Over the past four months, a few nationally acclaimed wrestlers have been protesting against their federation chief, a strongman politician, who they accuse of both misusing his authority and of sexual harassment. On paper, the neat moral contrasts embedded in the saga seemed well suited to mobilise civil society opinion and force the government into a conciliatory posture.
Yet, as the protests met a disturbing denouement last week, the spurt of ‘citizen activism’ we saw a decade ago in the Nirbhaya protests and the Anna Andolan was nowhere to be seen.
The apparent impotency of the wrestler protests exhibits the narrow moral universe of middle-class rooted ‘citizen activism’. This brand of activism was what steadily gained currency post-liberalisation, particularly through the spread of television and social media.
Historically, the high point of middle-class activism has lain in the colonial period. In the book, Serving the Nation: Cultures of Service, Association, and Citizenship (2005), the historian, Carey Anthony Watt, described “a vibrant ‘associational culture”’ in early 20th century India. Although this associational culture was hardly free of social conservatism and caste/community-based fractures, it also contained a pluralistic and egalitarian dimension. According to Watt, the “richly variegated, autonomous” public sphere revolved around socio-economic initiatives “undertaken by urban elites of the upper castes, lower-middle and middle classes, and directed towards individuals of lower social status.”
An evolution from the Nehruvian era
However, the middle classes retreated from active civil society participation from the Nehruvian era onwards, as they assumed control of the power networks within the state-centred political economy. Meanwhile, civil society came to be hinged around the framework of “segmental loyalties”, which the social-anthropologist, Ernest Gellner, held to be an inescapable fate of the ‘civil’ space in all traditional, heterogeneous societies. While some scholars have taken the preponderance of caste/community-based organisations to claim that the country effectively lacks a modern civil society, others have appreciated the role of these organisations in aiding democratisation and exemplifying the “modernity of tradition”. “In India, religion, caste, ethnicity and language have been effectively mobilised in articulating and representing group identities and interests,” as Sarbeshwar Sahoo wrote in Civil Society and Democratization in India (2013).
It was only in the decade of rule under the United Progressive Alliance that we saw a marked resurgence of urban, middle-class activism, particularly around issues of political corruption. In her book, India’s New Middle Class (2006), the sociologist, Leela Fernandes, captured the rising discontent of the middle classes with the “corrupting influences of mass-based politics and vote banks”, combined with latent “suspicions” towards “unions, subordinate castes and Muslims”.
Brand ‘Aamir Khan’ symbolised this middle-class worldview, where technocratic governance and entrepreneurialism were equated with progress, and the realm of politics represented social division and ‘barriers to development’.
Of course, forceful critiques of this “consumer citizen” activist model were mounted by many academics. John Harriss (2007) demonstrated, through research in the city of Chennai, that the “new politics of empowerment” ignored the concerns of the urban poor, viewing them to be “denizens” who need to be ‘disciplined’ and ‘patronized’ rather than “citizens” to be centred in the discourse and practice of development.
A ‘changing Indian sensibility’
Post-2014, the ideology of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the personality of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have effectively captured this middle-class space. In a recent paper, the political scientists, Aseema Sinha and Manisha Priyam, have framed the dominant political discourse as more of a demand-side phenomenon, reflecting the “changing Indian sensibility, especially among India’s professional and middle classes.”.
Thus, the middle classes now represent a kind of a civil society base of the BJP, which perhaps explains a weakening attachment towards independent social actors, as the wrestlers discovered. “The consolidation of Hindu nationalism in India is being authored not only by parties or the state, but also by societal actors, specifically, ordinary middle-class Indians,” as Ms. Sinha and Ms. Priyam wrote.
The frailties of the populist, personality-driven activism of the Anna Andolan have become clearer in hindsight. The same could be said about a similar brand of Leftist or neo-Gandhian activism, such as the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) in Gujarat, centred around Medha Patkar. Championed by celebrities as diverse as Arundhati Roy and Aamir Khan, the anti-dam movement ultimately ended in failure. The scholar, Judith Whitehead, explained this failure to be a function of the NBA’s disinterest in mobilising a wider political constituency among peasants and workers in rural Gujarat, and a narrow “ecological romanticism” which “tended to privilege urban middle class perspectives”.
However, we have not quite entered into a post-civil society era, and there still exists a (albeit circumscribed) space for popular mobilisation. In Tamil Nadu, labour rights organisations, led by the Communist-leaning Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) compelled the M.K. Stalin government to stall the implementation of a new labour law. And, of course, the long-drawn farmers agitation succeeded in forcing the otherwise dour hand of the Modi government, demonstrating the continuing heft of these organisations in parts of northern India. Some of these groups have now given their support in favour of the protesting wrestlers.
Yet, we must remember, the activism of these organisations is also weighed down with inherent limitations. Even as the farmers’ movement sought to cultivate “new solidarities across class, caste, gender, religion and regions” (Kumar 2022), many of them continue to be associated with the interests of landed “Jat” caste. Hence, the broad political support commanded by them in certain political contexts should not be seen as an automatic function of stable bonds of programmatic solidarity. The lower castes in Haryana, for example, might remember the experience of recurring anti-special economic zone protests, where farmer organisations have been critiqued for privileging the material interests of the Jat farmers and ignoring those of the landless workers.
Similarly, while certain forms of militant labour activism can succeed in getting significant concessions in Tamil Nadu, they are likely to be firmly suppressed in States such as Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. This is because labour activism, particularly of left-wing organisations, often requires the political umbrella of communist parties. These communist parties, which have largely been a part of government coalitions since the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-CPI(M) alliance of 1965. In Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, left-wing labour activism has been ruthlessly put down not just by the Congress but also by their erstwhile socialist/farmer allies. This regime continuity was immediately apparent in the Charan Singh government’s fierce suppression of the 1970 Communist-led agitation of landless agricultural workers, perhaps the last such large-scale mobilisation of workers in Uttar Pradesh.
The state of the wrestlers’ protests clarifies the need to look beyond the superficial, celebrity-dependent model of civil society activism. It is also a reminder that only a democratic process of building durable, programmatic solidarities can become truly capable of transcending the social ceiling of “segmental loyalties”.
Asim Ali is a political researcher and columnist