When the poet Habib Jalib made Lahore a city of rebellion against dictatorship


Rebel/activist/poet Habib Jalib

An excerpt from ‘Imagining Lahore’,writer Haroon Khalid’s romance with the legendary city, once in undivided India, now in Pakistan.

While Lahore is undoubtedly a symbol of hegemonic authority, it is also the city of Habib Jalib, the rebel poet, who challenged this hegemony his entire life. His was one of the loudest voices against the first military dictator of the country, Ayub Khan. At a time when all intellectuals, poets, writers and artists were silenced by the military regime, Jalib defied convention. Instead of focusing on romanticism and beauty, he talked about the streets of the country under military rule. Defying all guidelines, on a live mushaira being aired by Radio Pakistan, a state-run enterprise, Jalib went on to recite:

The stench of teargas lingers
The hail of bullets persists…

His rendezvous with incarceration began after this episode and continued till the end of his life.

Mein ne us se yeh kaha” (I said this to him), a satirical poem, is one of his most memorable verses from that era.


The poem reminds the dictator how only he can salvage Pakistan, how only he can take it from night to day. It reminds him how a hundred million people of Pakistan are the “epitome of ignorance”, “completely mindless”, and how the dictator is the “Light of God” and “Wisdom and Knowledge personified”. Jalib does acknowledge in the poem that there are a handful of people who oppose his rule and he, Ayub Khan, should “tear out their tongues” and “throttle their throats”.

Jalib was a member of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, a left-leaning literary organisation that aimed to use writing to inspire people to create a just and equal society for all.

After Partition, Lahore became the centre of this organisation in Pakistan, earning the city yet another title, that of the cultural capital of the country. It is through the Progressive Writers’ Movement that writers like Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Saadat Hassan Manto, Ahmad Faraz and Hameed Akhtar challenged a state that was cosying up to the United States of America and increasingly defining itself in religious terms.

Even in the poem quoted above, Jalib mentions China and its “system”. He mentions the friendly relationship between China and Pakistan and yet the paranoia against leftist politics in his country. “Stay clear of that [system]”, he suggests, these masses “could never become rulers”. At the end he expresses the desire, “You [Ayub] remain our President forever.”

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