Remembering Jalib

By Jaffer Abid

“It is a spirit in opposition, rather than in accommodation, that grips me because the romance, the interest, the challenge of intellectual life is to be founding dissent against the status quo at a time when the struggle on behalf of underrepresented and disadvantaged groups seems so unfairly weighted against them.” – Edward Said Representation of the Intellectual

In 1991, the eminent scholar, critic and Palestinian intellectual Edward Said gave a series of lectures for the B.B.C. entitled Representations of the Intellectual. In these talks, later published as a collection of essays, Said laid out the many interpretations and roles of intellectuals. He cites first the Italian Marxist philosopher and working-class organizer Anotonio Gramsci, from whom he borrows the concepts of the ‘traditional’ and ‘organic’ intellectual. The ‘traditional’ intellectual is someone who fulfills the same function from generation to generations; teachers, priests and academics. ‘Organic’ intellectuals, on the other hand, are those directly connected with a class. This brand of intellectuals require the labor of fellow organic intellectuals for their work, the way ‘the capitalist entrepreneur creates alongside himself the industrial technician, the specialist in political economy, the organizers of a new culture, of a new legal system, etc.’ Said then shifts his attention to the French novelist and philosopher Julien Benda, from whose work he adopts his second formulation of the intellectual. For Benda, intellectuals are a small band of elite philosopher kings who ‘constitute the conscience of mankind.’ Unlike Gramsci, Benda believed that only a select few, highly skilled individuals, were fit for performing intellectual activity.

Said’s own perspective moves beyond these two descriptions of the intellectual offered by him. For him, the importance of the intellectual is not his/her role in society as it is for Gramsci and Benda, but the position they occupy in respect to the functioning norms of their society. Intellectuals are those people who, when motivated by justice, will rise in defence of the weak and defy the structures of authority. It is not so much the duty of the intellectual, but their moral obligation, to champion the cause of the exploited and oppressed. In 1962, Pakistan’s Chief Marshal Ayub Khan tailored the constitution, changing the country from parliamentary form of government to a presidential one, giving the president absolute precedence over all political matters. As a way of protest, Habib Jalib wrote one his most famous and remembered poems chanting ‘I refuse to acknowledge, I refuse to accept’ this new constitution. Jalib, who was already a recognized intellectual and fondly called, first by Faiz the awaami shaair or ‘poet of the people,’ was immediately banned from public media. But this did not deter his opposition to the regime. He then joined Fatimah Jinnah’s campaign, who chose to run against Khan in the next elections. Jalib, paid a heave price for popularizing the opposition, being sent to jail after popularizing the opposing platform was sent to jail.

He was released in 1972 by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who became Pakistan’s first democratically elected Prime Minister. Bhutto and his party, the PPP (Pakistan Peoples Party) came into power on a leftist platform. His vision was to incorporate the economic and political practices of socialism with the cultural practices of Islam. However once in power, Bhutto turned against his leftist principles, arguing that the people of Pakistan were not smart enough to rule themselves. Unlike some of his fellow intellectuals, who made money by taking up positions in Bhutto’s regime, Jalib kept his integrity and did not succumb to Bhutto’s ideology. When asked by Bhutto, “So, when are you going to join my party?” Jalib replied, “Have the oceans ever fallen in rivers.” As a result of his uncompromising criticism of the state, Jalib was jailed once more, along with other leftist thinkers like Mukhtar Rana and Meraj Muhammad Khan.

Jalib was born in 1928 and therefore was not part of the generation of intellectuals who had founded and promoted the Progressive Writer’s movement in undivided India. Coming of age in Pakistan, Jalib only had access to the fragmented inheritor of this divided movement, the All Pakistan Progressive Writers Association (APPWA). Nevertheless, his politics of protest and unrelenting criticism was true to the spirit and ideology of the original members of the AIPWA. He exemplifies how despite its dismembering, the specific breed of intellectuals that AIPWA constituted of and idealized lived on in the next generation.

In another book called The World, the Text and the Critic Said suggests that ‘solidarity before criticism’ means the end of criticism. Jalib is a prime example of someone who chose to remain critical of the state, despite having access to people in power, who were happy to offer him a lucrative future, provided he joined the Ministry of Culture and subordinated his creative talents to propping up official ideology. Due to his principled voice and popularity, he was seen as a threat by every single regime in Pakistan and arrested by each of them. He was arrested three times by Zia ul Haq, who was the president of Pakistan from 1977 to 88, after refusing to detract a line from a poem, where he directly critiqued the leader. In his poem Zia, the word itself meaning light, Jalib asked

Why should one call darkness zia (literally: light),

or an intense wind gentle, and a man God?

He was freed by Benazir Bhutto when she came to power in 1988. Initially a supporter of Zulfiqar’s daughter, Jalib turned against her when she became too friendly with the United States. When asked to comment on how conditions in Pakistan were different under Benazir Bhutto, as opposed to Zia,her predecessor, Jalib responded in verse.

The status of the poor is still the same

the days of the ministers have indeed changed

every Bilawal of the country is under debt

while Benazirs of the country walk without shoes

When he died in 1993, Benazir Bhutto, who had returned for her second term in office, offered to pay for his funeral services. Thankfully his family, who kept with his spirit, refused to let her do so. Efforts like this, to co-opt important intellectuals and popular voices who have consistently voiced their opinions against the status-quo, is how national leaders try to manufacture consent and contentment amongst ordinary citizens. By mourning the loss of Jalib, the ‘people’s poet’ the Pakistani Government was attempting to neutralize his criticism, presenting a false unity or accommodation to the people. Governments attempts to coopt intellectuals thus highlight the what is in Said’s view the most crucial function that intellectuals perform: “founding dissent against the status quo.”

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