The poet’s job is to probe and question, to present new ways of seeing, to look at the world and look for meanings and feelings that lurk beneath the surface. Sometimes when those questions are awkward and the answers go against the grain, he is labelled subversive but so be it. And the Urdu poet has always revelled in his time-honoured role as the questioner. Not content to talk of the shama-parwana-bulbul – popular tropes in conventional romantic poetry – they have constantly evolved new images and metaphors and, over decades, built what can only be called the political muscle of modern Urdu poetry.

In the years immediately after partition, several progressive Urdu poets spoke of the sense of inadequacy, the squandering of dreams that the dawn of freedom brought in. As early as the time India was celebrating her first Republic Day, Sahir Ludhianvi’s disenchantment with the new republic was already palpable. In a poem titled Chhabees Janwary (26 January), Sahir invokes the beautiful dreams the nation had seen, dreams of a better tomorrow and asks the nation to collectively pose some difficult questions:

Come, and let us ponder over this question
What happened to those beautiful dreams we had dreamt
When wealth increased why did poverty also increase in the country
What happened to the means of increasing the prosperity of the people
Those who walked beside us on the street of the gallows
What happened to those friends and comrades and fellow travellers
What is the price being set for the blood of martyrs
What happened to the punishable ones for whom we were ready to lay down our lives
Helpless nakedness does not even merit a shroud
What happened to those promises of silk and satin
Cherisher of democracy, friend of humanity, wisher of peace
What happened to all those titles we had conferred upon ourselves
Why is the malady of religion still without a cure
What happened to those rare and precious prescriptions
Every street is a field of flames, every city a slaughterhouse
What happened to the principles of the oneness of life
Life wanders aimlessly in the wilderness of  gloom
What happened to the moons that had risen on the horizon
If I am the culprit, you are no less a sinner
O leaders of the nation you are guilty too

Aao ki aaj ġhaur kareñ is savāl par 
Dekhe the ham ne jo vo hasīñ ḳhvāb kyā hue 
Daulat baḌhī to mulk meñ aflās kyuuñ baḌhā 
Khush-hālī-e-avām ke asbāb kyā hue 
Jo apne saath saath chale ku-e-dār tak 
Vo dost vo rafīq vo ahbāb kyā hue 
Kyā mol lag rahā hai shahīdoñ ke ḳhuun kā 
Marte the jin pe ham vo sazā-yāb kyā hue 
Be-kas barahnagī ko kafan tak nahīñ nasīb 
Vo va.ada-hā-e-atlas-o-kim-ḳhvāb kyā hue 
Jamhūriyat-navāz bashar-dost amn-ḳhvāh 
Khud ko jo ḳhud diye the vo alqāb kyā hue 
Maz.hab kā rog aaj bhī kyuuñ lā-ilāj hai 
Vo nusḳha-hā-e-nādir-o-nāyāb kyā hue 
Har kūcha sho.ala-zār hai har shahr qatl-gāh 
Yak-jahti-e-hayāt ke ādāb kyā hue 
Sahrā-e-tīrgī meñ bhaTaktī hai zindagī 
Ubhre the jo ufuq pe vo mahtāb kyā hue 
Mujrim huuñ maiñ agar to gunahgār tum bhī ho 
Ai rahbarān-e-qaum ḳhatā-kār tum bhī ho

In the same vein as Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s lament at the disappointments of freedom, here is his warning of the worse possibility that lies in store:

“Yes, the bitterness among the people will increase, still more
Yes, the perpetrators of cruelty will keep struggling against cruelty”

Haan talkhi-e-ayam abhi aur badhegi
Haan ahl-e-sitam mashq-e-sitam karte raheinge

However, this being Urdu poetry, there is no consistent, uniform, un-variegated response. For those who are disillusioned and disenchanted with the fruits of freedom and the sullying of dreams, here is the shiny optimism and idealism of Kanwal Dibaivi, who is waxing eloquent on the coming of a new dawn, a new spring, a new life on 26th January:

There is a new spring in the garden
There is intoxication in every direction
There is a freshness in every bloom
There is happiness in life
The spring of delight is here
It is the 26th of January

Gulshan mein rut na.ī hai 
Har samt be-ḳhudī hai 
Har gul pe tāzgī hai 
Masrūr zindagī hai 
Sar-chashma-e-ḳhushī hai 
Chhabbīs january hai

Continuing the metaphor of spring in the garden, coinciding quite literally with the changing season across large parts of India, Nazeer Banarasi alludes to the co-existence of the thorns and the buds in the same garden:

Be it thorns or flowers in the harvest of spring
Both are raised by the same Almighty God
We Indians are the victims of our own arrows
O flying fairy of peace and non-violence
Come to the earth for the 26th of January has come

KāñTe hoñ chāhe phuul hoñ fasl-e-bahār ke 
Paale haiñ donoñ ek hī parvardigār ke 
Ham Bhārtī shikār haiñ apne hī vaar ke 
Ai shāñtī ahinsā kī uḌtī huī parī 
Dhartī pe aa ki aa ga.ī chhabbīs january

Others such as Tilok Chand Mahroom take a somewhat sanguine view of the first Republic Day:

Such be the greatness of Bharat with god’s grace
That we may remove discrimination from the world 
And we teach every nation to live in peace and harmony
And every nation give thanks on this day every year
This auspicious day has come 26th January
The era of modernity has ushered in superiority of Bharat

Bhārat kā azm hai ye taufīq ai ḳhudā de
Duniyā se īn-o-āñ kī tafrīq ko miTā de 

Amn-o-amāñ se rahnā har mulk ko sikhā de 
Har qaum shukriye meñ har saal ye sadā de 
Roz-e-sa.īd aayā chhabbīs january kā 
Daur-e-jadīd laayā bhārat kī bartarī kā

Josh Malihabadi in a poem called Maatam-e Azadi (The Lament for Freedom) written in 1948 strikes a sombre note which echoes 70 years later:

O friend, don’t ask me for the tale of Hindustan
Our throats were torn by the scratching of our songs
When we escaped the sword, we were beheaded by the vein’s of the rose

Ai ham nafas! Fasana e Hindustan naa pooch
Apna gala kharosh-e tarranum se phat gaya
Talwar se bacha, to rag-e gul se kat gaya

But perhaps the greatest lesson is to learnt from this verse by a traditionalist such as Jigar Moradabadi, who was seldom known to take up a political position yet here he is…refusing to shy away from voicing his disappointment with an independent but truncated India:

The gardeners still have time to mend their ways
And still the spring they angered might return.

On this 26th of January, let us resolve to bring back the angered spring.

[Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this article had wrongly attributed lines from Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry to Ibadat Barelwi. The error has been rectified.]