This article was originally written by Ananya Wilson-Bhattacharya and published by The New Arab.
Ananya Wilson-Bhattacharya explains why the revolutionary protest song, ‘Bella Ciao’ continues to play a role in global struggles today, and how it has served anti-government Gota Go Gama protests in Sri Lanka which forced the president to resign.
Earlier this summer, a video from the Sri Lankan ‘Gota Go Gama’ protests circulated online: the president Gotabaya Rajapaksa had finally resigned, and protestors were singing a Singhala version of ‘Bella Ciao’, the popular Italian song which was used in the Partisan anti-fascist resistance movement of the 1930s and 1940s. While the military violence and attacks on protestors in Sri Lanka continue, this was a clear moment of victorious celebration in the ongoing movement against the authoritarian regime.
The song – which details the singer’s awareness of their imminent death at the hands of the ‘invader’ and desire to die as a ‘partisan’ or freedom fighter – has been adapted by various anti-fascist movements globally prior to its use in the Gota Go Gama protests. In fact, the protests are part of a wider trend of anti-authoritarian resistance movements across South Asia in recent years, several of which have been characterised by new versions of ‘Bella Ciao’ in different languages.
”This cyclical, continual reproduction of ‘Bella Ciao’ across starkly contrasting yet uncannily similar contexts of protest is ultimately testament to the unifying power of protest music, as reproduced across time and space, in illuminating connections between struggles across decades, centuries and continents against a backdrop of evolving forms of capitalism.”
Anthem of struggle
Certain features of the song have held throughout its reproduction across different contexts: its undeniable catchiness, and its clear theme of political resistance, despite drastic shifts in its lyrics. The song has even found its way beyond the realm of resistance movements into mainstream television, famously featuring in the hit Spanish crime drama Money Heist.
A Hindi adaptation of the song was released around the time of the mass protests against the fascistic Citizenship Amendment Act, or CAA, introduced in India in 2019. Broadly, the CAA aims to deny Indian citizenship to (Indian) Muslims; it is widely perceived as a step towards ethnic cleansing, indicating the current escalation of Modi’s Hindu supremacist regime into full-blown fascism.
Following the popularity of ‘Wapas Jao’, the songwriter, Poojan Sahil, subsequently penned a Punjabi version retaining the same melody with new lyrics, also entitled ‘Wapas Jao’ (‘Go Back’), for the large-scale Indian farmers’ movement protesting new anti-farmer legislation introduced by Modi’s government in 2020. These farm laws, which received global coverage and were largely retracted in Autumn 2021 following the year-long mass protests, were set to adversely affect poor farmers, and are widely seen to represent the ongoing corporate takeover of agriculture in India.
Both versions of ‘Wapas Jao’ have a similar theme lyrically to ‘Bella Ciao’ – although, as Sahil clarified, the songs are not translations. The Hindi version alludes to the fascism of the Indian government through the repeated line ‘go away, o you tyrant’, explicitly locating the singer within the resistance movement, and the song as an unmistakably anti-fascist anthem.
‘Wapas Jao’ (across both versions) also moves away from the somewhat personal lyrics of ‘Bella Ciao’, which uses the singular pronoun ‘I’ throughout (in contrast to ‘we’ in ‘Wapas Jao’) and captures the fear invoked by the rise of fascism through the line ‘I feel death approaching’. By contrast, the lyrics of the Punjabi ‘Wapas Jao’ discuss the movement against the Indian government and the major companies which are profiting from the farm laws. Both versions of ‘Wapas Jao’ are thus references to the context of the original song which take its anti-fascist commentary a step further, situating themselves within a specific anti-fascist protest movement.
By pairing the original melody with a sparse acoustic guitar, these versions both highlight the timeless catchiness of ‘Bella Ciao’ as well as showing its versatility in lending itself to diverse musical styles – and languages – of different eras and locations. The case of ‘Bella Ciao’/ ‘Wapas Jao’ illustrates Walter Benjamin’s suggestion that reproduction allows the work of art ‘to come closer to whatever situation the person apprehending it is in’, and thereby ‘actualises what is reproduced’.
Interestingly, the anti-fascist or partisan ‘Bella Ciao’ is not, in fact, the original version -despite being the best-known – but is adapted from the ‘mondine’ version, which originated as a folk song sung by mainly women paddy workers (mondine) in Northern Italy in the late 19th century in protest against harsh working conditions. This agrarian context is evoked – intentionally on Sahil’s part – by the Punjabi version of ‘Wapas Jao’ centred on the farmers’ movement, which includes the lyrics ‘each grain of soil sings in chorus’.
Taking on the tyrant
Whilst the anti-fascist version of ‘Bella Ciao’ focused on resistance against ‘the invader’ as opposed to ‘the boss’ of the original version, the Punjabi ‘Wapas Jao’ evokes a new kind of invader – or ‘tyrant’ – the Indian government and the companies taking over Indian agriculture, which are being urged to ‘go back’ by agricultural workers. This version recalls the voice and perspective of the original song, in a new political, geographical, and temporal context.
Indeed, this evoking of the original version also underlines the concentration of agricultural workers in the Global South and their relative decline in the Global North during the 20th century.
Having originally been centred on workers’ experiences, and subsequently been reproduced and adapted in various contexts of anti-fascism, ‘Bella Ciao’ is once again being used to shed light on (agricultural) workers’ struggles through the Punjabi ‘Wapas Jao’.
Through both versions, meanwhile, Sahil arguably utilises the fame of ‘Bella Ciao’ as an anthem of resistance against the widely-known rise of fascism in 1930s Europe, referencing the song through reproduction as a way to emphasise the gravity of the current situation in India through implicit comparison.
This cyclical, continual reproduction of ‘Bella Ciao’ across starkly contrasting yet uncannily similar contexts of protest is ultimately testament to the unifying power of protest music, as reproduced across time and space, in illuminating connections between struggles across decades, centuries and continents against a backdrop of evolving forms of capitalism.
The Gota Go Gama protestors singing ‘Bella Ciao’ sends an affirmingly hopeful message – that the movement recognises itself as situated within a history of people’s struggles all sharing the same determination for change, from the anti-fascists in Italy to the farmers in India and everything in between and beyond.
Ananya Wilson-Bhattacharya is a writer, activist and co-editor of Red Pepper magazine, interested in arts and culture and social movements.
Follow her on Twitter: @AnanyaWilson