How 'Azadi' Went From A Kashmiri Slogan To A Pan-Indian Anthem

Demonstrators attend a protest against a new citizenship law in Shaheen Bagh, area of New Delhi, India January 19, 2020. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui (Photo: Danish Siddiqui / Reuters)

SRINAGAR, Jammu and Kashmir  — As the “hum kya chahte, azadi” (We want, freedom) slogan reverberates in protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) across India, Kashmir looks bemusedly at the development. It was here in the streets of Srinagar that the chant was born in the early nineties, and, with addition of more lines over the years, went on to become a veritable anthem for the separatist movement in the region. 

But its political moorings and identification with Kashmir struggle restrained its adoption on a wider scale. That’s until the CAA happened. The slogan’s pithy quality, its emotional pull and amenability to diverse interpretations has endeared itself to a people engaged in resistance against what they see as a discriminatory law. 

People across the country have embraced the words and flow of the chant but reimagined its import. 

The word azadi has been evacuated of its secessionist Kashmiri pedigree. It has been adapted to mean freedom from authoritarianism, freedom to protest and in a larger sense a reclamation of the idea of India. 

“Our azadi is different. We are Indians first,” said Nabiya Khan, a 24-year-old poet and student pursuing a bachelor’s degree in education in New Delhi. 

Khan declined to identify her educational institution for fear of being targeted for participating in the anti-CAA protests. 

“When we talk about azadi, we seek our citizenship rights. We fight for the secular ethos of our country,” she said.  

Every time anti-CAA protesters are shown on news channels shouting the azadi slogans, Kashmiris feel different things. There is some surprise at the turn of events and also some vicarious fulfilment. More so, at a time when Kashmiris themselves are being denied any freedom to protest and have no means of communication to air their grievances online. 

Though lockdown and information blackout has partially been eased in recent weeks, it hasn’t detracted from the environment of siege imposed in August following the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special constitutional status. Security agencies spring to action at any hint of dissent and the 2G internet access is confined to a little over 300 websites.

Azadi slogans silenced in Kashmir are now echoing from streets across India,” said Waseem Ahmad, 22, a student of political science at Kashmir University in Srinagar who follows the anti-CAA protests on television. 

From Kashmir 

The azadi slogan has been a staple in the Kashmir Valley’s separatist protests for the past three decades. It has also been a default chant in a  range of protests over bijli, paani, and other public grievances. 

Azadi has the most literal possible political interpretation in Kashmir. It essentially means liberation from India,” says Naseer Ahmad, a journalist and author of the book Kashmir Pending. “In fact, the word pushes the envelope further. In its larger sense, it also means azadi from Pakistan and carving of a united independent Kashmir.”

In its early days, the azadi that was being demanded was understood to have a secular character. It was an understanding that flowed from the ideology of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), the militant organisation that promoted the slogan. 

Founded in 1976 in Birmingham by Maqbool Bhat and Ammanullah Khan, the JKLF is considered to be the first militant group that started an armed insurgency in Kashmir in 1989. Though supported by Pakistan with arms and training during the initial years of militancy, JKLF’s objective remains a secular Kashmir free of both India and Pakistan.

Azadi slogan articulates what JKLF stands for: freedom from India and the secularity of the liberated Kashmir,” said the former militant leader Javed Mir, who succeeded Yaseen Malik as the commander of the JKLF in 1990. “The slogan continues to hold the same meaning for us.” 

The azadi chant, Mir explained, was neither conceived nor introduced by the JKLF, but evolved organically out of the circumstances prevailing at the time. He cannot recall when it was first chanted  but he does remember “the time, place and circumstances” that birthed it. 

“It was early 1990, the place was Bohri Kadal in downtown Srinagar, and the circumstances were one of the first shows of weapons by militants,” said Mir, who was then part of these shows to draw youth to militancy.  “As people caught sight of the Kalashnikovs, it sent them into frenzy. Within minutes thousands gathered and somebody among them shouted hum kya chahte, and the crowd roared back azadi.

Initially, the chant comprised of three phrases in addition to hum kya chahte: chheen ke lengeazadi (will snatch it, freedom), hai haq hamaraazadi (our right, freedom) and zor se boloazadi (shout forcefully, freedom). 

It didn’t take long for the azadi slogan to be coupled with other phrases, many of which were ideologically antithetical to its spirit. 

This shift corresponded with how the militancy was changing in the Valley. By 1991, the Hizbul Mujahideen had taken over as the dominant organisation commanding the largest armed cadre. The pro-Pakistan and theologically inspired group modulated the slogans in ways that promoted Kashmir merging with Pakistan. 

The slogan’s secularity was tempered if not compromised. 

But as the years passed, none of these slogans could match the compactness, appeal and universality of the original azadi slogan, which evolved and expanded. 

Some add-ons like phoolon wali, azadi (gorgeous like flowers, freedom), woh mehki mehki, azadi (rife with fragrance, freedom), are just paeans to the concept of azadi

With these additions and improvisations, the slogan has morphed into a song, lending a performative quality to the protests where it is invoked.

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Now, the phrases, if not the meaning attributed to them in Kashmir, have been adopted and adapted by the protesters across the country. Much like in Kashmir, people across India are improvising new additions to the anthem to articulate their message.

Sun le Modi, hum ladke lenge, azadi (Hear Modi, we will fight to reclaim our freedom)” is one such slogan popularised by Kanhaiya Kumar, a politician and a former president of the Jawaharlal Nehru Students’ Union. There are others like nafrat-hinsa se azadi (freedom from hate, violence), jatiwad se azadi (freedom from casteism), and manuwad se azadi (freedom from Manusmriti), punjiwad se azadi (freedom from capitalism).

However, the adoption on a mass scale hasn’t been overnight but a long-drawn process. 

Shehla Rashid, a political activist and a former vice president of Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union, says the azadi slogans were used in the 2012 during protests over the Delhi Gang Rape .

“It went like ‘rape culture se azadi,’” said Rashid who is perceived to be one of the agents of transportation of this slogan from Kashmir to rest of India, although she declines this is the case. 

“JNU wasn’t the first to adopt the azadi slogan as is widely believed,” she said. 

But Rashid agrees that the media attention that dogged the JNU protests in February 2016 is how the rest of the country heard the slogan. 

The event was a protest to mark the first death anniversary of Muhammad Afzal, also known as Afzal Guru, who was convicted in the 2001 Parliament Attack case in December 2002 and secretly hanged on 9 February, 2013. 

Azadi was among the several slogans raised at the event which went on to spark controversy. The context and reasons for raising some of these slogans remain complex and contested, but there were sections of the media which branded them and those raising them as “anti-national.” This has stuck in the public imagination. 

Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested and charged with sedition. While the Delhi Police is still pursuing the case,  a Delhi government-appointed magisterial probe did not find any evidence of Kumar raising anti-national slogans at the controversial event in the university. When he was released on bail and returned to JNU to a hero’s welcome on 3 February, Kumar gave a rousing speech in which he evoked the word “azadi” in the context of freedom from hunger and corruption. 

“I am not asking for freedom from India, I am asking for freedom in India,” he said

This seeded the slogan with a significant section of population in the country who grew to appreciate the universality of its message and the potential to propel an enlightened cause. 

The CAA protest has taken the slogan out of the confines of JNU and to the streets of the country. It is galvanising people, giving voice to their pent-up frustration against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the policies of the Bharatiya Janata Party government. 

People are chanting “hai jaan se pyaari azadi” (We love more than our life, freedom) and “tum kuch bhi karlo, hum leke rahenge, azadi” (Do whatever you want to do, we will get it anyhow, freedom). There are more like “Assam maange azadi’ (Assam wants freedom) and “Kerala maange azadi” (Kerala wants freedom)

Azadi slogan has two dimensions: it has become a rallying cry for anti-CAA protests which is a fight for our rights and a secular, inclusive India. Second, implicit in the slogan is a mindfulness of Kashmir and the situation there,” said Saba Rahman, a film-maker in New Delhi. 

“There is now some space for an independent opinion on the troubled erstwhile state free of politics and propaganda,” she said. 


As the slogan grows louder, so does the push back against it. 

At a recent rally in Delhi, Home Minister Amit Shah falsely claimed that people at the Shaheen Bagh protest site were demanding “Jinnah wali azadi, referring to Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who founded the Pakistan. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Ajay Bisht, who goes by the name Yogi Adityanath, has threatened to charge people chanting the slogan with sedition. The BJP Member of Parliament (MP) Parvesh Sahib Singh Verma has falsely claimed that people at Shaheen Bagh were demanding freedom for Kashmir.

But this does not appear to have reduced the pull of the azadi slogan.

Inhibitions associated with it have given way to a qualified espousal. 

The hum kya chahte, azadi slogan heard all over the country is carefully tweaked with phrases like Gandhi wali azadi and Constitution wali azadi

And with occasional internet shutdown and the imposition of section 144,  in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, the situation takes on an eerie Kashmir echo.

“When we shout the azadi slogan, we are well aware of its Kashmiri roots,  but that doesn’t detract from the meaning that we infer from the word,” said Arshad Garg, a 22-year-old student at Delhi University. 

“Our azadi is a fight for the country, not against it. Our azadi is a fight for a place within our country, not outside it,” he said. 

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