Ahmad Salim

The following edited extract is taken from Anam Zakaria’s wonderful book 1971 and includes difficult content including violence that requires real consideration before using in the classroom. Questions that could guide a sensitive class discussion can be found below and could be used alongside a glossary and timeline.


In 1971, I was twenty-six years old and living in West Pakistan. I had become involved with the Communist Party of Pakistan and the National Awami Party (NAP). The NAP had a policy of parliamentary democracy and standing up for peoples’ rights. As a matter of principle, said we should support the Bengali cause. He said that they had the absolute majority and should form the government. So, as a political principle, we were supporting Bangladesh.

In 1971, when this incident happened in March (referring to the army operation on the night of 25 March), one of our leaders, Naseem Shamim Malik, returned from Dhaka the next day and told me how the killing had started in front of her, and how her Bengali friends had asked her to go back to West Pakistan. They said she was at risk there . . .

‘Every last Sunday of March, we used to celebrate the festival of Shah Hussain (Sufi saint), Mela Chiraghan (festival of lights). We used to go to his mazar and perform bhangra. That day, I said that Shah Hussain’s madhus (beloveds) were being killed in Bangladesh and so we should go barefoot, with bare heads, and tell Shah Hussain that his friends in Bangladesh were being killed. This was a poetic expression for me. And then I wrote a poem on this, Sada Jeeve Bangladesh (Long Live Bangladesh). The poem (cited at the beginning of this section), which I’d written in Punjabi was translated into Urdu and published. After that, my warrants were issued.’

‘So you were already referring to East Pakistan as Bangladesh?’ I asked Salim, surprised because I knew that in the Pakistan I had grown up, such an act could be construed as ‘anti-state’. But he told me that in all his writings, he had long referred to each province by the names the people of that land associated it with. Long before the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) was named Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2010, Ahmad Salim had already called it Pashtunkhwa. ‘Similarly, the Bengalis had adopted Bangladesh. I think that had Pakistan stayed united, it is likely that East Pakistan would have come to be referred to as the Bangladeshi province. If the Awami League had been allowed to form the government, they would have been in majority and might have been able to get a resolution passed in the assembly to rename East Pakistan. So, I felt that Bangladesh was their identity and titled the poem as such. But, of course, the government found the title provocative.’

When Salim appeared for his trial, he was as courageous as he had been in writing the poem. As a young man in his twenties, he seemed to have little fear. When the magistrate, who was a major, accusingly asked him, ‘You are Punjabi and despite that you have written against a Punjabi army?’ Salim responded, ‘A murderer is neither a Punjabi, nor a Pathan. A murder is a murder.’ Later, when the magistrate insulted the poem by calling it ghatia (rubbish), Salim told him that while he may call it ‘anti-Pakistan’, the title of ghatia or bharia (great) could only be given by a literary person. ‘If someone with poetic authority tells me my poem isn’t at the level of good poetry, I will listen. But you are not a poet.’ Needless to say, a harsh punishment was given to him for committing ‘treason’. He was released from jail after the war was over, in January 1972.

Back home, his family was distressed. ‘My mother was really angry with me. My sister was about to get married and my arrest was a setback. A friend of mine helped out by giving my family some money and telling them that I had deposited the amount with him for my sister’s marriage. It was through this lie that they were a little pacified.’ Upon his arrest, his niece asked her mother why the police were taking away her uncle. Her mother told her, ‘Your uncle wrote a poem against Yahya Khan.’ Confused, the child, who was only four years old, asked, ‘So what? Yahya Khan can write a poem against uncle. Why did he arrest him?’

‘The reality was that at that time, I couldn’t think about myself,’ he said. ‘The things that were happening . . .’

Years later, when he was awarded the Friends of Liberation War Honour, in Bangladesh, he asked why it was being bestowed upon him. ‘I had only written a poem and spoken up a little. They told me that if ten people talk a little standing amidst 10 crore people, there is nothing more courageous than that. They said that Bangladesh was attacked, we (Bengalis) had no option but to fight, but you did so of your will and we want to appreciate that spirit. I think they were right. Our leaders, two or three women such as Tahira Mazhar Ali and Naseem Shamim, who were part of the Anjuman-e-Jamhooriat Pasand Khawateen (Democratic Women’s Association), all supported the Bengalis in 1971. Once, in the month of April, we were marching on the streets of Lahore when the shopkeepers spat on us, calling us anti-Pakistan, telling us we should be ashamed. The women were also with us. The shopkeepers spat on Tahira too and she tolerated it. That was the character and spirit at that time . . . we thought that a party (the Awami League) has an absolute majority and you are trying to beat them down? What kind of democracy is that?’

Here, Salim added that there were only a few people standing with them. ‘It was a tiny movement. Iss ki koi haisyat nahi thi, iski haisyat iski moral strength thee (it wasn’t a significant movement because of the number of people supporting it but rather because of the moral stand it took). If the population was 10 crore (100 million) here at that time, there were not even 10,000 supporters, if we estimate generously. We could count them on our fingers.’

That day, before I left, I told Salim that I was in awe of his spirit. As a Punjabi, as somebody who grew up in a society where Bengalis were looked down upon, where they were said to be influenced by the ‘Indian’ and ‘Hindu’ culture, it couldn’t have been easy to escape popular sentiment. While most people in West Pakistan stayed quiet, either because they were afraid or because they had bought into state narratives, how had he as a Punjabi defied the populist sentiment?

It didn’t take him long to respond. He smiled and said, ‘Only a true Punjabi can be ready to help other patriots. An anti-Punjabi would never want to help others. It is because I am a true Punjabi, and because Punjabism is to help others . . . I write in my mother tongue, I’m a Punjabi poet, I love Punjabi, so I love all languages. Had I not been a conscious Punjabi, I too would have said like the other Punjabis that the Bengalis were traitors.’

While the war of 1971 is often remembered as a war between the Punjabis and Bengalis, here was a Punjabi who felt that it was only because he was a true Punjabi that he could stand up for the Bengalis. It was because he loved his own language so much that he could understand the importance of Bengali for his fellow countrymen. It was his Punjabiness that had made him defiant. Here the Punjabi and Bengali had stood as one, fighting for the same cause on both sides of Pakistan. And it was only when Bangladesh found its independence that Salim too was emancipated from the shackles of his confinement. On a wintry day in January, about a month after the war ended, Salim walked free.

Questions to guide class discussion

Ahmad Salim

  1. What was Ahmad doing in 1971 and where was he living?
  2. Why did Ahmad support the  ‘Bengali cause’?
  3. How did Ahmad protest in West Pakistan to support the Bengali cause? What was the response of the Government?
  4. Why was the title of his poem so difficult for the Pakistani government to hear? And why do you think Ahmad being Punjabi made this even more so?
  5. What does Ahmad say when he is accused of being a traitor to Punjab and West Pakistan?
  6. How did many people in the street in West Pakistan react to Ahmad and his friend’s protests?
  7. Years later, what did Ahmad receive from the Bangladesh government and what was his reaction?
  8. What does Ahmad describe a ‘conscious Punjabi’ as being?
  9. Where do you think Ahmad’s story is less difficult to hear – in Pakistan or Bangladesh ? Why?