Late one evening, over lukewarm tea, in the middle of discussing gay history and rights in South Asia, historian Saleem Kidwai quoted a nazm by Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz. Its famous first line was “Aaj bazaar mein pa ba jaulan chalo”, quite literally meaning “Let us walk in the bazaar in chains”.

The story behind the nazm, a poem that is sung, he explained, was that Faiz wrote it while being taken to jail in shackles. The symbolism it conjured up suggests that we all need to walk openly in the chains that society imposes on us until we achieve freedom.

Years later, it surprised me, pleasantly, that this very nazm was until being taught to young students of the Central Board of Secondary Education. The other lines from this nazm are even more inspiring translating roughly to “Not enough to shed tears, to suffer anguish; the allegation of a secret love is not enough…Today, walk in the bazaar fettered in chains”.

In these troubled, divisive times, reading Faiz is balm to our frayed nerves. But teaching his work to our children? well, now that is asking for trouble. After all, children must know how to cooperate, comply and fit in this new world. They should know how to follow rules and not question the status quo.

Why then teach them about freedom or protest? Why then should they be allowed to read Faiz?


According to recent news reports, Class 10 textbooks of the Central Board of Secondary Education have now bid goodbye to Faiz, along with chapters on “democracy and diversity” that documented social division and inequalities in India.

In addition, two chapters on “popular struggles and movements” and “challenges to democracy” on reforming politics have been axed. It is unclear whether these will be replaced or entirely obliterated from the textbooks.

This is not all. Those in Class 11 and 12 will no longer read about the Non-Alignment Movement, the Cold War era, the rise of Islamic empires in Afro-Asian territories, the chronicles of Mughal courts or the industrial revolution. One wonders how then how students will they make sense of India’s foreign policy, its current stance in the Ukraine war or understand the depth of influence of Mughal India? It is confusing since it is not clear if the material that arrives in its place will inform students more eloquently about these concepts.

Perhaps all these deletions and exclusions are good news. This is, after all, the order of our days. In today’s times, ideas, especially those of diversity, struggles and non-alignment, are dangerous for young minds. What if they began asking questions? What if they refused to hate or grow up unprejudiced? What if they turned to seek a path of protest? The entire purpose of education would be lost.

They, then, are unlikely to fit in anywhere while discussing such ideas or reading Faiz.

It is not surprising that many among us think the consequences of these exclusions are insignificant. We grew up reading everyone from poet Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, poet and novelist SH Vatsyayan, better known as Agyay, and poet Mahadevi Varma alongside Faiz. Our ideas of dissent and freedom were informed as much by the material we read in textbooks as by the poetry we quoted, albeit in jest, still too young to comprehend its depth of meaning.

But the poetry stuck with us and does till today. We argued and questioned the rules, refusing the hate society and the media handed out to us. Faiz and his friends did indeed ruin us.

So, for us ruined folks, who grew up believing in the idea of a sub-continental culture that sweeps across what we now recognise as independent countries only recently, Faiz and other exclusions seem a deep cut. But, today, it comes as no surprise either. Faiz, whose words surround us in the popular culture of the subcontinent has always troubled the minds of smaller men. His poetry is remembered and reinvented every few years enrapturing us, yet again.

Erasure, for Faiz, or the ideas of humanism, democracy, and diversity is not possible. But do pause and ask what these exclusions will cost our future generations? What will our children learn about the ideals on which the world’s largest democracy brought together peoples of differing languages, cultures, food habits and faiths? People who struggled together against oppression in action, poetry and song? Yet, always found enough common ground to live together, irrespective of the many divisions of caste, class, gender, language and faith.

Reading Faiz in these times, where your religion, not your culture, is your identity, where the choice of what to wear, what to eat, what music may be permitted is certainly necessary. But who will argue for him and others like him to be read by our children?

Meanwhile, despite these deletions, Faiz, the poet, though long gone, continues to ask questions. Someone mentions Faiz, someone sings him, someone quotes him. Then, he comes back again, rudely uninvited, into the room and the conversation. With him creep in ideas of freedom, democracy, dissent, diversity and exclusion. Then someone quotes another nazm. This time, it is the familiar Hum Dekhenge. We shall see…it is inevitable (that) we too shall see.


Chapal Mehra is a public health specialist who works extensively in the areas of infectious diseases like tuberculosis and HIV.