off air. The station director was penalized. The poet was arrested. But the word was out. Things weren't right in Pakistan. Someone had the courage to be truthful. That was was the first time that the young poet found himself in jail. It definitely was not to be the last. He would spend a considerable part of his life in various jails. Jailed, as he would later joke, using his own tax money. Whatever the lessons that his captors expected him to learn in confinement, he never learnt them. Each jail term seemed to strengthen him as a poet, a champion against dictatorship, a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary. He always came out from the jails more defiant, more sarcastic, more rebellious. With each passing dictator, his poetry only grew sharper in criticism. His poetry would be banned, his books would be taken out of print. He barely seemed to notice and continued writing. Because if there is anything that sums up the life of Habib Jalib, it was that he was in no mood to tolerate diktats or dictators. True to his takhallus**, he remained the beloved of his cause.


It was fashionable and profitable during the time of Ayub Khan to become an advisor to the dictator. This ensured considerable political power and freedom from persecution. The appointment as a advisor was the price that the Ayub Khan regime payed for the integrity of the intellectual. And there were many prominent takers. This included Hafeez Jalandhari, the poet who penned Pakistan's national anthem. Habib Jalib reportedly wrote this poem after a meeting with Jalandhari who remarked at how busy he was being an advisor to the dictator. The poem is a sarcastic take on the state of the country under the dictatorship.


Habib Ahmed was born in Hoshiarpur district of East Punjab on the 24th of March 1928 and had his schooling in Delhi. His interest in poetry led him to adopt the name of the classical Urdu poet Jalib Dehlvi. His initial poetry was dominated by feelings of romance and admirations for the natural landscape. At the time of partition, the young Jalib moved to the newly created Pakistan and found a job as the proof-reader of the Daily Imroze in Karachi. His powerful voice opened the doors of mushairas where he recited poems of poets such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Jalib soon moved ot the ideological left and became a member of the Communist Party of Pakistan and the Progressive Writers Movement. He became noted Pakistan, at the time under General Ayub was however taking a different trajectory.

The proximity to the United States and membership in the CENTO military alliance bolstered Pakistani military capabilities and gave the Pakistani armed forces access to modern weaponry. In order to woo Americans and their aid, land and facilities in Pakistan were being leased for American military operations. The Peshawar Air Station was leased to the CIA for launching reconnaissance missions against the USSR. This facility was closed to Pakistani nationals and even Pakistani military officers. In 1959, the Energy and Commerce Minister of Pakistan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, requested that he be granted access to the facility. He was not allowed to enter the core facility. This caused quite a controversy and propelled Bhutto against the Americans and eventually against Ayub. Ayub Khans pro-capitalist policies took a heavy toll on Pakistan's rural population. The wealth of the nation was confined in the hands of 22 families. Amongst them, they controlled the industries and owned almost half of the land in the country. These included old aristocratic households and families of military officers. Ayub's regime was keen on protecting these interest groups. On the streets of Pakistan, Habib Jalib sang against the dictator:

By then Habib Jalib had become a frequent visitor to the jails. In 1962, Ayub Khan introduced a new constitution that endorsed a presidential form of government for Pakistan. Regime supporters like the former Prime Minister, Chaudhary Muhammad Ali praised the constitution as a landmark and compared the constitution to the clock tower of Faisalabad. Jalib saw the constitution as a move by the regime to change the rules of the game and wrote against it openly.


Dastoor aptly captured the political frustration of the ordinary Pakistani when Ayub Khan's 1962 constitution was forced on the people. The constitution judged the Pakistan populace immature for direct democracy and enforced an indirect election of an executive President, through an electoral college. Jalib clearly saw the legitimization of a dictatorial setup and wrote Dastooor in response.The poem attained the status of an anthem and Jalib was frequently requested to sing this on various stages. Very often the people joined together in the singing. On one occasion, Justice S. A. Rahman of the Pakistani Supreme Court who was the chief guest at a function where Jalib was to recite his poem asked him not to recite Dastoor. Jalib snapped back: “You cannot stand between me and my audience”. In the mind game that was being played out between the army and the people, the poem given the people of Pakistan an undeniable upper hand.


In 1965, the Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi visited Pakistan. The Shah stayed in Pakistan as a guest of the Nawab of Kalabagh, who was the also the titular Governor of West Pakistan. A feudal warlord who owned over ten thousand acres of land, the Nawab asked the film actress Neelo to dance before the Shah. She refused and the police was sent to arrest her and bring her to the Nawab's court. She resisted and when tormented, attempted suicide. Jalib learnt of her plight and wrote a poem in her honour, on the way to visit her in hospital. The poem would be slightly changed in lyrics and become a famous movie song sung by none other than the legendary Mehdi Hassan.


The 1965 Presidential election was a litmus test for the nation. Ayub Khan was confident of consolidating his power and position. The democratic opposition was divided on ideology and regional aspirations. The political equations changed with the entry of Fathima Jinnah, the sister of Pakistan's founding father- Muhhamad Ali Jinnah, into the political scene. Madar-e-Millat (The Mother of the Nation), as she was called, soon became a political lighthouse around whom the democratic forces united. Habib Jalib enthusiastically joined in. In those days, it was said that the people flocked to election campaigns to hear Fatima Jinnah speak and Habib Jalib sing. The emotionally charged campaigns saw open displays of opposition to the Ayub regime. Jalib, true to his style, stuck to simple but powerful lines that hit hard against the regime and bolstered unity. He would write "Maa ke pao talay jannat hai; idhar aa jao" (The paradise is under the feet of the mother. So come into her fold.)

Ayub Khan would do all that was in his power to ensure an election victory. Religious leaders were instigated with the question if an Islamic nation could be led by a woman, the press and students were shamelessly offered freebies if the general was elected to power. The indirect elections by means of an electoral college meant that elections were easier to influence and even rig. Sure enough Ayub Khan won the elections, but with just 64% votes in favour of him.The rising prices of essential commodities and the disastrous 1965 war with India, forced Ayub Khan out of power and the baton was passed onto another dictator- General Yahya Khan. Yahya Khan proved no different from his predecessor and reimposed martial law on country. Those who expected Habib Jalib's enmity with the Ayub regime to be a personal one were soon disappointed. Habib Jalib was a poet who opposed the very nature of dictatorship. After a hiatus of ten years, Jalib was invited for the mushaira at Murree. Special care was taken to see that Habib Jalib did not steal the limelight. He was given a recitation slot just after Dilawar Figar, Pakistan's celebrated comic poet nicknamed the Shahenshah-e-Zarafat (Emperor of Humor). The expectation seems to have been that the inevitable comparison with Figar's poetry would dampen the effect of Jalib's verses on the audience. At the appointed slot, Habib Jalib got on stage and declared to a portrait of Yahya Khan:

Martial law was lifted and elections were held in 1970 on the basis of one man-one vote; but this only drove the country further into crisis. The Awami League led by the East Pakistani leader Mujibur Rahman had 167 seats in the National assembly while the second largest party was the Pakistan People's Party of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto with 81 seats. Bhutto refused to accept Mujib as the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Mujibur Rahman had won this landslide victory on an election manifesto that demanded greater autonomy for East Pakistan. Demands included separate currency, separate army and police units, separate accounting of foreign exchange earning of the two wings of Pakistan and autonomy for the East. Yahya Khan reimposed martial law, banned the Awami League on accusations of sedition and appointed General Tikka Khan as military administrator of East Pakistan. The army commenced Operation Searchlight which sought to eliminate resistance and recapture cities. In the gross human rights violations that followed, nearly 300,000 East Pakistani citizens were slaughtered. Habib Jalib was one of the few in West Pakistan who openly came out against the military operation. He would write:

Sure enough, the dream was damaged beyond repair. The civil unrest grew into a full blown civil war which eventually led to the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War. East Pakistan passed into history and Bangladesh was born. Civil unrest broke out in West Pakistan and rumours spread of an impending coup by younger officers of the Army. On the 20th of December 1971, these developments forced General Yahya Khan to hand over power to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto; the first democratically elected leader of Pakistan in over 14 years. It looked as if Habib Jalib could rest at last.


Habib Jalib was critical of the role of religious preachers in Pakistan. He understood that many of them actually facilitated the continued exploitation of the people by the feudal lords and thus held the country back. The poem 'Maulana' makes fun of the preacher and questions his moral authority to dictate to the masses. The poem was revolutionary when written and still retains its sting today. This song is performed by the Laal band.


Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was elected on the promise of integrating socialism with democracy. Jalib had been a good friend of Bhuttos and Bhutto was seen as a leftist and a democrat. The PPP slogan at the time summed up Bhutto's political stance : “Islam is our faith, democracy is our policy, socialism is our economy. All power to the people”. As President, Bhutto promised 'a Pakistan free of exploitation'. He nationalized the major industries, gave the worker's unions greater rights, initiated a programme to distribute lands to peasants, limited the powers of the armed forces, repealed the martial law and set about to write a new constitution. That constitution was accepted in 1973. Internationally, Bhutto sought to reduce his country's reliance on the USA and sought to build closer ties with the USSR. Soviet aid materialized in the form of technology advisers and steel mills. The sharp politician that he was, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto also sought to consolidate his internal position. He was well aware that Jalib's allegiance could offer him legitimacy. Once during a meeting, Bhutto asked Jalib when he could join Bhutto's party. Unshaken, the poet asked Bhutto if the oceans have ever fallen into rivers. This was at a time when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was at the height of his power.

Once again the Shah of Iran arrived on a state visit to Pakistan and history repeated itself as a farce. This time the Shah stayed as a guest of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto at his ancestral home in Larkana. Another actress was called to dance before the Shah and this sparked a controversy in Pakistan. Habib Jalib, forever the champion of the oppressed, wrote:

It was Bhutto's handling of the secessionist movements, which were particularly strong in the North Western Frontier Province and Baluchistan regions, that proved to be his undoing. Both Baluchistan and the NWFP were ruled by non-PPP governments. Bhutto sought to gain more control over these provinces. and this led to a conflict between provincial troops and the Pakistani Army in 1974. The involvement of Iraqi intelligence and aid for Baluch fighters were uncovered and this greatly angered Bhutto. The Baluch government was dismissed and the government of the NWFP resigned in protest of the high-handedness of the central Government. Habib Jalib protested what he saw as the snuffing out of a nascent democracy. Jalib soon found himself in jail, on the orders of his old friend- Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The relationship between Jalib and Bhutto however still remained friendly, but Jalib continued to point out the failings of Pakistan under Bhutto. Things took a tragic turn in the elections of 1977. The opposition accused Bhutto of rigging the elections and compromise talks soon broke down. Bhutto responded by declaring martial law in the cities. The law and order situation worsened day by day. On the evening of the 4th of July 1977, General Zia ul Haq staged a military coup and deposed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Pakistan was back under a military dictatorship. The regime set about building alliances with fundamentalists and disqualifying politicians whom it saw as a threat. In 1979, Bhutto was tried, found guilty and hanged on trumped up charges. Jalib was moved by these developments and would write of Bhutto:

The Zia ul Haq regime set about enforcing censorship on Pakistani civil society. Zia ul Haq wooed the hardline right wing of Pakistani society and introduced the Islamic Penal code to this effect. Left wing political leaders were either driven in to exile or tortured and murdered by the secret police. This included Nazeer Abbasi, the Secretary General of the Communist Party of Pakistan. Zia's regime attempted to dominate all aspects of public life. Poets were being instructed on what to write and how to write. Habib Jalib, true to his style penned a poem that was a word-play of the dictators first name- Zia. Zia responded by banning Jalib's books but it had the opposite effect. Jalib intensified his attack on the dictator and often in recitations posed Zia with questions. Jalib once again became a regular visitor to Pakistan's jails. General Zia on his part went on to consolidate his power by appointing military generals as martial law administrators. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan played right into the dictators hands legitimizing the martial law and assuring American assistance to the regime. Zia then set about to completely purge Pakistan of any instrument of parliamentary democracy. Zia sought to administer the country through the newly created Majlis-e-Shoora, a house of advisers nominated by the President to advise him.

Zulmat ko zia

The poem asks how Zia ul Haq expects Habib Jalib to praise him when none of his actions deserve praise. The poem cleverly asks how the poet can be expected to call darkness (Zulmat in Urdu) as light (Zia in Urdu), highlighting the contrast in the dictators name and his actions. The poem goes further and asks how can an individual be praised as god. This was in reference to Zia's belief that he was a soldier of god sent to save Pakistan. This poem also attained a cult status in Pakistan and was recited on various occasions, much to the chagrin of Zia and his henchmen.


In order to placate the international community and to consolidate his position in Pakistan's political landscape, General Zia decided to conduct a referendum in 1984. The General won over 95% of the votes cast but only 10% of the eligible population voted in the referendum.Zia finally bowed to internal and international pressure and allowed for elections to be held in 1985. This was a backtracking from his policy of having nominated advisers. However before handing over power to his nominee for Prime Minister, General Zia had the newly voted in Parliament agree that all his previous actions, including the coup, were politically legitimate. Zia was beginning to sink into his new found role as a kingmaker President when in 1988, he perished in an aeroplane crash.


The referendum of 1984 was an attempt by General Zia ul Haq to consolidate his position. The population was asked to vote in favour or against Zia ul Haq holding the post of President of Pakistan. Jalib frequently joked about this referendum as the Zia ul Haq versus Zia ul Haq referendum. The poem makes fun of the low turnout and the mass rigging that occurred during the referendum, in order to ensure Zia's victory.


Once again democracy returned to Pakistan. Habib Jalib was released from prison. Bhutto's daughter Benazir Bhutto was elected as Prime Minister. Jalib welcomed this political development enthusiastically and declared support for Benazir's government. However Benazir aspired to build closer ties with the Americans and dismantled her father's socialist economic policies and thus Jalib soon became critical of her policies. The poets health was beginning to fail. The activism and the jail terms were beginning to take its toll. Habib Jalib died on March 12, 1993 at Lahore. His family refused to avail government support for his funeral expenses. His friend and poet, Qateel Shifai would remember Jalib thus:

As a poet, Habib Jalib was the contemporary of the likes of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Qateel Shifai and Dilawar Figar. Connoisseurs of pure poetry would definitely rank him behind many of his illustrious contemporaries. Jalib's poems were simple, emotional pieces that moved the listeners. What makes Jalib different is his deep held conviction in the freedom of the individual and his relentless and fearless opposition to all forms of injustice. In a cruel world order that pitted the rulers against the ruled, Habib Jalib stood with the people. To the end he remained unapologetic and proud of his decision to side with the people and against the established powers of the day. His poems continue to inspire the people. The Laal band have set the revolutionary poems of Jalib to music and these have been performed on numerous occassions to thunderous reception. This is proof that comrade Habib Jalib, poet of the people, champion of humanity, defender of the oppressed, comrade of the working class lives on still; in the hearts of the simple, ordinary people.

Shayer-e-Awam Habib Jalib zindabad!!

*mushaira- poet's conference **takhallus - pen-name