On a recent balmy evening at a Mumbai sports ground, writer Varun Grover, a pink flower tucked behind his ear, read his new poem to thousands of people protesting against a citizenship law – the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
“Dictators will come and go. We will not show our papers,” Grover, who has written lyrics for several Bollywood musicals and was the writer of Netflix’s flagship Indian show “Sacred Games”, told the crowd.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new law grants citizenship to followers of non-Muslim religions fleeing persecution from India’s three Muslim-majority neighbours – Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
But critics say the law is Islamophobic and a threat to India’s secular constitution. The government says the law seeks to help persecuted minorities and it accuses its opponents of misconstruing it.
The nearly two months of protests, spearheaded by students, represent the most concerted challenge to Modi and his Hindu-nationalist government since he was first elected in 2014.
The campaign has been championed by musicians and poets, both Hindu and Muslim, highlighting the stand much of India’s liberal intelligentsia and artistic community has taken against the government.
“In the short term, songs or poems bind the protesters and keep the camaraderie going,” Grover, 40, told Reuters.
“In the long term, which I think is more important, it reminds those of us who are voicing our opposition why we aren’t like those who support this government.”
Grover’s Hindi-language poem, “We Will Not Show our Papers”, which he first posted on social media on Dec. 21, has become a rallying cry for the demonstrators.
It has been translated into several Indian languages, and is recited at rallies, and hashtagged on Twitter.
Rap and folk musicians have also rallied to the anti-government cause.
“There is a strong element of resistance to rap music – it was a symbol of protest against white supremacy, and it also feels relevant to the mostly student protesters,” said Shumais Nazar, a student at New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University, who has written rap songs for the campaign and performed them at rallies.
Nazar was at the university last month when police stormed in, firing tear gas shells as scores of students took shelter inside, in a night of violence that shocked many and galvanized the protests.
The police said they were going after “miscreants” who threw stones at them from the campus.
Muslim artists have also been vocal, with writer Hussain Haidry’s poem “I am an Indian Muslim” resonating with Muslim demonstrators who have carried national flags and copies of the constitution, aiming to prevent Hindu nationalists from painting them as anti-India.
“Do not look at me from one perspective – I have a hundred faces … I am as Indian as I am Muslim,” Haidry said to cheers at the same Mumbai rally that Grover addressed.