It was while all of us, Indians wedded to a syncretic history and Constitutional ethos, were gearing up to celebrate the birth anniversary of Paash - a revolutionary Punjabi poet on September 9, the news of the assassination of Gauri Lankesh shook everyone to the core.
Paash was a by-product of the radical communist movement also known as naxalite movement of late 1960s that united the oppressed communities and the working class in India. He has been in the forefront of many people's struggles and captured the literary landscape of Punjab due to his fiery poetry which had a strong mass appeal because of its rebellious content.
Born on September 9, 1950 as Avtar Sandhu, Paash chose his pen name after Paasha the hero of The Mother, a famous novel by Maxim Gorky. He challenged not only the Indian state through his poems, but also wrote against both the Hindu and Sikh fundamentalism. The emergence of Hindu Right and Sikh fanaticism during 1980s had vitiated the social environment of Punjab. While the Sikh extremists were seeking a separate homeland of Khalistan, an imaginary country to be carved out of India, Hindu fundamentalists terrorised Sikhs and Muslims across India in order to establish a Hindu nation.
Sensing that this would lead to another religious partition of India like in 1947 that resulted in separation of Muslim Pakistan and large scale sectarian violence, Paash had formed Anti 47 Front. He pulled no punches while condemning the reactionary forces of any stripe as a result of which the Khalistan Commando Force (KCF) that was involved in armed insurgency in Punjab assassinated him in 1988.
The KCF took responsibility of murdering him and other communist activists like him in the state for their opposition to the movement of Khalistan. The organisation had justified the action by branding Paash as anti Sikh. Yet, many supporters of Khalitan continue to malign him on social media and deny their hand in his murder. They claim that Paash might have been killed for personal and not political reasons.
Now let's fast forward to 2017. On September 5, Gauri Lankesh was murdered in Karnataka by unknown assailants. Much like Paash, Lankesh was also a vocal critic of religious extremism. She has been consistently writing against growing threat of Hindu extremism under a right wing Hindu nationalist government led by prime minister, Narendra Modi. She has been receiving death threats and as soon as the news of her murder came, the supporters of Modi began celebrating her death on social media. If that was not enough, some even tried to rationalise her killing, also trying to establish that she might have been killed for non political reasons.
Apart from these two individuals there were many more free thinkers and writers who have been killed in India over all these years. But while there are many similarities between the killings of Paash and Lankesh and the reaction that followed, the Indian state that claims to be the world's largest secular democracy handled the two situations very differently.
The Khalistani extremists who claim to be the defenders of the minority Sikh community were frequently killed in staged police shootouts. The Indian authorities duly rewarded the police for eliminating them in the name of the 'national interest'. The killers of Paash and other writers like him in Punjab were punished by using extra judicial means in the name of peace. But that has never been the case with the Hindu Right extremists. Rather those indulging in the killings and bombings in the name of the Hindu nation continue to enjoy the state patronage. Unsurprisingly, under the Modi government they have become emboldened. So much so, some trolls on social media who have been using filthy language against Lankesh after her murder were being followed by Modi. There seems to be a complete lack of political will to arrest such elements let alone a will to get them punished. A case in point is that of Lt. Col. Srikant Purohit - a serving army officer who was arrested for being a part of Hindu supremacist group that has been targeting Muslim through bomb blasts. Only recently he got bail and was reinstated on the job even before the court could give its final verdict in the case.
This reflects badly on a state whose constitution guarantees equal treatment to all religious communities. If India is truly a pluralist and diverse nation that it must under all circumstances treat the extremists of both the minority and the majority communities alike. Those who keep boasting over the restoration of peace in Punjab and ending Sikh militancy with an iron fist owe an explanation of why Hindu extremists are not being dealt with firmly when they too are posing threat to the unity and diversity of the country. Such tendencies only show that India is increasingly becoming a Hindu theocracy in spite of its official mandate to remain secular.
P.S. The ministry for human resources development (MHRD) under this regime has been approached by a extremist right wing outfot affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) --Dinanath Batra's Shiksha Bachao Andolan-- to remove Pash's poetry from texts in the NCERT for school chidren.
Why is Pash so Critical to a Growing Mind?
- Pash alias Avtar Singh Sandhu was gunned down by Khalistanis on March 23, 1988, at his village Talwandi Salem in Jalandhar. He was then 37 years old
- Influenced by Punjab’s Naxalite movement in 1960s, Pash is often hailed as a revolutionary poet for having introduced a new paradigm in Punjabi poetry with his bold imagery
- Pash wrote three anthologies of poems — Loh Katha (The Iron Tale) in 1970, Uddiyan Bazan Magar (In Pursuit of the Flying Hawk) 1974 and Saadey Samiyan Vich (In Our Times) in 1978
- Khilre Hoey Varkey (The Scattered Pages) was published posthumously in 1989
The Most Dangerous
Most treacherous is not the robbery
of hard earned wages
Most horrible is not the torture by the police.
Most dangerous is not the graft for the treason and greed.
To be caught while asleep is surely bad
surely bad is to be buried in silence
But it is not most dangerous.
To remain dumb and silent in the face of trickery
Even when just, is definitely bad
Surely bad is reading in the light of a firefly
But it is not most dangerous
Most dangerous is
To be filled with dead peace
Not to feel agony and bear it all,
Leaving home for work
And from work return home
Most dangerous is the death of our dreams.
Most dangerous is that watch
Which run on your wrist
But stand still for your eyes.
Most dangerous is that eye
Which sees all but remains frostlike,
The eye that forgets to kiss the world with love,
The eye lost in the blinding mist of the material world.
That sinks the simple meaning of visible things
And is lost in the meaning return of useless games.
Most dangerous is the moon
Which rises in the numb yard
After each murder,
but does not pierce your eyes like hot chillies.
Most dangerous is the song
which climbs the mourning wail
In order to reach your ears
And repeats the cough of an evil man
At the door of the frightened people.
Most dangerous is the night
Falling in the sky of living souls,
Extinguishing them all
In which only owls shriek and jackals growl,
And eternal darkness covers all the windows.
Most heinous is the direction
In which the sun of the soul light
Pierces the east of your body.
Most treacherous is not the
robbery of hard earned wages.
Most horrible is not the torture of police
Most dangerous is not graft taken for greed and treason.
Backhround: In 2006 BJP MP, Ravi Shankar Prasad during a debate on NCERT books had told Parliament (RajyaSabha) that Paash was a Naxalite. The NCERT had prescribed Paash’s poem “The Most Dangerous” in Hindi textbooks for class XI students from 2006 onwards. This is part of an arrangement whereby 20% literature is translated from other languages. This poem was selected for all India syllabus of NCERT. Recently in a press conference in Delhi after Gauri Lankesh's dastardly killing, (and after he had condemned trolls for being abusive on her death) Prasad was on air again saying that Gauri's brother had said that Naxals were behind her killings.
The attempt to erase the works of Paash from Indian textbooks should be resisted. The original poem in Punjabi reads as follows:
The Hindi translation of the poem is as follows: