To the Punjab of Farid and other Poems

Santokh Singh Dheer, whose courageous poems in the 1980s made him known as the “peoples’ poet”, has been a life long left- wing writer whose writings have been marked by an empathy for the downtrodden. As a student during the late 1980s I had the good chance of translating some of his poems which are now available in the form of a book. Dheer, who is now close to 90 years, handed over the manuscript to me few years back, dejectedly remarking that the collection would not be published during his life time. Fortunately, and thanks to publish on demand technology, I have been able to publish his collection. It is available from Amazon.com (or CreateSpace) for US $7 and as a free e- book .

Terrorism under the garb of religion, which is how we know of it today, started in India in the 1980s in the Punjab. It was a by- product of the developments during the emergency in the backdrop of the green revolution that had created it’s own contradictions. Though it is true that much of the violence took place after Operation Bluestar followed by the assassination of Mrs Indira Gandhi, a very strange kind of extremism had arisen before that. Young men, flaunting AK-47s and riding motor cycles would waylay chosen targets as well as unsuspecting ordinary individuals and murder them. Just like that. The Nirankaris were the first to incur their wrath, then came the Arya Samajis like Lala Jagat Narain, followed by ordinary Hindus and then by those Sikhs considered to be renegades to the ‘panth’. Thousands of killings later and with a combination of state terror as well as a fig leaf of “democratic” elections (when less than 10% of the people voted), peace returned to the state after nearly a decade.

The Punjab crisis provided an ammunition to the emerging Hindutva forces. Terrorism morphed into fascism.

This was the first time that an insurgency movement had reached the very center of the country- Delhi and posed a very real threat to the country’s sovereignty. It also showed us the devastating power of modern arms. Though somewhat primitive by today’s standards (there was no internet then, no google maps), modern day terrorism had entered through the main door. Much of the Indian security response began at the time of the incipient days of terrorism of 1980s. Political leaders were then targeted unlike in the recent past when ordinary people have borne the brunt. One of the reasons that the Indian middle class in particular came out with a cynical response to politicians after the Mumbai attacks last month is because the security provided to politicians has continued to rise while the attacks have become increasingly directed blindly towards the ordinary man and woman on the street. Punjab Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal and his family has a security team of 1000 policemen and similar is the case with politicians all over the country.

Dheer himself remained a literary foot soldier of the Left.

In Punjab, at that time Leftist cadre and intellectuals were particularly targeted, in part because the two communist parties (as well as, in certain pockets, some of the naxalite groups, particularly the Darshan Khatkar group), were the ones that could take on the fundamentalists in the villages. After peace returned, however, the communists parties declined in influence while, ironically, the Akali- BJP combination became a dominant political force in the state, followed by the Congress. They continue to rule the roost.

The communists had their problems- they identified themselves with the State and often supported the counter- terrorism of the state when many innocent Sikh young men were brutally tortured and killed. Most of the time, they harped on the “hand of imperialism” which, though not completely off the mark was only part of the truth and made little sense to the common person. Many of their leaders lived behind fortified walls, while the ordinary cadre had to pay the price with their lives. An aging leadership was caught up in its own wranglings when they were confronted with the demise of the Soviet Union and a lack of interest in socialism in general.

Dheer’s house was never fortified, indeed, he never even had a body guard or any kind of security. His son- in- law was shot dead by Khalistanis in Jalandhar. He has dedicated his book to his sons-in-law, both “martyrs in the cause of the working class”.

Dheer’s poems beckon to our syncretic culture from where he draws the strength to combat guns and bullets. The book is titled after a poem where he invokes Baba Farid, the first poet of the Punjabi language:

To fight amongst
yourself
over the ‘aarti’
and the ‘azaan’
is to commit sacrilege
Farid has termed
the sacrilegious
(impious) as dogs
Punjab, judge
yourself

Cleanse thyself
with Farid’s divine words
And the waters of
love
And then
Sweep your mosque.

(“To the Punjab of Farid”, page 67)

In a number of poems, he explores the function of poetry as a means of struggle and inspiration. In “The Poem” (page 80) he writes about the purpose of his art:

Where the soil
turns to crimson red
The poem fills your
jars with wine?
shame be on you !
O pundit! O gyani!
shame be on you!
arrogant one !

The poem will today
ride a tiger
like the goddess
Durga
and fight with the
eight armed might
the poem will fall
like a bolt of lightening
on the body of scum
the poem will
destroy
the philosophies of
dirt and scum

Some of the poems may lack a great literary aesthetic, but they make up for that lack by their activist intent. In “O Fair Rose” (page 87), he explains the choice of his subject matter:

O fair rose
Right! You deserve
that I write verse
about you
about your hues
your fragrance
open, smiling
petals
but what can I do?
I am helpless
drenched with
blood, the soil of Punjab
blurs my eyes
the blood of
innocents
chokes my pen
the marble white
paper
fills with the
drops of blood

How can I turn my
back from
this blood
and write verse
about you?

Dheer’s poetry served an immediate purpose of a balm when violence ripped through the state every day. Two decades later, his words serve to inspire us in a context that is no longer limited to Punjab but has expanded to a much larger milieu. Mumbai, Malegoan, Amritsar, Guwahati, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Baghdad-  all these are names of the same place. Dheer’s collection of poems remind us that Farid and his sage words, too, no longer belong merely to the Punjab.

Read another poem by Dheer.

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8 thoughts on “To the Punjab of Farid and other Poems

  1. Thanks for sharing, i did not read much of Dheer’s Poetry after reading his short stories which i considered explicitly leftist and low on literary value.Though i liked his obituary of Rosenberg couple http://is.gd/dxfJ
    Now i would like to read his poetry, Can you recommend me some of his books.

  2. Thanks Bhupinder – it is a labour of love and it shows.

    Anybody that has lived through the turbulent eighties in Punjab can get a sense of the sheer courage required to say what Dheer has said with such eloquence.

  3. Kulpreet: yes, it is very difficult to envisage today how tough it was in those days to write like Dheer and some other Punjabi writers did. People like Dr Ravi and Paash had to pay with their lives.

  4. Anu: I would not say that all poems are of the same quality, but some of them indeed are good. In the absence of any Dalit movement in Punjab, writers like Dheer have displayed sensitivities to caste as in the poem linked at the end of the post (“Perhaps this was not barbarity”)

  5. Bhupinder Singh ji, You did a great service in getting this book published. He was not a well connected resourceful persons, thus he could not get his works translated in to English and other languages. He is not alone, most of such writers remained ignored in their times.
    But one thing is good abut life that the time always unearth the real heroes from under the dirt.

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