1971 India-Pakistan War, in the Words of Sahir Ludhianvi and Jaun Elia

The partition of Pakistan and the liberation of Bangladesh profoundly affected poets and writers.

9 min read
Hindi Female

(This article was first published on 15 December 2021. It has been reposted from The Quint's archives to mark the birth anniversary of acclaimed poet and lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi.) 

The second partition of the Indian subcontinent 50 years ago today resulted in the break-up of the then-largest Muslim country in the world, Pakistan, and the independence of a new country on its map, Bangladesh. Needless to say, the event triggered political, economic, social and cultural tensions, which are alive even today.

Like the partition of British India, the partition of Pakistan and the liberation of Bangladesh profoundly affected poets and writers in the subcontinent’s two largest countries. Among this crowd, Sahir Ludhianvi (1921-1980) and Jaun Elia (1931-2002) are of special interest because this year marks the centennial of the birth of Sahir, while 14 December marked Jaun’s 90th birthday. Both also wrote poems that are little-known and, surprisingly, have received lesser attention than other aspects of their works and colourful, unconventional lives. But more on that later.


The Lives & Times of Sahir and Jaun

There are interesting similarities and differences between the lives of both Sahir and Jaun, which were crisscrossed by the partition of the subcontinent in 1947. Both were communists, freethinkers, and ardent though unsuccessful lovers. Both became somewhat successful in their lives but were largely ignored by intellectuals and literary critics, their lives and afterlives largely evaluated on their private lives and personality traits rather than literary worth. Both also passed away young.

Sahir was born a hundred years ago in a Punjabi feudal milieu in Ludhiana. His landowning father had divorced his mother, and the only son sided with his mother in a custody case in court. This incident made him a rebellious young man, who would later grow into one of Urdu’s most popular poets ever.

He had little formal education or training in Urdu because he had to leave college in Ludhiana after openly romancing a fellow schoolmate, in defiance of the conservative mores of the time; later, in Lahore, he was expelled for his rebellious anti-British activities.

Sahir carried the heartbreak of two love affairs – his first beloved had died of tuberculosis, and the second withdrew in the face of family tradition – when he arrived in Lahore in 1943. He was to live on in this cosmopolitan city until after Partition in 1949. Lahore gave him his first big break because in 1945, his first poetic collection, Talkhiyaan (Acrimonies), was published, which contained many of his early poems. It made him a star on the mushaira circuit. Lahore also was the city where Sahir had numerous love affairs, the most famous of which was with fellow-Punjabi legend Amrita Pritam.


A String of Heartbreaks for Both

As the secular lives, loves and loyalties of the subcontinent froze into communal passions circa 1947, Sahir stayed on in Lahore even after Pritam’s exodus from the city. He was finally forced to leave his beloved city in the sizzling summer of 1949 after reciting his incendiary poem Aavaz-e-Aadam (The Voice of Man), which hoped for a communist revolution in Pakistan. This made him the target of Pakistan’s notorious CID and a propaganda campaign waged against him by some of his jealous literary peers.

He fled to Delhi, and after spending a few weeks there, he moved to Bombay. In Bombay, he became a successful and much-sought-after film lyricist for the rest of his life. Apart from his landmark long anti-war poem Parchaiyaan (Silhouettes), he did not publish a lot of poems after his flight from Lahore. Though born in a Muslim family, he was a member of the Communist Party in Pakistan and a lifelong atheist and freethinker. The partition of the subcontinent did not affect him deeply at a personal level, as can be read from his poetry of the period. He passed away in 1980, a lonely man killed early by relentless consumption of cigarettes and alcohol, despite his love affairs in independent India with the playback singers Sudha Malhotra and apparently Lata Mangeshkar, as well as the Urdu short-story writer Wajida Tabassum.


Unlike Sahir, Jaun Was Dearly Attached to His Birthplace

Sahir’s contemporary, Jaun, was born a decade after the former, and like him in a privileged (Shiite) feudal family of Amroha. Jaun belonged to a highly educated and scholarly family. The young Jaun was not only fond of acting in dramas but also wrestling, and was dearly attached to his birthplace, a sign of which could be seen in his later heart-rending poetry. Amroha also furnished him with his first romance with Fareha Nigarina, to whom Jaun has written some very moving and lyrical poems. Fareha later migrated to Karachi and got married, another heartbreak for the poet in addition to the tragedy of the Partition.

Jaun’s family moved to Karachi in the spring of 1957, economically broken by the seizure of their landholdings by the Indian Tenancy Act. He married fellow writer Zahida Hina in 1970. The marriage lasted for a little over two decades, producing two daughters and a son. The dissolution of the marriage created further heartbreak for Jaun, but he remained popular at mushairas for his recitation style as well as unconventional lifestyle.

Though a communist, atheist and a freethinker like Sahir, he never joined the Communist Party. It was a surprise why he wasn’t prosecuted for his incendiary poem Sarzameen-e-Khvaab-o-Khayaal (The Land of Fantasy and Imagination), where he addresses the country on 23 March, Pakistan’s foundation day, and wishes for a communist revolution in Pakistan. Perhaps the Pakistani intelligence agencies were more discriminating back in Sahir’s day.

Unlike Sahir though, Jaun could publish only a single poetic collection, Shayad (Perhaps), in his lifetime, in 1990. The remaining five collections of poems and two volumes of ghazals were compiled and published posthumously.

Both Sahir and Jaun have been dismissed by critics as the poets of the youth and of mushairas, and hence, not to be taken seriously. However, both have left us with some memorable poems. They include poems on the events of 16 December 1971, half a century ago.


The PTV Poem 

The tenor and message of both poems are different, reflecting the situation in both India and Pakistan at the time. The events of 1971 brought a second round of fame to Jaun Elia’s life. The tragic disaster of the separation of East Pakistan occurred on 16 December 1971. On that night, wet with tears, Urdu poet Obaidullah Aleem had Jaun write a poem for Pakistan Television (PTV), the state channel. The title of the poem was Istifsaar (Inquisition). Its opening verse was:

Kya is qadar haqeer tha is qaum ka vaqaar

Har shehr tum se pooch raha hai, javaab do!

(Was the dignity of this nation so insignificant

Answer, every city is asking you, adamant!)

Here is my original English translation of Jaun’s poem:

Was the dignity of this nation so insignificant

Answer, every city is asking you, adamant!

What is the reason that in the wilderness of time

You give us a mirage by increasing the feeling of thirst

We were made careless by showing us dreams

Why are you silent? Now give us the interpretation of dreams

What was not expended in the garden, went in vain

The blood of the eyewitnesses who fulfilled the promise, explain.

The respect of the nation was dishonoured

The courageous people were dishonoured

Dishonoured was the colour of that morning and night

Which was to receive tribute upon this earth from the evening twilight

Dishonoured was that order, that system

With which the ranks of our courage were clad in iron

Dishonoured was that grandeur of the gait

Upon which the belief in the greatness of the destination was proud

Dishonoured was that eternal grandeur

Before which history remained prostrate

O, conquerors! The crusade was insulted

O, poets! The verses were dishonoured

Dishonoured were the names of the famous

Who were writing the history of the season of colour.

The self-respecting settlements ask time

The one who has deceived us, who is he?

Who has undignified the wounds of the nation

Who is the cause of our humiliation?

Who said that we have lost our courage

We sing the war-songs of our spirits even today

We do not accept the defeat of the fervour of life

We are the sentinels of the fervour of life even today

We, who were bloodied for the sake of good

Even today we are the title of the tablet of livelihood

We have suffered wounds, carried scars

We are the illustrious colours of spring even today.

Invincible are the people of this nation

Treat the people of this nation with adoration

Even today this nation is exalted and victorious

Acknowledge the glory of the nation.

We have not accepted a wrong retreat

We have always defeated, defeat.’

This poem touched the hearts of the people and gave voice to their feelings. PTV was the most popular and eminent means of communication. Jaun’s fame began to spread wave after wave in the vast sea of the people, freeing itself from the circle of the elite.


'We Have Always Defeated Defeat'

And so, this searing inquisition of the Pakistan Army for its failure to defend the country ends on a hopeful note, where the existing contradictions between the Army and the people will be resolved not through a democratic or socialist revolution, but accountability of those who let the people down and by accepting defeat. As he says in the final couplet:

Maana nahin hai hum ne ghalat bandobast ko

Hum ne shikast di hai, hamesha shikast ko

(We have not accepted a wrong retreat

We have always defeated, defeat.’)

Sahir’s poem, variously titled Magar Zulm Ke Khilaf (But Against Injustice) and Hum Sar-Ba-Kaf Utthe Hain (We Have Risen With Our Heads High) is a straightforward poem wherein he defends war as necessary to bring an end to injustice. It opens thus:

Hum aman chahte hain magar zulm ke khilaf

Gar jang lazmi hai toa phir jang hi sahi

(We want peace, but against injustice

But if war is necessary, then war will suffice)

The poem is dated December 1971, without providing a context as to which war the poem refers. But knowing the importance of this date in the subcontinent’s history and reading between the lines of Sahir’s poem, it is uncannily clear whose side Sahir is on.

In the very last stanza of the poem, Sahir reasons why the war was necessary:

Yeh zar ki jang hai na zameenon ki jang hai

Yeh jang hai baqa ke asoolon ke vaste

(This is neither a war for lands nor a war for money

This war is for the sake of the principles of security)


What Led to a Change of Heart for Sahir?

Interestingly, just six years prior to writing this poem, Pakistan and India had fought another devastating war in 1965, which had led to a peace agreement at Tashkent a year later. Sahir responded to the 1965 war with a poem, Ae Shareef Insano (O, Decent People), where his response to war is in stark contrast to his response to the 1971 war. In the earlier poem, Sahir unequivocally rejects war in all its forms, describing it as bloodshed and murder of peace. So, what caused a change of heart for Sahir towards war just six years later? We may never know!

The original translation of the full text of Hum Sar-Ba-Kaf Uthe Hain follows:

‘We want peace, but against injustice

But if war is necessary, then war will suffice.

He is part of injustice, who does not stop the oppressor

Who does not interrupt the murderer, he is with the murderer

We have risen, heads high so that truth be successful

Tell him who is with the army of evil

If such is the manner of force, then this manner will suffice.

The oppressor has no religion, or nation or kin

For him even to mention them is a sin

The branch of injustice upon this earth is fruitless

History is aware, time is witness

The narrow-mindedness of a few blind hearts will suffice.

This is neither a war for lands nor a war for money

This war is for the sake of the principles of security

The blood which we have given as an offering to this earth

Is for the sake of the rose flowers, whatever the worth

The morning of peace will burst, though blood-coloured will suffice.

Here is how Sahir ends his poem:

Phootegi subh-e-aman, lahu-rang hi sahi

Gar jang lazm hai toh phir jang hi sahi

(The morning of peace will burst, though blood-coloured will suffice

But if war is necessary, then war will suffice)


Pens Dipped in Blood

But Jaun’s entreaty went in vain as Pakistan went through two more military coups, which Jaun did live to witness. Sahir’s hope, too, seems distant on the horizon as far as Pakistan and India are concerned since both countries came close to war many times in the interim. Today, 50 years after the resolution of a bloody war that split a country and gave rise to a new one, states should listen to their poets, who are the voices of their people, and refrain from militarising and brutalising their citizens on the basis of creed, ideology, caste or race.

Fascism and war must eventually give way to democracy and peace. And it is only then that the conditions that prompted two of the best poets of their generation to write such poems – with pens dipped in blood – would cease to exist forever.

(All translations from Urdu are by the author. Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the President of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached through email at: This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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Topics:  Bangladesh   1971 War   Vijay Diwas 

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