How do you name the nameless? With poetry. It gives courage in the face of nameless dread and rallies hearts and minds against the violent might of governments. “I am the people — the mob — the crowd — the mass,” wrote Carl Sandburg, reversing the power differential, and pointing out that Napoleons and Lincolns are born among the people. How do you keep movements going when they flag in the face of insuperable odds? Poetry helps, a lightning rod for dissatisfaction and anger that touches everyone, and ignites whatever it touches.
In India, the movement against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the application of the National Register of Citizens nationwide has raised a fresh crop of protest poetry, mostly from younger voices like Amir Aziz, Varun Grover and Sabika Abbas Naqvi. In Assam, which encountered the NRC first, it had re-energised Miyan poetry, a tradition almost as old as India, which expresses the angst of immigrants from across the eastern border. Now, in the span of one week, protest poetry has become a national phenomenon. Along with new work, old favourites like Rahat Indori, Basheer Badr and Ram Prasad Bismil are thundering forth from loudspeakers. And interestingly, classics from Pakistan are being received by crowds at least as well as domestic poems.
Absolute power need only fear subversion, whose sharpest weapons are poetry and humour. Both have risen to the occasion. It is unlikely that the protests will come to nothing, since movements powered by public anger, and without a central command which can be conveniently decapitated, are notoriously hard to put down. But even if it cannot secure the repeal of the problematic Act, the movement will have compiled an outstanding body of protest poetry and black humour. The great poets of Black protest like Audrey Lorde and Langston Hughes would have loved it.