Music as a Form of Protest: 11 Songs From Across India That Stand for Justice

In Satyajit Ray’s epic film Hirak Rajar Deshe, the oppressive monarch says a famous line: “Era joto beshi pore, toto beshi jaane, toto kom maane.” It translates to: “The more they learn, the more they know, the less they obey.”

In the aftermath of the countrywide protests carried out against the government by students and the police’s brutal crackdown on Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Millia Islamia, such a line paints an eerie but truthful picture – the government is scared of students and their ideologies.

Protests had been ongoing for months in India right until the pandemic hit. Using this window, the government has been trying to silence protesters by locking them up or denying justice by using the draconican Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Nevertheless, these voices cannot be silenced because there are too many and they are too loud. Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s ‘Hum Dekhenge’ and localised versions of Italian anti-fascist song ‘Bella Ciao’ have become protest anthems in India.

Indian artistes have also not shied away from composing protest songs that have captured the imagination of the youth. Many of the songs go a long way in breaking down the current political climate in the country, and most contain hope for a brighter future – one which is not seeped in hatred.

This is a round-up of 11 such songs.

‘Chowkidaar’ – Roy

An ironic take on the current state of the country, Sumit Roy’s latest single from his album ‘HEROK’ is a sly operator. The Delhi-based rapper is one of the popular voices of protest in the country. The song doesn’t attack directly, but points out the problems existing in the system – the sold-out mainstream media, the entry of the private sector into public domains, the peddling of false narratives, the misuse of nationalism and the use of the army prowess to garner votes. All this, while hiding facts from the public eye. The video has been made by Kolkata-based maverick director Q, who is known for his eye-raising content, while the music has been provided by Dub Sharma.

‘Hashtag Justice’ – Arivu

A few months ago, Tamil Nadu was shaken by a massive outcry against police brutality after the custodial deaths of a father and son in the town of Santhankulam. When the custodians of justice themselves become perpetrators, then who will step in to punish the criminals? That is the question that Tamil rapper Arivu brings out through this song. Arivu is known for his political songs, which take on caste issues, poverty as well as protest songs. In ‘Hashtag Justice’, Arivu blatantly calls out the abuse of power done by a police force which takes bribes and silences dissent with the brute force of lathis.

‘Krantikari’ – Park Circus

Known for radical songs which do not shy away from topics like economic inequality, communalism and silencing of free speech, Kolkata based hip-hop act goes all guns ablaze with ‘Krantikari’. The songs calls to people to rise up in protest against dictatorial diktats to uphold the values laid down by the constitution. Their logic is clear – every Indian has a responsibility towards the nation because it is ours – so becoming revolutionaries is a necessity when the situation calls for it.

‘Nazariya – Vivek Anchalia, Ritajaya Banerjee’

While the voice of protest has primarily been rap and hip-hop songs, ‘Nazariya’ is a refreshing folk rendition. Bearing the catchphrase ‘one vision, one way of seeing’, it targets the non-secular view of the Hindutva ideology. From drawing references to black flags waved at protests and old women hosting a sit-in protest at Shaheen Bagh to vocalising the violence faced by students, ‘Nazariya’ is a quiet rouser. Its simple melody and upbeat vibe is extremely deceiving, as is the sweet harmonium solo. Written by Rajma Chawal screenwriter Vivek Anchalia and sung by playback singer Ritajaya Banerjee, the song has the potential to become a hell-raiser.

‘Think’ – Saptarshi Routh

A hair-raising hard rock track, ‘Think’ holds nothing back as it takes on the establishment and its proposed agendas of targeting and eliminating a religious minority. Riots, fire, burning homes, people hitting the streets, protesters dying and students being beaten form lyrical themes while sly digs are taken at ministers, industrialists and right-wing ideological fathers. Composed and written by Kolkata-based indie artiste Saptarshi Routh, the powerful rapping in English and Bengali has been done anonymously. Through powerful imagery, this song preaches that the act of ‘thinking’ about what is right and wrong is the first step towards taking a stand.

‘Odhikar’ – Multiple artistes

‘Odhikar’, translating to ‘right’, is a staunch stand against the imposition of the CAA, which affects Assam imminently. This folk-based Assamese song, performed by numerous native artistes, touches upon issues that are dear to people of the state. It bashes flimsy politicians and questions on what grounds a citizen is deemed Assamese. Activist Akhil Gogoi’s arrest is brought up as is the question of whether language, culture and religion are determinators of identity. The patriotic-sounding chorus calling for a revolution in the mind, body and soul has the daunting feel of Richard Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’.

‘Danga Fasaad’ – Kat Jr.

Kolkata rapper Prashant Kr. Jha, who goes by the name Kat Jr., dropped a rather explosive song called ‘Danga Fasaad’ on Independence Day. Produced by hip-hop artiste Joesjoint, the track was released a year ago on I-Day but the beautifully crafted video with imagery of riots was put out this year. Kat talks about how the country is engulfed in communal violence and is moving towards fascism. Drawing historical references to Hanuman setting Lanka on fire, he says that now arson is committed in the Lord’s name. He also aims sarcastic barbs at right wing supporters who drink gau mutra and calls out the chowkidar for selling the country to industrialists.

‘Kranti Havi’ – Swadesi feat. Delhi Sultanate

Mumbai’s hip-hop crew Swadesi plans to bring out an album called ‘Chetavni’, which attacks the current political scenario in the country. Its rallying war cry comes in the form of the first single – ‘Kranti Havi’, meaning ‘we need a revolution’. It was released in solidarity with anti-CAA protests that erupted all over the country. Featuring politically conscious rapper Delhi Sultanate, the song also cheers on the efforts of Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad, who took a stand during the Delhi protests.

‘Bakre Ki Amma’ – Gaurav Kadu

Pune-based singer-songwriter Gaurav Kadu’s composition ‘Bakre Ki Amma’ is food for thought. It distills the narrative of the population at large which turned its head away from the policies and steps taken by the central government, leading up to the current precarious situation we are in. With demonetisation and introduction of GST crippling the economy, scrapping of Article 370 in Kashmir and introduction of the NRC in Assam, the silent support of majority of Indians allowed the government to do whatever it pleased. In the fast-paced guitar song, buoyed by a Latin style solo, the musician points out that resources are being used to built detention camps, statues and temples rather than roads, schools and colleges.

‘Zalim Humein Azmana’ – Poojan Sahil feat. Aseem Sundan

Poojan Sahil is famous in protesting circles because he uses his art as a weapon for dissent. His performances, which sometimes take from songs and poems written by others, have an overarching agenda of protesting against the government. In this Urdu song written by Aseem, he has contributed his simple songwriting skills and voice. In a nutshell, the song tells Indians that they have to embrace the atrocity in order to fight the establishment which lands punches below the belt; that today’s times are shrouded in darkness, which is why resistance is inevitable.

‘Insaaniyat’ – naqaab47 and Shoals

The rapper-electronic producer duo of Naqaab47 and Shoals has been making waves with its hard-hitting music. The song ‘Andolan’, released during the anti-CAA protests, had become a recognised protest anthem. But they two have not stopped there. Coming in the aftermath of the deadly Delhi riots earlier this year, their single ‘Insaaniyat’ questions the humanity of the human race, which should be above religious identity but isn’t. It calls out the Sangh parivar and accuses it of inciting riots. It points fingers at a police force which is complicit. It also illustrates the suffocating atmosphere that is prevalent in our country today.

Shaswata Kundu Chaudhuri is a features journalist based in Kolkata with an unhealthy interest in music.