On 19 February 2020, a Kannada poet-journalist Siraj Bisaralli was arrested for a public reading of his poem Ninna Dakhale Yaavaga Needuttee? (“When will you show your documents?”) in Koppal district in Karnataka. He was charged for violating Sections 504 and 505 of the Indian Penal Code for “intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of peace” and “statements conducing to public mischief” respectively. First Information Reports (FIR) were earlier filed by BJP district workers who alleged that the poet had “insulted the policies of the Central government, Prime Minister Modi, freedom fighters and ‘Hindu dharma’”.

The poem, while being critical of the current administration’s right-wing ideology and written in response to the recently passed citizenship amendment act (CAA) that discriminates on the basis of religion, does not, it ought to be emphasised, insult freedom fighters as alleged in the complaint. The state, by implicating the poet based on the unsubstantiated opinion of a ruling party worker, has once again set its draconian limits to freedom of expression.

However, it does not come as surprise that in a BJP-ruled state, the police saw no reason to uphold constitutionally guaranteed freedom, and instead slapped criminal charges on Bisaralli for resisting the centre’s move that has drawn countrywide protests since last December.

Bisaralli’s poem inverts the refrain in Varun Grover’s poem, Kaagaz nahi dikhaenge (“We will not show our documents”): what if instead a poet demanded from his leaders their documents? Written in Kannada for a Kannada-speaking audience, Bisaralli reads at a steady pace, poetically explicating the demand in a voice, at once, sharp and clear; demeanour, calm and unhesitant, during an event which, ironically, was organised by the state government.

The event, held on 9 January 2020, was a kavi goshthi (public gathering of poets). Bisaralli’s poetry , including two published collections, had earned him an invitation to recite to the public. However, that very stage, where a poem of dissent should have received its due recognition, proved a trap to the poet’s creative licence, and sent him into hiding for a few weeks after the FIRs were filed.

As citizens how then do we respond to such state-led attacks on basic freedoms? Precisely by reading, re-reading, sharing, and translating the object of attack.

When will you show your documents?

Those queueing for aadhar-ration-cards
between thumb-scans and monkey-tricks of servers
who lose their lives – their documents you demand,
When will you show your documents!?

Those to the gallows went smiling for freedom
refusing the martyr’s fame,
their history pages you tear,
When will you show your documents!?

Of Taj-Mahal-Char-Minar domes
Red-Fort-Qutub-Minar minarets,
their proofs you demand
When will you show your documents!?

Bootlickers of the British rule,
in their intoxicating hate, you –
a Goebbel’s breed – drink blood
When will you show your documents!?

Men lived selling pakoda
and chai in my city, humanity
they didn’t sell, dignity they didn’t
sell, a concoction of lies they didn’t brew.
Tell us, when will you show your documents!?

When thorns pierced, tore, ripped
tyres, tubes which he mended and pumped air
the puncture-man did not sell his identity.
You who sold this country
Tell us, when will you show your documents!?

You who swindled the nation
to whom fake documents mean a trifling
matter must attest at least to humanity.
When will you show your documents!?

— Translated from the Kannada by Dhanya Gopal

Let us be sure of what it is about the poet’s reading in public that the state fears – it is not his words alone, but also the conviction and clarity of the poet’s performance. His poetry when seen in light of his journalistic work makes for the state a powerful voice to contend with. One can relate to a salient point that the Spanish writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez made about journalism, as influenced by modernity, in an essay titled, “The best job in the world”, based on his own experience of the profession:

“Newsrooms have become aseptic laboratories for solitary travellers, where it seems easier to communicate with extraterrestrial phenomena than with readers’ hearts. The dehumanisation is galloping”.

Bisaralli, in expressing through poetry to a large audience, overcomes the dehumanisation pervasive in newsrooms today and reaches directly to the hearts of people. Such communication in the people’s tongue against its divisive policy is what the state feared, and ultimately resorted to throwing outrageous charges at the poet.

The 43-year old Bisaralli is based in Koppal, a district in North Karnataka, where the famous monuments of Hampi are located. Since 2009, BJP leaders have been elected in successive terms to the Lok Sabha from the constituency. It is predominantly rural which, per the 2011 census, stands at 83.19% of its population. Its literacy rate at 68.09% is well below the state average of 75.36%.

Outlining such disparities in his region, compared to rest of the state, especially in the developed parts around the coastal areas and the capital, Bisaralli, during the 2013 Manthan Awards, expressed his motivation behind the founding of Kannadanet, a regional, Kannada-language online news outlet to serve the needs of local district that remained severely underreported.

In Karnataka, a state where the news media is entrenched in caste-based production practices, as argued by the academic Sahana Udupa in her essay about the media ecosystem in India, Kannadanet has challenged the Brahmin-dominated hegemony of popular regional newspapers such as Kannada Prabha, Samyukta Karnataka and Vijaya Karnataka. This can be clearly seen in its editorials which espouse progressive, inclusive and democratic values.

In its recent editorial condemning the FIRs, Bisaralli’s contribution is noted thus: Over the last two decades, Bisaralli has to his honour produced a large body of literary and journalistic work, often writing at the intersection of labour rights, religious minorities and discriminated “lower” caste groups.

Looking at the process of Bisaralli’s arrest – he was subsequently granted bail – one must ask what is at stake when the police acts on unreasonable complaints by party workers motivated by vested interests. Such a mechanism, also inherent to the NRC – where anyone can raise objections to the inclusion of individuals in the draft – subjects art itself to a Kafkaesque experience. If art cannot express freely, and the streets are emptied, anyway, of protests, then democracy, as Jorge Luis Borges once observed, is merely an abuse of statistics.