Kashmir’s resistance anthem

Activists in the valley use slogans, chants and songs to express their bid for freedom from Indian rule, drawing thousands onto the streets to protest in the process.

Hum kya chahte? Azadi!
Zara Zor se bolo – Azadi
Hai hak hamara – Azadi!
Hum cheen ke lenge – Azadi!
Khushboo wali – Azadi!
Hai jaan se pyari – Azadi!
Aye moula dede – Azadi
Shodah ke Sadkey – azadi
Agar Shaheed huwa toh, mera kafan pe likhna – Azadi
Aayee, Aayee – Azaadi!

What do we want? Azadi!
Say it loudly – Azadi
It is our right – Azadi!
We will snatch it for ourselves – Azadi!
The fragrant one – Azadi!
More precious than life – Azadi!
Oh! Almighty grant us – Azadi
For the sacrifices of martyrs – Azadi
If I become a martyr, write on my shrouds – Azadi

This Kashmiri protest song has become etched in the disputed valley’s political history, and has been preserved by people united and guided by a desire for freedom. Recited as if it were a divine verse, this popular chant reverberates across Kashmir during protests, demonstrations, marches and at the funerals of fallen militants. 

This resistance anthem sums up the collective aspiration of the Kashmiri populace, and their decades-long resistance against occupation and repression. It has become a symbolically assertive expression to denounce India’s rule in the beleaguered region, and even though its language and lyrics keeps changing, the message always stays the same – freedom.

In a literal sense, azadi – a Persian word – means freedom, independence or liberty. But, depending on the context of its usage in Kashmir, the word has layered meanings, which reaffirms the people’s call to struggle, resist and collectively act against subjugation. 

The slogan echoes whenever there is a protest or rally against killings, rape, enforced disappearances or any human rights violations by the state forces in the region. Its interpretations have often become a focal point in examining the Kashmiris’ political aspirations amid the disparate narratives of what azadi entails for people of the Himalayan valley. Although the meaning of azadi cannot be generalised for Kashmir’s eight million people, its contours can be drawn. The dominant connotations of the word remain absolute liberation from the Indian rule. But for many it is also an assertion of the desire to become part of Pakistan or to attain complete sovereignty and form an independent state in South Asia.

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No one knows when exactly this chant became part of Kashmir’s socio-political lexicon, but it has been the central leitmotif of all protests since the eruption of armed insurrection against Delhi’s rule in the late 1980s. In more recent times, a cleric from South Kashmir’s Shopian district, Moulana Sarjan Barkati, popularised the song and earned several nicknames, including Azadi Chacha (Freedom Uncle) and the Pied Piper of Kashmir for his recitation of the slogan.

Barkati’s passionate speeches and pro-freedom taranas (songs) drew in hundreds of youth in South Kashmir during the four-month-long civilian unrest that followed the killing of popular rebel commander Burhan Wani in July 2016. Barkati, who is in his late 50s, became the voice of resistance when his azadi songs, sung in his rustic style, went viral on social networking sites.

During some of his pro-freedom rallies, Barkati also coined popular slogans including: “Yeh pellet-bullet… na bhai na … yeh PAVA, SHAVA na bai na … PSA Sarkar Na bhai na” (Loosely, the slogan denounces use of firearms, teargas and stringent laws against protestors by the state). Barkati was arrested in November 2016, booked under the draconian Public Safety Act (PSA), and remains incarcerated.  

Resistance song and dance 

Performative sloganeering remains a popular form of raising demands or drawing attention to political issues. There are many other chants that have been entrenched in Kashmir in recent political memory as an expression of resistance. During the 2008 civil uprising, “Ragda! Ragda!” (“Stomp! Stomp!”), became a symbolic illustration for protesters. The exact origins of the Ragda slogan is ambiguous, but many say it was conceived when a Kashmiri transgender person from the capital, Srinagar, set an Indian flag out on the ground and, stepped on it, shouted, “Ragda! Ragda! Bharat Ko Ragdo!” (“Stomp! Stomp! Stomp on India!”). Incarcerated and prominent resistance leader Masrat Alam then popularised the chant during his protests. 

While singing the Ragda protest song, young activists dance in circles, stomping on the ground. It became a signature cry across the valley. The entire 2008 summer resistance movement became known as the Ragda protests. During the same period, hardline protesters would also chant: “Bharat teri mout aayi! Lashkar ayee Lashkar ayee.” (“India your death is near! The fighters are here.”)

Some of the other popular slogans are from the early 1990s include: “Jis Kashmir ko khoon se seincha woh kashmir hamara hai” (“The Kashmir we have tilled with blood, that Kashmir is ours”); “Go India! Go back”; “Is paar bhi lenge aazaadi, us pyaar bhi lenge aazadi (“We will take freedom from both sides of the border”); and O’Zalimo, Kashmir harmara chod do” (“Oh! oppressors, leave our Kashmir”). 

There are chants inspired by the Islamic calls for resistance, especially those by protesters who couch Kashmir’s resistance in religious terms. These include: “Pakistan se kya Rishta? La Ilah-e- Illalah” (“Islam defines our relationship with Pakistan”); “Jeeve! Jeeve! Pakistan (“Long live Pakistan”); Kashmir ki azadi tak jung rahegi jung rahegi (“Until Kashmir is free, the fight will go on”); and “There is only one solution? A gun solution”. 

These songs provide a clearer understanding of how Kashmiris perceives its relationship with India and Pakistan. They play a key role in defining the semantics of resistance politics in Kashmir for both the public and leadership, as well as provide tools to orient and guide political activity – including mass outreach.

Politics, poetry and music

Performative expressions of protest are not something new to Kashmir. The relationship between politics and poetry is deeply embedded in the region’s tumultuous political history.

Kashmiri poet Abdul Ahad Azad was one of the first radical Marxist and revolutionary writers who used poetry to register political protest and revolutionary ideas to push for change in the state. Being a staunch communist, he often envisioned Kashmir becoming a classless society and expressed his conviction in the freedom of the working classes to be achieved through people’s struggle. His poem The River and Change adapts to this idea:

What is life but the book of change?
Change – more change – and yet more change!
Change – more change – and yet more change!
Flux is the living reality,
And change the meaning of flux.
O compulsion! Slavery! Subjection!
O restless, helpless heart! O shame!
Rend the veil! Uncover the seething, bubbling heart!
Change! Change! Bring a new change.

Likewise, Ghulam Ahmad Shah, popularly known as Mehjoor and tipped as Kashmir’s national poet, expressed the political struggles through poetry. His poetry often reflected the paradox of Kashmiris caught between the nationalistic aspirations of India and Pakistan and the disenchantment with the political order that followed the partition of British India.

Yeh azadi che sorugich hur, phera khan i pati khanie
Fakat keinchan garan ander che maran grayei azadi
Yeh azadi che travan mugribus peath rehamtuk baran
Karan saenis zameenus peath tscheri gagrie azaadi
Nabir Sheikh zanie Kathie hund mani, tus chul khanadariein heath
So lug faryad karnie, tus wupur garih, pyayee azadi
Gareeban warsee karhein, magar cheineh haakimun fursat
Che ratmitch hotelusl munz aaie, lipton chie azaadi
Lookan pethh azadi gaeyi sethha gob Hari-Parbat zan
Dapan vanhao panin ahwal asi ma layi azadi.

The fairy of independence, how shall it enter every home
Select few are the homes where independence makes the rounds
This independence showers blessings on the West
Our land receives but empty thunders
Nabir Sheikh knows the meaning of the word, as they took away his wife
He laments when independence was delivered in another house
The poor would have been attended to but leaders have no time
Independence has been held hostage by Lipton tea in hotels
Independence has gone burdensome on people as if Hari Parbat
Would have spoken of their condition, afraid independence may be giving them a beating.

Much of the artistic expression of resistance faded in the decades leading to armed insurgency, as the state dealt with dissent with a heavy hand. The authorities deemed any revolutionary literature seditious. But this shifted after the rise of armed resistance. A new generation of poets, musicians and artists inspired by – and also inspiring – the uprising entered Kashmir’s artistic resistance landscape.

The 1990s saw the entry of Kashmir’s famous English poet Agha Shahid Ali, whose work The Country Without A Post Office is globally considered a masterpiece in literature. In recent years, the poetry scene in the valley saw the emergence of young poets, such as Rumuz, Syed Zeeshan Jaipuri and Syed Saddam Geelani (Murad), who use their poetry to voice their dissent and resistance.

Emerging musical artists, influenced by Kashmir’s sufi tradition and ongoing political resistance, started expressing their aspirations through songs. A new generation of Kashmiri youth associate rap and sufi rock music with political activism. Rapper MC Kash, whose name is Roushan Illahi, became a sensation during the 2010 summer unrest with his song, I Protest, which talks about the killings of teenagers by Indian forces. The rapper recently released his debut album Rebel RepubliK, the cover of which has a stylised image of Kashmir’s most recognised revolutionary face, Maqbool Bhat, embossed on a postal stamp with words beneath it saying, Republic of Kashmir. 

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