In 2016, three students of Jawaharlal Nehru University were accused of sedition and hounded by the Delhi police and thrown into jail, allegedly for chanting ‘anti-national’ slogans. Since then, Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya have faced a barrage of hatred from supporters of the Hindutva right-wing (many affiliated to the BJP), roughed up and even shot at—their battle in courts is still going on.
That was the time the word ‘azaadi’ entered mainstream political discourse in India. While TV channels that read out the BJP’s script tried to whip up outrage over the use of the word in political slogans by JNU students (it had long been popular with feminists and left-leaning political groups), Kumar (and later Khalid) reclaimed it after his release from jail. Among other things, they demanded ‘azaadi’ from ‘manuvaad’ (caste structures perpetuated by Hindu scripture Manusmriti), Brahmanvaad, Sanghvaad and Pittrusatta (patriarchy).
Cut to 2019: a rigorously watered down version of the ‘azaadi’ slogan has made it to Gully Boy, a big-budget Bollywood film starring Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt, in the form of a catchy prelude to a rap track. In this, the references to casteism, patriarchy, Brahmanical oppression and the dig at RSS, BJP’s ideology masters, have been conveniently stripped off. Instead, the two lines say: ‘Azaadi bhukhmari (poverty) se, azaadi bhedbhav (discrimination) se, azaadi pakshvaad se (partisan politics), hum leke rahenge’.
“It’s more like a moral science lesson than a political statement,” said Geeta Kumari, former JNUSU president who was not only heckled by the Delhi Police — controlled by the BJP government at the centre — in 2016 for participating in the protests, but also faced an outpouring of abuse on social media for simply being a JNU student.
BJP President Amit Shah called the students ‘traitors’ and ‘anti-nationals’ and accused them of encouraging ‘terrorism’. A magistrate report submitted to the Delhi government states that doctored videos of the JNU incident were circulated on social media, and the Delhi Police — controlled by the Centre — admitted they had no evidence that the arrested students had uttered any anti-India slogans.
The irony, therefore, is hard to miss: ‘azaadi’ is now part of a film backed by several people who’ve unabashedly lauded Narendra Modi, the face of the party which relentlessly hounded these students for chanting a version of the same slogan.
Gully Boy’s co-producer Ritesh Sidhwani applauded Modi for being the ‘first prime minister’ of India to meet a delegation from the film industry. In a tweet, he termed the December 2018 meeting ‘ honour and privilege’. The film’s stars Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt posted a series of photos this month with the PM, complete with gushy captions.
One would have imagined that the makers of Gully Boy would know better than applying the Tanishq Bagchi remix template — cut, copy, dance beat paste — to a slogan with a tumultuous political trajectory, but there’s literally nothing that Bollywood can’t sanitise. One needs to look no further than Dharma Productions’ Rs 100 crore Dhadak — in which Manish Malhotra’s lehengas had more weight than Sairat’s commentary on caste violence — to figure what inspires this relegation of political engagement.
“It’s a joke,” said feminist activist Kamla Bhasin who, after hearing it for the first time in Lahore in 1983, embraced the slogan as a powerful articulation of protest against patriarchy and socio-political hierarchies.