Jostling for space among many slogans in this election is the promise of azadi — from hunger, from the enemy at the border, from joblessness and fear. But how has this idea changed over the years, through music and song and poetry? We count the ways.
Written by Suanshu Khurana
Yeh daagh daagh ujaalaa, yeh shab gazidaa seher
Woh intezaar tha jiska, yeh woh seher toh nahin
Yeh woh seher toh nahin, jis ki aarzoo lekar
Chale the yaar ki mil jaayegi kahin na kahin
Falak ke dasht mein taaron ki aakhri manzil
Kahin toh hogaa shab-e-sust mauj ka saahil
Kahin toh jaa ke rukegaa safinaa-e-gham-e-dil
Chale chalo ki woh manzil abhi nahin aayi
(This smudged first light, this daybreak battered by night/ This dawn that we all ached for, this is not the one/ This is not the one that we carried with us/ To reach the last destination of the stars somewhere in the sky’s arid plains/ Somewhere the shore of the night’s slow-washing tide/ Somewhere an anchor for the ship of heartache/ Keep moving forth, for this is not that dawn.)
Days after the Partition was announced, a deeply anguished Faiz Ahmad Faiz had written Subh-e-Azadi (Dawn of Freedom). With blood on the streets, homes and livelihoods lost, women raped, hatred in the hearts and nightmares to last a lifetime on both sides of the border, one of the greatest poets of our times wondered if this was the freedom we had craved for. Had freedom really arrived in August 1947? Azadi, the foundation on which India and Pakistan were built, the slogan that was raised to attain freedom from colonial rule, did we finally get what we wanted? Were we truly free?
Almost 70 years later, in 2016, in New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), a doctorate student would call for azadi again, this time in a different context. Kanhaiya Kumar, the then JNU Students’ Union president, and two other students, Umar Khalidand Anirban Bhattacharya, had been accused of organising an event on campus to protest against the hanging of 2001 Parliament-attack mastermind Afzal Guru. Anti-India slogans were allegedly raised at the event and the three, along with some other students, were imprisoned at Tihar Jail on charges of sedition. Hours after his release on bail, Kumar had returned to the campus and given an invigorating speech that ended with a call for azadi: “Azadi! Bhukhmari se, azadi, Bhedbhaav se, azadi, Pakshvaad se, Manuvaad se, azadi, Brahmanvaad se, sanghwaad se, Hum le ke rahenge, azadi! Tum kuch bhi kar lo, azadi… (Freedom from hunger, from discrimination, from prejudice, from caste and Manusmriti, from Brahminism, freedom from federalism, we will wrest it).”
Kumar, now a CPI candidate from Begusarai, who is contesting the general election against senior BJP MP and Union minister Giriraj Singh and Tanveer Hasan of the RJD, was echoing the slogan coined by feminist activist, poet, author and social scientist Kamla Bhasin in the 1980s — “Apni marzi se khul kar jeena, Hai azadi, Jo mann mein hai khul kar kehna, Hai azadi, Apne shareer par haq apna, hai azadi”. Bhasin, too, had adapted the slogan from a visit to a women’s mela in Pakistan during President Zia-ul-Haq’s regime, where they were secretly protesting against its conservative directives. “I was visiting Lahore and I was impressed by these fantastic, brave women. They put bangle stalls outside to camouflage their true intent, which was to organise a protest meet. I took it from them and Kanhaiya took it from me and turned it into a significant national slogan,” says the 72-year-old Bhasin, who lives in Delhi. In the days leading up to the general election, both the ruling party, BJP, and the Opposition, Congress, took potshots at each other with poll songs that hinged on azadi. While the Congress version was called Dar ke aage Azadi, BJP appealed to their electorate for Congress se Azadi.
Since the time of Independence, the concept of azadi has been pivotal to the idea of the Indian nation state. In the days running up to Independence, it was a rallying call for complete freedom from the British. After Independence, the Constitution enshrined freedom — of speech and expression and to choose one’s faith — among the fundamental rights of every citizen. Not just in India, across the world, azadi has always been the soul of revolutions. From Subhash Chandra Bose’s Azad Hind Fauj, to the 1978-79 Iranian Revolution to the feminist protests of the 1980s in India, “people have often used the word ‘azadi’ as a rallying cry, almost as a substitute for a flag,” says filmmaker Sanjay Kak, 61. While the French and the Americans have used “liberty” in their sloganeering, the word “azadi” is common to Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Hindustani and Turkish.
In India, however, the use of the term azadi became conflagratory at the peak of the Kashmir crisis when it was adapted as a slogan by Kashmiris demanding separation from India. “It is probably because what’s talked of is azadi from India. What is not understood is that the people want azadi from the military, from their suffering,” says Bhasin. “The reason why it hurts some Indians is that it immediately challenges their sense of the completeness of India. It’s sort of like ‘Why would anyone want azadi from the perfection that India offers?’ It challenges their sense of Akhand Bharat, and mind you, this is applicable not only to the Hindutva right wing. The conventional political left, or parliamentary left is equally attached to the idea of an indivisible, inviolable India,” says Kak, whose film Jashn-e-Azadi (2007), is an attempt to locate the multiple meanings of azadi amid the struggle in Kashmir. “However hard or brutal that has proven to be, finally that is what the jashn, the celebration of freedom will always be: a struggle,” he says.
This struggle has remained the same on both sides of the Indo-Pakistan border. When Bhasin was using azadi for a cultural revolution in the early ’80s, filling up public meetings with chants of “Meri behne maange azadi, mere bachche maange azadi, naari ka naara azadi,” Pakistani ghazal singer Iqbal Bano was using music as a catalyst to encourage people to think about change and freedom during General Zia-ul Haq’s oppressive regime. Once, at a concert in Lahore, she wore a black sari — a banned garment during Haq’s time — and sang to an audience of 50,000, Hum dekhenge. It was Faiz’s poetry but the defiance was all her own.The same martial law that outlawed music in Pakistan troubled Salman Ahmad, a Pakistani in New York. He was in high school at that time and deeply interested in music. To defy the ban on pop and rock music, he’d started seven underground bands in Lahore. “Every human being on earth is searching for freedom — from racism, bigotry, poverty, sexual harassment, hunger,” says Ahmad, who, a few years later, formed the band Junoon with Ali Azmat and Brian O’Connell. Their debut album Azadi (1997) spoke of social injustice and unrest among the youth through songs such as Dil nahi lag raha and Sayonee. Feted all over the world after this album, the band was banned in Pakistan — first by the Benazir Bhutto government and then by the Nawaz Sharif government.
In India, the concept of azadi had been explored by musicians since Independence. Hindi films paid glowing tributes to freedom from colonial rule. Lyricist Kavi Pradeep wrote the popular ode to Mahatma Gandhi — De di humein azadi bina khadag bina dhaal (He gave us freedom without a sword and a shield) (Jagriti, 1954) — while Shakeel Badayuni expressed a stronger sentiment — Apni azadi ko hum hargiz mita sakte nahi, sar kata sakte hain lekin sar jhuka sakte nahi (We cannot give up our freedom, We’d rather die than surrender) (Leader, 1964).
There were others who used azadi as a metaphor for introspection and self-examination. If Sahir Ludhianvi asked “Jinhe naaz hai Hind par woh kahan hain (Where are those who are proud of India)?” in Pyaasa (1957), many from the Indian Progressive Writers Movement such as Kaifi Azmi and Majrooh Sultanpuri were asking questions through poetry.
Hindi literature, too, explored the many facets of azadi. Poets such as Sudama Pandey Dhoomil, Raghuvir Sahay, Suryakant Tripathi Nirala, Meghdoot, among others, wrote of azadi’s quest for egalitarianism. “Kya azadi sirf teen thake huye rango ka naam hai? Ya, iska koi khaas matlab hota hai?” wrote Dhoomil in his poem, Bees Saal Baad, part of the anthology Sansad Se Sadak Tak (1967), where poetry intertwined with politics. “A lot of poets were very critical of azadi. They spoke of how they never imagined freedom would come with riders. Many poets called it satta ka hastantaran (transfer of power) and nothing more. They said that those wielding power have changed but nothing has changed for the downtrodden,” says writer and lyricist Raj Shekhar, known for his work in films such as Tanu Weds Manu (2011, 2015) and Qarib Qarib Singlle (2017).
Shekhar, who majored in Hindi literature from Delhi University, says that azadi as a concept hasn’t found much space in literature from Naxal areas, by Adivasis and the Dalit community because they still feel enslaved. “They are still looking for a second azadi. Raghubir Sahay wrote Rashtrageet mein bhala veh kaun Bharat bhagyavidhata hai, phata suthda pehene jiska, gun harcharna gaata hai/ Kaun kaun hai veh Jan Gan Man, Adhinayak, Veh Mahabali/ Dara huya, man beman jiska, baaja roz bajaata hai (Who is this in our anthem then, this Bharat-bhagya-vidhata/ That every rag-clad urchin sings his praise so joyfully?). The poet was openly questioning those singing praises of the ruling class, even when they go hungry. The irony is that this Bharat Bagya Vidhata, has he really changed the life and luck of the ones singing the national anthem without food in their belly?” asks Shekhar.
“What is interesting is that the simplistic nature of the chant brought home the fact that it is not just about freedom struggle. One could seek azadi from abstract concepts, too,” says writer and lyricist Varun Grover, 39. A case in point was the call for azadi that followed after the gang rape in Delhi in December 2012.
His political satire outfit Aisi Taisi Democracy has named their ongoing tour Azadi. Grover, along with Indian Ocean frontman Rahul Ram and stand-up comedian Sanjay Rajoura, is travelling to nine cities with the tour. “Our tour coincides with the general election. These elections will be crucial in the fight for upholding liberty, freedom and secularism of the country. I don’t think there could be a better name,” says Grover. In fact, the ongoing election has been pitched by many as a battle between India’s multicultural diversity and an attempt to make it homogenous. “In the India that we are living in at present, anyone speaking about any form of azadi — political, sexual, religious, social — ends up being called anti-national, and the number is growing,” says Kak.
Around the same time as Kumar attained overnight fame following his Azadi speech in 2016, a Chandigarh-based music producer Siddharth Sharma, better known as Dub Sharma, sampled the speech into a song titled “Azadi” and added the Punjabi folk song he’d heard as a child. “Tera pinjra jangaal ne khana, ke miya mithu udd jaana/ tera sukh jaana vich churi-daana, ke miya mithu udd jaana (The rust will eat your cage and the bird will fly away/ Your bird seed will dry up and the bird will fly away). “I saw news channels painting one person anti-national overnight. So the idea was to tell them that you can look at it this way, too. I don’t know how, but suddenly people were talking about it,” says Sharma, who also faced a backlash after the video came out.
Almost three years later, in February this year, Sharma and rapper Vivian Fernandes aka DIVINE combined forces with director Zoya Akhtar to create a rambunctious and extended breakbeat for the adapted version of the number in Akhtar’s film, Gully Boy (2019). The new piece has lyrics such as “Desh kaise hoga saaf, inki neeyat mein hai daag…(How can the country be cleansed if their intent is suspect?)” It met with criticism for being a relatively attenuated version of the original that took away the edge of the original production. “There is something very basic that needs to be understood here — that is the concept of context. The song describes the turmoil going on inside the heart and head of the central protagonist. The tweaks were made based on that, not because it needed to be watered down,” says Sharma.
To examine how context is derivative, Shekhar says, one can look at the recent release Uri, The Surgical Strike by director Aditya Dhar. “As a writer, it is interesting to watch how a political system used a slogan like ‘How’s the josh?’ from a film. In the case of azadi, it’s a political slogan that landed in a film,” he says.
In the world of classical music, the concept of azadi has mostly been a confused one, where the term and its connotations are not discussed in the larger democratic space. Here, azadi is more technical — can this phrase be sung in this raga? Can a raga be presented at a different time of the day? “In the context of the cultural privilege that the proponents of classical music have, the question of azadi is never asked. Training in classical music is devoid of azadi, so following rules and adhering to the system become sacrosanct. ‘Aisa hi toh hai, Aisa hi toh gaana hai, Poochh kyun rahe ho (This is how it is, this is how you have to sing. Why are you even asking?)’ — that’s how the system runs,” says Carnatic musician and Magsaysay Award winner TM Krishna, who was also a part of the video Privacy Matters (2018), where he sang, Tere reham-o-karam par nahi tiki meri chunne ki azadi, mere jeene ki azadi, meri nijta ki azadi (My freedom is not at your mercy — my freedom to choose, my freedom to live, my freedom to privacy), words by activist and journalist Bhasha Singh. The piece was an ode to the Supreme Court’s judgment on the right to privacy last year.
“A very important thing that we forget is that freedom is not about being correct. Azadi is the right to question, to probe, to amend and change. That’s what people do not like, because that leads to conversations, debates. That leads to change. So you put caveats on azadi. Usually, the people putting these caveats are the people who have the privilege to do what they want and they force it upon people who are struggling to say the simplest things in their life,” says Krishna, who adds that people think that the debate over freedom is an urban, upper-class, upper-caste privilege. “It’s not. People who aren’t heard are actually the most affected by these caveats on freedom,” says Krishna.
To Kak, azadi means freedom, and that includes the freedom to unpack the many meanings that the word carries. “Azadi is most of all the azadi to think freely,” he says.
“Sapne bhi sukhi aur azad hona chahte hain (Dreams also want to be happy and free),” wrote iconic poet Gorakh Pandey. “Azadi is the way forward. There is nothing anti-national in asking for freedom for your being. It is your constitutional right. My allegiance is to my nation, she is the one that gives me freedom. The government is never the nation,” says Bhasin.
With inputs by Surbhi Gupta.