Paramilitary forces stand guard in Kashmir's capital Srinagar in 2010. Image: AP

Who owns Azadi? Kashmir’s Resistance Slogan


Activists in Kashmir have long used slogans, chants, and songs to express their bid for freedom from Indian rule, drawing thousands onto the streets to protest in the process.

Hum kya chahte? Azadi!
Zara zor se bolo – Azadi
Hai hak hamara – Azadi!
Hum cheen ke lenge – Azadi!
Khushboo wali – Azadi!
Hai jaan se pyari – Azadi!
Aye moula dede – Azadi!
Shodah ke sadkey – Azadi!
Mein marr bhi Jaaun toh, mera kafan pe likhna – Azadi!
Aayee, aayee – Azaadi!

What do we want? Freedom!
Say it loudly – Freedom!
It is our right – Freedom!
We will snatch it for ourselves – Freedom!
The fragrant one – Freedom!
More precious than life – Freedom!
Oh! Almighty grant us – Freedom!
For the sacrifices of martyrs – Freedom!
If I become a martyr, write on my shrouds – Freedom!

Here she comes – Freedom

Azadi, the Persian word for freedom. Azadi, echoes loudly in the Kashmiri protest songs. Azadi has now become etched in the contentious valley’s political history and public consciousness. Azadi, recited as if it were a divine verse, reverberates across Kashmir at protests against state-led violence in the region. Azadi is the cry at the funerals of fallen militants. The song remains preserved by people united and guided by a desire for freedom.

This resistance anthem sums up the collective aspiration of the Kashmiri populace and their decades-long resistance against occupation and repression. It has become a symbolically assertive expression to denounce India’s rule in the beleaguered region — the rule which has now strengthened with the revocation of the region’s semi-autonomous status, pushing Kashmir, as per critical scholars, into the final stages of settler colonialism. Even though its language and lyrics keep changing, the message of the chant stays the same–liberation, freedom, Azadi.

Azadi has layered meanings, its interpretations have often become a focal point in examining the Kashmiris’ political aspirations amid the disparate narratives of what freedom entails for the people of the Himalayan valley. Although the meaning of Azadi cannot be generalized for Kashmir’s eight million people— its contours can be drawn. The dominant connotations of the word remain absolute liberation from Indian rule. But for many, it is also an assertion of the desire to become part of Pakistan or to attain complete sovereignty and form an independent state in South Asia.

To trace the origin of the chant as part of Kashmir’s socio-political lexicon has been difficult, but it has been the central leitmotif of all protests since the eruption of armed insurrection against Delhi’s rule in the late 1980s. 

The term Azadi as a political slogan in Kashmir valley finds early reference in the poetry of  Kashmiri poets. Ghulam Ahmad Shah, popularly known as Mehjoor and tipped as Kashmir’s national poet,  penned ‘Azaadi’  in 1947 to satirize the concept of freedom and reflects how the term became entrenched as a metaphor for the valley’s political aspiration. 

Yeh azadi che sorugich hur, phera khan i pati khanie
Fakat keinchan garan ander che maran grayei azadi

(the fairy of independence, how shall it enter every home
Selected few are the homes where independence makes rounds)

Some anecdotal evidence claims that the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), founded in 1976 in Birmingham (UK) by Maqbool Bhat and Ammanullah Khan, was among the first to popularize the slogan of Azadi. In more recent times, a cleric from South Kashmir’s Shopian district, Moulana Sarjan Barkati, popularized the song and earned several nicknames, including Azadi Chacha (Freedom Uncle) and the Pied Piper of Kashmir, for his recitation of the slogan.

Barkati’s passionate speeches and pro-freedom taranas (songs) drew in hundreds of youths in South Kashmir during the four-month-long civilian unrest that followed the killing of popular rebel commander Burhan Wani in July 2016. Barkati became the voice of resistance when his Azadi songs, sung in his rustic style, went viral on social networking sites.

During some of his pro-freedom rallies, Barkati also coined popular slogans including:

Yeh pellet-bullet, na bhai na

yeh PAVA, SHAVA, na bai na

PSA Sarkar, na bhai na

The slogan denounces the use of firearms, teargas, and stringent laws against protestors by the state.

Barkati was arrested in November 2016, and booked under the draconian Public Safety Act (PSA). He was briefly released but was rearrested and remains incarcerated. 

Who Owns Azadi?

The Azadi chant has not limited itself to Kashmir. It has been used by Women’s movements in Pakistan, student protests at Indian universities like Jawaharlal Nehru University, at the months-long protests against the discriminatory and Islamophobic Citizenship Amendment Act in India. It was, most recently, employed by South Asian students at the continuing student occupation of Columbia University in support of Palestine and against the complicity of American universities in the ongoing genocide in Gaza.

The use of the Azadi chant has always spurred debate on its ownership, with Kashmiris overwhelmingly showing discontent. Yet, who better than an oppressed people to tell you that nobody owns Freedom? What is lost in this debate, often dominated by upper-class/caste Indians and Pakistanis, is that Kashmiris do not claim to own Azadi. However, in pursuit of liberation for themselves, which remains increasingly monitored and securitized, they urge others to recognize the distinction between adoption and appropriation.

The Azadi chant is viewed with suspicion by the Indian state, and its chanting in well-documented cities like Delhi is often met with violence. The response from different Indian groups, upon being questioned by authorities on the use of a chant linked with a liberation, secessionist movement, has been to repurpose the meaning of the chant for themselves, instead of adopting it for their liberation. In doing so, the solidarity for Kashmir by these progressive groups is rendered invalid, and the chant becomes appropriated. Stripped of its original context— that of the world’s most militarized, often undocumented region, the chant is fetishized and then stolen. Kashmir becomes a permanently failed litmus test amongst progressive politics in India.

Additionally, while people wake up to the horrors of Israeli occupation with the intensified genocide in Gaza, and rightfully build, align, and realign their pro-Palestine solidarities worldwide, Kashmir has long been challenging the oppression at home and in occupied territories of Palestine. In 2014, when Gaza was bombed by Israel, multiple pro-Palestine protests erupted in Kashmir, in which a 14-year-old boy was shot dead by Indian forces.

The Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has called for solidarity with Kashmir  “under military repression that in so many cases is similar to Israeli forms of subjugation and control”. In 2021, a graffiti reading “We are Palestine” was seen in Srinagar, Kashmir, which was later painted black by authorities. This solidarity also forms atop the deepening military ties between India and Israel, where Israel has become a major defense partner for India, and India the largest purchaser of Israeli weapons systems.

Protests in the heart of the imperial empire—at an elite university in the United States of America, become socio-spatial sites for furthering these ‘local’ solidarities into the ‘global’ mainstream. Therefore, when Azadi is being chanted at the sit-in at Columbia University, it must remain prefaced and embedded in gratitude to Kashmir. Let Azadi be chanted for Palestine as a song of love from Kashmir. Sing Azadi louder as a reminder of Kashmir too. Let Azadi thrive independently as Kashmiri.

A woman walks on a road dotted with bricks and stones after a protest in Kashmir’s capital city Srinagar on 30 Sept 2016. Image: Dar Yasin/AP

Resistance song and dance

Performative sloganeering remains a popular form of raising demands or drawing attention to political issues. Many other chants have been entrenched in Kashmir in recent political memory as an expression of resistance. During the 2008 civil uprising, “Ragda! Ragda!” (“Stomp! Stomp!”), became a symbolic illustration for protesters. The exact origins of the Ragda slogan are ambiguous, but many say it was conceived when a Kashmiri transgender person from the capital, Srinagar, set an Indian flag out on the ground and, stepped on it, shouted, “Ragda! Ragda! Bharat Ko Ragdo!” (“Stomp! Stomp! Stomp on India!”). Incarcerated and prominent resistance leader Masrat Alam then popularized the chant during his protests.

While singing the Ragda protest song, activists dance in circles, stomping on the ground. It became a signature cry across the valley. The entire 2008 summer resistance movement became known as the Ragda protests. Some of the other popular slogans from the early 1990s include: “Jis Kashmir ko khoon se seincha woh kashmir hamara hai” (“The Kashmir we have tilled with blood, that Kashmir is ours”); “Go India! Go back”; and O’Zalimo, O’Jaabiro, Kashmir hamara chod do” (“Oh! oppressors, Oh! Occupiers, leave our Kashmir”).

These songs provide a clearer understanding of how Kashmir perceives its relationship with India and Pakistan. They play a key role in defining the semantics of resistance politics in Kashmir for both the public and leadership and provide tools to orient and guide political activity – including mass outreach.

 Politics, poetry, and music

The relationship between politics and poetry is deeply embedded in the region’s tumultuous political history.

Kashmiri poet Abdul Ahad Azad was one of the first radical Marxist and revolutionary writers who used poetry to register political protest and revolutionary ideas to push for change in the state. Being a communist, he often envisioned Kashmir as a classless society and expressed his conviction in the freedom of the working classes to be achieved through people’s struggle. His poem The River and Change adapts to this idea:

What is life but the book of change?

Change – more change – and yet more change!

Flux is the living reality,

And change the meaning of flux.

O compulsion! Slavery! Subjection!

O restless, helpless heart! O shame!

Rend the veil! Uncover the seething, bubbling heart!

Change! Change! Bring a new change.

Artistic expression of resistance began fading in the decades leading to armed insurgency, as the state dealt with dissent with a heavy hand. The authorities deemed any revolutionary literature seditious. But this shifted after the rise of armed resistance. A new generation of poets, musicians, and artists inspired by and inspiring, the uprising entered Kashmir’s artistic resistance landscape.

The 1990s saw the entry of Kashmir’s famous English poet Agha Shahid Ali, whose work The Country Without A Post Office is considered a masterpiece in literature globally. In recent years, the poetry scene in the valley has seen the emergence of young poets, such as Rumuz, Syed Zeeshan Jaipuri and Syed Saddam Geelani (Murad), who use their poetry to voice their dissent and resistance.

Music artists, influenced by Kashmir’s Sufi tradition and political resistance, also began expressing their aspirations through songs. A new generation of Kashmiri youth associate rap and Sufi rock music with political activism, such as Rapper MC Kash (Roushan Illahi), who became a sensation during the 2010 summer unrest with his song, I Protest, which talks about the killings of teenagers by armed forces.

Mariya Nadeem Khan

Mariya is a researcher within the Urban Socio-Spatial Development department at Erasmus University Rotterdam. She has an MA in Development Studies from Erasmus University and a Bachelor’s in International Relations from Leiden University. Her research builds on violence, nationalism, and social movements in South Asia and the GCC. Her other areas of interest include non-Western historiography, alternatives to the capitalist world economy, and Urdu literature.

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