Recently, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Yogi Adityanath said during a pro-CAA rally that anyone raising azaadi slogans will be booked for sedition. This ‘stern’ warning by a chief minister whose administration has brutally cracked down on anti-CAA protesters is not a surprise. The important question is, who is afraid of the azaadi slogan?
In the last few months, this slogan has come under severe attack from the right-wing media ecosystem. Several fake videos have been broadcast on mainstream media platforms, aiming to delegitimise the detractors of the BJP government, who have raised slogans demanding azaadi.
The azaadi slogan went viral in 2016 in the aftermath of the infamous 9 February incident at JNU in Delhi. When then JNUSU president was released on bail, the university students had raised cries for freedom from poverty, from Brahmanism and from capitalism, feudalism, casteism, unemployment and hunger. Thereafter, the rhythmic chanting of azaadi slogans captured imaginations across the country.
The slogan was further popularised in 2019 when Zoya Akhtar featured it in her blockbuster movie, Gully Boy. Since then, several versions of the azaadi chant have been floating online. They have become so popular that a section of Pakistani students have also chanted it in their own country. In any case, in India the azaadi slogan has become a solid part of the protest repertoire.
For example: “When women are not able to go out in the night without fearing molestation and harassment, what they are experiencing is a lack of azaadi.”
The azaadi slogans began in Kashmir, but perhaps were first heard in mainland India in 2012-13, during the anti-rape movement after the Nirbhaya incident. Those protesters rejected the idea of ‘protection’ as a deterrent for sexual crimes and advocated the opposite idea, that of freedom without fear. Several places in Delhi had then reverberated with azaadi slogans. Those protesters, who included men and women, demanded freedom from rape culture, freedom from patriarchy, freedom to move around at night, to love, and freedom to marry or not marry, and so on.
Curiously, even the right-wing groups such as the ABVP, which participated in the 2012-13 protests in Delhi, raised these slogans, probably because the anti-rape movement had also taken on a strong anti-Congress flavour. Azaadi slogans of that time were an attempt to break away from notions of victim-blaming, to which is related the idea of forcing on women the ‘protection’ of patriarchy. They argued the converse; that the more women stepped outside the confines of their homes, the safer the streets would be for them. The movement therefore redefined the meaning of azaadi from political to social freedom.
One curious aspect of azaadi is that in order to have it you have to fight for it, reclaim it. During the colonial period, Indians fought for azaadi from the British. They wanted Indians to be the masters of their own fate. This is what azaadi actually means—the capacity to decide your present and future. Naturally, when you try to break the shackles that are holding you back, you come up against them in all their power and fury: the British also unleashed brute force upon Indians countless times during colonial rule.
Freedom is never complete. Azaadi is an ongoing process that you have to assert and fight for at every turn. In India, where communities hold a large measure of control over individuals and their aspirations, where identities are controlled by caste or patriarchal structures and their moralistic orders, the fight for azaadi is even more important. The demand for freedom exists only in those conditions where an individual or group feels that their aspirations are being hindered by unfavourable political conditions or economic and social constraints. Thus the demand for azaadi is an expression of unequal power relations in the socio-economic and political spheres.
Naturally, those in the upper echelons of the power hierarchy, who believe they are the sole custodians of culture, will resist any movement that threatens to take away their power. That is why the chants of azaadi have been met with both outright physical violence and symbolic violence. Women demanding azaadi to take their own decisions are being vilified and slut-shamed. This conservative backlash is well-represented by Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar’s utterances. He once remarked that if you—meaning women—want freedom, then why don’t you “just roam around naked”.
Those who believe in azaadi are routinely branded as ‘tukdey-tukdey gang’ members. We also encounter slogans such as ‘Afzal wali azaadi’, ‘Burhan wali azaadi’, ‘bandook se denge azaadi’, ‘Gauri Lankesh wali azaadi; and so on from right-wing organisations. Their slogans are directed against voices that are critical of the present regime. Yet, for all the reactions it has invoked, azaadi has continued to reverberate across India as a powerful slogan of protest.
Logically, those who are afraid of azaadi slogans are those who fear a political and economic change that would topple them from their position of power. Their fear also emanates from a psychological condition whose origins lie in a crisis of legitimacy. Over the last five years, many celebrities, intellectuals and media personalities have advocated for the present regime. Their future and interests are linked with the present government and so they have thrown their weight behind it. Any political change will create a deep legitimacy crisis for them. The situation is a kind of downward spiral: they have to continuously create a fear psychosis and narrative that favours the regime while delegitimising the protesters and their repertoire.
For example: “When you are strolling in the park with your sweetheart and suddenly a bunch of people come and start thrashing you, you are experiencing a lack of azaadi.”
Though the azaadi slogans are political, as the saying goes, the personal is also the political. So you find the younger generation seeking azaadi against curfew hours in hostels and opposing the strong societal and familial resistance against own-choice marriages, against moral policing and so on. Each of these are instances of lack of freedom experienced by the youth in one way or another.
The following slogan sums up this sentiment: “When you want to pursue education, but are unable to or you are unable to avail quality medical services due to lack of money, you experience a lack of azaadi”.
Arguably, the azaadi slogans also add a dimension to the fertile discourse over what constitutes development in India. The Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen has been arguing that development should also be measured through the lens of freedom, which means that it should entitle people to basic services such as education, healthcare, and employment. Development, in this context, also means building capacity, especially among the marginalised. Therefore, when the youth, women and marginalised groups hit the streets with slogans demanding azaadi, they are not just protesting against a law but breaking their shackles to become more confident and empowered.
For instance: “When Dalits are not able to enter temples or fetch water from public sources, they are experiencing a lack of azaadi”.
Azaadi cannot be boxed in. Its meaning is redefined by every generation based on their context. The contemporary popularity of azaadi slogans reflects the ambitions of the youth. To criminalise their hopes and aspirations is just the old resisting the birth of the new.
The author is a PhD scholar at JNU in Delhi. The views are personal.