Who's afraid of a song?
The eminence of IIT-Kanpur as a centre of excellence is well-known and showcased by its high rankings in numerous international surveys, its distinguished research departments, alumni, and faculty. Unlike most science and technology schools, IIT-Kanpur even has an artist-in-residence programme to make education more holistic. Hence, it is ironic and disquieting that the institute, acting on a complaint by a temporary faculty, has decided to investigate if Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s 1979 iconic poem, Hum Dekhenge, immortalised as an anthem of protest by singer Iqbal Bano, contains anti-Hindu references.
Faiz and Bano and their work, including Hum Dekhenge, are a part of the Subcontinent’s collective cultural heritage. That’s how it has been, and it will continue to be so. Of course, the faculty member has a right to be offended by the song. But should IIT-K have legitimised his “hurt”, ordered a probe? How absurd is it for IIT-K to sit in judgement over Faiz’s secular credentials, as mirrored in Hum Dekhenge? Surely, even the junior-most faculty member in its humanities department could have explained to the deputy director heading the probe who Faiz and Bano are, even if a google search had failed to do so. In fact, the institute that hosted Naseeruddin Shah as artist-in-residence, at a time when the actor was critical of the government, ought to be proud of students who chose to stand in solidarity with their community elsewhere and protest the new citizenship law. These students have announced to the world that their campus, which has a distinguished record in academics, rejects all forms of bigotry and will speak out when the liberal values and foundations of the Republic are seen to be threatened. It is unfortunate that the institute’s bureaucracy has chosen to be blind to the message of the students and even forced Vox Populi, the online platform of the student body, to take down an editorial that complained about a peaceful gathering of the students being communalised.
The move to probe the protesters and the censure of Vox Populi send out disconcerting signals. They mirror a sense of insecurity that doesn’t behove a first-rate institute like the IIT-K. Faiz wrote the poem at a time of political repression in his country, and in Bano’s rendering a people denied democratic freedoms found a collective voice. The then military dictator of Pakistan, Zia ul Haq, felt that Hum Dekhenge was about him and sought to suppress it. There is no reason why anyone in India, a democracy that upholds the right to free speech, needs to feel similarly discomfited.