New Delhi: The last few months in India have been tumultuous with the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) 2019 giving rise to protests across the country. Chants of ‘azaadi’ reverberated at JNU and Jamia Millia Islamia, at Jantar Mantar and the Gateway of India and everywhere in between, as students braved lathicharge and mob attacks. Shaheen Bagh has since become a landmark and will forever remain in the annals of history as a significant and vital movement against the CAA.
In all these protests, varying art forms have emerged as strong statements of resistance, and a major one is poetry. But the relationship between poetry and protests isn’t new — in fact, protesting is intrinsic to poetry. English poet Simon Armitage said, “There is something about poetry that is oppositional…it is a form of dissent… even in its physical form …it doesn’t reach the right-hand margin, it doesn’t reach the bottom of the page…there’s something obstinate about it.”
On World Poetry Day, here are some of the most powerful verses of resistance by Indian poets.
Killing the Shambukas by S. Chandramohan
Rohith Vemula’s suicide in Hyderabad University in 2016 shook the entire nation. “My birth is my fatal accident,” he wrote in his searing suicide letter. Vemula, along with four others were suspended from college after the Akhil Bharatatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) filed a complaint against them.
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Chandramohan’s poem, which was written in 2014, reverberated across the country two years later in response to this incident in Hyderabad University. It reads:
Jim Crow segregated hostel rooms
Ceiling fans bear a strange fruit,
Blood on books and blood on papers,
A black body swinging in mute silence,
Strange fruit hanging from tridents.
Based on suicides of Dalit-bahujan students in higher education institutes of India, this poem draws inspiration from Jewish communist poet, Abel Meeropol’s Strange Fruit, written in 1937, which addressed lynhcing of African Americans. The poem was converted into a song by Billie Holiday, who first performed it in 1939. Chandramohan has maintained that “Indian poetry in English has been largely elitist, with little social commentary,” while others have described his work as “overtly political and straight.”
Sab Yaad Rakha Jayega, Sab Kuch Yaad Rakha Jayega by Aamir Aziz
Tum zameen pe zulm likh do
(You write injustice on the earth)
Aasman pe Inqilab likha jaayega
(We will write revolution in the sky)
Sab yaad rakha jayega, sab kuch yaad rakha jaayega
(We will remember everything. We will not forget it at all)
Aamir Aziz took to the stage with these lines at India’s anti-CAA protests, when students from JNU and Jamia Millia Islamia were beaten up brutally, with this powerful poem. Driving home the point of holding truth to power, the entire poem is punctuated with the reminder that history will always remember crimes against humanity. Throughout the verses, he commends the protestors for their will, calls out the inaction of those in power and ends with a message of how people in this country will not stop fighting for the truth.
The poem garnered such attention that Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters even recited a translated version of this at an event where he spoke about the release of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. This is not Aziz’s debut in poetry, though. It is preceded by Achhe Din Blues, which captures the “political scenario and social condition of India” and The Ballad of Pehlu Khan, which takes inspiration from Bob Dylan’s The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.
I Am A Hindustani Muslim by Hussain Haidry
On 10 February 2017, Hussain Haidry recited his I am a Hindustani Muslim at Kommune, a performing arts forum in Mumbai. Within a week, the video went viral. While he maintains that his poetry is not a form of protest, but in fact, a struggle for the search of his own identity, his work does touch upon issues such as religion and caste.
Main Shia hoon ya Sunni hoon
(Am I Shia or I’m Sunni?)
Main Khoja hoon ya Bohri hoon
(Am I Khoja or I’m Bohri?)
Main gaaon se hoon ya shehri hoon
(Am I from the village or the city?)
Main Baaghi hoon ya Sufi hoon
(Am I rebel or a mystic?)
Main quomi hoon ya dhongi hoon
(Am I devout or a fraud?)
Main kaisa musalman hoon bhai?
(Bhai, what kind of Muslim am I?)
While one may read this poem as a defiance of stereotyping of a Muslim identity, it stems from a sense of a lost identity. Through dealing with this crisis and in search of an answer, the verses go on to describe the diversity in India. “Why do I feel my identity is so fragmented? Perhaps because I’m a Hindustani? Hindustan is so diverse,” said Haidry, who left a cushy job in Kolkata and moved to Mumbai to become a lyricist and writer.
I Am Miya by Hafiz Ahmed
The National Register of Citizens in Assam last year sparked major uproar on grounds of discrimination. Hafiz Ahmed penned down verses in modern Miya poetry, expressing his concerns regarding the flawed exercise.
I am a Miya
My serial number in the NRC is 200543
I have two children
Another is coming
Will you hate him
As you hate me?
While what Ahmed wrote falls in the modern category which began only in 2016, Miya poetry has had a long history of being involved in controversies. In 2010, an FIR filed against 10 people for reciting a poem that criticised the NRC stated, “The accused person’s intention is to depict a picture of Assamese people as xenophobic in the eyes of the whole world, which [is] a serious threat to the Assamese people, as well as, towards the national security and harmonious social atmosphere.”
Miya poetry focuses on the discrimination against Bengal-origin Muslims in Assam. It is written in the poet’s native dialect (which often come from places such as Tangail, Pabna, Mymensingh and Dhaka, which fall in present-day Bangladesh) as opposed to Assamese. The use of a native dialect is in itself a form of protest for it sheds light on Assam’s troubled history of minorities. While the term “Miya” is used across the world to describe a gentleman, Assam sees it as a slur for those who migrated from Bengal. In this poem, Ahmed reclaims this very identity.
The Most Dangerous by Pash
Avtar Singh Sandhu, better known as Pash, was one of Punjab’s acclaimed poets of resistance. His work, which is inspired by the Naxalbari uprising in 1967, is reflective of the suppression, immorality, religious fundamentalism and feudalism in Punjab of the 1970s and 80s. In his poem, “Sab Ton Khatarnak” (The Most Dangerous), Pash makes a searing argument against apathy and against getting so caught up in the mundane that we lose sight of larger realities. His words ring as true today as they did then.
The most dangerous deed is to be filled with a dead silence,
Not feeling any agony against the unjust and bearing it all.
Getting trapped in the routine of running from home to work and from work to home,
The most dangerous accident is a death of our dreams.
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