Urdu has seen a welcome though unexpected revival following the anti-CAA protests.
Last December at the Shaheen Bagh protests, Urdu poetry seemed to gain a new lease of life. Revolutionary rhymes in Urdu conveyed the hope, resentment and anger of a people aroused. Some wrote couplets on posters and banners while others sang verses as a dirge for democracy. Urdu, once again, had become the language of defiance.
Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Hum Dekhenge seemed to be on everyone’s lips. Soon after the announcement of Citizenship Act Amendment and the National Registry of Citizens, people across the country were squatting in the streets in protest. “Hum dekhenge became synonymous with the CAA-NRC protests,” said Riya Bagariya, a student from Mumbai who made a documentary about the CAA-NRC protests. “An anthem is associated with dissent, highlighting so much that has gone wrong.”
While protestors spoke and shouted slogans in a multitude of languages, Urdu poetry best captured the spirit of the times and gave the movement its distinctive voice. From JNU to Shaheen Bagh, people rallied to the powerful verses of Habib Jalib’s Dastoor. As a vocalist sang, “Kyun daraate ho zindaan ki deewar se? Zulm ki baat ko jehl ki raat ko. Main nahu maanta, main nahi jaanta (Why do you threaten me with prison walls? This act of cruelty, this night of ignorance. I refuse to accept; I refuse to acknowledge it).”
And not merely the voices, but banners, posters and walls were covered with verse. The words they carried, the emotions they evoked, like Inquilaab (revolution), Zulm (oppression) and taanashah (dictator) resonated with common people suddenly threatened with the loss of their homes, their country, their identity. Jamia Millia University and Shaheen Bagh became centres of resistance and Urdu was the language of the moment.
One of the reasons why Urdu found such wide appeal is because it’s the voice of the oppressed. “I think Hindi and Urdu together is the culture of Jamia, so the same was reflected in this movement. Jamia has a strong voice of dissent which follows the ganga-jamni tehzeeb which is of brotherhood and unity in diversity,” said Naila Asim, a student protestor from Jamia.
Young poets were inspired to step up and recite new verse. One such poet was Aamir Aziz, who held the nation in thrall with his Sab Yaad Rakha Jaega (Everything shall be remembered).
Said Diya Bachchani, a member of a documentary collective called Voice of Art, “I remember I went to Delhi for a college project and spoke to students of Jamia. One of them quoted some beautiful Urdu lines from Kaifi Azmi’s Aurat which hit me so hard. “Qadr ab tak teri taarikh ne jaani hi nahi, teri hasti bhi hai ek chiz jawani hi nahi (History has still not acknowledged your worth, your existence too is as real as your youth).”
These protests somehow brought back the essence of Urdu, a language that is sadly dying in India. The wealth of ideas on display wasn’t confined to the issues that provoked the protests. A couplet by Allama Iqbal, featured prominently on banners, extolled the worth of women: Tu Shaheen hai, parwaz hai kaam tera (You are an eagle, flight is your vocation). That was apt, as women provided much of the leadership in the protests.
Also, websites like Ishq Urdu and Rekhta were quick to grab the attention of youngsters by posting couplets written by a range of poets and translated into English, which allowed even non-Urdu speakers to comprehend and share their sentiments. Thus overnight, Urdu became a common language among people from all walks of life, crystallising the essence of the protestors’ collective feelings and acting as a catalyst for the movement.