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Freedom is a many-splendored thing in India. In its latest “azaadi" avatar at various protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) that allege the measures are an attack on a secular constitution and against Muslims, it is fiercely rhythmic and a bit perplexing to some. “Everyone is chanting it and it is trending. But what is the meaning of azaadi?" a woman student asked Kasili Meeran, an activist, at one of early protests at Valluvar Kottam in Chennai in December. Meeran, who first encountered the word four years ago in former student leader Kanhaiya Kumar’s viral speech, had a Tamil translation ready: viduthalai or freedom.

Meeran’s Hindi was patchy back then and he had to ask fellow student politicians to explain why Kumar’s “zor se bolo, azaadi" chant roused Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students and the rest of the country. So it is with many young Tamilians, several of them first-time protestors, who turned to activist Prabha Raj to know more about “azaadi" after chanting the “strange Hindi" word, along with her, at Valluvar Kottam.

Youngsters from India’s Hindi-speaking parts have been familiar with the sociopolitical flavours of “azaadi" since Kumar’s 2016 speech seeking “freedom in India and not from India" was capped by the stirring call for “azaadi" from poverty, caste, discrimination and more. Now, it is the turn of many in non-Hindi speaking parts to discover the word.

Bengaluru collegian Sumaiya Taj, who takes turns to go to Town Hall or Freedom Park, has accepted the “azaadi" chant as part of her new routine and not just as an abstract concept linked to the Independence movement. She started attending protests after a recent stand-off between students of a city college and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) workers over CAA. Wherever she goes, Taj finds “azaadi" is chanted by each group adding their own lines of protest.

Strictly speaking

Freedom was never a limited concept even in pre-Independence India. “The national movement was not for political independence alone. It was for all types of freedom, including social and economic rights," says K.N. Panicker, chairperson of Kerala Council for Historical Research. The current use of “azaadi" reflects the same concerns. “It is an innovative slogan. It is not a replication of the national movement but an encapsulation of what it stood for," he says. The idea of freedom as a wider concept was lost after 1947. The current set of slogans seems to have captured those long-lost ideals. “I don’t know whether Kanhaiya meant it (when he created them) but it resonates across the country," he says.

When the Quit India Movement was at its peak, cries of azaadi rend the air. “It was the easiest way to let people know that there was a meeting going on," recalls H.S. Doreswamy, the 101-year-old freedom fighter who addressed an anti-CAA rally in Bengaluru recently. Sloganeering was spontaneous and students led the way. “In the 1942 fight in old Mysore (now Mysuru), it was students who led the fight. All colleges and schools were closed and they kept the torch-burning for three months," says Doreswamy, who was 23 then. Underground meetings and arrests were the order of the day. Doreswamy also had to wrap his head around strange Hindi words, including azaadi. However, he feels uneasy about the current use of the word. “We want azaadi from the government, no doubt. We are not slaves of the government, but that said, I won’t agree that the use of the slogan is correct. When there are better words, why not use that," asks Doreswamy, referring to the association of the word with separatist movements in Punjab and Kashmir.

In the rest of India, there is a sense of give and take. “There is an inclusiveness when Kanhaiya said ‘Periyar-wali azaadi at Shaheen Bagh (in Delhi). We each appreciate the struggle the other is facing. It is beyond narrow concerns about language and region," says activist Prabha Raj. In fact, activists are busy coming up with regional versions of azaadi. Soon, it might be time to give it up for viduthalai.

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