Manoj Jha’s recitation of Om Prakash Valmiki’s poem “Thakur ka Kuan” in the recent special session of Parliament sparked a huge row nationwide. This is not the only instance when lawmakers have resolved to poems to put forward their views, implying the political nature of poems. Also, poems have the ability to cast complex philosophical ideas into interesting, simple, and understandable ways. Plato wanted to banish poets from his Republic because he believes that they can make lies seem like truth. June Jordan, an American poet and activist said, "poetry is a political act because it involves telling the truth.”
For a very long time politics and poetry have been associated with each other all over the world, especially in India. Poetry has been used as a vehicle of political expression by politicians as well as poets. There exists a variety of poems that criticise, support, resist, or mock political activity.
In pre-Independent India poems and songs invigorated feelings of oneness for the motherland. The Revolt of 1857 led to the rise of poetry as a voice of protest. Some poets such as Hadi Sambhli and Ismail Fauq were even punished by the British. Many poems that fundamentally criticised the Raj were banned. "Deshbhakton ke Geet" by Satyendar Nath, "Angrezon ki Tayen Tayen Phis" by Pandit Babu Ram Sharma, "Dard-e-Watan" by Om Prakash Sahni, "Payam-e-Bedari" by Nau Bahar Singh Tohanvi are few mentions of a long list. Maulana Hasrat Mohani, an Urdu poet and Indian freedom fighter coined the slogan Inquilab Zindabad in 1921. In the late 1920s, Bhagat Singh popularised it through his speeches and writings. It was also the official motto of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association.
In 1935, an association named the Progressive Writers' Movement of India came into existence dedicated to inspiring people through their writings advocating equality among all humans and attacking social injustice and backwardness in society. The association was anti-imperialistic and left-oriented ideology. This was the first incident where literary figures organised themselves under a political ideology. Each line they wrote was an active commitment to the issues of the time and also an attempt to empower their audiences. Many writers and poets were part of the association during the independence movement. Personalities such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Josh Malihabadi, Kaifi Azmi, Sahir Ludhyanvi, Ali Sardar Zafri, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Habib Jalib, Rabindranath Tagore, Sarojini Naidu, and Premchand are some prominent names associated with it. After partition, the All Pakistan Progressive Writers' Association was set up formally in December 1949.
After independence, the relationship between poetry and politics took a turn. The focus shifted from the freedom movement to contemporary political situations, criticising government and highlighting people’s problems and flaws of society. Poems stood up for peace, change, rights, and revolution.
Majrooh Sultanpuri, the renowned lyricist of Bollywood, who wrote numerous evergreen songs was leftist by heart. He was also a member of the Progressive Writer’s Association. He wrote many revolutionary nazms and ghazals.
"Dekh zindan se parey rang-e-chaman josh-e-bahar.
Raqs karna hai to paon ki"
He was one of the poets of the sub-continent who was not afraid of speaking about the atrocities of the government. He was arrested in 1951 for comparing Jawaharlal Nehru with Hitler when he wrote and recited the following poem criticising the move of Nehru to join the Commonwealth of Nations.
Aman ka jhandaa is dharti pe,
kisne kaha lahrane na paaye
ye bhi koi Hitler ka hai chela,
maar le sathi, jaane na paaye!
Commonwealth ka das hai Nehru
Aur tabahi lane na aye,
maar le sathi jaane na paae!
Known as the poet of the masses, Baba Nagarjun, wrote a lot of political poetry. His words were averse to both Nehru and Indira Gandhi.
Watan bech kar pandit nehru phule nahi samate hai
Phir bhi bapu ki samadhi par jhuk-jhuk phool chadhate hai.
He was jailed during the emergency when he targeted Indira Gandhi with the following words for her misuse of power.
Satta ki masti me bhool gayi baap ko
Indu ji indu ji kya hua aapko?
chhatron ke lahu ka chaska laga aapko
kale chikne maal ka maska laga aapko
kisi ne toka to thaska laga aapko
ant-shant bak rahi junoon me
shaashan ka nasha ghula khun me
phool se bhi halka
samajh liya aapne hatya ke pap ko
indu ji, kya hua aapko
bete ko taar diya, bor diya baap ko!
Shailendra had responded to the injustice meted out to people through his poem,
Har zor-zulm ki takkar mein, hartaal hamara naara hai.’
tumne maange thukraai hai, tumne toda hai har waada,
chheena hamse sasta anaaj, tum chhatni par ho amada
to apni bhi taiyaari hai, to hamne bhi lalkara hai
har zor zulm ki takkar me hadtal hamara nara hai!
mat karo bahane sankat hai, mudraprasar inflation hai
in baniyon chor-lutero ko kya sarkari concession hai?
mat aankh churao, bagale mat jhaako, do jawab,
kya yahi swaraaj tumhara hai?
har zor zulm ki takkar me hadtal hamara nara hai!
Sahir Ludhyanvi exposed the hypocritical nature of the state on the centenary death anniversary of Ghalib, with the following words:
jis ahd-e-siyasat ne yeh zinda zuban kuchli,
us ahd-e-siyasat ko marhum ka gham kyun hai
Ghalib jise kehte hain urdu hi ka shayar tha,
urdu pe sitam dha kar Ghalib pe karam kyun hai
"Sansad se sadak tak" is an anthology of poems by Sudama Pandey Dhumil published in 1972. It contains 25 poems. The titles of the poems are "jantantra ka suryodai", "akaal darshan", "mochiram", "gaon", and "naxalbari".
"Ve musalman the" by Devi Prasad Mishr is a strong critical comment on communal politics and riots. Adam Gondvi was a poet who always locked horns with power. Following line by Gondvi will give you a good idea of the work he has done.
‘Jo Dalhousie na kar paya wo ye hukkam kar denge,
commission do to Hindustan ko nilaam kardenge.’
Jawahar Lal Nehru was one rare politician who received huge applause from renowned poets of the time. "Jawaharlal Nehru" by Sahir Ludhyanvi, "Nehru" by Kaifi Azmi and "Rahbar ki maut" & "Sandal-o-gulab ki rakh" by Ali Sardar Jafri, praised Nehru and expressed grief on his death. Bringing out Nehru’s secular nature, Kaifi Azmi wrote:
“Khuun me ved gunje hue
Aur jabin par farozaan azaan
Aur siine pe raqsaan saliib”
Sardar Jafri also pointed out Nehru’s secular credentials:
“Wo barhamin ke jise masjido ne pyar kiya
Wo but-shikan ke jo bazm-e-butaan me tha maqbul”
This line depicts his view of the relationship between the two nations.
The tradition of expressing political views through verses has been passed on to poets of our generation quite well. On one hand, poems like "Hum Dekhenge", "dastur", and "Bol ke Lab Azad hai tere" continue to echo as a sign of protest, and on the other hand verses like "sabhi ka khoon hai shamil yahan ki mitti me kisi ke baap ka Hindustan thodi hai" have become the voice of dissent. In an interview with the Indian Express in December 2019, Rahat Indori said that “If I don’t write about what’s happening around us, what will be the difference between me and Nero? There is a fire raging through my city, my country and if at this time I write about my mehboob’s zulf (beloved’s tresses), I must be either blind or deaf”.
"Suna tha ke behad sunehri hai dilli,
samadur si khamosh gehri hai dilli,
magar ek maa ki sada sun na payi,
to lagta hai gungi hai, behri hai dilli."
These lines were written by Imran Pratapgarhi on the backdrop of the disappearance of Najeeb Ahmed, a JNU student who went missing and the state machinery was not able to find him. Imran has also penned several poems on Kashmir and Palestine. Poems like "Hum kaagaz nahi dikhayenge" by Varun Grover, "Sab yaad rakha jayega" and "mai inkaar karta hun" by Amir Aziz, "vastavik Kanoon’" by Naveen Chourey, "Hindustani Musalmaan" by Hussain Haidry and "I am Miya" by Hafiz Ahmed are few examples of new age poems.
The relationship between poetry and politics is not imbalanced. It is not always that poems are influenced by politics, but poems, in turn, also affect politics. Poets use their writings as a vehicle to express their political lament. Politicians use the works of poets in their art of rhetoric. From Rahul Gandhi saying "Har ek baat pe kehte ho ki tu kya hai, tumhi kaho ye Andaaz-e Guftagu kya hai", in a political rally to Mamta Banerjee calling himself "Bidrohi Kobi"(revolutionary poet), a lot of politicians use poetic lines to persuade people and to take jibes at their opponents. Here, you might remember a reel in which Sushma Swaraj and the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh take a dig at each other with Urdu couplets in the Parliament. Many lines of Ramdahri Singh Dinkar have been recited several times by BJP leaders Rajnath Singh, Amit Shah, Sushma Swaraj, and PM Modi as well. But you will be surprised to know that Dinkar was very close to Nehru and was Gandhian by heart. However, his style of writing has appeals of being chivalrous and demands strength to defend the nation, these elements perfectly coincide with the idea of BJP. During the campaign leading up to the 2014 general election, a book of poems by Narendra Modi was released in the market. No one can forget Atal Bihari Vajpayee when it comes to poetry with politics. He is a prime example of both. His poems on emergency "kaisa Chadha junoon", "Hindu tan man, Hindu Jeevan", and "Swatantra Bharat ka mastak nahi jhukega" are some of his many creations.
It is impossible to accumulate all the work in this small space. However, all those lines mentioned here helps us understand that they share an intimate relationship with each other. Society needs such political commentary and politicians are also benefited from these poems. There is a potential for the relationship between the two to become mutually beneficial. Nothing could conclude this article better than John F Kennedy’s famous words i.e., “if more politicians knew poetry, and more poets knew politics, I am convinced the world would be a little better place in which to live.”
Md Kaifee Alam is a freelance journalist based in Delhi and a student of Convergent Journalism at AJK MCRC Jamia Millia Islamia