India At 75: How Poets Reacted To The Partition Through The Years

A snapshot of poetic work that concretely deals with one of the most tragic events of the 20th century 

People travelling in a train during the India-Pakistan Partition

Aj aakhan Waris Shah nu ki tun kabran vichchon bol,
Te aj kitab-e-ishq da koi agla varka phol.
Ik roi si dhee Punjab di, tun likh likh maare vain,
Aj lakhan dheean rondian tainu Waris Shah nu kahen.
Uth dardmandaan dia dardiaa, uth takk apnaa Punjab,
Aj bele lashan bichhian te lahu di bhari Chenab

(Today, I ask Waris Shah to speak from the grave, 
and turn the next page in the Book of Love.
Once, one daughter of Punjab cried, you wrote long wailing sagas, 
Today, millions of daughters are crying out to you, Waris Shah!
Rise! O empathiser of the victims, rise and look at your Punjab,
Today, the farms are strewn with corpses, and blood fills the Chenab)

When doyen of Punjabi literature Amrita Pritam (1919-2005) wrote about death and destruction unleashed by the partitioning of Punjab, she invoked Waris Shah (1722-1799), a poet who continues to be a representative of the region’s composite culture and the protagonist of his classic romance saga, Heer, named after a young Muslim woman from undivided Punjab who stood and died for her choice — her love for Ranjha. Over the years, the famous dirge that Amrita wrote in November 1947 has become a representative poem on Partition. 

Subh-e-Azadi (Dawn of Independence), written by Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911-84), is another masterpiece in the literature on the partition of the subcontinent. 

Though Faiz chose to stay in Pakistan after partition, his enduring poetry continues to rule hearts on both sides of the border despite strained political relations between two countries. The same sentiments that echo in his poem resonated through an editorial that he wrote for the Pakistan Times dated August 15, 1947. Both in his poem and the editorial, Faiz spoke about collateral damage and the emotional depletion wrought by the partition. 

In the poem he used metaphors such as “stained light” and “night-bitten dawn” for the first morning of the long-awaited freedom. And in the editorial, Faiz described the dawn of freedom as “black with sorrow and red with blood.” By some coincidence, the poem drew criticism from both, the ideological left and the right.

“Faiz’s friend and fellow progressive poet, Ali Sardar Jafri, called the poem ‘half truth’ and wrote that a poem like this could be written by both a member of an Islamist or a Hindu religious organization, that if Faiz felt that independence (and its ensuing partition) was a negation of the aspirations of the common people, he should have been more forceful in his denunciation of it,” Dr Ali Madeeh Hashmi, Faiz's grandson, writes in Love and Revolution: Faiz Ahmed Faiz - The Authorised Biography.

Many eminent Urdu poets such as Munir Niazi (1928-2006), Jaun Elia (1931-2002) and Sagar Siddiqui (1928-1974) were never comfortable with their migration to Pakistan. 

Josh Malihabadi, popularly known as Shayar-e-Inquilab, left India in 1956 and migrated to Pakistan against the wishes of Prime Minister Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru. But he too bitterly regretted his decision for the rest of his life. Farrukh Jamal Malihabadi — his grandson, recounts an anecdote in “Josh: Mere Baba — Shaqs Aur Shaaer” that provides an interesting insight: “Once General Ayub Khan, while trying to flatter Josh Sahib, said to him that he was a great ‘Alam’. To this the poet immediately replied that the right word is ‘Alim’ (scholar), not ‘Alam’. This made Ayub cringe and he gave orders that the cement agency that Josh Sahib ran, be shut down. And it happened.” 

Days before his departure for Pakistan, he had written ‘Adieu Malihabaad’, a heart-wrenching poem in which he laid bare the pain of getting separated from his beloved motherland. It remains a masterpiece in Urdu literature.

In his epic poem, “Muhajir Nama”, noted poet Munawwar Rana paints the pain and sufferings of partition with his words and verses. Described as a visual reflection, the poem bemoans about how people living as happy families within no time turned to refugees due to just one event -- partition. 

An Urdu-Punjabi poet from the West Punjab, Ghulam Ahmad Rahi (1923-2002), who migrated to Lahore from Amritsar in 1947, has written several lament poems on Partition. The last section of his first book, ‘Tarinjan’, bemoans the barbaric cruelty demonstrated by Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs when British India was partitioned into two independent nations of Pakistan and India.

It’s a strange paradox of the partition of Indian subcontinent that Muhammad Ali Jinnah, while addressing the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on August 11, 1947 during his first presidential speech, had proclaimed, “You may belong to any religion or caste or creed -- that has nothing to do with the business of the State.”  

His words had a deep impact on many Hindus as well. So, they decided to make Pakistan their home instead of India. Prof Jagannath Azad, a Lahore-based Hindu poet and Urdu scholar, was asked to write the national anthem of Pakistan.

Ae sarzameen-e-Pak zarrey terey hain aaj sitaron sey taabnak,
Roshan ye kehkashan sey kahin aaj teri khaak!


(Oh the land of Pakistan, each particle of yours is star-lit.
Even your dust seems brightened like a rainbow)

Azad’s family members in Jammu recall, “He wrote it on a very short notice -- just two days before Pakistan’s Independence Day on August 14. And it was approved by Qaid-e-Azam within a few hours.” 

Even though Azad shifted to Delhi next month and then settled in Jammu, his song remained Pakistan’s national anthem for a year and a half. After Jinnah’s death on September 11, 1948, a song written by Hafeez Jalandhari became the new national anthem of Pakistan.

Ahmad Faraz (1931-2008), a Pakistani poet who was fierce critic of military rule and was jailed and exiled on different occasions, questioned the rationale behind celebration of Independence Day in Pakistan and India in a thought-provoking poem:


Ab kis kaa jashn manaate ho us des kaa jo taqseem hua
Ab kis ke geet sunaatey ho us tan-man kaa jo do-neem hua

(Now what is this celebration for, for the country that has been divided,
Now what are these songs you sing, of the body that was cut into two)

In a poem, ‘Kaun Azaad Hua’, Jnanpith award-winning Urdu poet and author Ali Sardar Jafri (1913-2000) puts the Independence in the dock, decrying how people remain poor and deprived of basic things: 

Kaun aazad hua, kiske maathe se ghulami ki siyaahi chooti?
Mere seene mein abhi dard hai mehkoomi ka,
Maadr-e-Hind ke chehre pe udaasi hai wohi 


(Who has got the freedom, whose forehead has lost the stain of slavery?
I experience the same pain of subjugation in my chest,
That sadness is still there on Mother India’s face) 

Sardar Jafri's another poem, Subh-e Farda (The Morning of Tomorrow), is a telling comment on what many believed back then, "Sun never sets on British empire". Comparing the border between India and Pakistan with blood, tears, sighs and sparks, Jafri writes, "Isi sarhad pe kal dooba tha sooraj ho ke dau tukde, Isi sarhad pe kal zakhmi hui thi subh-e-aazadi (On this border yesterday, the sun set after splitting into two. On this very border yesterday, freedom's morning had got wounded)." But the poem ends on an optimistic note, "Main is sarhad pe kabse muntazir hon Subhe-E Farda Ka (I am waiting for a new dawn at this border since long)."


In literary circles, it is believed that the wounds of Partition never healed. Despite three wars and a limited conflict over Kargil, the prolonged border dispute between India and Pakistan persists. 

This acrimony has been addressed in a concluding song in Border (1997). The song written by noted film writer and poet Javed Akhtar, ‘Mere dushman, mere bhai, mere hum-saaye’, poignantly talks about the futility of war. It bemoans loss of life and property while both the countries grapple with poverty and squalor. 

In another movie, Refugee (2000), he wrote yet another compelling song that refers to birds, rivers, and gusts of wind, saying they can’t be stopped by any arbitrary border on earth. “Just think, what have we attained by being humans?” the song enquires gently.


Despite continued efforts by peaceniks and artists, including poets, successive governments in both countries continue to share a complex and hostile relationship. 

A Punjabi song that veteran poet and filmmaker Gulzar wrote for Kya Dilli Kya Lahore (2014) — that depicts the story of two enemy soldiers who discover at the newly created India-Pakistan border, that they have more similarities than differences — goes like this: 

Kisse lambe ne lakeeran de,
Goli naal gal karde,
Bol chubhde ne veeraan de!

(The stories of boundaries are long,
They talk with bullets
Words of brothers are hurtful…)