Poets are particularly incorrigible. In India, you might even call them equal opportunity offenders since they rile up governments led by the BJP and the Congress alike. Varavara Rao, arrested in the aftermath of the Bhima Koregaon events of 2018, first came into prominence for the agitations he led against Indira Gandhi’s regime back in 1973. His poetry and activism earned him the ire of the Congress-led state government in Andhra Pradesh, which rewarded him with a jail term of several years. He was repeatedly harassed and jailed by subsequent governments in his state, irrespective of who was heading it. But Rao remained undaunted. At the end of his very first incarceration, he wrote defiantly:

This is jail for the voice and the feet
But the hand hasn’t stopped writing
The heart hasn’t stopped throbbing
Dream still reaches to the horizon of light
Travelling from this solitary darkness …

Poetry’s indomitable spirit was once again on display during the protests against the CAA. Inspired by the Miya poets in Assam, writers in the Gangetic belt too began to speak up in verse. Within two weeks of the passage of the amendment, comedian Varun Grover performed a piece titled Hum Kagaz Nahin Dikhayenge (We will not show our documents). The piece defied the premise of the NRC and the CAA by proclaiming the artist’s refusal to show their documents as proof of citizenship. “We”, the people of India, were “here to stay”, Grover insisted, no matter what.

Hum Kagaz Nahin Dikhayenge became an instant classic across the Hindi-speaking world. In the video, wearing a plain white shirt, sitting in front of a wooden panel, Grover conveys powerful simplicity. Born in the small town of Sundarnagar in Himachal Pradesh and brought up in Uttarakhand’s Dehradun, Grover had spent his teenage years in Lucknow and studied engineering in Varanasi. His mother was a schoolteacher and his father in the army. Grover was the quintessential small-town north Indian Hindi-speaking man with a privileged caste Hindu name belonging to the demographic most likely to support the BJP’s ideological and political agenda. Yet, here he was, defying the political party which many from his social milieu were loyal to. Grover had given up his career in engineering to become a writer, lyricist and comedian in 2015. His performance offered a powerful pushback to the otherwise widespread acceptance of the CAA and the NRC by others in his class. But it was not the only one.

Born in Patna and educated in Delhi, Amir Aziz gave up his corporate job to embrace his passions, theatre and songwriting, in 2019. In March that year, he released Acche Din Blues, a song that played on Modi’s promise of “good days” for fellow Indians. The following month saw the release of the darker Ballad of Pehlu Khan, in which he wrote about the gruesome lynching of the dairy farmer Pehlu Khan by cow vigilantes in Rajasthan. Around the same time that Grover released Hum Kaagaz Nahin Dikhayenge, Aziz reminded his audience about the poetics of nation-building. “Hindustan ek khwab hai,” he said to an interviewer. India is a dream and there was place in it for everyone. Two months after the passage of the CAA in Parliament, Aziz mesmerised audiences in Mumbai with his fourth political piece, Sab Yaad Rakha Jaayega. Everything will be remembered. The jokes cracked by the oppressors would be met with the justice sought by the oppressed, the poet assured his audience. Injustice on earth would be countered by revolutions in the skies.

Sab Yaad Rakha Jaayega immortalised the struggles against the CAA, including the state’s brutal crackdown on dissent. Aziz dedicated the poem to the memory of myriad victims of state violence, from Kashmir to Uttar Pradesh, including students at Jamia, JNU and AMU. The poem, quite literally, drove home the adage that to remember is to resist. The memory of grief, pain and trauma that Aziz’s poem brought to life was not intended to paralyse audiences with dejection. On the contrary, Aziz invigorated his listeners by warning those in authority that nothing would be forgotten.

While Grover and Aziz provoked their audiences to reflect on the nation and its dissenting imaginations across north India, the poet Sukirtharani (who only uses one name) was urging her audiences to think about something even more fundamental: the role of their own bodies in dissenting from societal expectations. Born in a village near Tamil Nadu’s Vellore district, she was the first in her village to complete her graduation. The gruesome rape and murder of Dalit women in Maharasthra’s Khairlanji district back in 2006 shocked her into reflecting on her own identity as a Dalit woman: poetry offered her a means of expressing her thoughts. Her poem Yen Udal (My Body) expresses Dalit women’s refusal to be confined by a caste-supremacist patriarchal society.

The poet cautions men against harbouring ambitions of controlling women’s agency. They are welcome to try but the poem warned such men of the consequences of their actions: such attempts invite women’s wrath. “The more you confine me,” the poet addresses such men, “The more I will spill over.” If women’s bodies were patriarchal sites of class and communal strife, the poem reminds readers that these very same bodies could be reclaimed against such strife.

Yen Udal epitomises Dalit women’s intersectional struggle against patriarchy, casteism and classism. It does this by appropriating precisely those features men attribute to women which then form the basis for their marginalisation and infantilisation. Through it, Sukirtharani offers a vision of social equality that is not derived from behaviours deemed appropriate but instead stems from a basic recognition of, and respect for, human personhood. While reminding us of the limits imposed upon women by society, Yen Udal harbours hopes for liberation from these constraints.

The poems by Grover, Aziz and Sukirtharani offer stirring thoughts for renewing Indian democracy. As poets, they recognise the political and social assaults on democracy but refuse to cave in. Instead, like the generations of poets before them, they offer stirring compositions that provoke you to ruminate and, perhaps most importantly, to hope.

Excerpted with permission from Audacious Hope: An Archive of How Democracy is Being Saved in India, Indrajit Roy, Westland.