By Safeena Wani Apr. 25, 2017
The protest slogan is a political art form, and in Kashmir, they’ve been honing it for centuries.
Zara zor se bolo? Azadi!
If a single proclamation could sum up the spirit of the agitation in Kashmir, this would be it.
The Valley has erupted time and again – like in 2016’s tizzy of stone-pelting and brazen clashes with the authorities after the Srinagar by-election – and the cry for azadi continues to echo in its haunted streets. In one of the videos that had gone viral then, despite strict bans on mobile internet, an elderly man was seen rallying protesters in Islamabad in south Kashmir. “Ye pellet bullet?” he cries out. The people reply, “Na bhai na!”
He goes on, “Ye raat ka champa?” “Na bhai na!”
“Ye afra tafri?” “Na bhai na!”
“Zara zor se bolo?” And the crowd responds with, “Azadi!”
The video was proof of the resonance these expressions of dissent have in the hearts of the people. In Kashmir, though, protest and innovative slogans that drive those protests further, have had a long, colourful history.
For centuries now, Kashmiris have been voicing their protest against hostile invaders and callous rulers, taking to the street to voice their anger through chants and slogans.
Zareef Ahmed Zareef, a Kashmiri historian and poet, dates the first call for azadi to the late 16th century. According to him, when the Mughals invaded Kashmir in 1586 and looted treasures of gold and silver, young Kashmiris, known as “Dilawars” and akin to present-day militants, raised slogans against the invaders. “They chanted ‘Maa azadi, me khaim!’ or ‘We want freedom!’ in Persian.”
For centuries now, Kashmiris have been voicing their protest against hostile invaders and callous rulers, taking to the street to voice their anger through chants and slogans. After the Mughals came the Pathans, who faced the same chants of Maa azadi, me khaim. The Kashmiri protest slogan is a primal yell, ripped from the throat of a people who have been under a yoke for too long.
Zareef offers another historical example. “During the 28 years of Sikh rule in Kashmir, the Jamia Masjid was locked down and converted into a stable, while Pather Masjid was converted into a ration depot,” he said. No azaan was allowed in both the masjids for 20 years, and in small masjids, it was offered in a low tone for the fear of reprisals. Under the Sikhs, Kashmiris coined the slogan: “Hum kya chahtay? Azadi”, which continues to resound from Kashmir to Delhi. The Sikhs were followed by the Dogras, who ruled Kashmir for close to a century. During their reign, a new slogan raised its head. “Khalkov kertov tobh taqseer, Dogruv melheth mulki Kashmir! (Pray, people, pray, the Dogras have bought Kashmir).”
As the summer of 2016 showed us, Kashmir is still a hotbed of agitation and public unrest, providing a fertile ground for protest slogans to take root. A fine proponent of the modern Kashmiri protest slogan was Sheikh Abdullah, the first prime minister of Kashmir. A slogan that followed him around was “Shere Kashmir Zindabad (Long live the Lion of Kashmir)”.
But Abdullah’s closeness with the Centre didn’t sit well with the Kashmiri populace, who held him responsible for the Indian Army’s advent into the Valley. They marked his signing of the Indira-Abdullah Accord with in 1975 by chanting, “Rajshomari barek dabas, alevee babus mubarak (Cheers to the man who asked us to eat potatoes in defiance, but binned the Plebiscite movement)”.
Yet, one of Abdullah’s calls resonates with Kashmiris even now. Ashiq Hussain, a historian currently researching slogans, told us about a momentous slogan raised by Abdullah in 1946 that can still be heard in Kashmir’s streets: “Bainama Amritsar tod do, Kashmir hamara chod do (Break the Amritsar Treaty, Quit our Kashmir).” By 1987, in response to the rigged assembly elections in the state, that slogan had evolved to “Jabri nata tod do, Kashmir hamara chod do (Shun the forcible tie, quit our Kashmir)”, and was being raised by members of the Islamic Students League.
Azadi continues to return in the Kashmiri slogan, twisted and turned into a shape that fits the situation.
Yawar Nazir/ Getty
Soon after, in 1989, an armed uprising broke out in Kashmir. With it came a host of new slogans, raised by separatists and rebels. “Kashmir banega khud muktar (Kashmir will be a sovereign state)” contended with “Kashmir banega Pakistan”.
When the militant fighter Burhan Wani was killed last year, a fresh spate of protests broke out. Much like the viral video of the old man on the streets, another video from north Kashmir’s Baramulla depicts the hypnotic effect of these slogans on the chanters. In it, a group of boys raise slogans praising Burhan, his successor Zakir and the Hizb militant Sabzar, as well as slogans against Kashmir’s former counter-insurgence chief Ashiq Bukhari. The popular chorus then was: “Burhan ke sadke? Azadi!”
Azadi continues to return in the Kashmiri slogan, twisted and turned into a shape that fits the situation. “For a common Kashmiri,” says Wasim Khan, a graduate from south Kashmir’s Shopian, “‘Hum kya chahtay? Azadi!’ is an irresistible expression of pent-up feelings and a sacred demand.” And if the current situation in the Valley is any indication, this call for azadi is not going to fade any time soon.