On 17 December, students at IIT Kanpur who were protesting the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) recited the famous Urdu poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, 'Hum Dekhenge', in solidarity with the students of Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University, who had been subjected to police action. Two days later, following a recommendation made by a faculty member, IIT-K instituted a panel to assess whether the Faiz poem was “anti Hindu”.
Reports of the setting up of this panel were met with widespread condemnation and derision. Much of the commentary on this issue revolved around the specifics of the poem, or Faiz’s larger body of work. This served to spur a newfound interest in the poetry of Faiz, introducing it to those otherwise unfamiliar with it, including in regions where Urdu is not a commonly used literary language. The poem has been translated into and recited at anti-CAA protests in various languages, including Tamil, Kannada, and Malayalam.
Make no mistake — this controversy is not so much about Faiz as it is about language and identity. Poetry is heavily charged with symbolism and is open to interpretation almost by definition, meaning that anyone can plausibly interpret a poem through the prism of their own biases.
A consensus seems to have emerged that an attack on Urdu’s identity is best combated by showcasing its inclusive ideals, and its value in civil society. It is hardly surprising that an Urdu poem has yet again landed in controversy. Language, along with many other markers of identity, have increasingly been subject to a process of communalisation in the last few years. In November last year, protests broke out at Banaras Hindu University over the appointment of a Muslim Sanskrit teacher, ignoring the language’s rich literary tradition that has historically also included Muslim voices.
While it is encouraging that Faiz's poetry is being revisited, even reinterpreted in defiance of its demonisation, the fact remains that Urdu has always received significant public visibility — a product of its close ties to Delhi, the center of Indian political power. This is not a privilege afforded to many other languages.
As we push back against the communalisation of popular languages, it is doubly important to be cognizant of traditions that are not so much in the public eye. These languages lack the privilege granted to literary Urdu, both in its reach and the defence it receives, but can greatly broaden our perspectives and range of sentiments on the very process and mechanism of oppression.
The experience of resistance is a shared one — one that cuts across language and region. A plurality of defiant voices would only reinforce the solidarity that is at the centre of such resistance, by helping people both express and hear it in new ways that channel their anger and frustration, telling them that they are not alone in this. More than ever before, it has become important to give marginalised voices and their traditions of resistance a seat at the table. Learning about these traditions and offering them representation also ties in to the broader inclusiveness, progressiveness, and opposition to homogenisation that the anti-CAA movement stands for.
The obvious candidates here would be non-literary language varieties, including ones spoken by Adivasi communities. Adivasi communities have long histories of marginalisation, struggles that have found a place in their oral traditions. Even within otherwise written languages, traditions specific to marginalised communities, like Dalit literature in Marathi and Tamil miner songs from the Kolar Gold Fields (KGF), offer new ways in which we can voice and articulate dissent, and even conceptualise oppression.
Speakers of Gondi, spoken across much of Central India, chronicle the changing fortunes of their homeland and their community through folk songs that are widely sung and passed down. These include folk songs in praise of Pravir Chandra Bhanj Deo of Bastar, an Adivasi MP who fought for his community’s rights, killed by State violence.
In Kerala’s Wayanad, local Adivasi communities were subject to brutal exploitation by non-tribal landowners from Kerala and Karnataka, and turned to the Ramayana to reshape and redefine the Sanskrit epic to give themselves a sense of place and shared identity rooted in their surroundings, in rejection of the identities imposed on them by landowners.
In Nizam-era Telangana, harsh feudal conditions made possible by the vetti or forced labour system bled the land and its peasants dry. During the Communist-led Telangana Revolt (1947-48), peasants rallied and attacked their landlords, issuing a challenge to the very legitimacy of the Nizam’s despotic rule. Telugu songs were an important medium through which such ideas were shared, and populations mobilised.
To the West of Wayanad, the Mappila community of Malabar repeatedly rose in revolt against the British. Local poets composed folk songs in Arabi Malayalam, a heavily Arabised register of Malayalam used by the community for written purposes. An important genre of Arabi Malayalam literature called paḍappāṭṭu, literally war songs, was developed to pay tribute to skirmishes and armed struggles against the British by local heroes.
In Karnataka’s primarily Tamil Dalit mining belt of KGF, local miners sang Tamil songs of the hardships they faced under an oppressive capitalist system that was more than willing to sacrifice labour for profit. Historian Janaki Nair records many of these songs in her book Miners and Millhands.
In the 1960s, Bombay saw the emergence of many works of Marathi literature by Dalit writers, who sought to develop their own literary norms and aesthetics, reusing and even rejecting established conventions to tell their stories. These works formed a veritable outpouring of Dalit assertion and brought their lived experiences into the public sphere, challenging their erasure.
However, reading about these traditions and their expressions of dissent serves no purpose if we see them merely as tokens of identity, divorcing them from the very conditions that led to their emergence. Nor is it enough to merely “boost” these voices, to borrow a term from influencer-speak.
The marginalisation of these traditions is more multidimensional in that many carry the burden of low socio-linguistic prestige and institutional neglect, unlike literary Urdu, an elite tradition. For example, although Gondi is spoken by around three million Adivasis across large parts of Central India, it is not official in any of the districts it is spoken in, nor do schools teach it to its own native speakers. Similarly, though the Telangana Revolt’s struggle against feudalism and an exploitative capitalist structure echoes the modern State’s renewed greed to hand over its resources and land to oligarchs without any regard for the people whose lives depend on them, it finds scant mention in our history books.
Arabi Malayalam is dying a slow death, as precious few can read and understand its traditional poetry, and its large corpus of printed texts lies in personal libraries and archives. Protest songs by Dalits and workers do not enjoy the same visibility or prestige that more “established” traditions do, and are not included in larger, more definitive canons as readily as more traditional genres. Their inclusion is solely at the discretion of the arbiters of mainstream tastes.
Many Adivasi languages are seeing citizen-led initiatives to reclaim their linguistic identity and adapt them to a rapidly modernising digital world, and when the time comes, they will require support from outside their own communities, visibility in the public sphere and in the government. Those of us committed to listening to and learning from these voices bear a responsibility to recognise and address the roots of their dissent, the issues they face today, and very importantly, their systemic linguistic and literary exclusion. After all, to stifle a language and its literary traditions is to stifle its very voice — including its many articulations of resistance.
Any argument in favor of inclusivity should be committed to an openness to a true plurality of voices; highlighting the role one specific language plays in articulating India’s identity goes directly against this. To put it another way, the fight against silencing dissent should not just be met with more volume, but also with more voices.
Karthik Malli is a freelance journalist who writes on the intersection between language, history, and culture
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Updated Date: Feb 16, 2020 10:37:29 IST