It’s a cold winter’s night, and Sameer Rahat has just announced that he is going to sing a poem written by Urdu poet Rahat Indori. “The wind is blowing a certain way these days,” the Mumbai-based indie artiste, known for his Urdu blues, says in Hindi, prompting a question from a perturbed member of the audience. But why must you go “there”, the man asks the singer.


Beyond boundaries: Sameer Rahat sings Urdu blues


“It’s not me, but the poetry that would like to go there tonight,” he replies, before strumming a slow swaying bluesy riff to his single Kya Lena .

“We’re banjaras (wanderers), what do we have to do with high walls, with passing governments,” he sings in Hindi. “I have the world at my feet. Friend, what permission do I need from the deceitful to roam.”

The amphitheatre full of young people at the Corona Ranthambhore Music and Wildlife Festival, held recently in the Rajasthan town, sings along. They know their Rahat Indori. After all, he is the man who wrote Kisike baap ka Hindustan thodi hai (As if India belongs to anybody’s dad), a line that students have held up on placards across the country, in protest against the Centre’s implementation of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC).

India is arguably seeing the largest wave of student-led protests since the Emergency. The Hindu reports that anti-CAA protests broke out in at least 94 districts across 14 states, claiming 31 lives in the violence that ensued. In cities and towns, students are out on the streets, speaking up against the brutality heaped on the demonstrators and why they see the CAA and NRC as against the Constitution.

And they are protesting with music.

“Our only weapons are our songs and daflis (tambourines),” says Shashibhushan Pandey, a student who sings and writes, and helms protests at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) (see box). Adds Dipsita Dhar, all-India joint secretary of the Students Federation of India (SFI) and a PhD student at JNU, “A lot of people stay away from politics because they think there’s something dark about engaging with it. But music lifts the seriousness and helps more people connect with a political cause.”

Protest songs are echoing from JNU and the Capital’s Jamia Millia Islamia University to Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Banaras Hindu University (BHU), Jadavpur University, Madras University (MU), Hyderabad Central University (HCU), the IITs, IIMs, IISCs and more. With their music, protesters are speaking up against job loss, cuts in social expenditure, university fee hikes, as well as the CAA.

“What 10 speeches can do, one song can,” says Sumangala Damodaran, a professor at Ambedkar University, New Delhi, and author of The Radical Impulse: Music in the tradition of the Indian People’s Theatre Association . “It is the way in which it taps into our collective traditions, memories and histories. It is a cathartic moment,” says Damodaran.

A new national integration

Take the Azadi song, made popular by former JNU students’ union president Kanhaiya Kumar. The song draws its references from slogans chanted in Kashmir to the revolutionary songs of the poet Gorakh Pandey. The song — a set of slogans set to a simple rhythm — reimagines a world without the divisions of caste and class, without hunger, falsehood and discrimination.

Today the song can be heard in many variations, not just at Shaheen Bagh and Jantar Mantar — two protest venues in the Capital — but also in some rather unexpected corners of the country. It has been resounding, for instance, from the campus of Madras University (MU), known to fiercely resist all things Hindi.

“We are against the imposition of Hindi. But in this situation, to oppose the CAA, NRC and NPR (National People’s Register), we are ready to learn Hindi and raise Azadi slogans because (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi should understand our words,” says Valarmathi, a first-year political science student at MU who is active in an outfit called the Students Uprising Movement for Social Welfare.

On December 16 and 17, when MU students held a protest to show their solidarity with Jamia and AMU, they beat their Parai (a percussion instrument synonymous with the Dalit identity) and sang the Azadi song in Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam, apart from its Hindi original.


Stormy road: Mumbai saw thousands of people participate in a peaceful protest against the CAA last month


Urimaiyai meetka Poraaduvom!

Naam veedhiyil irangi Poraaduvom!

CAA vai viratta Poraaduvom!

NRC yai edhirthu Poraaduvom!

BJP yai alika Poraaduvom!

(This struggle is for rights / We’ll get down to the streets / We’ll chase away CAA, NRC and the BJP)

In Kerala, the song saluted “our motherland, our soil”, while in Hindu ennada Muslim ennada , students of Tamil Nadu sang, “What is being Hindu or Muslim? This is a country of unity in diversity/ We are not Savarkars. And we are aware of your lies/ Ambedkar, Periyar and Marx opened our eyes/ We are the children of Bhagat Singh who kissed his hanging noose.”


Idealist: Protest music has the power to make you believe in a dream, says Dhamm Muktiwadi


On December 18, university students from all district colleges in Tamil Nadu were out on the streets, in solidarity with MU students. “Our Hindi has definitely reached Modi,” says Valarmathi (who goes only by her first name). What has been the price of protest? “Only 20 FIRs and several arrests,” she says with a smile.

Some protest slogans have been the subject of raging controversy. A video shared widely on social media in the last week of December showed an angry young bunch of people walking in Kerala’s Malappuram district, chanting:

Say it on the barricade

La ilaha illallah

Say it on the lathi charge

La ilaha illallah

Say it in the tear gas

La ilaha illallah

Tera mera rishta kya!

Faseeh (who only goes by his first name), a student at the Hyderabad Central University and a member of the Students’ Islamic Organisation, added some of his own lines to slogans chanted in AMU. “ La ilaha illallah (No one but Allah) is testimony to the concept of Tawhid (Oneness), fundamental to Islam,” explains Faseeh, who was visiting his home town in Kerala when he joined a students’ protest and shouted out the slogan. It was criticised by many who did not want to give a religious spin to their protests.

“The primary target of the BJP/RSS government is the Muslim and their faith. I thought La ilaha illallah was the fitting thing to say to such a government to assert our constitutional rights to religious equality. You cannot ask for this moment to not be religious. The whole Bill is based on religious discrimination,” Faseeh argues.


Unstoppable: Valarmathi (centre) of Madras University has 20 FIRs against her


Drumming up hope

The protests are taking on varying hues in different places. In Mumbai’s Gateway of India, students were joined by ordinary Mumbaikars and Bollywood celebrities such as directors Vishal Bhardwaj and Anurag Kashyap and composer Swanand Kirkire. In other parts of Maharashtra, protest groups such as the Yalgaar Cultural Movement for Human Liberation are busy travelling from district to district, street by street, recalling Ambedkar in their songs. As one of the lines of the group goes: “ Mi sarvapratham aani antimatah bharatiya aahe (I’m first and last Indian, says Babasaheb)”.

“It’s been 70 years since the Constitution was written and people are still not aware of their rights. Our protest music and theatre performances are to shed light on constitutional rights. Through this we make them realise how unconstitutional the NRC and CAA are in spirit,” says Dhamm Muktiwadi, organiser of the Yalgaar Sanskritik Manch, a student-heavy team. “Protest music has that intoxicating power to truly make someone believe in a dream,” says Muktiwadi, whose energetic performance videos draw on Kabir, Habib Jalib, Dushyant Kumar and several Marathi poets.


The right song: Yalgaar Sanskritik Manch’s performances across Maharashtra invoke Ambedkar


His latest song says:

Ye ho gaya hai raja nanga nanga

Ye jagah jagah karwaye danga danga

Phir bhi kehta hai sab changa changa..

(The emperor is naked/ Exposed for instigating riots everywhere/ He only says everything is great)

Miles away, Shillong is echoing with youth-led protests, too. And this time, hip-hop is the fire starter. “For the first time, young people were not looking to dance. They were waiting to listen to what we had to say. For once I see people really listening to the lyrics of hip-hop. That’s a deep change,” says 20-year-old Mejeid Kyrpang, an arts student at St Dominic Shillong who is about to release his first album, The awakening . Kyrpang’s YouTube video of him rapping atop a car at an anti-CAA protest at Mawlai bus stand went viral. In the video he talks about waking up from ignorance and makes a pitch for unity in Shillong.

“Usually anger-led protests are common to Shillong, but this time it’s different. There is fear and confusion in the crowd. They feel trapped and cornered,” says Andrew Lyndem of The Cryptographik Street Poets  , a two-member rap group based in the Meghalaya capital.


It’s a rap: The Cryptographik Street Poets of Shillong have responded to politics through hip-hop

In his song Power , released earlier this year, Lyndem sings:

F*** your smart city, all your malls and marts shitty

Power to the people, no doubt I’ma bring a war with me

Walk with me, put your fist up and just roar with me...

Steady educate the people get these devils exposed,

Let their closets full of desolate skeletons blow

“In the situation we’re at right now, we might not even have the chance to talk anymore. So it was a message to the youth to not fear and to speak up,” says Lyndem, who adds that the culture of hip-hop and Shillong are almost inseparable. “Hip-hop is one of the dominant ways that let young people collectively rage and vent,” he says.

At Kolkata’s Jadavpur University, students are invoking the Bengal poet Kazi Nazrul Islam’s Kandari Hushiyar , a touching tribute to unity:

The hapless nation drowns, for swim it cannot

O Captain! Today you shall be watched

For determination and love

Hindu or Muslim? Wait! Who asks?

Then there were Bengali versions of Bella Ciao , originally an Italian Partisan song. In Kolkata, the lyrics changed deftly:

Modi, Amit Shah, Babul Jao Jao Jao

NCR hoyejabe bangla theke BJP tadao

Fascibad jao jao jao...

(Go away Modi, Amit Shah and Babul [Supriyo]. Wipe out the BJP before they bring in the NRC/ Go away fascists).

A reimagined India

The nation requires reimagining, says Damodaran. The star singer in many protests in the Capital in the ’80s and ’90s and best known for her rendition of Makhdoom Mohiuddin’s Jaane waale sipahi se poochho , an anti-war song, refers to the national anthem. In Bengaluru and New Delhi, when it seemed that protesters would push their way through barricades, groups of police began singing the anthem in a bid to stop the students.

Jana gana mana wasn’t meant to be a symbol of discipline and army-like posturing. It was meant to be an inclusive project. Tagore would’ve hated what is being done to it,” she says. And that is why, she adds, it is important for artistes such as TM Krishna to reclaim the national anthem and expand its boundaries. The anthem is now being sung by students across India, as is Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poem Hum Dekhengey — We shall see.

Last week, news reports said that a team in IIT Kanpur was going to examine the song, to see if it was “pro-Muslim”. Since then, in a show of defiance and solidarity, the poem, which speaks against tyranny, is being echoed across the country, and in some other parts of the world too.

Faseeh mentions the story of a mother in Shaheen Bagh who came with her newborn daughter to the protests. “When a journalist asked her why she was there, she replied, ‘When my daughter grows up, she’s going to ask me where I was when our rights were being taken away. I want to tell her I was here.’ If she can make it to a protest, how can we not,” he asks.

Meet the rebel poet of JNU: Shashibhushan Pandey


Vision 2020: “It is only the students who offer a viable resistance to this government”


On November 20, Shashibhushan Pandey threw himself headlong into something that he has seldom stayed away from — student protest. The visually impaired MA history student at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) joined his friends in a protest against a proposed fee hike. And then the police began a lathi charge. Pandey’s friends formed a human chain around him to help him, but the police asked them to leave him behind. “I thought I would be safe in police custody but they beat me senselessly,” Pandey tells BL ink . “It didn’t matter to them that I was blind. At that moment, we were all anti-nationals to them,” he says.Pandey was born and raised in Sant Kabir Nagar near Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh. Glaucoma-induced blindness set in by the time he was five years old. But that did not hamper his love for music. His father would prop him up on a motorcycle, ask him to pretend he was on stage and make him sing.

At the government-run school for blind students, facilities were poor and teachers hardly ever showed up. “When studies weren’t an option for me, music became my sole focus,” he says. Pandey can play the harmonium, flute, tabla, mouth organ, dholak and keyboard.

And then he discovered Faiz Ahmed Faiz. “Everything changed for me after reading Faiz,” he says. He went on to read other Urdu poets too — Asrarul Haq Majaz, Habib Jalib and Akbar Allahabadi, to name a few. “Their poetry was written for the crossroads we find ourselves in right now and for every crossroad to come,” he says.

After graduating in history from BHU in 2017, he spent a year attempting the UPSC civil service exams before joining JNU as a postgraduate student in 2019. The university’s inclusive atmosphere — “where you consumed hotly debated politics with your morning chai” — fuelled the singer-poet within him.

In his poem Halla Bol , he wrote:

Saason ko hoonkaar banakar halla bol

Apna poora zor lagaakar halla bol —

(Make your breath into a roar and use all your might to raise your voice.)

And a version of Hum ek hahin (We are one):

Ab agar ladna ho ladte rahenge umr bhar — (If we must, we will wage a lifelong fight… To tell the truth, we were one, we are one, lend your voice, we are one.)

His songs have been chanted by students in JNU for the fee hike protest and for anti-CAA protests that spilled out of campus on to Jantar Mantar and beyond. In November 2019, after the fee hike rallies, a video of Pandey singing Pakistani poet Habib Jalib’s Dastoor on the steps of JNU became a social media hit.

Phool shaakhon pe khilne lagey? Tum kaho,

Jaam rindon ko milne lagey? Tum kaho,

Chaak seenon kay silne lagey? Tum kaho,

Iss khule jhooth ko,

Zehn ki loot ko,

Main nahin maanta,

Main nahin jaanta

(Branches are abloom with flowers, you say!

The thirsty have got to drink, you say!

Wounds of the heart are being sewn, you say!

This open lie?

A plunder of reason?

I do not agree to this,

I do not recognise it.)

“In the current scenario, it is only the students who are able to offer a viable resistance to this government,” feels Pandey, who stresses that education spaces such as JNU that allow students to think independently are a threat to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. “There is a fear in every parent’s heart that the student who goes to the street to protest is going to the border to fight a war,” says Pandey, speaking of his own family’s concern. “People have happy memories of going to McDonald’s or shopping at a mall. For us it’s that we were beaten, or chased down the streets by the cops! We celebrate these moments that make us grow stronger and sing louder,” he says.