It was a warm Sunday afternoon. I was driving while my father sat next to me with his huge pile of Sunday newspapers and magazines. We were on our way to pick up an old friend of his, a retired college professor, once a committed communist, now not as idealistic as he once was. My father and I were engaged in our regular discussion that had come to form the backbone of our adult relationship – politics, history, culture.

A diehard Pakistan People’s Party loyalist, he had mourned the death of Benazir Bhutto for days. I was not born when her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was executed, but I can imagine it must have been a similar reaction. Some of my earliest memories of my father were of him surrounded by his friends in the evening, cursing Zia-ul-Haq. The pattern has not changed much. So, when I expressed my desire to visit the grave of Habib Jalib – the poet of the people, a revolutionary who in Zia-ul-Haq’s heyday spoke vehemently against the military dictator – my father eagerly agreed to accompany me.

Jalib’s grave is located in Sabzazar, a middle-class residential area in Lahore, not far from where we lived. We had passed this locality on numerous occasions, unaware of its connection with Jalib. He had spent the last few years of his life here and, after his death on March 12, 1993, was buried in this graveyard. My father’s friend was to be our guide.

It appeared to be an old graveyard, predating the providence of this society. Situated upon a small mound that perhaps contained the remains of a lost civilisation, at its entrance stood the shrine of 17th century Sufi saint Shah Fareed, lending the graveyard its name. The grave of the “Poet of the People” was on the other end of the graveyard with a board at the entrance identifying the occupant. Within a small enclosure, Jalib was in the company of his wife and daughter. Some of his famous verses were inscribed on the small boundary wall.

Habib Jalib spent his last years in the Sabzazar neighbourhood of Lahore and was buried here. (Credit: Muhammad Imran Saeed / Flickr)

Poetry of protest

While Jalib’s status as a revolutionary poet is remarkable, his significance in the context of Lahore, his adopted home, is even more noteworthy. The capital of Punjab, Lahore became the focal point of Punjab’s hegemonic control over the state of Pakistan. After the death of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1979, the military regime, patronised by the Americans, led a brutal crackdown on members of Bhutto’s party and other Leftists, who were critical of the illegality of the regime. The Americans, enamoured with Zia-ul-Haq and his frontline role in the war against communism, conveniently ignored the human rights abuses of his regime.

Sindh, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s home, took centre stage in this battle against dictatorship. The Movement for the Restoration of Democracy, a coalition of Leftist parties led by Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party, had been formed in 1981. But while the movement received much support in Sindh, it failed to gain momentum in Punjab. The rhetoric of a Sindhi prime minister hanged by a Punjab-dominated establishment gained currency. In fact, so strong were the Sindhi roots of the movement that it soon came to be identified as a Sindhi nationalist struggle. To curb the influence of this non-violent struggle, some of whose members occasionally flirted with violent methods, Zia-ul-Haq eventually had to bring in the Army.

While there were a few critical voices in the Punjab, it primarily chose to either support the Islamist dictator or observe the proceedings quietly. In Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s time, Punjab was the hub of his political influence. Now, it supported a new leader. Prominent among these supporters were the industrialists, traders and businessmen who had suffered as a result of Bhutto’s haphazard nationalisation policies but were now benefiting from the liberalisation of the economy and unprecedented American and Saudi aid. In these happy economic times, Zia-ul-Haq’s propaganda of serving the cause of religion was consumed, without much skepticism.

In these silent times, therefore, the voice of the people of Punjab who spoke against the regime rang louder than usual. Habib Jalib was one of the most prominent voices of his time. He was fulfilling a role he had served for decades. He had risen to prominence by challenging the hegemonic control of military dictator Ayub Khan. Some of his most famous poems, Mein ne us se yeh kaha and Dastoor, were written against Khan. Many a time, Jalib was jailed for his outspokenness.

In the 1980s, by opposing another military regime, Jalib was doing what he knew best. Out on the streets of the city, he recited his verses to inspire protestors to march on against the regime. One of his most iconic pictures is from this time – an old man dragged by police officials from all sides. This was Jalib on February 12, 1983, on Lahore’s Mall Road, walking in solidarity with members of the Women’s Action Forum, a feminist group fighting the Islamisation of Pakistan’s laws. Jalib was the only man allowed to be part of this all-woman gathering and had composed the poem “We are not helpless or powerless anymore” for this occasion.

At the peak of the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy, Jalib also wrote a poem in honour of Benazir Bhutto, who was now leading the struggle against the military dictator. The poem was called “Dartay hain bandookon walay aik nihatti ladki say”. The people with guns fear an unarmed girl.

On Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s execution, he had written:

“His magic has not been broken
His blood has become a slogan.”

Habib Jalib wrote of Benazir Bhutto: "Dartay hain bandookon walay aik nihatti ladki say.” The people with guns fear an unarmed girl. (Credit: AFP)

Voice of revolution

But Jalib’s criticism was not limited to military dictators. During Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s regime, Jalib did not shy away from criticising him and was even jailed. Similarly, while on the one hand he supported Benazir Bhutto against the military regime, on the other hand he saw her cozying up to the Americans and warned her against it.

Jalib died in 1993 in Lahore, a disillusioned man who had seen two military dictators and the return of democracy without all its promises. Jalib did not see the third military coup that was to occur a few years after his death, but his poetry of protest against Ayub Khan and Zia-ul-Haq was revived and recited by agitators and protestors who marched the streets of Lahore and Karachi against yet another military dictator.

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books – Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail