It was the Bharatiya Janata Party’s New Year gift for a bigoted base that did the party proud in the 2019 general election. It turned out to be the inflection point, the wedge driven deep into the subcutaneous fissures in society that cracked the country wide open – and look where we are now.
Wednesday, January 8 was a remarkable day, even by the standards of a remarkable period of public activism that began shortly after parliament passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill on December 11, 2019. According to estimates, some 250 million protestors took to the streets that day to protest against the Centre’s ‘anti-people policies’, including the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) .
That number underscores the problem of wrapping your head around the sheer enormity of what started off as a protest and has now assumed the contours of a full-fledged total revolution – a phrase last heard in 1974 when the students of Bihar took to the streets and triggered a chain reaction that ended in the declaration of the Emergency and the emergence of a united, fiercely determined opposition with Jayaprakash Narayan at its head.
Given the sheer size of the country, you could look at the turnout and say big deal, less than one in five citizens protested – which is to say that four in five did not. But you could also look at that same number and say that the protestors, taken together, made up the fifth largest country in the world.
More even than numbers, it is the composition that makes the protests of January 8 remarkable. There were farmers protesting disproportionately low prices for their produce; workers from MNREGA and other government schemes protesting non-payment of wages; bank and government employees, transport workers, workers from public sector industries such as mining, steel and defence production; port and dock workers and telecom workers protesting the impact on their lives of a rapidly sinking economy. They were joined by workers from the private sector across industries such as automobile manufacturing, textiles, power, metals, the IT industry. And, of course, students alongside teachers, doctors, scientists, lawyers, the trans and LGBT communities, Dalit and Muslim groups… It was so bad, to quote a catchphrase of our times, that even the famously insular St Stephens’ College, in New Delhi, joined in.
In tandem with the numbers and the inclusive demographic sweep, a third facet of this pan-India revolution – for it is manifestly too wide in scope, too broad in its sweep, to be characterised as a ‘protest’ anymore – is the ‘why’ of it.
In the days immediately following the passing of the CAA, students took to the streets to protest its unconstitutional nature which, coupled with Union home minister Amit Shah’s repeated twinning of the CAA with the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the National Population Register (NPR), threatened to put the onus on every Indian to prove her or his right to citizenship. The irony that a government elected by citizens was now asking them to prove their citizenship was not lost on the students.
On the night of December 15, the government made its biggest miscalculation when it opted for a show of brute force that, it hoped, would force the protestors to back off. It sent its police force into the Jamia Milia Islamia (JMI) campus to unleash hell – and that set in motion a chain reaction that now roils the country.
Universities across the country came out to protest the JMI atrocity. The women of Shaheen Bagh occupied an arterial road in the national capital to protest the physical assault on the students, many of whom have ties to the locality. Others came out in support of Shaheen Bagh.
In an empathetic essay addressed to the victims on 9/11, Toni Morrison talked of having no real solace to offer, nothing to give “except this gesture, this thread thrown between your humanity and mine…”
Threads linking the common humanity of protesting Indians multiplied rapidly. When brutal repression was unleashed in various parts of Uttar Pradesh, more people came out to oppose that. And to protest the lockdown in Kashmir. Protestors were arrested, cases were filed – and even more people came out to protest those arrests. A government relying on a visibly failing playbook unleashed more violence, this time at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), using its student stormtroopers as spearhead and the vice-chancellor and the police as enablers – and that in turn triggered more, and more widespread, protests against state-sponsored thuggery. ‘We are all JNU’, read one of the first protest signs to go up at Mumbai’s Gateway of India, where an ‘occupy’ protest spontaneously evolved within hours of the stomach-turning videos from the university gaining virality on social media.
January 8 was the day it coalesced into an avalanche. On that day, the millions who poured into public spaces across the country protested the CAA, certainly – but they also showed up to protest rising prices and growing unemployment; they came to raise their voice against the slowdown in manufacturing and consequent layoffs; scheme workers came to protest unpaid wages and farmers came to protest unfair compensation for their crops; some protested the six-month long shut-down in Kashmir and others the continuing detention of Bhim Army chief Chandra Shekhar Aazad.
The protest against the CAA has fully morphed into a revolution against the government; it is now no longer about a single issue but about all the discontents that have simmered beneath the surface through the latter half of the NDA government’s first term and the first six months of the second. India has effectively erupted in a million mutinies, each feeding off the others. And across this vast country, action and reaction, call and response, has begun playing out with the urgency of a game of blitz chess – with the state, thus far, falling behind on the game.
Leaderless but not rudderless
A noticeable aspect of the events thus far is that while the political opposition, with a few honourable exceptions – a Pinarayi Vijayan in Kerala, an Uddhav Thackeray in Maharashtra, a Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal – have waffled and whiffed, the dormant political instincts of students and of civil society have kicked in. Leaderless though the protests were at the outset, those involved have shown a remarkable grasp of the grammar of protest movements.
The most visible manifestation is in their occupation of space. Thus far, starting as far back as the Anna Hazare-led movement in 2011, the BJP and its allies both overt and covert have occupied both the physical space and the equally important mind-space. That has now been snatched from them, thanks to students and civil society showing up in their numbers and thus shrinking the space available to the government and its propagandists.
The importance of this is underlined by the ruling party’s increasingly desperate attempts to recapture that space – as for instance in the out-reach program announced by the government, which mandated its elected representatives to reach out to their respective constituents and which, from evidence available thus far, is proving to be counter-productive in the face of stiff resistance from locals.
Note also that the missed-call campaign flagged off by no less than the home minister turned into monumental farce. That Amit Shah’s rally in support of the CAA was drowned in the storm of outrage when two young women, who hung an anti-CAA banner from their balcony, were mobbed, physically threatened, and finally evicted.
A school in Gujarat, which attempted to force its students to write hand-written congratulatory messages to the prime minister, had to backtrack and apologise to incensed parents. At Jyoti Nivas College in Bangalore, BJP workers attempting to get the students to sign pro-CAA posters got told off – and, as bonus, the students of St Joseph’s College took up the cudgels on behalf of JNC. An attempt to co-opt Bollywood resulted in just a few B-listers attending an official event, while big-name stars and directors made their presence felt at anti-CAA rallies in Mumbai and elsewhere, and Deepika Padukone appeared at the beleaguered JNU to stand with the grievously injured student’s union president Aishe Ghosh – a striking image even the well-honed BJP troll army has failed to counter.
Equally, the government’s attempts to use its propaganda machinery, including captive media channels, to portray the protests as an anti-national conspiracy of the usual suspects – Congress plus “urban Naxals” plus “commies” plus “pseudo-intellectuals” plus plus – has run into the headwinds of viral videographic evidence of government-sponsored violence. Besides, such propaganda needs a visible, identifiable target to vilify, to demonise – but this revolution, both inclusive and leaderless, blunts that time-tested weapon.
Snatching the emperor’s cloaks
In an iconic anti-war speech at Canton, Ohio on June 16, 1918, American trade unionist and political activist Eugene V. Debs said …”in every age it has been the tyrant, the oppressor and the exploiter who has wrapped himself in the cloak of patriotism, or religion, or both, to deceive and overawe the people.”
The protestors have snatched away this cloak, and have been noticeably successful in co-opting the symbols of the Republic. Thus, the instinctive holding up, at the very beginning, of the Preamble to the Constitution which made it to the early flags, banners and protest meetings. Thus the iconic image of the students of JMI, beaten and bloodied by marauding police under the control of home minister Amit Shah, on the police barricades defiantly holding up images of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, of Mahatma Gandhi.
A writer in The Wire suggested last week that the protestors were ostentatiously waving the national flag – so pervasive now that suppliers are running out of stock – as defence against the charge of being anti-national. Not so, though. Seen in tandem with the peripatetic use of the Preamble, of Ambedkar and of Gandhi, this is evidence of a nation-sized protest movement proudly appropriating the symbols of what they are fighting for – an idea of India that is safe, secular, inclusive, tolerant; one that allows its citizens – all its citizens, irrespective – the space to live and work and love in peace and harmony.
There is a grim undertone to these protests, born of the knowledge that there are no easy, immediate wins; the certainty that an increasingly beleaguered state will escalate the violence, as happened on the night of January 9 when the police yet again viciously lathi-charged a peaceful march by the students of JNU and their supporters, breaking heads and bones.
But there is also an effervescence, a joy to these gatherings that is a collective thumbing of the nose in the face of brutal authority. You see that joy in the students of JMI and JNU, industriously working on the pavements outside their universities on crafting eye-catching banners and planning innovative protests.
You see it in the clear eyes and strong voices of the women of Shaheen Bagh, successfully staring down repeated attempts to intimidate them into abandoning their siege; in the kolam protests in Tamil Nadu and the street art in Delhi; in the elderly gentleman who broke into an impromptu dance to the beat of the ‘Azadi’ slogan, in the fisherfolk of Chaliyam, in Kerala, who took to the seas in protest. And feel it in the verve with which, on that same night of January 8, the national anthem was sung by the congregation at Jama Masjid – sung the way it is supposed to be sung, with pride and joy and fervour, with soaring voices and swelling hearts and not in reluctant compliance with a state edict backed by the muscle of faux patriots.
You see that joy in the way people from all walks of life, from all across the country, have wrapped themselves in poetry and art and song, and in infectious chants that overwhelm the ‘Goli maaro saalon ko’ that is the hate-drenched voice of the government’s supporters. And you see it in the way people have resurrected the protest poetry of Faiz and of Bismil and infused it with the “fierce urgency of now”.
But that is now – what though of tomorrow? The very fact that the protests now encompass a wide variety of discontents ensures that there is no easy resolution, no achievable win within reach.
Hope lies in believing we do matter
Repeal the CAA, promise not to implement the NRC? Not happening, not with a government that is equal parts adamant and arrogant, a thin-skinned government that knows any backward step will result in alienating the base. The downfall of the government itself? Not happening, not while it enjoys brute majority in parliament, has four and a half years of tenure left, and controls all vital institutions – the law and order machinery, the courts, the media.
The government will double down, and the hell with the cost. “As a malignant narcissist,” wrote psychologist Dr John Gartner, founder of the Political Action Committee ‘Duty to Warn’, “when threatened, Trump must reassert his dominance over the world at all costs. And to a sadist (one component of malignant narcissism), the collateral damage is not a cost, it is a bonus.”
Try that cap on for size on the men now ruling India – and make no mistake, India is currently ruled by just two men, who are much of a muchness – and you’ll find it fits, as recent events vividly illustrate.
What then do we have to look forward to? A year of endless, escalating pain is the best-guess scenario. Episodic state-sponsored violence will continue, because that is the DNA of the autocrats who feel the garb of democracy hang loose about them “like a giant’s robe/Upon a dwarfish thief”.
At some point, a government chronically allergic to domain expertise will have to face an empty treasury and a shrinking economy. At some point, it will have to take the lid off Kashmir – and that will produce consequences as foreseeable as they will be disagreeable. At some point, the government will have to find answers that go beyond ‘mandir wahin banayenge’ and address the very real concerns that continue to bring the people out on the streets in their multitudes.
At some point, this knife-edge game of blitz chess will simmer down into a timeless test of will and energy and courage and determination. And the question will inevitably arise, among increasingly fatigued protestors: Why are we doing this? At what cost? For how much longer? To what end?
There are no easy answers. But there is hope – an aureole of hope that surrounds every protest site around the country. “It is important,” wrote the extraordinary essayist Rebecca Solnit, “to say what hope is not. It is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine. The evidence all around us is of tremendous suffering and tremendous destruction.”
So what, then, is this hope we cling to, this evidence of things not seen, this hope that has, for a month now and counting, brought people out onto the streets – mothers with their infants, students bunking class, professionals finding time in the interstices of work? Judging by conversations with protestors of all types in Delhi, and Bangalore, and Tamil Nadu, and elsewhere, it is rooted in the belief that this is the right thing to do, that this is the right moment to step up, to step forward. To resist.
“Hope,” wrote Solnit in her seminal book of essays, Hope in the Dark, “locates itself in the premise that we don’t know what will happen, and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty there is room to act. When you recognise uncertainty, you recognise that you may be able to influence outcomes – you alone, or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others… It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.”
That is what this uprising has to cling to, in what threatens to be a year freighted with pain, with rage, with despair even: Hope. The audacity of hope.
Prem Panicker is a journalist.