International Human Rights Day: How Urdu Poets Spoke Against Injustice

Generations of poets have written beautifully about freedom and dignity, as well as injustice and oppression.

4 min read

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948, has been translated into 500 languages. I have a framed copy of the Urdu version of Article 1, gifted to me by the fiery activist Kamla Bhasin. It occupies pride of place on my wall; I glance at it several times a day as it reads:

‘Tamaam insaan janam se baraabar aur azaad hain. Sab ka yaksaan waqaar hai. Sab ke yaksaan huqooq hain.’

(All human beings are born free and equal with equal dignity and equal rights.)

Generations of poets have written beautifully about freedom and dignity, as well as injustice and oppression.

The Urdu version of Article 1 at the author's home. 

(Photo: Author)

While this Declaration has inspired scores of human rights treaties across the world, the spirit behind it has also inspired generations of Urdu poets. Vast amounts of poetry have been written on the four pillars that support it, namely, azaadi (freedom), baraabari (equality), waqaar (dignity), and huqooq (rights). By extension, copious amounts of poetry have also been written on all that violates these or attempts to diminish, dent or demolish these four pillars, namely, zulm (oppression or violence), jabr (compulsion, coercion or force), sitam (outrage or injustice).


Makhdoom Mohiuddin's Fiery Declaration

Let us begin with Faiz and his enduring call for azaadi:

“Bol, zubaan ab tak teri hai

Bol, ke lab azaad hain ter

Ab tak sutwan jism hai tera

Bol, ke jaan ab tak teri hai”

(Speak, for your lips are free

Speak, for your tongue is still yours

Your supple body is still yours

Speak, for your life is still yours)

In much the same way, Makhdoom Mohiuddin, the fiery poet from Hyderabad, made his declaration against those who murder justice and equality, in his nazm Chup Na Raho (Don’t Be Silent):

Jab talak dahr mein qatil ka nishaan baaqi hai

Tum mitaate hii chale jaao nishaan qatil ke

(Till even a trace of the murderer remains in the world

Keep removing every trace of the murderer from the world)

While the trigger for the above nazm was the brutal assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected Prime Minister of Congo in January 1961, it can be read over 50 years later as a rallying cry against any suppression of human rights. Just as these oft-recited lines by Sahir Ludhianvi, also written in a white heat over Lumumba’s execution, can today be disengaged from their time and circumstance and read as an anthem of resistance against all forms of zulm-o sitam (tyranny and injustice):

Zulm phir zulm hai badhta hai to mitt jaataa hai

Khuun phir khuun hai tapkegaa to jam jaaegaa

(Tyranny is but tyranny, when it grows, it is vanquished

Blood, however, is blood, if it spills, it will congeal)

War As a Means to End Violence

A pacifist, Sahir also wrote how and why war is justified when it is against oppression and a means to end violence:

Hum amn chahte hain magar zulm ke ḳhilaf

Gar jang lazmi hai to phir jang hi sahi

Zalim ko jo na rokey woh shamil hai zulm mein

Qatil ko jo na tokey woh qatil ke saath hai

(We want peace, we are against violence

But if war is inevitable then so be it

He who doesn’t stop the tyrant is part of the tyranny

He who doesn’t check the murderer is with the murderer)

Several contemporary poets have written directly on human rights and the need to speak up, especially addressing minorities who find themselves swamped by aggressive, muscular majoritarianism. Mohammad Habeeb ‘Habeeb’, a modern poet from Dhule, writes:

Qaleel aap nahin aur hum kaseer nahin

Huquq sab ke hain yaksan koi haqeer nahi

(You are not few and we are not many

Everyone’s rights are equal, no one is lowly)

Alluding to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act that led to country-wide protests, Rashid Taraz asks:

Shahriyat ke jahan aiin se chhin jaaen huquq

Aisi tarmim se kya mulk sanvar jaega

(Where the rights of citizenship are snatched by the law

Will the country benefit from such an amendment)


Self-Respect, Even From the Enemy

Ruing the calamity that befalls those who ask for their rights, Sohail Akhtar speaks up for all those who find themselves beleaguered and battered for voicing their concerns:

Zara si baat jo chhedi huquq ki hum ne

Utha ye shor ki jagir chahte hain hum

(Barely had we raised the subject of our rights

When furore broke out that we were demanding the entire fief)

True equality can come about only when there is respect – respect for one’s own self but also for the other. When people are in a seemingly unequal position and the other who is superior is seen as the enemy, even then, respect must be the fulcrum of the relationship, as Javed Akhtar says here:

Mujhe dushman se bhi ḳhuddari ki ummid rahti hai

Kisi ka bhi ho sar qadmon men sar achchha nahin lagta

(I expect self-respect even from my enemy

No matter whose, a head should not lie at one’s feet)

And finally, Ghani Ejaz reiterates the equal rights enshrined in the Constitution when he writes:

Hum ko dastur ne baḳhshe hain baraabar ke huquq

Koi kamtar na siva hum bhi nahin tum bhi nahin

(The Constitution has granted us equality of rights

No one is inferior or superior, neither us nor you)

(Dr Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, translator and literary historian. She writes on literature, culture and society. She runs Hindustani Awaaz, an organisation devoted to the popularisation of Urdu literature. She tweets at @RakhshandaJalil.)

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