Poetry as a Tool of Dissent in Modern-Day Authoritarian Regimes
The recitation of poems and songs at the anti-CAA protests was in keeping with the near-universal practice of deploying poetry to question, challenge, and condemn. Here are four authoritarian regimes in which poets were punished for writing poetry that was seen as a tool of dissent.
“Sab yaad rakha jayega Tum zameen pe zulm likh do Aasmaan pe inquilab likha jayega” - Amir Aziz, poet-activist (“Everything will be remembered; You write injustice on the earth, We will write revolution in the sky.”)
The first two months of 2020 have almost acquired the soft wistfulness of a memory, nebulous and far away. This year, that time! The atmosphere was charged, the air tinted with rebellion! Voices from across the country – divided by region, caste, creed, and language, yet united by a thought – rose to a crescendo, testifying India’s secular soul that could be attacked but not annihilated. Thousands of ordinary citizens entrusted themselves with guarding the nation against the assault of, what they thought as a brazenly majoritarian law formulated by a brazenly majoritarian government. The aforementioned lines composed by Amir Aziz beautifully encapsulate the fleeting zeitgeist of those months.
In writing these apparently subversive lines, Amir Aziz, consciously or unconsciously, joined an intrepid band of modern poets whose most sonorous words came amidst the deafening silence of fear unleashed by authoritarian regimes. Through their impassioned lyrics, these poets lent hope and courage when there was none.
Life for dissenters is anything but easy in the People’s Republic of China. Though crackdown on critics – activists, poets, journalists, writers – has intensified in recent years, it is by no means new or unprecedented. One of China’s most well-known dissenters during the Cultural Revolution was Zhang Zhixin, a Communist Party member who was imprisoned, tortured, and executed for criticizing the cult of Mao Zedong. Though she was posthumously accorded recognition as a revolutionary martyr, her life is a tragic testimony to the repression of those who refuse to let go of their political beliefs in an authoritarian country. Famed poet Ai Qing wrote a poem about Zhang titled “Hush, A Voice is Speaking:” In it, he eulogized her courage, and hailed her as one whose sacrifices had made her immortal.
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More recently, poet-writer-musician Liao Yiwu has faced the ire of the Communist regime on account of his strident criticism of the system. Liao was catapulted into prominence when he wrote and audio-taped his 1989 stream-of-consciousness protest poem “Massacre”, centred on the Tiananmen Square crackdown. In 2011, Liao fled to Germany after being surveilled for years in China.
Be it a democratically elected government, or the not-so-infrequent military dictatorship, Pakistan’s ruling class has always been less than tolerant of political dissenters. Ustad Daman was a fearless poet who wrote in Punjabi and was unsparing in his criticism of some of Pakistan’s most powerful men, namely Ayub Khan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and Zia-ul-Haq. During Bhutto’s time, he was arrested for writing a poem in which he derided the prime minister himself for backtracking on promises made to the underprivileged who voted him to power. While Ustad Daman angrily denounced the corruption of civilian governments, he was deliciously sardonic in describing the brutal nature of the military rule. In his famous poem Martial Law, he likened martial law to God’s authority, obliquely referring to General Zia’s cloak of religiosity as well as his illegitimate government’s total control over the country. He wrote:
“Mere mulk de do khuda la elah te Martial Law” (“Two gods hold my country in their sway Martial law and La Illaha have here their heyday.”)
Another icon of defiance was the legendary poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. An avowed Marxist, Faiz was arrested in 1951 and incarcerated for four years for allegedly conspiring to overthrow the Liaquat Ali Khan government. Ironically, Faiz was repeatedly invoked during the anti-CAA protests when his revolutionary poem “Hum Dekhenge” – penned in response to General Zia ul Haq’s tyranny – was sung and recited by protestors across the country. Though steeped in Islamic iconoclasm, the poem speaks of a day when false idols – allegorically referring to dictators – will be cast out and divine truth – the oppressed masses – will prevail.
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Even in a relatively liberal Qatar, open criticism of the ruling authority isn’t treated with leniency. In November 2011, Qatari poet Mohammed al-Ajami was arrested and imprisoned on charges of insulting the former Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and inciting to overthrow the government. Though the case against Al-Ajami was reportedly based on a 2010 poem in which he was critical of Sheikh Hamad, activists attributed his arrest to a poem he wrote in 2011 titled Tunisian Jasmine in which he launched a scathing attack on the region’s Arab rulers and their authoritarian regimes. Written at a time when the Middle-East was roiled by violent protests and uprisings, the poem referred to the Tunisian revolution which acted as the catalyst for the region-wide Arab Spring. Though awarded a life sentence, Al-Ajami was released from prison in 2016 after the current Emir granted him a pardon.
Political rebels have fragile lives in the ultra-conservative monarchy of Saudi Arabia. In 2015, artist and poet Ashraf Fayadh, a prominent member of the country’s emerging art scene, was arrested on charges of cursing Allah and Prophet Muhammad, insulting Saudi Arabia, and distributing a supposedly blasphemous book of his poems. He was later convicted of apostasy and sentenced to death by beheading. His supporters, however, believed he was punished for posting a video showing the religious police flogging a man in public. Some also believe he was targeted because of his Palestinian origin. Fayadh denied all allegations and said that his collection of poems explored philosophical ideas of social alienation and estrangement that centred around his experiences as a Palestinian refugee living in Saudi Arabia.
Laconic yet profound, Fayadh’s poetry is indeed suffused with a depth of emotion that haunts and provokes in equal measure. In a country where the writ of religious hardliners runs large, the persecution of creative people like Ashraf Fayadh isn’t surprising. Traditionally, poetry and art are looked upon as potential tools of dissent in authoritarian nations. Sample the following lines from Fayadh’s poem “Cracks in the Skin”, written from a prison in Saudi Arabia.
"My country passed by here, Wearing the shoe of freedom…. Then off it went, leaving its shoe behind It ran at a belabored pace… like the rhythm of my heartbeat."
Following international outrage, a Saudi court commuted Fayadh’s death sentence to an eight-year prison term and 800 lashes to be carried out in 16 installments. Ashraf Fayadh’s case echoes that of Saudi activist and blogger Raif Badawi who received a prison term and lashings for his ostensibly dangerous writings.
The Weapon that Hurts
If the anti-CAA protests were a powerful movement that attempted to challenge a law widely seen as inimical to the gloriously syncretic idea of India, the deployment of songs, slogans, and poetry must be seen as the force that propelled the movement. Other than the poetry of Amir Aziz, poems composed by the legendary just-deceased poet Rahat Indori and poet and lyricist Varun Grover were also recited with characteristic defiance and pride at the demonstrations. The number of anti-CAA protest organizers, coordinators, and participants arrested, detained, or simply interrogated since March evidences just how dangerous the movement was deemed by authorities.
Ironically, all over the world, the violent governments that invest millions of dollars in arms and ammunition are precisely the ones hurt most by the weapon of poetry!
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About the author
Nandini Sen is an independent, Delhi-based writer specializing in politics and culture. Her writings cover the most intriguing, subtle, and hidden aspects of both.
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