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Witness to Persecution

Courtesy: Jagpal Singh Tiwana.

The Tribune, Jan. 21, 2006

Photo: Khushwant Singh

An interesting contrast between Indians and their rulers and Pakistanis and their dictators is the way they treat their creative artists ­ painters, poets, novelists and thinkers. In India, successive governments have been liberal in their attitude towards men and women of letters, the public, in general, has not.

It is the other way round in Pakistan: successive rulers have been harsh towards their literary men while the common people have supported them. In India, a few books have been banned because government minions felt they would offend people's religious susceptibilities. They include Agehenanda Bharati's The Ochre Robe, Aubrey Menon's Rama Retold, and Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses.

The government has left painters like M.F. Husain untouched and cleared film scripts which were not allowed to be shot. The rabble led by goons of the Shiv Sena and the Bajrang Dal not only ransacked and burnt a section of the Bhandarkar Institute archives but also vandalised Husain's paintings and frustrated Mira Nair's attempts to shoot films.

In Pakistan, there have been no cases of destroying archival material or paintings but the government has a black record of persecuting poets who raised their voices against dictatorial regimes. Faiz Ahmed Faiz was imprisoned a few times, as was Punjabi poet Ustad Daman. Ahmed Faraz left the country a few times to avoid arrest and prosecution. So did Fahmida Riyaz. Much the worst case was that of Habib Jalib who was jailed many times. In answer to a question he said, 'Don't ask me which government did not put me in jail: The only one which did not was Benazir Bhutto's and that only because she was too busy fighting for her survival as a leader.' Nevertheless, it has to be conceded that in every case the people of Pakistan stood behind their poets.

Of the most persecuted of Pakistani poets, the least known in India, was Habib Jalib. He was born in Hoshiarpur, educated in the Anglo-Arabic school in Delhi and migrated to Pakistan after Partition in 1947. He got a poorly paid job as proof-reader of Imroze published from Karachi. He shifted to Lahore there till his death except for the time he spent in different jails. Despite living in abject poverty, his spirit remained defiant to the end.