‘We shall see’: an excerpt from a new book in the Literary Activism series, On Being Indian by Amit Chaudhuri

Students at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Kanpur sang Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s‘ Hum Dekhenge’ in protest and in solidarity with students..

Shaheen Bagh, Delhi, 15th January 2020. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

‘We shall see’: an excerpt from a new book in the Literary Activism series, On Being Indian by Amit Chaudhuri

Editor’s note: On Being Indian is a long essay on the protests that took place from late 2019 to early 2020 against Citizenship Amendment Act. The following is a short section that occurs towards the end of book.

Students at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Kanpur sang Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s‘Hum Dekhenge’ in protest and in solidarity with students at Jamia Millia and Jawaharlal Nehru Universities in New Delhi on December 17, 2019 (two days after the police attacks). A member of the IIT Kanpur faculty, Dr. Vashi Mant Sharma, registered a complaint against the protest, saying two lines in particular had hurt his ‘religious sentiments’: ‘Jab arz-e-Khuda ke Ka’abe se, sab buth uthwaae jaayenge / Hum ahl-e-safa mardood-e-haram, masnad pe bithaaye jaayenge / Sab taaj uchhale jaayenge, sab takht giraaye jaayenge’ (‘From the abode of God, when the icons of falsehood will be removed / When we, the faithful, who have been barred from sacred places, will be seated on a high pedestal / When crowns will be tossed, when thrones will be brought down’) (The Wire 2020). Sharma saw this as an allegorical reference to the Mughal invasion of India, which was accompanied by the destruction of idols and temples—the word buth, meaning ‘idol’ or ‘figure’, plays into this interpretation. The fact that Faiz (1911–84) was Pakistani couldn’t have helped, although he’d been a Marxist and an atheist, and his song had been composed to dissent against General Zia ul Haq’s Islamicizing regime in Pakistan. As a result of Sharma’s complaint, a committee was put in place at IIT Kanpur, and six students and five teachers were ‘counselled’—which must mean ‘warned’—for their role in the protest.

Here’s my admittedly cursory attempt to translate the words:

We shall see—
It’s certain we too shall see
The day that was promised to us
And set indelibly in ironWhen the boulder-weight of tyranny
Will scatter like wisps of cotton
And under the feet of the reigned-over
The earth will pound like a heart beating
And over the heads of those who govern
Lightning will burn and crackle

When all idols will be vacated
From the holy places
And we, the dispossessed and displaced,
Will be returned to our inheritance,
Each crown will be flung away,
Each seat of power brought down

Allah’s name will remain: nothing more—
He, who is present and absent too,
He, who is both scene and spectator;
The cry ‘I am truth’ will be heard,
The cry that is me as it is you,
And everywhere will reign God’s progeny
Which is what I am, as you are.

We are moved by this in a way that we aren’t by actionable words. There is an ambiguity of emotion here to do with the phrase ‘we shall see’, which is inflected with both defiance and defeat (the victorious don’t say ‘we shall see’); and Allah, who, we are told the moment we are promised the prospect of his ubiquity, is both ‘present and absent’ (hazir hai aur gayab bhi), pointing to the curious sense of annulment we experience in ourselves in the midst of the song’s prescience of plenitude. Like love, protest implies surrender: a surrender of the personal, in the course of which what is ‘present and absent’ in ourselves converges. This convergence, in turn, leads to, instead of unequivocal triumph, a melancholy in protest, a melancholy that doesn’t paralyze but enables, as this song did for so many in 2020.

The literalism of nationalism allows neither that melancholy nor the contradictory tonality in which it subsists. Neither, to be fair, does the liberal consciousness, which sees the protest poem or song as a vehicle for protest rather than a complex experience that exists in and through the texture of poetic language. On January 7, Riyaz Khan, on the Times of India readers’ blog, identified himself as an ‘Urdu poetry lover’ and said he was distressed by the way ‘Hum Dekhenge’ had been misread. ‘People who are cognizant of the art and nuances of poetry know that in poetry words are not used to stress their literal meaning,’ he wrote (Khan 2020). This is a truism of literary criticism and, in the context of the time, a reasonable statement: criticism as an expression of a rationality related to love, the love of ‘Urdu poetry’, which itself is not unrelated to a wider understanding of democracy, free speech, and insaniyat. The first two sentences of Riyaz Khan’s biographical note on the blog page describe him as ‘basically a mechanical engineer with MBA in International Business. Currently he is director in an Engineering Services & IT headquartered company in Hyderabad.’ In keeping with the time of the anti-CAA protests, Khan seems to have been an organic intellectual who emerged from and made his intervention within the system.