In your whole life will not get repaid
Loan on sister’s marriage incurred,
Every drop of blood
Sprinkled in the fields
Will not provide colour
Enough to paint the face
Of a serene smiling person.
To add to it further
All the nights of life put together
Will not count down the stars of the sky;
Then, friends, let us, indeed,
In pursuit of the flying eagles proceed.
– an excerpt from Uddian Baaja Magar,a poem by Paash, translated by Tejwant Singh Gill
(The original word in Punjabi translated above as as eagles is “baaj”. I prefer the translation as “falcon”, for various reasons, though technically eagles is correct.)
Paash would have turned 60 later this year. When the Naxalite spring thunder roared 42 years ago, he was just 18. He went on, along with others like Lal Singh Dil, Sant Ram Udassi, Harbhajan Halvarvi, Darshan Khatkar and Amarjit Chandan to found what came to be known as the era of “jhujaru” (literally “fighting” or struggle) poetry in Punjabi. This was in sharp contrast to the romantic oeuvre of Shiv Kumar Batalvi. In Punjab, divided on language throughout the 20th century, similar poetry was evident earlier in the Urdu revolutionary poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Sahir Ludhianvi. Paash was briefly imprisoned during the Naxalite surge, and he moved to the United States in the 1980s where his family lived and still does.
It is remarkable that Paash’s poetry caught on only after his death in 1988, when he fell victim to Khalistani terrorism. The Left-inclined activists came in for sharp attack; indeed Jarnail Singh Bhinderawale had termed the communists in the state to be even more dangerous than the Central government, headed then by what he called the “daughter of the brahamans” (“Bamana di dhee”), Mrs. Indira Gandhi. This is not the place to go in for a discussion on the politics of the1980s. However, it does form the backdrop to Paash’s untimely and brutal death as well as the resurgence for his poetry. In contrast, Lal Singh Dil (who converted to Islam and migrated to Uttar Pradesh, unlike the Jatt Sikh Paash), came into brief prominence just before his death only a couple of years ago in the backdrop of Dalit assertion in Indian politics.
In the intervening years between Paash’s death and now, Punjab has returned to “normalcy”, meaning that it’s politics is now characterized by the corrupt bourgeois democracy, as elsewhere in the country. The violent streak in Punjab – Punjab and Bengal were the traditional hotbeds of revolutionary terrorism during the Indian freedom struggle- came to a very brutal end in the nineties, with the Indian State crushing down the Khalistani movement, though not until a “democratic” government under Beant Singh was in power- incidentally less than 10% of votes were cast in the elections for the state assembly in 1992.
While Punjab’s politics no longer has any signs of the violence that characterized the state in the bloody decades of 1980-90s, and certainly not of the brief Naxalite upsurge in the state in the early 1970s, the same cannot be said of the rest of India. Violence continues unabated in Kashmir, marked only by an uneasy calm of a few weeks or at time months, and one-third of the country’s districts live in the shadow of an adivasi upsurge that goes under the name of the movement that Paash represented- Naxalism.
In the Punjab, the burial of the Khalistani insurgency was strangely followed by the revival of pop music- Malkit Singh, Daler Mehdi and so on. Gurdas Mann had popularized that kind of music with his impressive presence on the television screen in the 1980s and the newer singers cashed in on not only the expansion of cable television but also of cassettes and videos. Indeed, the country was strangely turning towards consumerism- guided by two Punjabis at the helm of affairs in laying down the economic policies towards a neo- liberal future in the promised Global Village- Manmohan Singh and Montek Singh Ahluwalia.
With a tradition in immigrating to far-off shores, particularly, the Western world, a wave of immigration started in the 1980s, particularly to Canada. So, while Daler Mehdi’s top market was Tamil Nadu (at the peak of his career, Tamil Nadu is where his audios cassettes and CDs sold the most), the Punjabi youth gave up any kind of struggle within the state and sought better alternatives outside the country. The knowledge-intensive industries in IT could not absorb the Punjabi youth for its lack of education. Historically, the fertile lands of the state provided far better prospects than the jobs for the educated, and education had never a priority for the bulk of the peasantry.
At its extreme, the urge to immigrate to Western shores took on the form of illegal migration- a secession by other means. Stories about youth from Punjab trying to migrate abroad made continued news stories. Globalization took on a localized form in the state- kabootarbaazi. People even found ingenious, if illegal ways. One of them was to go abroad as part of a cultural troupe or a cricket team, on a visitor visa and then stay back, illegally. So much so that this form of migration came to have a slang for the phenomenon- kabootarbaazi, traditionally meaning the sport of flying pigeons. In Punjab, however, it has become a slang for illegal migration via cultural troupes. Even the one-time star, Daler Mehdi, was embroiled in one such case. Religious leaders of some deras too were allegedly involved in some cases. The latest is via educational tours for students.
In short, this ‘flight of pigeons’ is a pointer to the fact that Paash’s way–the path of revolutionary change–has been smothered, at least for the time being. It continues to be of interest to those who knew him, were part of his struggles, or those who continue to feel attached to that movement. It may even be of interest to future struggles. As of now, it only awaits that revival.
One of the three collections of Paash’s poetry was titled, Uddian Baaja Magar, (Chasing the Flying Falcons), which was also the first line of one of his nazm excerpted at the beginning of this post. Ironically, the mood in Punjab has changed- from left-wing extremism in the 1970s to Khalistani fundamentalism in the 1980s to chasing not so much as falcons but as pigeons.
* See a few translations of Paash’s poems at the excellent blog on “subversive poetry” by Ghazala Jamil.