Bajok doba bajok xonkho
bajok mridang khol
Axom akou unnati pothot
Joi Aai Axom bol …

Sound the doba
blow the conch
let the mridang and khol beat
Axom is on the rise again
say Hail Mother Axom and repeat

This immortal verse from Lakshminath Bezbaruah, the towering “Junaki Jug” poet of Assam, acquired a different meaning from the one the poem’s larger vision signified. It became the mantra, the slogan, the clarion call for the 1979-85 movement against “outsiders” led by the All Assam Students Union (AASU). Poetry, time and again, proved itself a handy tool for the sloganeering masses. Joi Aai Axom, especially, become the ultimate verbal marker of patriotic fervor.

Politics and poetry can mix well, or rather, poets can really mix the two well, as David Orr indicated in his long essay (in Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry, 2011) about the poet John Lundberg’s angry riposte in 2008 to Hillary Clinton supporter Tom Buffenbarger that Barrack Obama was “a poet, not a fighter!”, and, hence, unfit against the Republican attack machine.

A lot of words of protest as well as slogans have remained etched in public memory via the power of poetry. And we have not even started talking about Gil Scott-Heron’s scathing and masterful The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, a constant inspiration for poets and protesters alike –most recently, for poets from a marginalised group in Assam.

With the India-Pakistan border tension currently at its height, this does seem a season for protests and slogans, although the trend is not new. In April 2000, two army officers allegedly disturbed an Indo-Pakistan mushaira at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus, apparently to be beaten up by agitated students. According to an account, the officers were angered by anti-war poems recited by two Pakistani poets present.

To the army officers, the lines of the poem Tum bilkul hum jaise nikle (You turned out to be just like us) suggested criticism of India, and was, thus, unacceptable.

What Pakistani poet Fahmida Riaz was trying to voice in the poem was her
analysis of seething tensions in India, no different from Pakistan's. Here’s an excerpt:

Tum bilkul hum jaisey nikley
ab tak kahan chhupe the bhai
voh moorkhta, voh ghaamarpan
jis mein hum ne sadi ganwai
aakhir pahunchi dwaar tumhaarey
arre badhai bohot badhai…

— "Tum bilkul hum jaise nikle”

Here’s an English translation by Shabana Mir of this passage and the following lines:

So it turned out you were just like us!
Where were you hiding all this time, buddy?
That stupidity, that ignorance
we wallowed in for a century –
look, it arrived at your shores too!

Many congratulations to you!
Raising the flag of religion,
I guess now you’ll be setting up Hindu Raj?
You too will commence to muddle everything up
You, too, will ravage your beautiful garden.

You, too, will sit and ponder –
I can tell preparations are afoot –
who is [truly] Hindu, who is not.
I guess you’ll be passing fatwas soon!
Here, too, it will become hard to survive.
Here, too, you will sweat and bleed.
You’ll barely make do joylessly.
You will gasp for air like us.

I used to wonder with such deep sorrow.
And now, I laugh at the idea:
it turned out you were just like us!
We weren’t two nations after all!

For those in politics or practising the art of poetry, the intermingling has never been a doubtful proposition, irrespective of what Orr set out to examine. If not derived from well-known poems, several slogans or political exhortations strive to rhyme, pun and use metaphors and similes, and even as “non-poems” they appeal to the poetic fervour as a medium for voicing their protests.

Apart from Bezbaruah’s stellar verse playing a crucial role in Assam’s bitter politics of identity and belonging, I have grown up with personal memories of slogans. There was the Khalistan movement – “Na Hindu Raj na Pakistan / Raaj karega Khalistan” (Neither Hindu rule nor Pakistan’s/The kingdom will be Khalistan’s). And there was the razing of the Babri Masjid – “Ek dhakka aur do / Babri Masjid tod do” (One more blow / destroy Babri Masjid); “Bachha baccha ram ka / Janambhoomi ke kaam ka” (Every child in every house / Will serve the Janambhoomi cause). Rhyming certainly helped the process of repetition and remembrance for those that saw their political value.

Politics and poetry realised through sloganeering has been a tool to challenge the colonial powers as far back as our subcontinental memory goes. The partition of Bengal in 1905 received stiff resistance from Rabindranath Tagore, whose “Banglar maati, Banglaar jol, Banglaar bayu Banglaar phol / Punya houk, punyo houk, punyo houk hey bhogobaan” (The soil of Bengal, the water of Bengal, the breeze of Bengal, the fruits of Bengal/Glory be, glory be, glory, O dear lord) became the rallying point for protesters to maintain Hindu-Muslim unity.

During the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, my father and his Communist cohorts joined the struggle against the onslaught by West Pakistan and, interestingly, evoked songs in both Bangla and Urdu to register their protest. Thus, Bismil Azimabadi’s “Sarfaroshi ki tamanna aaj hamare dil mein hai / Dekhna hai zor kitna baazu-e-qatil mein hai (The desire for sacrifice is in our hearts / Let us how strong the executioner’s arms are)” was as organic to the resistance as Tagore’s “O amar desher maati (O the soil of my land)” even to those who did not ideologically believe in the country or the nation-state as a mother- or father figure, or as a political force for the emancipation of humanity.

Many years later, after the attacks on the Indian soliders at Uri in Kashmir, this rehashed slogan briefly showed up on social media: Abhi toh yeh bas jhanki hai / UP-Bihar baaki hai (This is but a glimpse of what’s to come / UP and Bihar are still to be won). The reprise, interestingly, comes from the house of both the Left and the Right.

There are more volatile slogans – and not subtle references to Agha Shahid Ali’s The Country without a Post Office – that have currently been in usage in the context of student protests at JNU, among other places. Though not quite poetry, these aim to rhyme and reason like verse:

Dudh mango toh kheer denge
Kashmir mango toh cheer denge

(Ask for milk and we’ll give you pudding
Ask for Kashmir and we’ll cut you in half)

Jab laal laal lehrayega
tab hosh thikane ayega

(When there’s a red wave everywhere
The lesson will be learnt)

Kashmir mange azaadi
ladke lenge azaadi

(Kashmir wants freedom
We shall wrest our freedom)

If We Shall Overcome, sung by artists the world over, has stirred the imagination of freedom fighters and protesters – translations have been manifold and adaptations diverse – the political upheavals and catastrophes of our modern age right from the Peterloo massacre in 1819, the World Wars, the Holocaust, the Tiananmen Square protests, 9/11, the Arab Spring uprisings all have much to offer in verse for the better of our times.

Adam O’Riordan writes of the Peterloo massacre in The Guardian in a 2010 essay: “Shortly after the massacre, in which several were killed and several hundred injured, Thomas Love Peacock wrote of it to his friend Percy Bysshe Shelley in Italy. Shelley was so moved by Peacock's description of the events that he responded by penning The Masque of Anarchy, a poem that advocates both radical social action and non-violent resistance: "Shake your chains to earth like dew / Which in sleep had fallen on you – / Ye are many – they are few".

Within the subcontinent, among haloed names who have aided the passion of the rebellious and the revolutionary, Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s words have literally spiralled the concept of azaadi (freedom) up to a sublime height:

Bol, ke labh aazaad hain tere
Bol, zubaan ab tak teri hai
Tera sutwaan jism hai tera
Bol, ke jaan ab tak teri hai

(Speak out!
Your words are free.
Speak up!
Your tongue is still your own.
Your body remains yours
ramrod, erect.
Speak out!
Your life is still your own.)

— Translation: Mustansir Dalvi

One can quote Sahir Ludhianvi, Allama Iqbal, and go back to Mirza Ghalib to realise poets indeed are the unacknowledged legislators of the world as Shelley had said.

The muscle of poetry is eternal. Even in this time of decibel contests on TV, manufactured consent, and blatant disregard for human dignity, the evocation in “I have a dream…” is nothing but dazzling poetry in its strongest political portents, a fine example of vision and protest in its blood and sinew. As Orr says, poetry and politics have a close connection – to “the old art of rhetoric”.

With this realisation, the other day I read a poet with much hope:

This is about the women of that country
Sometimes they spoke in slogans
They said
We patch the roads as we patch our sweetheart’s trousers
The heart will stop but not the transport
They said
We have ensured production even near bomb craters
Children let your voices sing higher than the explosions
of the bombs
They said
We have important tasks to teach the children
that the people are the collective masters
to bear hardship
to instill love in the family
to guide the good health of the children (they must
wear clothing according to climate)
They said
Once men beat their wives
now they may not
Once a poor family sold its daughter to a rich old man
now the young may love one another
They said
Once we planted our rice any old way
now we plant the young shoots in straight rows
so the imperialist pilot can see how steady our
hands are

In the evening we walked along the shores of the Lake
of the Restored Sword

I said is it true? we are sisters?
They said Yes, we are of one family

— “That Country”, Grace Paley