Students and other social activists in Mumbai continued protesting outside Gateway of India throughout the night following attacks on students of JNU in the national capital. (Express photo by Nirmal Harindran)
When masked thugs ran riot inside Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University last week, Mumbai-based singer-songwriter, Aamir Aziz, 30, decided to fight. He picked up his pen, and composed the nazm, Sab yaad rakha jayega: Tum syahiyon se jhooth likhoge humein maloom hai/ Ho hamare khoon se hi sahi, sach zaroor likkha jayega (We know that you will draft lies with ink/ Be it with our blood, truth will absolutely be written down). The former Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) student’s poetry, emerging from his anguish, was released this week on social media. “The piece, like most protest poetry, is born out of the current movement. The need of the hour is to highlight the consciousness of the times,” says Aziz, who also wrote an ode to the girls of JMI. Titled Jamia ki Ladkiyaan (The Girls of Jamia), Aziz writes, Shahon ko benaqab karti hain, Isharon se inqalab karti hain, Jamia ki ladkiyan (They unmask the rulers, create revolutions with gestures, the girls of Jamia). It’s a strident warning — angry yet hopeful. “This is not really a poem. It’s what I saw. I was hiding behind the library like many others when teargas bombs were being dropped,” he says.
With the republic preparing to celebrate its 71st year, citizens of all ages, led by the young, are singing Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s Hum dekhenge, Habib Jalib’s Dastoor and Rahat Indori’s Kisi ke baap ka Hindustan thodi hai. As they protest the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, calling it discriminatory, those on the streets are angry and exhausted, but hopeful. Their creative pause is through poetry and songs, which have now become a crucial part of the protests.
From writer-lyricist Varun Grover’s indignant Hum kaagaz nahi dikhayenge, to an assertion of a personal relationship with the country in writer Puneet Sharma’s Hindustan se mera seedha rishta hai, tum kaun ho bey?, to lyricist Swanand Kirkire’s Maar lo dande and Delhi-based Pujan Sahil’s political parodies using old Bollywood compositions, writers are using a wide range of styles. There is also Mumbai-based Sheetal Sathe, lead singer of Kabir Kala Manch, singing Aye Musalman bhai saath hai Ambedkar, declaring that the Constitution is with India’s Muslims, and Rahul Negi (better known as Madara), who uses hip-hop’s inherent political consciousness to good effect in the satirical rap, Tukde tukde gang. Negi grew up in Seelampur and went to an RSS school in Uttarakhand. “When I got out, I knew I had to unlearn things. I read and here I am,” says the rapper.
Protest poetry and songs have become the soul of the current agitations. Grover says, “Culturally, as a nation, we are very connected to music and poetry. Secondly, it’s a youth protest, and there is no art form that’s friendlier and younger than poetry.” According to Mumbai-based writer and spoken word poet Hussain Haidry, 34, poetry gives dissent a “sophisticated voice”. He says, “One way is to say, ‘ABVP murdabad’, the other is to say, Ye jo bhagwadhaari hai, ye inki hi gaddari hai… (In their saffronisation lies their treachery). These are not offensive words. (Poetry) elevates you emotionally, has brevity, musicality, is emotional; and, therefore, it sticks.”
Haidry recently recited his poem Hindustani Musalman at the protests at Mumbai’s Azad Maidaan: Mujhme geeta ka saar bhi hai, ek Urdu ka akhbaar bhi hai, mera ek mahina Ramzaan bhi hai, maine kiya toh Ganga snaan bhi hai (There is, within me, the music of the Gita, as well as an Urdu newspaper, I observe Ramzan, but I’ve also bathed in the Ganga). The poem hit home. “The scale of anti-Muslim propaganda is so high that sometimes the community does not even have the vocabulary to say it,” says Haidry. The poem filled that gap.
Gujarat-based law student Iqra Khilji, 23, whose poem Khabees (Impure) had become popular on social media, recently recited lines from her untitled poem at a protest: Faiz mulzim jiss zameen par, inqalabi dhang uska/ Chhatpataata hai wo zaalim, zard hai ab rang uska (The land on which Faiz is a culprit, revolutionary are its ways/ The merciless is floundering, his hue is dishonour). “Whenever tyranny reaches a certain peak, art flourishes. It is the most organic poem I have written,” she says. Sharma, who grew up in Indore and who has written the lyrics for Bareilly ki Barfi (2017), says that Tu kaun hai bey was a result of the growing belief that one isn’t a patriot if one is not loudly proclaiming one’s love for the nation with slogans like Bharat mata ki jai.
There is a resurgence in protest poetry after nearly three decades, says poet Naveen Chaura, who has been reciting his poem Vastavik Kanoon at Delhi protests.
Hip-hop is an obvious vehicle for new protest songs. Taru Dalmia, who is known as Delhi Sultanate, released his song Scalp Dem in collaboration with rapper duo Seedhe Maut when the protests erupted last month. The trigger, he says, was “the claustrophobic, authoritarian and Hindu nationalist environment, giving people increasingly less space to express themselves”. Sikkimese rapper UNB was also quick to respond with Jai Sri Ram. “I couldn't digest the fact of my country is discriminating on the basis of religion... giving citizenship to refugees is not a problem but giving it on the basis of religion where Muslims are not included is,” says the Delhi-based hip hop artist and sound engineer.
The first rapper to respond to the protests was Delhi-based Sumit Roy. He added a verse, Go Protest, to his existing song Poorna Swaraj, which he had released prior to the general elections. The hook of the song — Poorna swaraj, shabdon par lathi kyun? — is finding resonance now. “I wanted to urge people to speak out, protest, as people on the streets are the only opposition to the government now,” says Roy, who has been performing at various protests in Delhi.
But Haidry cautions against the celebratory mood at some of the protests and says that the gatherings shouldn't turn into concerts. “One can’t have entertainment attached to the protests. In fact, there need to be speeches, information and poetry,” he says. The anthems, too, will come. "Soon enough," says Aziz.
With inputs from Surbhi Gupta