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The Role of Poetry in Dissent Against Institutional Injustice

By Saadia Peerzada, Undergraduate Batch of 2022

In the wake of Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Arvind Subramaniam’s resignations from Ashoka University, students came together in record numbers to protest the lack of transparency from the administration. Artistic expressions were auxiliary to their demands for rectifying structural lapses. Protestors expressed their dissent through visual art, satire, graphic design, poetry and scores of other art forms.

Students in less privileged positions—those who feared retaliation through the removal of financial aid—also joined sit-ins, irrespective of the inconveniences it could cause them later down the line. The sit-ins echoed the belief that the resignations at hand had opened a window of opportunity. It was time to address institutional lapses that have led to coerced resignations of faculty and workers in the past. Coming together against this gag on freedom at Ashoka, the protestors highlighted the need to stand not only for the institution’s integrity and academic freedom but those most vulnerable to political and institutional pressures.

Poetry helps keep up our commitment to these ideals. At its onset, fighting for change appears novel to many, but true change happens through commitment. This commitment involves tedious back-and-forth interactions with authority, especially when the subject has gone out of the news. These times commodify revolutions as an aesthetic, and these long drawn out fights against institutionalised mechanisms get lost in the initial spectacle. Poetry is a tool that keeps reminding people of the things at stake and why demands for change exist. Poetry and song, from Bella Ciao to Hum Dekhenge, always accompanies such revolutions.

At Ashoka, this instance wasn’t the first time that poetry voiced the student body’s demands and expressed its stance on political matters. During the CAA/NRC protests last year, poetry brought together students, helped raise funds for victims and lifted morale when the situation looked bleak. The Coordinator of Hindvi, the Urdu and Hindi poetry club at Ashoka, reminisces, “All the times that Hindvi, or poetry at large has taken centre stage at Ashoka has been in times when students were protesting against an unfair judgement by the administration or against the CAA/NRC ruling. Even if people hadn’t read Faiz, they identified with bol ki lab azaad hai tere. Times of dissent have always made poetry come to the fore.”

Since antiquity, there have been deliberations on the relationship between virtuous praxis and poetry. From the times of Aristotle to Sir Philip Sydney to our classrooms today, this relation has been an object of study. An Apology for Poetry, for instance, addresses how the highest end for people is not only to know better but to do better. Sir Philip Sydney suggests that poetry can pave this end of learning in virtuous action, and its universality teaches virtue best. Dissent brings poetry to play different roles: provide catharsis, create a safe space and reassure and incite the protestors.

Poetry in On Campus Protests Boycotting classes on the 22nd and 23rd of March didn’t mean that learning halted. Students continued to read the work of Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta and other academics muffled by political pressure. Poetry became a part of student sit-ins and shed light on the educational value of poetry. Students recited Tagore, Auden as well as their original work at the sit-ins. The argument that poetry is known less for its form and more by its ability to describe virtues and educate the masses of the same materialised.

Hindvi Hindvi organized a poetry reading to “arm the student body with the alfaz and lehja that would help them speak truth to power.” The club prefaced their email with a couplet by Bahadur Shah Zafar, “Baat Karni Mujhe Mushkil Kabhi Aisi To Na Thee/ Jaisi Ab Hai Teri Mehfil Kabhi Aisi To Na Thee.” They brought attention to the dystopia of being silenced in spaces meant for critical and lateral thinking. In solidarity with the efforts of the student body, the student government and faculty, Hindvi created a space to explore the rich tradition of freedom of expression and protest poetry in Urdu literature.

The President explains, “This reading was the first club event organized after the resignations took place. It was an attempt to help the students come to terms with their anger and feelings of disappointment. It also created a space to address how the events happening around the nation had come to Ashoka’s doorstep.” The reading included the works of Rahat Indori, Iqbal, Habib Jalib, Sahir Ludhianvi and Faiz, among others.

Another event on Tuesday, 23rd March, followed the one on Saturday. In collaboration with other clubs like Vistaar, Kirdaar and Abhinaya, the event designed protests through mediums of music, drama and dance. Hindvi presented a ghazal and a nazm by Javed Akhtar. The ghazal charted the need to redeem academics and why one must pick up the pen and write during hard times. “That which finds no place in the daily newspapers That incident which happens everywhere every day, write! That which has happened finds mentions But of those that should have happened, write!” The nazm titled A New Decree focused on the politics that drives curtailing academic freedom. It communicated that a uniform idea cannot be imposed on a whole nation. “Look at the fate of those who have Tried to make their garden all of one colour See how a hundred colours have seeped into a single colour How troubled they are How worried they look.” Expanding on the nature of the event, the Coordinator said, “During the day, students dealt with the demands, the specifics of structural change but at night, these spaces allowed people to let off steam and express their frustrations,”

Hindvi closed by saying, “We know that poetry is not a magical mantra that can solve our problems, but it helps us keep walking on our paths, it’s a conscience keeper. Societies with repressive rulers never produce good poets. The word shayar itself means deewana, a madman, someone who is crazy enough to speak truth to power.”

Red Brick Words RBW, the poetry society at Ashoka, took to social media to show solidarity. They prefaced their statement of solidarity with a description highlighting the importance of poetry. The club drew from Audre Lorde and Jacquira Diaz to illustrate that art is inseparable from change. They connected the present struggle for academic freedom in Ashoka with the larger resistance against authoritarian silencing: “This movement will yield results when it is sustained. The battles we are engaged in are long and strenuous . . . We hope the poems we share supply renewed energy and hope to you, as they did to us.” The poems focused on the themes of solidarity, community, taking a stand in times of crisis, political change and hope.

Credits: rbw.ashoka on Instagram

Credits: rbw.ashoka on Instagram

Blackout Poetry Event: Kintsugi The mental health society at Ashoka, Kintsugi, collaborated with RBW to conduct a blackout poetry event. On 23 March, Tuesday, the event focused on the theme of catharsis and sought to help students release frustration and uncertainty during this period. Students created poetry out of the work of professors targeted by the current regime. The poetry reflected the fear and anxiety emerging from the week’s events, along with the broader politics that framed the resignations. On behalf of Kintsugi, Trisha Deb, said that “The exhaustion of the students was palpable even in the virtual form of the event. For those who didn’t voice it, their poetry reflected feelings of solitude and conflict. I think the event was able to accomplish its aim of catharsis. Something that stood out to me was how the feelings of confusion weren’t channeled just by the poem, the end product, but that the process of piecing words together also reflected them.”

Credits: @kitsungi.ashoka on Instagram

Credits: @kitsungi.ashoka on Instagram

Poetry in crisis helps us to keep pushing for change. When campus politics begins to mirror national politics, art voices our contentions. With the rise of right-wing politics globally, poetry is paramount. It is one of the many languages that highlights the interconnectedness of all forms of repression. As we continue to reflect on last week’s events, the events edge towards erasure in the minds of the masses. With poetry, scores of students have hoped that even if this is the case, the next time you come across the work of Ilya Kaminsky or Javed Akhtar or Rahat Indori, you are reminded of all that continues to be at stake.

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