Debate: The Current Protests in India are a Training Ground for a Break With the Past

The NRC and other oppressive measures and the protests against them should be understood as the beginning of an epochal transformation in the subcontinent.

The moment seizing India is something unprecedented and as yet unnamable. The protests across the land against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), the National Register of Citizens (NRC), and the National Population Register (NPR) exceed the mere demand for the repeal of laws as they gather differing interests – anti-caste, atheists, religious, communist, liberal – into a legion which is beginning to conjure unknown possibilities for politics in the subcontinent. This actuality is exciting and at the same time confounding. For the first time in a long while, an epochal – and to that extent generational – divide is clearly apparent in the midst of these events.

In a recent article for The Wire, Partha Chatterjee has drawn attention to the indeterminateness of these events. He expresses anguish at the unknown guiding these, according to him, leaderless and spontaneous protests. “Where will this amazing burst of youthful passion, bravery and creativity lead us?” he asks, pointing to the failure of recent protest events — from Occupy and Arab Spring to Hong Kong — across the world to realise anything concrete like electing a liberal version of the very political order against which they protested. He believes the essence of the Hindu nationalists lies in its totalising and homogenising character, and proposes the federalist reorganisation of formal politics.  Though Chatterjee does not say so, his analysis suggests even a return to the era of regional satraps – which leaves the caste based social order intact – would be a step forward.

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It is obvious that Chatterjee, who has the historian’s intuition, can see the developments more clearly than most of us. Yet, what makes something apparent or visible to a historian is determined by the conceptual  atmosphere in which he or she breathes. Only if we move aside his frames of reference can we  conceive the political possibilities of these protests.

Neither anarchy nor failure

To begin with, one is surprised by Chatterjee’s comparison of the highly possible tragic outcome of the Hong Kong protests with the Indian protests. Indian protestors are learning lessons from Hong Kong while being aware that the Hong Kong protestors are isolated from the Chinese mainland. In India, the protests are seizing the ‘mainland’ while Hindutva is appearing each day to be the island.

Chatterjee offers the Arab Spring and Occupy as cautionary tales against youthful protests for the reason that they were followed by the installation of conservative regimes. For example, after half a decade of protests against the rich 1% in the United States, Trump was installed in the White House. However, none of these protests were about a change of guard in the existing political order. When people protest against the rich 1% controlling the very political process, they are not aiming to substitute one electoral supplicant of the 1% — say Bush for Obama. Rather, all these protests have been witnesses of the transformations of the global political order in the 21st century, and they have been opposing these very orders instead of merely seeking “regime changes”.

Moroccans in a rally during the Arab Spring. Credit: magharebia/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Moroccans in a rally during the Arab Spring. Photo: magharebia/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Even, the achievement of “May 68” was not the election of a Left-leaning government, which was in fact followed by a conservative government, but of instituting a new power of perception and thoughtfulness towards all political processes. As the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy explained in The Truth of Democracy, “What preceded 68 and gave it its fundamental condition of possibility [was] a scarcely visible but insistent disappointment, the nagging sense that we had never recovered …democracy.”

The protests raging through India are not yet a political movement as the anti-dam movement was. But neither are they a chaos erupting through mass hysteria in the manner of most of the events under the title “Anna Hazare”. To make sense of this we have to note the difference between a political movement and a campaign. While campaigns such as “Swadeshi” or the “anti-war movement” seek explicit outcomes, a political movement seeks to change the way politics itself is conceived and practiced while leaving some fundamental conditions such as the head of the king, the name of the god, or the constitution unchanged. Political movements are at once conservative and transformative. The protest events in India are more than a campaign and, so far, less than revolutionary. Revolution in the Indian context is the destruction of the caste order, which is incompatible with any notion of “azadi”, “viduthalai”, or “freedom”.

Protests are training grounds

Global protest movements like Occupy have also been training grounds in many ways. Due to differing social, institutional and tactical factors in their respective contexts, all the protests did not have the same outcome — Tunisia was different from Egpyt. Nevertheless, protests contract energies, conviction, and organizational strategies from previous and distant as well as contemporary and neighbouring political movements. Further, they anticipate, often more accurately than political observers, the transformations of institutions. The anti-austerity protestors in Greece created communities which shared services and labour in a world in which governments are withdrawing from caring for the people. Certain currents of Nuit Debut in France constituted free universities when public universities are being dismantled. Alongside the Occupy movement in the US, “do it yourself” communities sprung up.

In India too –  from the birth of the Ambedkar-Periyar Study circle in IIT Madras and “pinjra tod” (break the shackles movement), which began in Jamia University with girls breaking their hostel curfew rules – students and young activists across the country have begun a training program. The protests against the NRC are in effect the resonance effect of the Ambedkarite anti-caste movements, the new feminist movements, and new intellectual currents which sprung within the Ambedkar-Periyar-Phule movements. They draw inspiration from and are also a part of the international protest movement.

Also Read: From Protesting the CAA to Embracing the Dalit-Bahujan Position on Citizenship

The very language of protests has changed from manifestos to that of memes. Emily Apter shows how the meme language of politics perpetually makes a distance from the objects opposed by it—“Memic caricature has the capacity to stigmatise its targeted subject, but it also traces the outlines of the abuse of power, etching its occurrence on historical memory, transmitting it epigenetically as historical form and idea”.

The new conditions

In all these ways the amorphous character of these protests, despite the attempts by several political actors to leverage positions within them, continues to develop into a scale which Chatterjee has compared to the national movement. However, apart from the scale, everything else is different here. We are not in the midst of political events which were possible only under the post-war conditions of the 20th century – of constitutional democratic arrangements which were production processes of long duration, predictable movement of population, climatic stability and more. The very first step towards understanding the sense of the protests in India and in other corners of the world is recognising that the 20th century conditions of political institutions – and hence of politics as we understood it – have been changing rapidly through technological transformations and the migration of people, without an orientation as yet. Then, it follows that the political movements these changes have inducted too are without orientation.

Chatterjee characterises the protest events with a view to direct their forces for “the Good” which he finds in “true federalism”. But, the term “federal” itself is no longer definable in 20th century terms. For example, the Good and Services Taxes conceived by the Congress-led government and implemented by Modi –  which Chatterjee says disturbs “federalism” in India – is part of an international adjustment. The steps taken from the UPA government onwards are part of the same international adjustment which includes the “liberalisation” of universities; making surveillance precise and hence a control instrument through biometric data and other features; increased militarisation of the police; and, the normalisation of the security state which has discarded the notion of citizen and in its place sees only potential combatants. All these transformations have reasons which will take longer time to attend to.

Surveillance has become precise and hence a control instrument through biometric data and other features. Photo: Jonathan McIntosh/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

For new rules of the game

In India something similar is indeed happening. Let us call it the 10% protest: Indian society remains divided between the 10% ‘upper’ castes and 90% Bahujans. Its fundamental inequality is determined by caste (across religions), according to which both wealth and privileges are distributed. The fact that these protests are animated in most instances by the widepread appearance of icons of the majority lower caste movements for the first time – Ambedkar, Periyar, Savitri Phule, Sahodaran Ayyappan, Rohith Vemula –  should indicate that this moment is not the senseless expenditure of the youth of their “spontaneous energy”. The participation of organisations such as the Bhim Army and the more recent Alliance Against CAA-NRC-NPR cannot be erased from the scene.

The distinction between these protests and everything else we have witnessed since the “regime change” instituted through the Anna Hazare protests is its emerging rejection of the false problem in Indian politics which was a part of the freedom struggle and has grown in salience ever since. This is the invention of the idea of a‘Hindu majority’ in order to mask and contain the Bahujan struggles which had begun from the late 19th century. The false majority required a false problem to stage its politics, and the ‘Hindu-majority’-versus-religious-minorities became that false problem. The present BJP regime is the limit expression of this false problem.

From the provenance of lower caste politics through the post-Mandal era politics, the Congress party lost the ability to protect upper caste interests, which led to the rise of the BJP. Neither the Congress nor any other party will be able to deliver the interests of the 10% any longer in these times of increasing awareness and mobilisation of anti-caste political and student movements. The NRC and other oppressive measures and the protests against them should be understood as the beginning of an epochal transformation in the subcontinent.

The risk of the ‘theatre’ model

However, it is important to heed some of the advice of those like Chatterjee, who have lived through and observed many political movements. One of the cautions is that one must not have an innocence or pretence to innocence in politics. As Milan Kundera found, it is nearly impossible – without metaphysical instrumentations – to distinguish between innocence and ignorance. All gatherings of people, once they become regular, are arranged by some interest or the other. People do not appear spontaneously day after day, which is something that the Manmohan Singh government learnt the hard way during the Anna Hazare movement. The present protests, although they are too large and disperse to manage, could, in fact, be managed and this is a risk the protestors should be aware of.

For example, these protests imitate the theatre of war model adopted, since the Anna Hazare movement and JNU-2016, in Shaheen Bagh. That is, a small space in the national capital comes to be the theatre of action and is then nationally projected through various media to affect opinion. This is risky given the possibility of manipulation of small spaces, and also, in this instance, unnecessary since there are massive protest events happening across India each day.

Also Read: The Time Has Come For India to Recognise Why Assam Protests Against CAA

Further, the protestors should overcome the consternation of those who seek outcomes within the familiar models of politics. Instead, these events should be seized as the training grounds for the transformative possibilties which India surrendered for so little during the independence movement. We do know what we want, as we keep chanting freedom. Then, it is also time to get intimate with it; freedom comes to be only when it is shared equally – without the divisions, whether of 1% or of 10%.

Here, it is important to read the constitution of the Indian Union, not as senseless mantra, but critically. While deploying the constitution and the nationalist paraphernalia as precautions, we must be aware of what Pritam Singh called “The Hindu Bias” in the constitution. The preamble of the constitution promises what the republic will deliver – secularism, socialism, egalitarianism, and justice to all. However, Article 25 is concerned with the welfare of “Hindus”. The directive principles include “cow protection” which is a tool to oppress religious minorities and all Bahujans. It includes the proposal to develop “Hindi”, the recently invented “Hindu” language as Alok Rai has shown, which the constitution urges us to develop by drawing vocabulary from Sanskrit, which is Brahminical. These are also some of the risks in retreating to a “federalism” within the constitution. Unless we are prepared to question the rules of the game, chants of freedom can become a mere campish performance.

Most of the well-known intellectuals from India are batchmates of Salim Sinai of Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children”, born with the transfer of power. This generation nearly totally controls speech, theoretical frameworks and publications. Therefore, we do not yet know what is “Young India” unless one starts talking to the youth. When you speak to a crowd of young people you will hear that the false majority—‘Hindu’ masking the oppression of the majority Bahujans—and the false problem—the opposition between ‘Hindu majority’ and the religious minorities is disappearing. There is a boredom with the past, which is creating space for the new in India.

Shaj Mohan and Divya Dwivedi are philosophers based in the subcontinent.