After Zee News declared me an “anti-national” and a member of the “Afzal Premi Gang”, there were three types of reactions. First, there were those who said you should not have taken the names of Rohith Vemula and Kanhaiya Kumar. The second category said, we stand by you, your right to express has been violated. And the third category, abetted by the news programme, comprised of those who accused me of being a Muslim jihadi and abused me in the filthiest language.
The first two responses were rooted in the concern for my well-being. The third category declared me a ‘Muslim’, which was equated to a ‘jihadi’ and thus, a dangerous beast liable to be killed. My name, Gauhar Raza, was sufficient evidence for them to attack me. A widely circulated email declared me an agent of Muslim fundamentalists. Though, thankfully, the number of such people was quite small, but we knew that they are out there, trained, violent and uncontrollable.
Let us be clear that the first reaction, despite concern for my safety, also conveyed the sentiment that “you are a friend but why did you put us in a situation where we are forced to define our position on a contentious issue”. It is the reaction of the fence-sitters. The second category of response clearly identifies the assailants and gives a call to close ranks against them. It is needless to re-emphasise that the third category of response is uncivilised in form and fascistic in content.
At this stage, let me emphasise that the great tradition of mushairas/kavi sammelans have, for centuries, followed an exceptionally popular practice of dedicating and re-dedicating poems and couplets to persons, present or absent, during the recital. Poets, invariably, refer to contemporary events while reciting love, humour and resistance poetry. For example, Faiz Ahmad Faiz referred to renegades who buckled under the oppression of military regime, when he recited an apparently ‘Ishqia Sher’.
Ab kisi laila ko bhi Iqrar-e-mehboobhi nahin/ In dinon badnaam hai har eik diwane ka naam
Habib Jalib referred to the two dictators of Pakistan when he recited in Karachi his famous poem:
Tum se pahle jo eik shakhs yahan takht nasheen tha/ Us ko bhi apne khuda hone ka itna hi yaqeen tha
Or a poet in India during the Emergency recited his couplet:
Chiraghon ko aankhon mein mehfooz rakhna/ Bahut door tak raat hi raat hogi
Coming back to the prestigious Shankar-Shad (Indo-Pak) Mushaira, which Zee News report turned into “Afzal premi gang ka mushaira”. I had dedicated the couplet, “Yeh mat bhoolo agli naslen raushan shola hoti hain/ aag kuredoge chingari daaman tak to ayegi”, to Kanhaiya Kumar and Rohith Vemula. The channel report, while repeatedly showing Kanhaiya Kumar, did not include any image of Vemula. The omission was well thought out.
I had also rededicated the poem written on Safdar Hashmi’s murder to Vemula, whose death was a murder for me. The difference between the two murders is that, a few goons, who were backed by a political formation, attacked Safdar Hashmi. Vemula was killed by the caste system, which relentlessly insults every Dalit since he is born. Vemula called his life a “curse” and rebelled; the oppression intensified and we lost a bright young life.
As a poet, like thousands of sensitive ordinary citizens, I was very disturbed. I wrote a poem on him. However, in the mushaira, instead of reciting that poem, I decided to dedicate “Har parcham surkh lahoo hoga” to Vemula. I wanted to give out a clear message that we, even now, are killing our young and bright minds.
Much later, after the controversy was raked up by Zee News, during a discussion, a lawyer, on the other side of the fence, argued that, “Why did he dedicate an old poem to Vemula, he should have written a new poem, we would not have objected”, hinting that I deliberately tried to compare Safdar Hashmi to Vemula, which, in his opinion, was a crime. I was left dumbfounded by the absurdity of the argument. Then, one of the celebrated writers asked him, are you suggesting that Vedas or epics or poems of other great poets should not be recited, just because they were written in a different context. The question was simple — should there be a ban on referring to Heer-Ranjha while narrating a contemporary love story.
I believe Zee News caused a much bigger damage. I was just a scapegoat. The democratic tradition of mushaira/kavi sammelan, where poets exercise freedom of expression, unhindered, was the real target. The programme was intended to silence the poets, who are critical of those who practice violence, oppression and hate. It was also a warning to the organisers of such events that criticism of the ruling party or classes will not be tolerated.