What Coke Studio’s Hum Dekhenge Tells You About Pakistan’s Elections

Politics

What Coke Studio’s Hum Dekhenge Tells You About Pakistan’s Elections

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Anation decides its fate today. A nation with deep links to India, carved out of the rib of the Indian subcontinent. A nation whose destiny can be summed up in a song.

As you’re reading this, close to 20 crore Pakistanis have voted to choose their next leader. They’re “spoiled” for choice, in the sense that there’s something rotten about every option. Former PM Nawaz Sharif – whose three children were named in the Panama Papers for owning undeclared, prime property in London – was arrested as soon as he returned to Pakistan. Not that this will cost him the election; Pakistan’s Supreme Court had already barred him from holding public office for not being sadiq (truthful) and ameen (righteous). So there’s a stand-in from his party, Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz): Shehbaz Sharif.

The second ingredient in this electoral Molotov cocktail is his rival and late PM Benazir Bhutto’s party, led by her husband Asif Ali Zardari, who was nicknamed “Mr Ten Percent” for all the kickbacks he collected during his wife’s tenure. The PM hopeful of this party is the cherubic Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, whose political career has been summed up in this wonderful sketch.

And because this brew wasn’t potent enough, another contender is a political front headed by Hafiz Saeed, the man responsible for planning the terrorist attack on India’s Parliament and the Mumbai massacre of 26/11. The United States recently cut $900 million in security aid alone to Pakistan, and has a $10 million bounty on Hafiz’s head – so naturally, he is freely campaigning all over the country.

Those fond of inviting anti-nationals and presstitutes and sickulars to go to Pakistan should ask us to make for the nearest menagerie instead – because Pakistan has gone to the zoo.

But these chaps are noobs. The candidate primed to win this election is the army-backed cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, who called Sharif’s supporters donkeys. His own henchmen interpreted that as an order to mutilate a real donkey, brand it with the word “Sharif” and leave it to die. A tell-all memoir by Khan’s journalist ex-wife, Reham Khan, about his drug habit and sexual deviances somehow just happened to be published last month. That, however, is unlikely to have an effect on the one already chosen for the throne.   

Those fond of inviting anti-nationals and presstitutes and sickulars to go to Pakistan should ask us to make for the nearest menagerie instead – because Pakistan has gone to the zoo.

In the last six weeks, election-related violence has claimed over 300 Pakistani lives. This doesn’t include this morning’s blast in Quetta that killed 25 people. One would expect the Pakistani citizenry to lie low and hope for everything to pass quietly. Instead, Coke Studio Pakistan inaugurated its new season with “Hum Dekhenge”, a song that urges ordinary Pakistanis to rise up against their tormentors and claim power for themselves… three days before election day.

In the last six weeks, election-related violence has claimed over 300 Pakistani lives. This doesn’t include this morning’s blast in Quetta that killed 25 people.
Image credit: BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images

First, a little bit of history.

When General Zia-ul-Haq became dictator in 1977, he consolidated his support base of conservative hardliners by imposing his myopic interpretation of Islam on Pakistan. His regime drew up lists of artists, banned dance, tried to forbid music in Sufi shrines and cut off funds to the country’s premier arts academy. The sari was declared unlawful for being too Indian, and teen sensation Nazia Hassan’s music (she of “Disco Deewane” fame) was blacklisted on radio and television.

One artist constantly monitored by Zia’s police was Marxist poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz (if you appreciate the lyrics of Haider’s “Gulon Mein Rang Bhare”, it’s his poetry you like). Two years after Zia seized power, Faiz wrote “Hum Dekhenge”, which calls for a revolution.  

Hum mahkoomon ke paaon taley
Yeh dharti dhad-dhad dhadkegi
Aur ahl-e-hakam ke sar upar
Jab bijli kad-kad kadkegi                        

(Under the feet of us, the oppressed
The earth will shake and tremble
And on the heads of the rulers
Thunder and lightning will strike)

And then, he says:

Sab taaj uchhaale jaayenge
Sab takht giraaye jaayenge

(All crowns will be tossed off
All thrones will be demolished.)

Faiz was also a Hafiz-e-Quran (one who knows the Quran by heart); he drew parallels between religious imagery, and Pakistan’s power-hungry clerics and the spirit of democracy. He goes on to assert that when the idols of falsehood are cast out from the Kaaba (House of God), we – the pure, the outcastes from the holy place – will be seated on the ruling throne. Faiz’s poetry, of course, was banned by Zia.

One year after Faiz’s death, a crowd of thousands gathered at Lahore’s Alhamra Arts Council – next to the Governor of Punjab’s official residence – to listen to legendary ghazal performer Iqbal Bano. In seats, aisles, corridors and the road outside – people were crammed everywhere. Defiant of Zia and resplendent in a black silk sari, Iqbal Bano started singing “Hum Dekhenge”. Her performance made history, and still gives me gooseflesh every time I listen to it.

During the performance, applause breaks out, Zia’s men panic, switch off the lights and cut off the microphone, but the audience refuses to budge. Iqbal Bano’s deep, sombre voice is punctuated by “wah-wahs” and murmurs of appreciation from her listeners, who are overcome by the poignancy of the moment. When she proclaims that crowns will be lost, there is pandemonium; her tabla player gives up trying to stick to the beat and just keeps time with the claps of the audience. As they build up to a crescendo, cries of “Inquilab Zindabad” rend the air.   

It is this rousing anthem that Coke Studio Pakistan chose to record with all the artists of its forthcoming season. It features rappers and qawwals, transgenders and children, expats and tribals, soprano Momina Mustehsan and the sonorous Abida Parveen – Muslims, Hindus, Parsis, and Christians. At this fraught time in their country’s existence, they’ve crossed their arms, pointed their fingers, and called for change in the only way they knew how: By voicing the words of a long dead prophet, and echoing the music of a songstress for whom her country was as dear as her art.

Will their dream come true? Will the crowns be tossed off and thrones demolished? It seems unlikely in this election – but what do the people of Pakistan have if they don’t have hope?  

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