Its the first few weeks of 2020, the young are out flooding the streets, undaunted by stun guns and lathis, and the messages they carry are powerful – doorstep kolams in Chennai; tonsured heads in Guwahati; human shields in Ahmedabad; girls with tricolours in Malerkotla; singing Jana Gana Mana to greet the new year. They need no sage advice, nor do they need ‘leaders’; they are their own bristling energy. But maybe it is time to remember 1973, 1978, 1983, 1992, 2005 – and 1946 too for that matter – when the young of that time were also out on the streets.
1946 was when the Tebhaga Movement, the Bombay Mutiny and the Telangana Revolt were signalling the end of the British Raj. It was then that three soft-spoken pracharaks were quietly sent by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) to Assam as part of its strategy, systematically laid out seven years earlier in 1939 by ‘Guru’ Golwalkar in We, or Our Nationhood Defined. That book was a translation and elaboration of ‘Veer’ Savarkar’s earlier Rashtra Mimansa, written in 1934, but that was an inconvenient truth to be characteristically ignored, as were the veracity of the ‘facts’ it contained.
Golwalkar’s vision, however, was clear: a Nation comprises five constituent ideas of country, race, religion, culture and language; such a Hindu Nation flourished for thousands of years until the Moslem invaders came; for ten centuries there has been an unflinching war by the Hindus against the Moslems; the Congress consists of an ‘educated’ class of Hindus who find flaws in the Hindu Cultural Organisation (of caste); but the Race Spirit is re-awakening; and the true ‘Nationalist’ should aim to re-build, re-vitalise and emancipate from its present stupor, the Hindu Nation.
These pracharaks constituted the first phase of setting up Sangh shakhas to promote Golwalkar’s teachings of imagined splendours and constructed wrongs. They leveraged the existing conflict between migrant Bengali settlers, Bihari and Marwari traders, and the local population, mainly on issues of loss of cultural heritage and employment. They were followed in the second phase by a Praant pracharak, who set up Vivekananda Kendras, Saraswati Shishu Mandirs, Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalayas, Vanvasi Kalyan Ashrams, balwadis, tuition centres, study circles, vocational training centres, and hospitals – all for the cultural expansion of the Sangh’s Hindutva ideology into the ethnic Ahomiya and tribal populations. What is significant in the process is the ability of the Sangh to appropriate appealing national and religious symbols. In three decades, by 1975, there were shakhas in place in all districts of Assam.
The third phase
This patient brick-by-brick construction of a social and cultural milieu for the Sangh by a generation of dedicated monastic pracharaks has to be understood if one is to grasp its ideology and strategy. Because what evolved in Assam post-Independence had already been put in place in other regions since the 1930s. Thus, when student protests began in Gujarat in 1973, to be followed by student protests in Bihar in 1974, it provided the opportunity for the Sangh to launch its third phase by participating in those regional struggles. It is this phase, lasting through and beyond a period of national Emergency declared by an embattled Congress government led by Indira Gandhi, which consolidated the Sangh’s student and political wings. The Sangh had deliberately stayed out of (indeed, opposed) the national struggle for freedom, and these student protests enabled it to win recognition as a legitimate political player in the shape of the Jana Sangh (JS). The JS strategically merged with the Janata Party to win the elections in 1977, its seats in Parliament jumping from a dismal 22 in 1971 to 93, to form the government at the Centre.
This strategy was accelerated in Assam when the students there launched an agitation in 1979 to correct the electoral rolls by deleting the names of all ‘illegal immigrants’, based on Census data of how many such immigrants had entered the state. This was a continuation of the outsider-local conflict which the Sangh had leveraged earlier. Using its clout at the Centre, the Sangh plunged into the student agitation in Assam with members carefully positioned within to steer the agitation into their mould. The misgovernance by the Janata Party caused it to lose power quickly and, in the 1980 general election, the JS was back to 16 seats in Parliament. However, by then, the Sangh had used its carefully cultivated propaganda to edge its way into the social structure for its fourth phase.
This fourth phase consisted of manoeuvring its apparatus to highlight the issues that posed the Muslim population as the enemy. The Assamese had begun their agitation on a non-communal basis, with equal opportunity and anti-foreigner slogans. But the activists of the Sangh began popularising the detection, deportation, and deletion (the 3D policy) of the Muslim ‘Bangladeshi’ and patiently constructed an image of the ‘foreign invader’.
By 1983, foot-soldiers in 300 shakhas of the Sangh had propelled this imagery into the Nellie massacre, during which thousands of agitators surrounded the village of the same name and in eight hours 1819 persons of Muslim origin were killed. The report of the Tewari Commission into this massacre has not yet been made public. But no less than Atal Behari Vajpayee, the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, the new avatar of the JS) at the time, was quoted as saying in an election speech, “Foreigners have come here and the government does nothing. What if they had come into Punjab instead? People would have chopped them into pieces and thrown them away.”
This phase of direct violence did not pay political dividends as the BJP dropped to a historic low of 2 MPs in the 1984 elections. Hence, the Sangh back-tracked a bit. It piggy-backed the Assam students’ agitation to pressurise the Congress government at the Centre, now led by Rajiv Gandhi, to sign the Assam Accord in 1984, formally adopting the 3D approach.
Ram Janmabhoomi agitation and 1992 Action Plan
The Sangh then felt emboldened to take its social and cultural engineering project further by re-launching the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation based on an imagination of Lord Ram’s birthplace. A year later, the Congress was easily persuaded to amend the Citizenship Act to fix a cut-off date for granting citizenship to Bangladeshi migrants in Assam. This also enabled the Congress in 1988 to order the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO) to make a study of Bangladeshi settlements in the capital city of Delhi. The consequent growth of the Sangh was displayed in 1989 when the BJP again re-emerged in Parliament with 85 members.
When the number further increased to 120 MPs in the 1991 elections the Sangh began its fifth phase by using the 1988 FRRO study to draw public attention to the growing numbers of ‘infiltrators’ (Bangladeshis) in Delhi – again a subtle mixture of numbers pulled out of nowhere and riding shadowy fears. The Congress under Narasimha Rao was subtly coerced to announce an Action Plan in 1992, followed by Operation Pushback in Delhi’s slums in 1993. Powers were delegated to the Delhi police to detect and deport Bangladeshis from the 11 bastis earmarked by the FRRO study. The Action Plan specifically set a target of 2,000 to 2,500 foreigners to be evicted each month, with the aid of ‘informers’ in the bastis. This marks the outsourcing of indirect, and demeaning, violence to a ‘revitalised’ state force and agents within the basti. When the first batch of 132 detainees were ready, it was the police who shaved their heads, burnt all their belongings, transported them to Sealdah on the Prophet’s birthday, and handed them over to the Border Security Force (BSF), who thrashed them in public to mark a brutal no-return message before sending them across the border.
Adverse publicity caused the Congress government to suspend Operation Pushback. But the spectrum of Sangh-directed activities continued with the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation, resulting in the demolition-as-spectacle of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya by an inflamed mob of young people in 1992; the transformation of Operation Pushback in Delhi into Operation Flushout all over the country in 1993 – this time with the direct involvement of the Sangh’s cadres; and the BJP’s electoral victory in Delhi’s first assembly elections the same year.
By 1996, the BJP’s election manifesto not only openly adopted the 3D policy for “an alarming growth of a section of the population”, but placed the four Sangh-inspired targets – constructing the Ram Mandir, abolishing Article 370 in Kashmir, bringing in a Uniform Civil Code, and implementing Article 48 (cow protection) – at the heart of its political ambitions. It won the 1996 elections with 161 MPs and formed an alliance government; and again in 1998 and 1999 with 182 MPs (although it lost the Delhi elections in 1998).
A juridical twist
With this gradual strengthening of its political manifestation, the Sangh decided it was time for a sixth phase to return to its larger social and cultural agenda, but with a juridical twist. It realised that many of its targets in Assam were protected by the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act (IMDT) passed by the Indira Gandhi government in 1983. Under the IMDT, the burden of proof to establish nationality was placed on the state. Contesting the pleas for their rights by migrants filed since 1998, one of the Sangh’s Assam collaborators filed a writ in the Supreme Court in 2000 for repealing the IMDT. To make doubly sure, another writ was filed in 2001 in the Delhi high court to take effective steps to remove illegal Bangladesh migrants from Delhi. Following an interim order in the latter, the home ministry formulated an Action Plan in 2002 to expeditiously detect and deport illegal Bangladeshi nationals from Delhi. The target was set even higher than the 1993 Action Plan.
In 2004, towards the end of the BJP government, news began trickling in that citizens from West Bengal and Assam, working as rag pickers in Delhi, were being routinely arrested on the charge of being illegal immigrants. An association of concerned citizens tracked the news and discovered that the 2002 Action Plan had acquired a vicious veneer over the 1993 one. The local police, and the informers who led them to the alleged illegal persons, had become enmeshed in a system of corruption and indoctrination. An ‘illegal’ person would be identified on the basis of dress (lungi), name (Muslim), and language (accented Hindi). The police would swoop down on the bastis in the dead of night and selectively carry off men, women and children. When documents would be offered by the victims as evidence of citizenship, they would be routinely torn up unless ‘Gandhiji’s note’ (currency above Rs 500) was produced to attest to nationality.
While police vans filled with these unfortunate people waited in the compound of the FRRO office, their papers were taken in and duly signed by a senior police officer acting as the registration officer, and a Leave India Notice issued under the Foreigners Act, making a mockery of the law. In the detention centre, blankets, milk for the children, etc. had to be bought from the police; the detainees were not allowed to offer prayers, there were complaints of physical assault, with slaps, kicks, and punches being regularly meted out. When sufficient numbers of detainees had accumulated, they would be put aboard a closed train to Malda and then transferred to a BSF camp. Multiple incidents of sexual harassment, physical violence, and extortion were reported by those who managed to escape or buy their way out. Those still in custody would be pushed across the fence into ‘no-man’s land’, 5 kilometres from the actual border, in the dead of night and at the point of a rifle, without informing the Bangladesh Rifles on the other side of the border. The state forces were clearly performing as communal and committed agents of the Sangh strategy, but with an embedded vested interest.
The BJP government fell in the 2004 general election, but the sixth phase continued as the Supreme Court announced its decision in the IMDT case in 2005. It was a curious decision, to say the least. Comparing the numbers detained under the IMDT with those detained under the Foreigners Act (FA), the Court arrived at the conclusion that the FA “is far more effective in identification and deportation of foreigners” as compared to the IMDT. Hence, the IMDT “contravenes Article 355 (duty of the Union of India to protect every State against external aggression and internal disturbance) of the Constitution is, therefore, wholly unconstitutional and must be struck down”. The Court recognised that the difference between the two Acts was that the FA places the onus upon the detained person to prove his citizenship, and that there is no forum for appeal. This is a fundamental departure from liberal jurisprudence, which deems a person to be innocent unless proven guilty. Yet the court did not take into account this argument and played right into the hands of the Sangh.
Strengthening hold over many states
In the ten years that the BJP was out of power at the Centre, but strengthening its hold over at least eight of the larger states in the north, the Sangh has perfected this six-fold strategy and is now moving towards the culmination of Golwalkar’s dream. He had rhetorically asked in 1939, “What is to be the fate of all those, who, today, happen to live upon the land, though not belonging to the Hindu Race, Religion and culture?” His answer was chilling:
“There are only two courses open to the foreign elements, either to merge themselves in the national race and adopt its culture, or to live at its mercy so long as the national race may allow them to do so …wholly subordinated to the Hindu Nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment –not even citizen’s rights.”
The three instruments at the centre of the current storm of protests – the Constitution Amendment Act (CAA), the National Population Register (NPR), and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) – are steadily moving in the direction of subordinating those whom Golwalkar called the ‘Mlechchh’: “all those who do not subscribe to the social laws dictated by the Hindu Religion and Culture.” They need not be detained in prisons or pushed across borders; confining them to the uncertain realm of non-citizens in bastis across the nation will be adequate, provided those bastis are, like Kashmir, hemmed in by a ring of steel and cultural ostracisation.
That brings us to the implicit connection between the maligned ‘basti’ and the imagined ‘foreigner’. It is not just in the context of the Bangladeshi that this link becomes clear; the experience of total subordination, of jackboots trampling through imperilled lives, of the twin blows of truncheon and teargas, of a continuous chain of dispossession and disenfranchisement, has been the impact of ‘development’ on the labouring poor since the last four decades at least. Bastis in both urban and rural areas have seen many times what the young students in colleges and universities in the cities are seeing today. In fact, it is now the signature of the newest face of surplus accumulation by the enormously rich, as they have learnt that the more indigent and immiserised and disorganised the worker is, the greater the productivity that can be extracted out of his/her subordination. The march of the Hindu Nation is in perfect goose-step with the march of Capital, as is evident from the BJP’s 2019 election manifesto that lays extraordinary emphasis on modernising the Armed Police Forces, investor-friendly growth, e-commerce, e-mobility, artificial intelligence, robotics, self-organised groups, entrepreneurship, and on-line courses.
It is within this six-phased context that the future has to be imagined. Clearly, the possible roll-back of the CAA/NPR/NCR will not stop the Sangh in its tracks; nor an electoral defeat here or a change of office-holder there – no matter how desirable and victorious it may seem at the time. Since the entire fabric of the nation is being ‘emancipated’ (both by the Sangh and World Economic Forum), the challenge is even deeper.
To respond to that challenge needs a soaring imagination and scintillating courage that probably only the young can have.
If citizenship is under challenge then is it sufficient to try and preserve the old concept of citizenship or to grasp that, apart from birth, descent, residence, and registration (and now religion), work should be a fundamental marker of an individual’s recognition in a nation? Or if the Constitution is under threat, is it enough to attempt to save it, or to move beyond that to a document that promises economic equality, justiciability of the Directive Principles, and eminent domain of the people? If the investor-friendly economy is collapsing, is it useful to fret about how to revive it, or should there be more thought devoted to a labour-friendly one? If public education is on the auction block then should one agitate to stop the auction, or could there be a challenge posed to the right to auction itself?
Reflection has always been harder than action – especially in the tumult of spontaneous action – but reflect we must, for our future depends on it.
Dunu Roy is a political ecologist and director of Hazards Centre, New Delhi