Re-examining the place of textuality in Islamic Studies

The Making of Poetic Solidarities: “Muslim” Resistance Poetry in Indian Student Protests

Aaisha Salman

July 14, 2021

In December 2019, Al Jazeera reported  that students protesting in India against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) found inspiration from celebrated Urdu poets, stating that “Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Habib Jalib and Allama Iqbal remain integral to popular protests against ‘anti-Muslim’ citizenship law.” Since December 2019, students have led the protests in India against a citizenship amendment bill that they consider discriminatory towards the Muslim community. As videos and photographs of student protests circulated on social media, one that particularly garnered a lot of heated discussion was that of student protestors reciting Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry. The critique made by those who opposed these student protests, including faculty at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur, was that this poetry could be seen as hurting Hindu sentiments. In response to this critique, a number of articles online, such as the one from Al Jazeera, pointed to the centrality of a supposedly Pakistani, Muslim canon in anti-state movements in South Asia. But why does “Muslim” poetry matter to protest? And how does the poetry come to be seen as Muslim or anti-Hindu?

Kristin Plys’ research on protest poetry during India’s 1975 state of Emergency asks us to consider the sociology of poetry in anti-state social movements of South Asia. Referring to protest poetry, she argues that, “These poems generate emotional and cultural bonds among social movement participants by linking anti-state movements to the centuries-old tradition of Islamicate poetry, thereby fostering solidarity and providing a firm basis for collective action.”[1]Kristin Plys, “The Poetry of Resistance: Poetry as Solidarity in Postcolonial Anti-Authoritarian Movements in Islamicate South Asia,Theory, Culture and Society36, no. 7-8): 295-313. Plys shows that by drawing on poetry to give language to resistance against state repression, poetry performs “the solidarity building work that is a crucial precursor to collective action.”

A historical perspective can help us make sense of why protest poetry borrowed heavily from Urdu literary traditions. In the twentieth century, British colonial intervention had branded Urdu a “Muslim” language, with the rationale that the Arabic-Persian script belonged to Muslims, and a Sanksrit vocabulary and script was distinctly Hindu. By the 1930s in South Asia, a “progressive” literary tradition in Urdu had already taken root after the creation of the Progressive Writers’ Association in pre-Partition India, that would later document the colonial violence of Partition, and the post-colonial violence of the Indian and Pakistani nation-state. Owing to both thebranding of Urdu as a Muslim language, and a critical, progressive tradition associated with Urdu, resistance poetry today can be read and framed as an integral part of the Islamicate tradition.

While Plys considers poetic solidarities derived from Islamicate traditions as facilitators of affective bonds, I want to raise some questions about the politics of canon-making. What happens when we start to examine how poetic traditions and/or bodies carrying those traditions are marked through Muslimness?In other words, what shifts in our analysis of poetic solidarities if we consider how certain canons are marked as Muslim through contemporary politics?

The use of Urdu poems written by Muslim poets in the anti-CAA protest highlights the stakes involved when markings of Muslimness over bodies and words sediment over time. In many ways, Faiz, Jalib and Iqbal do not constitute a coherent canon. Allama Iqbal was writing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, before the Partition of South Asia in 1947. Iqbal’s poetic philosophy took many detours, and it was only towards the end of his writing career that he started aligning himself with a vision of a pan-Indian Muslim nation, the idioms of which appeared in his later work. In January 2020, an explanatory blog on the anti-CAA protests provided a brief explanation of how Iqbal’s work, was in fact, not limited to visions of Muslimness, but to a larger Indian identity as well:

It is a little-known fact that Allama Iqbal actually wrote two taranas (a genre of poetry that flows rhythmically, meant to be sung to a tune).One, which we know so well – “Saare jahan se achcha Hindustan hamara” [Our Hindustan is superior to the whole world] to imbue a national identity and sense of pride among the people of India, and the other lesser known one – “Cheen-o-Arab hamara Hindustan hamara, Muslim hein hum watan hai saara jahana hamara” [We are Muslims, we belong to one nation, the whole world is ours] to engender a global Muslim identity and emphasise the stake Muslims have in India.

While Iqbal’s vision of Islam itself was subject to change over his writing career, Faiz and Jalib’s inclusion in this ‘Muslim’ canon poses even more challenges. Faiz and Jalib positioned themselves against the post-colonial Pakistani state, and their poetry was particularly instrumental in facilitating protests against the Islamization of the Pakistani state, led by President General Zia-ul-Haq. Faiz and Jalib’s poetry do not sit easily with state-led ideas of Islam. Moreover, even as both thinkers draw on an Islamic, typically Sufi, tradition and on Qur’anic verses in their poetry, it would be mistaken to read them through an anti-Hindu lens. For instance, in Faiz’s famous poem of dissent, “Hum Dekhenge”, he writes, “Sab but uthwaye jayengay, sab takht giraye jayengay.” This line, when recited by student protestors, was particularly singled out as anti-Hindu, as it translates to, “The idols will be taken out.” However, putting Faiz’s poetry in context, it becomes apparent very quickly, that that ‘idols’ in the Urdu poetic tradition do not literally refer to idols that are worshipped, but is a metaphor for falsehood, and the triumph of truth. In fact, Faiz’s imagery taps into the image of the Prophet Muhammad’s struggle with the Arabs of Mecca, and the symbolic gesture of removing idols from the ka’aba to signify victory of the Prophet, rather than referring to Muslim conflicts with Hindus.

At the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur  (IIT Kanput), however, faculty members and some students filed a report against student protestors for “anti-Hindu” poetics associated with Faiz. We see in their act the formation of a poetic canon through complaint-making. We also see how a poetic canon acquires a distinct history, rooted in the present, wherein these poetics become infused with religious nationalism, such that Muslim students and their allies are positioned as readers of “Muslim” and therefore “anti-Hindu” poetic traditions. Communities such as the Muslim student protestors and allies in India come to be associated with aesthetic histories that both help in creating state-resistant solidarities, as well as are weaponized against them. As the examples of Iqbal, Faiz, and Jalib’s poetry show, a canon is forged through political contestation. The politics of poetic solidarities in the CAA protests show that while Muslim readers in India might deploy poetry for its social justice value, their critics read this aesthetic lineage as anti-state and anti-Hindutva. It is worth thinking about the sociology of poetic solidarities through these instances, as it is crucial to think about the stakes involved in poetic canon-making, and how marginalized bodies, such as those of the Muslim community in India, are positioned as “dangerous” readers.


Notes / References

1 Kristin Plys, “The Poetry of Resistance: Poetry as Solidarity in Postcolonial Anti-Authoritarian Movements in Islamicate South Asia,Theory, Culture and Society36, no. 7-8): 295-313.

Aaisha Salman

Aaisha Salman is currently pursuing a Master’s degree at the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto. Her research explores the intersection of Islam and media histories of South Asia, with a special focus on radio and television histories in the subcontinent.