Last year in December, when agitations against the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act had just begun, in an article published in The Wire, I had stated:
“No one can predict how long the public anger will be sustained and how the Modi-Shah duo will retort, and with what ferocity and vindictiveness. One prays that communal conflicts do not break out in this charged atmosphere or are even manufactured to split the movement.”
Now that this riot has been successfully operationalised and lives lost, but no split between Hindu and Muslim protester could be engineered, we need to analyse what we are really up against. Over the last several weeks of sleepless nights, the issue has metamorphosed from independent protests against the Bill to the law to a much wider nation-wide, multi-religious struggle against authoritarianism and communalism.
Three hated abbreviations – CAA, NRC, NPR – finally brought out the hitherto-cautious but harassed Muslims onto the streets, sick as they were of five years of endless torment. He found immediate and wholehearted support from secular India that suddenly sprang out of the dark that it had been pushed into by aggressive majoritarianism. They waved the national tricolour everywhere with patriotic fervour, to swish away fond hopes of those very same mischievous elements who had opposed the adoption of this flag to taint with suspicion the nationalism of all Muslims.
What is more fascinating is that ordinary Muslim women, housewives with babies in arms and angry young educated girls, who had never before stood up to state power, took an unprecedented lead. The younger elements took special care to flaunt a hijab over their heads and shoulders to demonstrate that they could very well be modern, revolutionary and Muslim simultaneously, without any contradiction — defeating the game to wean them away with relief from ‘triple talaq’.
Lakhs of first-time protesters, both young and old, joined the demonstrations. They demonstrated that they had, indeed, conquered the fear of fear and that itself worried the regime the most. Indian history will not easily forget the Sikhs and Hindus who joined the protesters as a mark of solidarity, setting up food camps and providing blankets to fight the biting cold of a harsh winter.
From Shaheen Bagh to Park Circus and a dozen other spots all over the country, the air is thick with endless tales of camaraderie, as countless Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and Buddhists rejected the special status offered to them by the CAA, to stand beside victimised Muslims.
But having said so, we also need to seriously interpret the events of the last 10-12 weeks and realise that the Delhi riots constitute the first major response of a regime that scorns democratic discourse and its patience is running out. The violent masked storm-troopers sent to smash and beat up dissenters at Jawaharlal Nehru University was only a short trailer of this regime’s new PPP or Private Public Partnership model, under which messy violence is outsourced to experienced goons.
The state guarantees them immunity from police action and the present JNU case is a testament to this. The regime also expects judges to be compliant or face an overnight transfer. To feed the belligerence of a section of trigger-happy policemen, the PPP state then targets them to selective sites like Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University and other trouble spots in Guwahati, Mangalore, Lucknow or Chennai.
It is imperative to realise that Modi is not Indira 2.0. While dictatorial Indira Gandhi surely crushed all opposition and, like Modi, always smelt conspiracies everywhere, she did not inject poison into the body polity that outlived her. Modi’s legacy may take decades of painful chemotherapy to contain, even after his dispensation becomes just a bad memory. He is the first to accord respectability to communalism, and though future India may cap the holes from where racial reptiles emerged, they will still be slithering in rage, under the ground.
The second difference is that Narendra Modi certainly does not share Nehru’s or Vajpayee’s commitment to democracy and no one can predict how he will behave in the face of a debacle. Even autocratic Indira took the electoral rout of 1977 in her stride, but after two unbroken decades in power, at the state and central level, Modi and his extreme proximity to the army are both worrisome. Never before has the Indian public been taught to celebrate and worship the armed forces and the ‘nation’, just because this regime desperately needs to cover up its complete disappearance from the freedom struggle.
The recent riots are actually the regime’s limited-over response to the nation-wide agitation against the attempt to tamper with citizenship laws. It is also home minister Amit Shah’s manner of expressing displeasure at the voters of Delhi for rejecting the BJP in the recent polls, by giving India a dress rehearsal of how vulnerable Hindus are in the face of Muslim belligerence, that led to the death of two police officers.
This narrative obviously ignores basic facts, that are known even to international media outlets, that it was mainly Muslims who were slaughtered. So, the foreign media is told to shut up. Those who have handled riots know how critical the role of gathering intelligence is as soon as the first wisp is in the air, and how swift pre-emptive arrests can prevent a conflagration.
These were not only absent, but BJP strongman Kapil Mishra was allowed to pounce on the agitators at Jaffrabad and Chand Bagh on Sunday, February 23 — which directly led to the riots. All the rioting was, interestingly, concentrated in a small part of North East Delhi, locally called trans-Jamuna or Jamuna-paar.
This thin slice that lies to the east of the Jamuna river, contains less than 10% of Delhi’s voters and assembly seats and it is here that the BJP recently won 6 of its 8 seats, with one more seat close to it. All the riot-affected areas like Khajuri Khas, Maujpur, Karwal Nagar, Seelampur, Bhajanpura are in this BJP stronghold. It is here that the police acted like mute spectators when victims, mainly Muslims, were killed or grievously injured, and their homes, shops and vehicles set on fire. The rest of Delhi that voted against the BJP was not, or could not be, set on fire — not even Shaheen Bagh and Jamia Nagar.
The point is that Kapil Mishra’s incendiary speeches and tweets violated half a dozen punishable sections of the Indian Penal Code, not only now but even months ago, when he led mobs shouting “Gaddaaro ko goli maro” (kill the traitors). He is given a free pass for such remarks because he represents the core beliefs of the BJP and the RSS. He may well be using a wildly-successful, punishment-free formula of ‘riot and bloodshed’ to catapult himself from state to the national level.
Incidentally, had conscientious judges of the Delhi high court not actually viewed the recordings of Kapil Mishra’s provocative speeches, and had two refreshingly-bold judges of the Supreme Court not pulled up the Delhi Police, the riots would have continued unabated. The most glaring transformation that one notices in the highest courts is that justice and relief appear to be very judge-centric and emanate from a few, while many deliver homilies, without actually fast-forwarding the restoration of human rights. Tragic.
To cut to the chase, we are in for a long haul and need to dig our trenches before selective arrests begin and phase two of state terror is unleashed. But, any going back on the citizenship issue will surely lead to further depredations on badly-cornered Muslims and the vast majority of Hindus who still believe in tolerance and plurality — even if many voted for Modi for what they perceived to be his leadership qualities and the multi-multi-crore big-capital financed convincing campaign.
The fact that Hindu and Sikh protesters have wholeheartedly adopted the very provocative slogan ‘Azadi‘, the poem ‘Hum Dekhenge‘ of the Pakistani anti-establishment poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and even Varun Grover’s ‘Hum Kagaz Nahin Dikhayenge‘ has reassured Muslims of support and also thumbed the nose of the Hindi-Hindu hardliners in the battle for the Indo-Gangetic heartland of India. Even so, the present non-political, crowd-financed agitations have their limitations and we cannot gloss over these issues.
Yet what overrides such mature worries is that it is not just a protest, but has started resembling what Jean Jacques Rousseau described as the ‘General Will’ when people unite selflessly at certain historic intervals for the greater common good, rising far above concerns of the self. The three-month agitation is thus plural India’s long-awaited reply to communal terror and to the blitzkrieg of legislative bulldozing, thanks to a self-seeking, fragmented and rudderless opposition.
It is rumoured that in some states, the police are using non-police weapons while firing at protesters so that casualties cannot be traced back to them. It is also realised that the sheer sadistic brutality with which UP and Karnataka crushed democratic agitations may well be repeated. But these do not deter them and may actually encourage others to join the movement. This unfazed inner strength of Gandhi’s satyagrahis had amazed the world, as the demonic use of state power did not frighten them.
History may be re-enacted by these agitators during Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary, when the Modi government only pays lip service to him and many Hindu fanatics openly worship his killer, Godse. The long lathis that police used to crush dissent and smash evidence-recording CCTV cameras are not dreaded any more. Fear is not a deterrent for those who have given their hearts and soul for what they believe.
We appear to be witnessing a historic phase when ‘society’ transcends the individual. This is when the community becomes the centre of all social activities, not the hearth, when, life, laughter, meals, joy and sorrow are all shared in common. We see it somewhat at a few dedicated places of worship and in genuine community service, but a protest camp is much more serious.
What gives us hope is the sheer vibrancy of the culture of protest that has burst out and the deep involvement of the participants. These spawn a spontaneous creativity that is exemplified by defiant poems, challenging songs and teasing slogans that resound everywhere. Equally visible is provocative graffiti and imaginative public art.
What it all hopefully means is that the individual protester has subsumed himself into the ‘greater cause’ and is now willing to fight it out till the end, irrespective of consequences.
Jawhar Sircar is a former Indian Administrative Service officer.