Students and young people in India have, in the last few weeks, launched a countrywide protest movement with a spontaneous energy not seen since the days of the freedom movement. Without mobilisation by political parties and organised mainly through the informal networks of social media, the protests have drawn in people from big and small cities, including huge numbers of women, who have no prior experience of joining political rallies.
The pall of fear that hung over the public space in the wake of the crackdown in Kashmir and the incredible police brutality in Uttar Pradesh has lifted. Muslims who had become the most prominent targets of the campaign of violence and hatred launched by Hindutva agents both inside and outside the government have suddenly found friends among non-Muslim students and neighbours to march with them in demonstrations and sit with them in dharnas.
Even the mainstream print and television media, cowed down for so long, have gathered up the courage to hold the government accountable for its egregious misdeeds. The regime’s litany of half-truths and lies is at last being met with some investigative reporting and the assertion of facts. For this, the students of this country must be congratulated.
Yet, as the protests continue into their fifth week, the government seems to have decided to brazen it out, at least for now. Regardless of the scale of the agitation, the Bharatiya Janata Party has mobilised its troops to explain to the public the merits of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and condemn what it regards as the devious attempts by the opposition to mislead the people.
The prime minister, deterred by the massive protests in Kolkata, even used the cloistered precincts of the Ramakrishna Mission at Belur Math to deliver this message. Preparations are on to begin compiling the National Population Register. On the National Register of Citizens, senior spokespersons for the government continue to contradict one another on whether and when the exercise will start. There is no visible sign that the ongoing protests have pushed the Modi government to retreat from or even reconsider the controversial steps it has taken in the last few months.
Lessons from elsewhere
The question then arises: where will this amazing burst of youthful passion, bravery and creativity lead us? There are some recent examples from other parts of the world that must cause us some worry. Recall the sequence of events during the so-called Arab Spring of 2011 which reached its dramatic climax in Tahrir Square in Cairo. A massive mobilisation of predominantly young people, brought together not by traditional political parties but through the new technology of mobile phones and social media, managed to topple one of the oldest military dictatorships in the world. But after a series of crises faced by the popularly elected government of Mohamed Morsi and in the absence of a credible alternative leadership, the military came back to power in 2013 and imposed an even more brutal regime than before.
We might also remember the Occupy movements which began in New York in 2011 and spread across many cities of North America and Europe. Shunning all hierarchical structures of leadership, the movement conducted itself through a permanent general assembly of all participants to condemn the stark inequality between “we the 99%” and the 1% who have wealth and power. But after a brief period in the limelight, this brave new experiment in democracy was swept away by a vast tide of right-wing authoritarianism exemplified most prominently by the Trump administration.
Most recently, we have the example of the Hong Kong protests, once again by a leaderless network of young people who have managed to draw the sympathy of a huge part of Hong Kong’s population. But there is little sign that the regime’s will to dominate has been dented.
The protest and opposition parties
When the Citizenship Amendment Bill was rammed through parliament in early December, voices against it were by no means forceful or united. Had all the parties of the opposition resisted the Bill, it would not have been passed in the Rajya Sabha. But, whether through slackness or design, a significant number of opposition members was absent when the Bill was put to a vote.
Only the rising crescendo of protests from the streets and parks of India’s cities have prodded a broad band of opposition leaders to join in shouting “No CAA, No NPR, No NRC”. But their determination may well prove to be fickle. The meeting of opposition parties in New Delhi revealed the disunity in their ranks even before they could get down to planning a course of joint action. Mamata Banerjee, who has been at the forefront of opposition to the Modi government, failed to show up for reasons that remain mysterious. Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati, even while voicing their support, have shown little enthusiasm for rallying their forces in public demonstrations. The DMK did not attend the meeting and the Aam Aadmi Party was not even invited.
Observers of Indian politics should not be surprised by the revelation that political parties and leaders are tied down by tactical considerations of electoral advantage and protecting their organisational turf. Additionally, the Modi-Shah government has shown such ruthlessness in using the enforcement agencies of the state against its opponents that most politicians, as indeed others in the world of business, cinema and the media, have become wary.
The arrest of P. Chidambaram was a clear message to all that not even the most senior leaders of opposition parties would be spared. All of these factors have worked, and will continue to work, to hobble attempts to forge a united effort by opposition parties to mount a significant challenge to the government.
The Centre-state paradox
To understand the full implications of the Modi-Shah leadership’s confidence in its ability to ride out the protests, we must take note of another paradoxical feature of recent political events. In a little over a year since December 2018, the BJP has lost a series of state assembly elections.
It was ousted from power in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, failed to get an absolute majority in Haryana, could not form a government in Maharashtra after falling out with its long-time ally the Shiva Sena, and was soundly defeated in Jharkhand. Keeping this in mind, the victory in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections cannot but appear as a spectacular exception to the trend. Nonetheless, the political scene since May has been dominated by a sense of overwhelming command wielded by the Modi-Shah leadership. The reason for this is the stark imbalance between the Centre and the States in the way the federal structure is working today.
In comparison with other federal constitutions, India’s federal distribution of powers is heavily weighted in favour of the Centre. But the political process can allow for the tightening or loosening of the Centre’s grip. It was certainly very tight for a few years after Indira Gandhi emerged victorious in her battle against the Congress old guard and in the Bangladesh war. But it became quite loose from the late 1980s when several non-Congress state governments came together to demand greater financial autonomy and less interference by the governor.
There is no question that the tendency towards centralisation has now reached an unprecedented height, with the Union government exercising greater financial powers, especially after the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax, pushing ahead aggressively in areas such as law and order or education in which states have concurrent powers, and seeking greater control over autonomous institutions such as banks, public sector enterprises and universities.
Alongside, the Modi-Shah duo has acquired complete dominance over the BJP’s organisation while Narendra Modi himself is daily projected through every conceivable form of mass communication as the unchallenged national leader possessing unparalleled strength. The result is the creation of an image of a nation-state whose security and prosperity depends on a strong Centre under the firm command of a single supreme leader.
Hindu nationalism wants a unitary state
This image is entirely consistent with the ideological history of Hindu nationalism. The claim of “one country, one race, one culture, one language, one nation” has always implied a firmly unified state with a strong military organisation running deep into society.
M.S. Golwalkar, head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, clearly set out this position in his book We or Our Nationhood Defined published in 1939. He ridiculed the idea that everyone living on the territory of India must be included within the nation, calling it the “serai” theory of nationalism. After independence, he opposed the linguistic reorganisation of states as a move that would lead to the break-up of India. His book Bunch of Thoughts has an entire chapter entitled “Wanted a Unitary State” which condemns the very idea of federalism as incompatible with true nationhood in this country.
Hindu nationalists have since, after their successful entry into electoral politics, adjusted to the federal process in the country. But their ideological proclivity inevitably tilts them towards a dominant Centre. It is interesting that even though the BJP and the RSS spare no opportunity to vilify Jawaharlal Nehru and the Congress Party, they are seldom equally critical of Indira Gandhi. One suspects they nurse a secret admiration for her authoritarian centralism.
An alternative conception of federal nationhood
The recent protests have achieved something very significant. They have reclaimed the inner spirit of the constitution by reiterating, in every available public space, its core principles of equal citizenship and respect for the diversity of cultures. This has been done in the face of a relentless campaign to impose homogeneity by excluding minorities from equal participation in national life.
But we must remember that secularism and pluralism, through long use and misuse, have lost their sheen. They seem to gesture nostalgically towards a past when Gandhi and Nehru were the hopeful messengers of the future. The concerted campaigns of Hindu nationalism over the last few years have inflicted serious damage to that legacy. Remembering Gandhi and Nehru will not give us the resources to construct an effective counter-narrative to the story that the BJP propaganda machine churns out every day.
To build this counter-narrative, Hindu nationalism’s claim that the strength of nationhood lies in cultural homogeneity must be directly challenged. This can be done by bringing to the fore the idea of a vibrant federal republic. One does not have to resort to utopian reveries. The very working of the political process shows that the most pressing demands of the people are most effectively met today at the level of the state governments. That explains the complexity as well as the intense involvement of people in local and provincial politics. It also explains why the issues that determine the results of state elections are so different from those that sway the votes in an election to parliament. The layering of the political space between the national, the provincial and the local is real.
It is thus not only possible but in fact necessary to demand that the level of state politics be given much greater weight in determining the federal balance. Under the present distribution imposed by the BJP regime, while the Central government is failing on all fronts to resolve the pressing economic problems of the people, it is able to harp on the single issue of the threats to national security posed by Pakistan-sponsored terrorism and internal subversion by infiltrators and left-wing subversives to justify the extraordinary powers now being wielded by the Central government.
This is the single pillar on which rests the Modi-Shah leadership’s confidence that no matter how much the demonstrators shout or how many state elections are lost, their hold over the Central government will ensure its dominance over the whole country.
Against this, we must be able to assert that greater recognition of regional diversity within the federal political process, far from weakening the country, will in fact strengthen it by securing the willing participation of wider sections of the people. Indeed, it is the mindless Hindutva project of cultural homogenisation that is alienating more and more people and thus sapping the inner strength of the republic. That would be a counter-narrative that strives for a better future rather than bemoan a lost past.
Partha Chatterjee is a social scientist and historian.