Poetically defiant

Print edition : July 02, 2021

Graffiti at the Jamia Millia Islamia University against the the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the National Register of Citizens and the National Population Register, in New Delhi on February 15, 2020. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the poet Sharda Saidpuri (left), BJP Rajya Sabha MP Dr C.P. Thakur and the poet Prasoon Joshi at a function to mark the golden jubilee of ‘Rashtrakavi’ Ramdhari Singh Dinkar’s seminal works, “Sankriti Ke Chaar Adhyay” and “Parshuram Ki Prateeksha”, in New Delhi on May 22, 2015. Photo: The Hindu archives

Amir Aziz. His poem “Sab Yaad Rakha Jayega [Everything will be remembered]” is a cry over the growing persecution of Muslims in the country. Its English version was recited by Pink Floyd’s co-founder Roger Waters (below) in February 2020. Photo: KSL

Pink Floyd founder Roger Waters.

A Punjabi singer performing during a protest against the new farm laws at Ghazipur on the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border on January 19, 2021. Photo: SANDEEP SAXENA

Rahat Indori. His verse, “Everyone has shed their blood on this soil, Nobody can exclusively claim India as their patrimony”, became a battle cry for anti-CAA protesters. The noted poet tested positive for COVID-19 and died of a heart attack in Indore on August 11, 2020. Photo: PTI

The Screenwriter Varun Grover at an anti-CAA rally in Mumbai on December 27, 2019. Photo: PTI

Bollywood and Assamese singer Zubeen Garg (wearing hat) during the anti-CAA protest in Guwahati on January 9, 2020. Photo: RITU RAJ KONWAR

Regime after regime has clamped down on anti-establishment poetry, but the Narendra Modi government in the last seven years has sought to demonise artistic voices as “anti-national”.

WHILE the Narendra Modi government, which completed seven years in office in May, has been criticised severely for the worsening economic distress, a string of decisions taken by Modi—seemingly aimed at social and political re-engineering of the country—and his government’s management of the catastrophic second wave of COVID-19 have resulted in a remarkable growth in anti-establishment poetry. In keeping with the tradition, several poets have expressed their angst against the atmosphere of intolerance, the culture of violence, vigilante killings, the rise of Hindutva nationalism, the pro-corporate policies of the government and the crackdown on defiant artists, writers and journalists.

Modi is known for his pretensions to poetic expression. An English translation of his Gujarati poems, “A Journey: Poems by Narendra Modi”, hit the stands in April 2014 just before the Lok Sabha election. On all important occasions, Modi has punctuated his speeches with poems, to make a point. After the Balakot crisis, he recited a poem “Main desh nahin mitne dunga [I’ll never allow the nation to perish]” written by Prasoon Joshi, well-known poet and advertisement icon. Prasoon Joshi was reportedly behind the BJP’s TV commercials for the 2014 and 2019 general elections. In October 2019, Modi said in his Twitter post that during an early morning stroll on the Mamallapuram beach near Chennai, he got lost in “conversation” with the ocean. “This conversation carries the world of my feelings. I am sharing the feeling with you in the form of a poem,” he had tweeted.

Modi seems to have an asymmetrical relationship with poets. Prasoon Joshi is often accused of playing court poet to Modi. The Coca-cola ad-maker, who is also chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification and a member of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, invited brickbats for treating Modi with kid gloves during an interview at Westminster Townhall in London in April 2018. The programme was televised as “Bharat Ki Baat Sabke Saath”. The questions Prasoon Joshi asked during the interview provided Modi’s detractors and meme makers with plenty of fodder. Joshi complimented Modi during the interview: “Modi ji, ek fakiri hai aapke swabhav mein” (Modi ji, there is a godliness in your nature).

Also read: A poet of defiance, transcending ideology

Speaking at a literary event in New Delhi in 2019, Prasoon Joshi borrowed marketing metaphors to make his point, “critique shops need to be shut down, we need positivity malls”. Admitting that wrong things were happening in the country, Prasoon Joshi said: “I want to focus on good…. It is not my job to keep finding fault.” He has written a theme song for the Modi government’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.

On a previous occasion, on February 7, 2018, in Parliament, Modi and Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge recited couplets written by the eminent Urdu poet Dr Bashir Badr. In response to the verse quoted by Kharge, Modi recited the following couplet:

Jee bohot chahta hai sach bolein,

Kya karein hausla nahi hota!

(How I wish, I could speak the truth,

But what can I do without courage)

Interestingly, Bashir Badr, who is now bed-ridden and suffering from dementia, reacted by posting a couplet on his Facebook page along with a news report: “When Narendra Modi quoted Bashir Badr’s Urdu poetry to counter Congress and Mallikarjun Kharge in Lok Sabha”. The verse had a piece of advice for Modi:

Sach, siyasat se adalat tak bohot masroof hai,

Jhooth bolo, jhooth mein ab bhi mohobbat hai bohot!

(Truth is too occupied from judiciary to politics,

Speak lies for lies still exude so much love)

In March 2016, while delivering a speech in Parliament, Modi quoted a couplet from a ghazal written by Nida Fazli, the eminent poet who had passed away the previous month:

Yahi hai zindagi kuch khwab chand ummiden,

Inhin khilaunon se tum bhi bahal sako to chalo!

(This is what life is all about, a few dreams, a few hopes,

If you too can get amused with these toys, then please do!)

Ironically, Nida Fazli was a bitter critic of Modi’s handling of the 2002 Gujarat riots. Before his death, the poet made this comment on Modi’s 2014 election slogan, “Achche Din”:

Gum sum Ganga ghaat hai, chup chup hai Gujarat,

Wada kar ke so gaye, sab achche din raat!

(Banks of Ganga are quiet, Gujarat is silent

After assurances, all good days and nights have fallen asleep)

Popular protests

The Modi government has faced several popular protests during its seven years in office. In recent months, Kanwar Grewal, Babbu Maan, Himmat Sandhu and Jass Bajwa and other Punjabi singers have lent their support to farmers protesting against the three new farm Acts. The musical outburst against the regime equipped these groups with protest anthems against farm distress and the Centre’s “Kaliya Nitian” (bad policies).

Even during the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) movement, which were derailed by the first lockdown declared in March 2020, poets had given expression to the protesters’ rage. The lockdown enabled the police to deface protest graffiti, mostly verses of poets, at Jamia Millia Islamia University. The university campus, had turned into an open protest exhibition following the police attack on protesting students in 2019.

While noted contemporary poets such as Javed Akhtar addressed anti-CAA rallies, that was also the time when the struggle for citizenship in Assam in the face of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) gave rise to a new poetic tradition called Miya. (Miya is basically a slur used to describe Muslims who migrated from East Bengal to Assam over several decades.) It was a reaction to the perceived attack on their identity that triggered an existential crisis for them.

During the same period, the globally popular Italian anti-fascist folk songs such as “Bella Ciao” (Goodbye Beautiful), a revolutionary anthem from the Second World War era, was translated and composed in Hindi as “Wapas Jao” by the activist-singer Poojan Shail.

Also read: Committed to cultural resistance

The anti-CAA movement was preceded by a growing concern among poets and intellectuals over the rise of “intolerance” under the Modi regime. Reacting to the incidents of lynching and hate crimes against Muslims, the Hindi poet Rajesh Joshi, for example, wrote a poem: “Junaid ko maar dalo [Kill Junaid]”. In the poem, he bemoaned the silence over vigilante justice and lamented: “The road of dictatorship is laid on human bodies.” Similarly, Javed Akhtar’s poem Naya Hukumnama (The New Ordinance), which talks about oppression and authoritarianism, was well received among the masses and in literary circles.

K.K. Kohli, a distinguished Delhi-based cultural activist, said: “Any movement becomes successful only when it percolates down to the common people and the common folks start participating in it. Otherwise, it remains compartmentalised. Common people usually lack platforms to demonstrate their protest. So they give vent to their angst and anger during conversations at the chaupal (public places), the paan ki dukaan, or under the peepal tree. Those who can do tukkbandi (rhyming) do so, and this is how folk songs come into existence. And those who are more organised and have a better understanding of rhyme and verse, they write refined poems.”

He said: “Before the anti-CAA movement, the protests were scattered. The CAA was initially seen as a minority issue and it was confined to certain quarters. It was when the common man started understanding its implications and began to participate in it that it started growing into a mass movement. Then came the farmers’ protest in which we have seen young girls and boys, composing and singing songs on the beats of duff. This is how mass movements grow.”

Literary movement

Manishi Jani, a distinguished Gujarati poet and writer, said that a nationwide social and literary movement called Dakshinayan Abhiyan had been launched in reaction to the killings of poets and writers such as Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, M.M. Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh. “A lot of poets and artists are still silent, that’s a reality. But then a lot of young poets are coming forward despite the fact that their voice is missing in the mainstream media. We have seen protest songs and poems written during the March/April Assembly election in West Bengal,” Jani said. He said the poem “Shabvahini Ganga” written by the noted Gujarati poetess Parul Khakhar took social media by storm and became available in at least 16 languages within no time. A telling comment on the mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis, the 14-line poem made it to the front page of The Telegraph’s May 19 edition. It was carried with a banner headline, “As Ganga carried corpses, a Naked Emperor moment”, and a picture of Modi. “The kind of response this poem has received in the home State of the Prime Minister and the Union Home Minister is overwhelming. It gives a lot of strength to me,” he said.

Gauhar Raza, a noted Urdu poet and scientist, said: “Before 2014, most of the poets, especially in Urdu, were writing on religion, patriotism and personal emotions. After 2014, a major change has come in response to the political change in the country. We had to wait until 2016 and then people started raising their voice. Old protest poetry of Sahir and for that matter even Pakistani poets such as Faiz and Habib Jalib was dug out and dusted. People examined it and started using it in protest demonstrations. A need for such poetry started growing.”

Interestingly, Rahat Indori’s couplet that became a battle cry for anti-CAA protesters was written decades ago:

Sabhi ka khoon hai shamil yahan ki mitti mein,

Kisi ke baap ka hindustan thodi hai!

(Everyone has shed their blood on this soil,

Nobody can exclusively claim India as their patrimony)

Gauhar Raza said: “There is always a dialectical relationship between poets. But here in our case people have led the poets. Earlier, poets would hesitate to recite poetry of defiance at government- and corporate-supported poetic congregations. But now they have got a platform—protest sites. A lot of credit goes to Dalit poets and writings in Hindi for turning the tide.”

‘Growing acceptance’

Puneet Sharma, a Mumbai-based young lyricist and poet, said:

“I write as a rationalist. ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ It is not just a nice quotation for me. It is a guiding principle for me. In the past few years, a lot of things have changed in the country. The cries that we hear in the remote corners of the north-eastern region or Bastar [Chhattisgarh] or Kashmir, those cries are now being heard from almost every part of the country today.

“Earlier, the audience would ask for reciting love poetry. Whether its social media or club houses, but now, surprisingly, people want to listen to poetry on political subjects. When my poem ‘Tum kaun ho be’ [Who are you], which I had read out during an anti-CAA protest in Mumbai, went viral on social media, it drew a lot of hate comments. When Indian Express re-uploaded it on its website in January last year, it got more traction and hate comments in equal measure. The same was the case with the ‘Badshah ka hukm ha’ [Emperor’s Order]. These poems were not a direct attack on anyone. But my recent poem, ‘Mar rahe hain sab mujhe badnam karne ke liay’ [Everyone is dying to defame me], which was written on COVID deaths, was much harsher and more pointed than the previous ones. And yet I did not receive even 10 per cent of the hate that I had received earlier.

“As a poet, I feel, pain invariably brings people closer to each other. The acceptance for poetry of protest is growing. Because people want to listen, we are taking artistic liberty and risk.”

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He cited the example of “Sab Yaad Rakha Jayega” (Everything will be remembered), a poem by the young poet Amir Aziz. The poem expresses anguish over the growing persecution of Muslims in the country. Its English version was recited by Pink Floyd’s co-founder Roger Waters in February last year:

Everything will be remembered.

Kill us, we will become ghosts

and write of your killings,

with all the evidence.

You write jokes in courts,

we will write justice on the walls.

We will speak so loudly that

even the deaf will hear.

We will write so clearly that

even the blind will read.

You write injustice on the earth,

We will write revolution in the sky.

Amir Aziz is known for writing tracks like “The Ballad of Pehlu Khan” that deals with the lynching of Pehlu Khan, a dairy farmer from Nuh district of Haryana. Pehlu Khan was beaten to death by gau rakshaks (cow protectors) in Alwar, Rajasthan, in 2017. Varun Grover is another upcoming Mumbai-based young writer and lyricist. He said: “Poetry and music have always been part of our tradition of dissent. Right from Sant Kabir to Goswami Tulsidas to Sarojini Naidu to Rahat Indori, all great poets of their times have written stuff that has gone against the views of the establishment.” He wrote “Kagaz nahin dikhayenge” (We will not show our documents) in support of the protests against the CAA and the NRC. “I think poetry makes it possible to talk about difficult themes without disturbing the listener. The layer of abstract and alankaar [figure of speech] gives it a protective shield and its rhythm-rhyme gives it a mass connect. That is why, regime after regime—from Aurangzeb to the British government to Indira Gandhi’s Emergency—have tried to clamp down on artistic voices.”

Corroborating his views, K.K. Kohli cited the examples of the radical Sufi poets of the Mughal period. “When Bulleh Shah wrote anti-establishment verses, the minimum punishment at the time was beheading. During the anti-CAA movement, mindless utterances such as ‘Goli maro saalon ko’ [shoot the traitors] by a Union Minister exposed the sheer frustration on the part of the government,” he added.

Vajpayee and Ali Sardar Jafri

Although Modi frequently quotes the 15th century radical poet Kabir, he has never shown any regard for rebellious poets. Arguably, things were altogether different during the National Democratic Alliance’s previous regime under A.B. Vajpayee. Dissent was not demonised and dubbed as “anti-national”. While Prime Minister Vajpayee and the literary giant Ali Sardar Jafri shared their love for poetry, the relationship between a quintessential Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh leader and a staunch Marxist was the exact opposite of the one shared by Modi and Prasoon Joshi.

The Youthful Boatman of Joy, a book on Sardar Jafri published by Bharatiya Jnanpith and edited by Squadron Leader Anil Sehgal, provides interesting insights into the poetry and personality of Sardar Jafri, one of the most significant poets of the 20th century.

During a Lok Sabha election rally in April 2019 in Rajasthan, Modi said: “India’s nuclear arsenal is not for Diwali fireworks.” Prasoon Joshi and other contemporary poets chose to maintain radio silence. Sardar Jafri, however, was quick and categorical in calling out the Ministers in Vajpayee’s government, who, soon after the Pokhran II nuclear tests, had proclaimed: “This deadly gift is for Pakistan.”

“Lahore cannot be destroyed without destroying Amritsar and the Golden Temple, a symbol of love and compassion. The poisonous effect would engulf the entire green belt of Punjab and Haryana. Thus, we will be punishing ourselves instead of punishing the enemy. An atomic attack on any part of Kashmir will similarly affect Islamabad,” Sardar Jafri had stated in an open letter to Vajpayee. The letter dated May 30, 1998, added: “War is evil, atomic war is the worst evil. It can’t solve any problem.”

Stressing that he came from the land of Ram and Gautam Buddha, Sardar Jafri urged Vajpayee: “Before the temple is made, make Ayodhya a garden of love and peace. The garden should have flowers from all parts of the world, a place representing all the cultures of India… with arrangement for Sufi and Bhakti songs, joint celebration of Dussehra and joint celebration of Eid.... These are some of the ways to pay homage to Ram. Let’s make Ayodhya a proud city of India.”

Reminding Vajpayee about the thoughts of Rabindranath Tagore, which he had expressed in an article, “Towards Universal Man”, on the fate of Muslims in the subcontinent, Sardar Jafri quoted Tagore: “The worldwide problem today is not how to unite with wiping out all differences, but how to unite with all differences intact, for it calls for no trickery and calls for mutual give and take.”

“How true and how magnanimous he was, the great sage of Santiniketan, as compared to the champions of modern-day Hindutva,” Sardar Jafri had remarked.

In his thanksgiving speech after receiving the 33rd Jnanpith award on June 6, 1998, Sardar Jafri told Vajpayee and the gathering in New Delhi that he was horrified at the idea of imagined consequences in the event of a nuclear war. “Humanity wants peace. Nuclear weaponry is the messenger of death. Mera naara roti aur kitaab hai [my slogan is food and education].”

“One may disagree with his political beliefs but none can overlook the vision that this man has for humanity,” Vajpayee had said in his keynote address, responding to the poet’s misgivings, after presenting him the award. A few months later, Sardar Jafri released the audio cassette and CD of Vajpayee’s collection of poems, “Geet Naya Gaata Hoon” (I Sing A New Song), in New Delhi on September 14, 1998. When Vajpayee made the historic peace trip to Pakistan, he presented Sarhad, an album of anti-war poems penned by Sardar Jafri and sung by Seema Anil Sehgal, to his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif as a national gift. A strong votary of India-Pakistan friendship, Sardar Jafri believed that Partition was irrevocable and both the countries need to reconcile to it for transcending an ugly past.

In a moving article, “In Love With Poetry and Revolution”, this is how his friend I.K. Gujral, another former Prime Minister, remembered Sardar Jafri after his death: “Sardar was a true nationalist, a tall thinker and protagonist of composite culture of India.”

“One quality with Sardar was that he never told you of his financial difficulties. He never asked for a personal favour. He was never after money or material things,” he said, adding that “a good company of friends, a heart full of compassion for the poor, love for children, optimism, humanism and a strong belief in Indo-Pak peace were some traits of his impressive personality.”

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The Modi government is under fire from literary groups and rights activists over the imprisonment of the revolutionary Telugu poet Varavara Rao. The octogenarian was lodged in Tajola jail in June 2018 for his alleged association with a plot to assassinate Modi in the contentious Bhima-Koregaon case, which is being probed by the National Investigation Agency. On July 16, 2020, he tested positive for COVID-19, almost three months after 40 eminent poets, including Gulzar, Ashok Vajpeyi, Satchidanandan, Keki M. Daruwalla, Magalesh Dabral, Jeet Thayil and Meera Kandasamy, had written to the Prime Minister seeking his release. The Bombay High Court granted him six months’ bail on medical grounds in February this year. According to Varavara Rao’s bail plea, he has been suffering from dementia besides other age-related ailments.

“The kind of treatment that was meted out to the 80-year-old upright and idealist poet inside the jail and in hospital pains me. What is more painful is the silence of the literary people and organisations such as the Sahitya Akademi. What kind of society we have become; where do we stand. We can’t respect a poet, who has devoted his entire life to literature and peoples’ causes,” said Manishi Jani, who has been popularising Varavara Rao’s poetry in various languages on social media.

Gauhar Raza, who was singled out as “anti-national” and as a supporter of the “Afzal Guru-loving camp” by a section of the pro-establishment media in 2016 for his poetry, said: “When more than 500 artists and intellectuals put up a united resistance against the government in 2015 against the growing tide of intolerance in the country, they were immediately branded as ‘Award Wapsi Gang’. Before 2014, artists and intellectuals used to have this conviction that ‘Ladainge, Jeetainge’ [we will fight, we will win)]. But now the situation has changed. Now the feeling is, ‘Ladainge, Marainge’ [we will fight, we will die] or at best go to the jail or get lynched on the street. This is the major shift that we have seen in the past seven years.”

Hidden pain

Ashraful Hussain and other “Miya” poets have been facing police cases and threats from the ruling BJP leaders in Assam. Hussain, who is currently undergoing medical treatment for COVID-19, said over phone: “Whatever we have written, it is about our hidden pain. Those who liked it, they published it. Those who didn’t like it, they filed FIR against us. We had to make people aware of our pain, so we did it through poetry and will keep doing so.”

The 27-year-old poet and social activist successfully contested the 2021 Assembly election from Chenga constituency in Assam as the All India United Democratic Front candidate. Although he could barely speak, he said: “Now that I have been elected to the State Legislative Assembly, I’ll use this platform as well. We are not working for just one community. We are with the labourers who work in the tea gardens. We are with the labourers who work in towns and cities. We stand in solidarity with everyone who is marginalised and oppressed. We will keep our voice up even if they send us to jail or hang us until death.”

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