I first heard the rhythmic chants of ‘Azadi’ in the narrow lanes of my town in south Kashmir in the winter of 1989-90. I heard these chants rise to a crescendo after every massacre of protesting Kashmiris, and after every act of arson that punished azadi-supporting Kashmiri neighborhoods—a cri de cœur renting the dark skies deep into rebellious nights. I heard it in the words of Maqbool Bhat (hanged 1984), which had begun reaching our high-school classrooms and homes even earlier. In mid-1990s, I heard the Azadi chant again, this time even from the mouths of intense, bearded men leading mourning processions of their fallen companions, their tough visages and weapons out of sync with the mellifluous tunes of the chant, yet its pull on the heartstrings never diminished, nor failed to vindicate the humanity of the lives that have remained ungrievable.

Then in 2007, I heard these chants in Delhi’s India Habitat Center, in the first screening of Sanjay Kak’s film Jashn-e-Azadi (How we Celebrate Freedom)—in scenes where JKLF’s old time activists are mobilizing Kashmiri villagers in 2003-04, trying to get the latter to sign pieces of paper to affirm their rights as the “primary party” to the Kashmir dispute; and, in anguished scenes where villagers and school children sing ‘Azadi’ into a frenzy, in one case mourning the killings of four children by soldiers in north Kashmir—scenes that only reminded me of the early days of the Tehreek. I heard the chant again in 2010, on Delhi’s streets, where Kashmiri students sang it, where Indian students loved it, and began to learn it. I don’t remember hearing Azadi chants in JNU during my student years there (2004-2009). It was after 2010 that the walls of the campus slowly began to be adorned with Azadi graffiti and posters, and students from a small non-electioneering left party started breaking into Azadi chants at protest events. These chants were again led by Kashmiri students, who, ensconced by their valiant leftist colleagues braving rightwing assaults and threats, felt safe enough. But they also chanted ‘Azadi’ in Delhi out of their sheer helplessness at the way one hundred and twenty young men and women were shot dead by the occupying forces in Kashmir during that dreadful 2010 summer. It caught on.

The chant, and some of its seditious Kashmiri content, has come easily to JNU, a place known for raising critical issues. And why not? Azadi is on the move, and makes stops in all kinds of places. It takes on its singular and universal meanings in Kashmir, in Palestine, in Kurdistan, in Manipur, in Nagaland, in BlackLivesMatter, in DalitLivesMatter, in HCU/JNU/KUSU. These places speak to each other, and through each other. In late 1970’s, Maqbool Bhat said these words:

“For us, Azadi means not just getting rid of the foreign occupation of our beloved country, but also to remove hunger, poverty, ignorance, and disease, and to overcome economic and social deprivation. One day we shall achieve that Azadi”.

Whose voice was speaking through Maqbool’s? Was it Baba Saheb Ambedkar’s voice? Was it Omar Mukhtar’s? Martin Luther King Jr.’s? Malcolm X’s? Or the silenced voices of the black Haitian revolutionaries of the early 19th century who successfully liberated Haiti from their French masters? When Com. Umar Khalid or Com. Anirban spoke of Azadi, whose voice was coursing through their mouths?

Given this complex itinerary of ‘Azadi’, wouldn’t it be amazing to believe that it was really the Indian feminists who created the chant (as some commentators have asserted)—indeed after learning it from their Pakistani colleagues (as others have suggested). Hardly plausible, but could they have secretly met Maqbool before he was imprisoned in the Tihar jail, or Ishfaq Majid Wani in downtown Srinagar from where he led the Tehreek in 1989-90, and passed the rhythm to them? Was it the other way round? What does it matter.

When India’s poor are faced with a fascist regime, and Kashmir is under an unrelenting colonial occupation, when Dalits are thirsting for azadi from the millennia-old manuvaad, and Black people in a two-hundred-thirty-year-old democracy from the ideology of racism, what becomes of our responsibility? Our responsibility is not to divest Azadi of its plural meanings, but to affirm them all together. The power of Azadi chants on JNU’s campus does not lie in watering it down to make it acceptable to the nationalist, upper-caste Indian bourgeoisie. It lies in its plural expressions; however difficult those expressions might appear. It lies in articulating the struggle for Dalit liberation within the Kashmiri Tehreek, the Kashmiri Tehreek within the Dalit struggle [both of which have happened in their own way], and the students’ struggles within the other two. There is no “proper” azadi, or “clarification” azadi. What kind of azadi can a court or a constitution give which can’t bear even a few harmless slogans? In any case, what kind of azadi is it if does not even commit to causing a little discomfort among the powerful?

At this early stage, the responsibility lies in solidarity. Recently, entire Kashmir closed down in support of the arrested JNU students—daily wage earners did not earn for a day, street vendors stayed home, school children did not attend classes, and trades people in Srinagar’s busiest trading centers stopped their commerce. It was a remarkable assertion of solidarity that sought no clarifications or assurances from JNU’s students. No one expected Kanhaiya Kumar to talk of Kashmir’s azadi after his release. Many of those who observed the hartal in Kashmir probably don’t know what the fracas is about, but when they hear there is “crackdown” on dissent, or students have been arrested, they instantly connect the dots—they have seen horrible crackdowns and much more. A few days ago, a Kashmiri friend wrote under a Facebook post on the hartal: “We feel what Umar’s family must be going through, and what JNU students are facing.” Her words capture the essence of solidarity. This is solidarity which makes no demands on the oppressed, but is given without expectation. That the shutdown went unreported in Delhi heightens its true significance: solidarity is a gift without conditions; we are giving it, even if you don’t recognize it. No strings attached. No “within”- and “from”- type semantic juggleries. No binaries between Afzal and Rohith, both of whom were ultimately crushed under the same noxious “conscience” pervading the self-righteous republic. Our responsibility is to make connections; to listen across, not talk down. To raise questions, not erase them. To affirm the ethical content of all the struggles of the oppressed.

From their sixty-eight years of field experience, Kashmiris have come to understand the “idea of India” precisely the way Dalits have understood the “idea of Manuvaad”: it will embrace you, sometimes even with a smiling face, as long as you embrace your subordinate position. At the heart of all Azadi is equality. After all, what Kashmiris are asking is neither so otherworldly-radical nor new: We demand Azadi not because we are different or separate, but because we are just like everyone else. We don’t want to be subordinated under a coercive, undignified logic of integration; we want to become an integral part of the whole world.  

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