Poetic protests

The nationwide protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 — or the CAA — has led to an outpouring of poetry. This is somewhat unprecedented. While occasional poetry is not uncommon in India, poets responding so spontaneously to a political development is not common either. While news reports and opinion pieces, thousands of which have been written in India and abroad since early December, will provide a historical context to this moment, poetry responding to it will be the witness to its emotional core.

Varun Grover’s “Hum Kagaz Nahi Dikhyange (We will not show our papers)”, which has been put to music by Rahul Ram, has become a sort of an anthem for the anti-CAA protests. The poem, which defiantly claims that citizens do not need to show any papers to prove their citizenship, seems to embody in some ways the call to civil disobedience of the law by social activist Harsh Mander and writer Arundhati Roy. Its widespread appeal was evidenced when Debosmita Chowdhury, a topper from the international relations department of Jadavpur University in Kolkata — my alma mater —  decided to tear up a copy of the contentious Act on stage at the convocation ceremony of the university, while crying out: “Hum Kagaz Nahi Dikhyange”.

Another poem that has become a rallying cry for protestors is Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s “Hum Dekhenge (We shall see)”. The poem, written in the late 1970s, was a gauntlet thrown to Pakistani military dictator Zia-ul-Haq, who responded by banning public recitation of Faiz’s work. Nevertheless, ghazal singer Iqbal Bano defied the dictator’s diktat by performing the ghazal, wearing a sari, which was declared by Zia’s Islamist allies as Hindu attire. (Reminds you of some contemporary national leader’s reference to identifying people by their attire?) Bano was banned and exiled from Pakistan for her defiance, but her performance and Faiz’s words have continued to inspire kindred spirits across the subcontinent, as seen in their wide currency during the anti-CAA protests.

The poem has managed, as always, to give offence. After complaints from a faculty member that it is “anti-Hindu”, the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur has constituted a committee to examine the allegations. Not only Faiz, Zia and his supporters would also be turning in their graves with this strange turn of events. A lifelong communist, Faiz’s poem was deemed anti-Islamic by the Islamists in Pakistan. 

Varun Grover’s ‘Hum Kagaz Nahi Dikhyange’ has become an anthem for the anti-CAA protests
It reminds me of a poem by Faiz’s compatriot, Fahmida Riaz, “Tum bilkul hum jaise nikle / ab tak kahan chhupe the bhaai / vo murakhta vo ghamadpan / jis mei hum ne sadia ganvai / aakhir pahunchi dvaar tuhare / arey badhai bahut badhai (You turned out just like us! / Where were you hiding all this time, brother? / That stupidity, that ignorance / in which we wallowed for a century / it has arrived at your doors/ Congratulations, many congratulations to you!)

Several Indian poets writing in English, including yours truly, have also responded to the recent developments. For instance, Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee, the author of the recently published Looking for the Nation: Towards Another Idea of India, published one dedicated to “the women of Shaheen Bagh”. The residents of that neighbourhood in Delhi, especially women, have been braving the historic cold in the national capital this year to keep round-the-clock vigil, in protest against the CAA. The area has become sort of a symbolic home for the protesters over the past several weeks.

“If you want to see ripples of light / In the heart of darkness, /come to Shaheen Bagh,” the poem, titled “Come to Shaheen Bagh” begins. The title is used as a refrain, as a sort of invitation, to urge people to crowd into the protest site, in solidarity with the women and children. “The winter of fear belongs to all,” the poem continues, “And the women fight for / What the police can only guard.” What the women and children of Shaheen Bagh, along with so many others, are fighting for is perhaps the constitutional right to equality and fraternity. “Come and see the children bear / Nothing except hope; / They know something we don’t. / They know something / The tyrants of the world forget.” 

The writer’s novel, Ritual, will be out in February

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