‘Hum kya chahte? Azaadi!’ Story of slogan raised by JNU’s Kanhaiya
The “Azaadi” chant by Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) student leader Kanhaiya Kumar, which has become the heartbeat of a section of the youth today, is not a gift from Kashmir separatists, as is being assumed.
Interestingly, the chant originated as a feminist number against patriarchy. It was evolved and popularised by well-known feminist Kamla Bhasin in the women’s movement all over south Asia.
An early memory of dancing and chanting to the catchy beat of the “Azaadi” number dates back to 1991, at the Women’s Studies Conference in Kolkata’s Jadavpur University. A vibrant and charismatic Bhasin, in her early forties, chanted it with a little drum in hand and women surrounded her, throwing their fists in the air. My five-year-old daughter, who had accompanied me there once, caught on the song and chanted it throughout her childhood.
The original words coined by Bhasin were “Meri behane maange Azaadi, meri bachhi maange Azaadi, naari ka naara Azaadi... (My sisters want freedom, my daughter wants freedom, every woman’s slogan is freedom)”. Incidentally, a video of Bhasin reciting the “Azaadi” poem at a campaign organized by V-Day, a global activist movement to end violence against women, is available on YouTube.
She recited it again in New Delhi’s Connaught Place to cheering crowds as part of the “One Billion Rising” campaign to protest violence against women on February 14.
Going on 70 with her hair all white now, her youthful call to freedom from the ills of society is still as pulsating as ever.
In a telephonic interview, Bhasin starts reciting some of it: “From patriarchy: Azaadi; from all the hierarchy: Azaadi; from endless violence: Azaadi; from helpless silence: Azaadi.”
Recalling the roots of the poem, she says, “I had learnt the slogan of “Meri behane maange Azaadi” from Pakistani feminists and later improvised the words. The words would change many times depending on what we were protesting against, discrimination on the basis of caste, injustice to tribals or violence against women.”
The chant became so popular that it reached the Left and other groups wanting freedom from injustice of any kind. Feminist activist Urvanshi Butalia, founder-publisher of Zubaan, recalls, “It was one of the most popular poems of the feminist movement. Later, it became an inspiration for other groups too. But, in our minds, it is etched as the inspirational feminist chant.”
It is interesting to note here that the Left, which initially negated the women’s movement, took much from the song, including the freedom chant.
“The chant is not just for freedom from the negative aspects of society but also freedom for positive things like walking freely, talking freely, dancing madly, singling loudly, for self-expression, for celebration...,” Bhasin said.
Kamla has been active in the sub-continent’s women’s movement since 1970 and is now associated with feminist groups “Jagori” and “Sangat”. Her contribution has been writing marching songs for women on popular Punjabi folk tunes like “Todh todh ke bandhano ko dekho behane aati hain (Breaking shackles, see the sisters come out)” and “Dariya ki kasam, maujon ki kasam, yeh taana-baana badlega (I swear by the river, I swear by the waves, things will have to change)”.
She divides her time between Delhi and Sidhbarhi, near Dharamshala in Himachal, working with urban and rural women.