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Meet India’s millennial political poets

They are young, they are bold, and they are raising their voices against injustice

Graffitti at the Shaheen Bagh anti-CAA protest in New Delhi (photo: Asmita Bakshi)
Graffitti at the Shaheen Bagh anti-CAA protest in New Delhi (photo: Asmita Bakshi)

I am fourteen in one hundred,

But in these fourteen not othered,

I am within all hundred,

and that hundred is the sum of me.

These lines from the poem Hindustani Musalmaan are by Hussain Haidry, a 34-year-old poet and lyricist from Indore, Madhya Pradesh. The poem went viral during the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) movement last year.

Recently, when an independent news channel asked Haidry to recommend 10 poems, one of those he picked was Jahan Kuch Nahi Pahunchta (Where Nothing Reaches), by Jacinta Kerketta, a writer and journalist from the Oraon Adivasi community in Jharkhand’s West Singhbhum district. In the poem, she speaks of a backward region where violence and oppression, not infrastructure development, rule the day.

Voices like Haidry’s, Kerketta’s and others—from the trans community, lokshahirs of Maharashtra, poets like Easterine Kire of Nagaland and Mona Zote of Mizoram, who write in English, and those who write in local dialects across the country—have emerged front and centre as identity politics finds a new place in poetical expression across the country.

But poetry as a vehicle of political expression is hardly new. As Akhil Katyal, poet and professor at Ambedkar University in Delhi, says: “One borrows poetry for rhetorical effect. But over and above that, poetry has served several other functions.” Whether it was Kumar Vishwas of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Kapil Sibal of the Congress, or the late (Atal Bihari) Vajpayee from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), politicians have used poetry to shape public perception. Katyal points out that even during the campaign leading up to the 2014 general election, a book of poems by Narendra Modi was “plunged into the market”.

Since then, a number of anti-establishment poetic voices have risen and a few have been jailed or charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (Uapa). In 2018, it was the Elgar Parishad case, related to the violence that broke out between Dalits and Marathas in the Bhima Koregaon village near Pune on 1 January 2018, that brought collectives such as Kabir Kala Manch (long branded “Naxals” by both the BJP and Congress governments) under the scanner—a few of its members were arrested recently. Last year, the anti-CAA movement brought to the fore poets such as Aamir Aziz, Nabiya Khan and Iqra Khilji, alongside the Miya poets of Assam. They write with subversive humour, wry—almost jolting—line breaks and sometimes pure rage or indignation, amplifying voices that have been marginalized. Mint spoke to four young poets about their work.

Writing for the resistance: Aamir Aziz, 30

Aamir Aziz (photo courtesy: Aamir Aziz; credit: Ronny Sen)
Aamir Aziz (photo courtesy: Aamir Aziz; credit: Ronny Sen)

“All my writing is protest writing, even my love songs are protest songs,” says Aziz. “Jo log mar gaye hain, jo qatl kar diye gaye hain, main unke liye rota hoon. Main udhar se hi baat karta hoon. Mere liye sab qatil hain—jo tamashbeen hai woh bhi qatil hai, jo qatl kar raha hai woh bhi qatil hai (I mourn the dead, that’s the place I speak from. For me they are all killers—those who stand by and watch, and those who kill).”

Aziz, an engineering graduate from Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi, was a prominent face during the anti-CAA movement. His poem Sab Yaad Rakha Jayega (It Shall Be Remembered) became an anthem for accountability. It is reminiscent of Hum Dekhenge (We Shall Bear Witness) by the late Faiz Ahmad Faiz, but while the latter looks to a hopeful future where the oppressed rise, Aziz’s poem documents atrocities for the day of reckoning. It gained such acclaim that Roger Waters, the rock icon and co-founder of Pink Floyd, read an excerpt from it at a protest in London.

Currently an aspiring actor in Mumbai, Aziz grew up in Patna. “My memory is built of communalism and feudalism. This is what I have grown up with,” he says. “My experience is a collective experience. For my generation, the earliest memory was the aftermath of the (1992) Babri Masjid demolition, of riots, discrimination.” Aziz says the erstwhile Lalu Prasad-led government was largely secular, though “feudalism came with its own form of violence”.

His first tryst with the arts and poetry came when he joined Jamia Millia Islamia in 2008 and became part of theatre groups. Inspired by musicians like Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Woody Guthrie and Nina Simone, and poets Paash, Iqbal, Faiz Ahmad Faiz among others, Aziz says he does not write out of passion but zaroorat (necessity).

The first song he wrote was not something he published—The Sedition Song, in 2016—when student activists Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya were charged with sedition. The one that was noticed was Achhe Din Blues. As Uday Bhatia wrote in Mint: “Achhe Din Blues is a protest song with a deceptively calm surface. The half-song, half-speech vocal—in Urdu—is in the talking blues style of American folk artists like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.” Aziz has since written Ballad Of Pehlu Khan, in response to the mob lynching of a 55-year-old dairy farmer in 2017 in Rajasthan’s Alwar.

Since the anti-CAA movement, Aziz’s poetry has been stripped of its undercurrent of subversive humour. “Humour has been perverted so much lately that even sublime humour is not creating much meaning for me,” he says. “Since the movement began, I was writing on the road. I never sat at a table to write. The roads had space for humour, but that was just to create a sense of ease...but the real situation is not that. There is nothing easy about any of this.”

With many of the anti-CAA protesters now in jail, Aziz’s poetry has been widely shared. His poem Jamia Ki Ladkiyan (The Women Of Jamia) is an ode to the students of the university who started the resistance against CAA on 15 December. Most recently, after the arrest of Umar Khalid under Uapa for his alleged involvement in the Delhi riots of February, Aziz’s poems Sab Yaad Rakha Jayega and Main Inkaar Karta Hoon (I Refuse) were shared across social media platforms.

“Society has made me a Muslim. So I will talk from my own stand, in my own shoes,” he says. “If the society is inclusive, then they will accept that. If they believe in the Constitution, they will accept that. Simultaneously, I will talk about hunger, poverty, casteism, and every act of injustice I see.”

Love, sex and revolution: Akhil Katyal, 35

Akhil Katyal (photo: Priyanka Parashar)
Akhil Katyal (photo: Priyanka Parashar)

Akhil Katyal was just 7 when the Babri Masjid was demolished in Ayodhya, in his home state of Uttar Pradesh. “I remember there was a video-cassette of the demolition which was being passed on from one home to another. And I remember the vantage point from which families saw it.They were not stupefied but watched it with a strange degree of awe or fascination,” he says. “I remember this happening all around me, everyone lining up like ants and just lapping up this pirated video, as if it was a smuggled Bollywood movie or a porn film.” Coming from an upper-caste Hindu family—his grandparents were Partition refugees—Katyal too was “implicated in this story”. This is the perspective from which he writes. His poem Remember Remember, The 6th Of December is shared nearly every year on that date, the anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

But Katyal’s poetry has been political in more than one sense. As Somak Ghoshal wrote in Mint in 2018: “A prominent queer activist, Katyal rouses the crowds at the Delhi pride every year with his verse. Sample this rebuttal to the 2013 Supreme Court ruling that upheld Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which had the effect of criminalizing the LGBTQ+ community: ‘Minuscule minority—the judges kept on barking,/ clearly they’ve never been/ on a Sunday evening to the/ park above the Palika parking.’”

During his time at Delhi University, Katyal was inspired by the late Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali. “Here was another queer poet who was just owning the world around him. He was gregarious, a brilliant cook, who used to throw these parties—loud, lavish, flamboyant. But when it came to work, it was like this world receded and his poetry was solid, structured so intricately, and always quietly searing” says Katyal. “He spoke about what was happening to his own land in a register of grief which was political—grief not as a withdrawal from politics but as an engagement with politics.” Katyal’s latest book, a collection titled Like Blood On The Bitten Tongue, borrows its name from a line by the poet.

His ability to think and write in three languages (English, Urdu and Hindi) has not just created both a varied audience but given him access to different kinds and forms of poetry. Both language and poetry were, in fact, the subjects of his doctoral research. His poems, which began as odes to impress his teachers, have evolved into a crisp, evocative understanding of love and resistance.

“When you write in Hindi, Urdu, Hindustani, you are catering to a much larger, more interventionist discourse,” Katyal says. “In English, it was either playful, personal, meditative, mournful, and so on. I think that has a lot to do with the size of an audience. The louder and prouder political and humorous verse often comes to me in Hindi, Urdu, Hindustani. There seems to be a division of labour between these languages.”

i want to 377 you so bad

till even the sheets hurt i want to

ache your knees singe your skin

line you brown breathe you in i want to

mouth you in words neck you in red

i want to beg your body insane into sepals

i want to 377 you like a star falling off the brown

i want to feel you till my nails turn water

i want to suck you seven different skies

i want to be a squatter in your head when

it sleeps when it’s dark i want to break laws

with you in bed and in streets and in parks

For the people, by the people: Sheetal Sathe, 32

Sheetal Sathe (photo courtesy: Navayana Mahajalsa)
Sheetal Sathe (photo courtesy: Navayana Mahajalsa)

At a seminar in 2016, journalist Tejas Harad attended a performance by cultural activist Sheetal Sathe and her troupe—the atmosphere, he recalls, was “as charged as a rock concert, with people responding with loud cheers, claps, laughter, shaking of heads, and tapping of feet to the troupe’s electrifying performance”.

“(Sathe) indulged in easy humour to lighten the mood and to take her audience in confidence, but never missed a chance of unleashing caustic jabs at the authorities,” wrote Harad on the media platform Youth Ki Awaaz. “Sathe effortlessly blended Ambedkarism with Socialism and Feminism in her songs as well as her interjections. Her performance was a masterclass in intersectionality.”

Sathe, 35, joined Kabir Kala Manch (KKM)—a group started after the 2002 Gujarat riots by activist Amarnath Chandaliya—at the encouragement of her cousin, Sagar Gorkhe, in 2005. KKM takes forward the standing traditions of Dalit protest poetry and music, which, as journalist Bhanuj Kappal points out in The Guardian, date “all the way back to the Satya Shodhak Samaj’s political tamashas (a traditional performance mixing music, satire and theatre) in the 19th century. Their music and politics is also influenced by Left-leaning musical groups like the Red Flag Cultural Squad, comprising Annabhau Sathe, D.N. Gavankar and Amar Sheikh.” Sathe’s themes include everything from caste to godmen, often peppered with anti-establishment and anti-capitalist jibes.

“The caste I belong to is Matang, which falls within the Scheduled Caste (SC) category,” says Sathe. “I grew up in Pune’s Kashewadi slum, where the people are poor, they work as labourers. My father and mother both did that—my mother also worked as an ayah at a hospital.” Sathe’s parents ensured she got an education, and through all this, she honed her passion for singing. Her father sang well too, and young Sathe would perform at school functions and programmes within the community.

Eventually, she went on to pursue a master’s in sociology and joined the KKM, where she was part of the latter’s study circles. “The education we receive in college, whether on political economy or anything else, is mostly bookish.But jab humari movement mein entry hui toh mere jeevan se judi hui jo bhi sociology hai—uska matlab samajh aata hai.History mein jo the humare social workers, unka humara kya sambandh hai—yeh teachers nahi samjha sakte (When I joined the anti-caste movement, I started understanding the sociological implications. The relationship we have with those who took on this role before us is not something teachers can explain),”she says.

Singing with the troupe across slums and cultural events, Sathe has been a sharp voice in the assertion of Dalit rights and identity, particularly in Maharashtra. In 2008, the police put KKM in a list of 37 organization with suspected Naxal links.

In 2011, Sathe, too, was booked under Uapa. She courted arrest in 2013, and was granted bail months later by the Bombay high court when she was into her eighth month of pregnancy. In 2017, Sathe quit the KKM and started Navayana Mahajalsa with her husband, Sachin Mali (whom she had met at KKM)—”It seeks to spread enlightenment about anti-caste propaganda,” says Sathe. Today, she is culturally associated with Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi, a political party founded by three-time member of Parliament Prakash Ambedkar in 2018. She campaigned for the party during the 2019 general election.

Sathe continues to write poetry, travelling with verse and song with her new group. “When you do social work, and speak out against Brahmanical oppression or capitalism, there will always be an attempt to suppress it, that is inevitable,” says Sathe.“But I believe what I am doing is right and so there is no space for any kind of fear.”

Reclaiming identity: Shalim M. Hussain, 32

Shalim Hussain (photo courtesy: Shalim Hussain)
Shalim Hussain (photo courtesy: Shalim Hussain)

“Natural calamities aren’t the only threat facing the people of the char-chapori areas, about 10% of Assam’s population according to a survey conducted by the Directorate of Char Areas Development Assam—they also live in dread of finding their names excluded from the National Register of Citizens (NRC) that is being finalized,” wrote Natasha Badhwar in Mint in August 2019. Shalim M. Hussain, 32, is from those parts, and when the final draft of the NRC was announced in August last year, his maternal aunt’s name was not on the list.

Hussain is a proponent of Miya poetry—a genre that seeks to subvert the slur used in Assam to refer to Muslims who migrated from East Bengal (now Bangladesh) from the 19th century. The movement has created such a stir in the region since last year that soon after the NRC was announced, a Guwahati-based journalist filed an FIR against 10 Miya poets, including Hussain, alleging that Miya poetry portrayed the Assamese as “xenophobic” and could create “communal disturbances in the state”.

“More than being angry and agitated about being called Miya, I feel a deep sadness. Because an individual tries to make something of their life, go beyond the surroundings they grew up in,” says Hussain. “Then there are words like these which automatically identify you in a certain way. All your experiences, everything you have accumulated, get negated. It finally boils down to that one singular identity.”

Hussain studied at a boarding school in Barpeta. Since it was still up and coming when he joined, the facilities were few. There was no library, so he would read anything he could lay his hands on—newspapers, magazines (he read book reviews long before he read books). Once he went home on a break after his class X board examination, he had access to his uncle’s books—a lot of Robert Browning and the Victorian classics.

“I grew up after the Assam agitation of 1985. I was born in 1987, two years after the Assam accord was signed. But the shadow of those years would stay. I could see it in my community, I could see it throughout my school years,” says Hussain. “Then the Bodo movement started. My school was in a place just a kilometre away from one of the sites of the most brutal violence in the Bodo movement in 1994. I went to a Catholic school, and one of the sisters from the congregation in the area was shot. There was a mass for her and we went for it,” he remembers.

It is around this time that writing in English from the North-East started gaining prominence. “It was not very political at the time, since this writing largely belonged to a very elite political class, unlike now, after Zubaan Books entered the space in the 2000s,” he says. His own engagement with the politics of his community started late. In 2010, he was working on a documentary about stick fighting in his village. “When you take a team to your village and try to interpret what the villagers are saying, that’s when you feel the distancing effect,” he says. “You realize how the outside world sees you and how your own community likes to be seen.”

Once he moved to Delhi for his Master’s and later went on to pursue his PhD, the Miya movement, which now uses a variety of channels for an expression of identity, started taking shape—there were certain conversations, he says, he could have there that were not possible “after you cross the Chicken’s Neck”.

“I don’t understand any other form or expression of protest except for literature. So I did it my way,” he says. Hussain has been writing and translating Miya poetry into English in order to make it more accessible to audiences outside Assam. “In other fields, other people have done it in other ways—apart from fighting in court, legal minds have tried to deal with the legal language. Then there are people who have worked with the government at different stages, so they try their bit. Then there are journalists and activists who have done their bit,” says Hussain. “And that’s what makes the Miya movement quite interesting, it never stops.”


Things being as they are

I carry my forehead in my pocket

If I leave it home some jerk might break in

And fuck with my forehead

So phone in one pocket, forehead in the other

My pants remain balanced

My forehead remains safe.

A couple of months ago somebody said

Yours is such a fine forehead, man

Let me have it for a week

My forehead will learn tricks from yours.

I said sure, okay.

While taking it back I saw, O my God!

Bite marks on my forehead.

I caught the punk by the collar. What’s this, I said

He replied, you have a big forehead miyahbhai

Spread it across the country now

Soon you will say now that I have the land,

Bring out your women.

He jerked himself free and ran to the police station

I ran the other way.

Later I heard he had filed a case

Said I had stolen his forehead

Said if you look well milord

You will find my DNA on it.

I wrapped the forehead in a banana leaf

Buried it underground

And left the country.

Days passed, the dust settled

I dug out my half-rotted forehead.

I can’t wear it in public any more,

So I carry it in my pocket

If someone roundhouses me now

My head might crack

But my forehead will remain safe.

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