No country for protesters?

India today is a nation in ferment. The communal violence in north-east Delhi, which has consumed more than 40 lives, is the latest chapter in the pan-India mobilisations triggered by the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the spectre of the National Register of Citizens (NRC). To better understand the Delhi riots, which were characterised as a clash between pro-CAA and anti-CAA groups, it might be useful to separately consider the anti-CAA protests of the preceding two months.

These protests could be grouped into two categories. The first kind were the rallies and the marches. These gatherings, ritualistic in nature, were inscribed by the certainty of dispersal within a time frame. They were one-off events, though capable of being iterated multiple times. The early Jamia Millia Islamia student protests belong to this category. Protests of this kind are subject to a differential calculus of legality/illegality, involving police permission, and whether or not Section 144 of the IPC is in force. The second kind of protest is where you occupy a place indefinitely. The time frame here is open-ended, and subject to the fulfilment, or at least the acknowledgement, of the protesters’ demands.

Assumptions made

Both these protest forms are premised on some assumptions about the state. The first assumption is that the state is democratic and will respect all forms of non-violent dissent. The second is that the state has a conscience; that it is susceptible to a currency of influence other than power or money, such as, say, a set of shared values. For the anti-CAA-NRC protests, the source of a shared moral sense is the Constitution.

Both these forms of non-violent protest seek to put moral pressure on the government by focusing public attention on an injustice. The idea is that the state, its conscience awakened by the public invocation of constitutional morality, will see reason. Then some kind of a compromise can be negotiated, and everybody can go home. This is how non-violent mass protest is supposed to work in a functioning democracy. Independent India has seen some success stories of such peaceful agitations bearing fruit.

However, successful agitations of the past are not comparable to the anti-CAA protests for two reasons. First, the institutional checks and balances between the executive and other arms of the state have become more susceptible to communal polarisation than in the past. As a result, there is greater scope for misuse of the bureaucratic apparatus in regulating protests. Second, given the extent of such polarisation in the body politic, there is far less risk of political losses when abuses of the bureaucratic apparatus are directed at members of a minority community.

It is against this backdrop that a dichotomy has emerged: ‘good protests’ versus ‘bad protests’. This classification, translated as non-violent versus violent, might seem reasonable. Depending on how one evaluates a particular protest, the kind of state intervention deemed acceptable would vary. It could either be lawful regulation, with due regard for human dignity and right to freedom of assembly, or a liberal use of lathis and tear gas, if not bullets.

But this binary breaks down where the regime in power brooks no dissent. Recent events suggest that whether a given protest is deemed ‘good’ or ‘bad’ could depend on who is protesting: are they members of the majority or the minority community? The binary also breaks down when the dominant narrative seeks to discredit any protest by linking it to any incident of violence. The controversy over the “burning bus” at Jamia Nagar — with the protesters and the police trading charges of arson — is a case in point. While the truth of who burnt the bus remains disputed, the incident did help project the Jamia protests against CAA-NRC as “violent” and therefore deserving of a violent response from the state.

In search of a conscience

The most critical question facing these protests, however, is one that is frightening to contemplate: what if their assumption about the government having a democratic conscience was false? There is a reason why, for the first time in the history of independent India, members of one community are out on the streets over fear of losing something as basic as citizenship rights — what philosopher Hannah Arendt famously called the “right to have rights”.

Some of the world’s leading bodies on religious freedom have observed that the CAA-NRC discriminates against Muslims. Therefore, unlike mass mobilisations of the past, the anti-CAA-NRC protests represent an existential struggle against an ideologically driven regime with a majoritarian agenda.

What if the majoritarian cast of this regime has deactivated its democratic conscience, such as it is, on the question of minority rights? Could that be the reason why the Centre has shown no interest in engaging with the protesters? Indeed the only strategy discernible in the government’s response to the anti-CAA protests is a concerted effort to discredit them. The most obvious way of doing so is to link them to violence. In this strategy, the ruling party has been zealously aided by its foot soldiers in the news industry and social media. A subsidiary tactic has been to tar the protesters in “anti-national” colours using a familiar palette — ‘tukde tukde gang’, ‘Islamic radicals’, ‘urban naxals’, and so on.

It was this sinister script that began playing out in Delhi following a speech by BJP leader Kapil Mishra on February 23. In his speech, Mr. Mishra said that his supporters will not remain peaceful if the police failed to evict, within three days, anti-CAA women protesters who had occupied a stretch near the Jaffrabad metro station. Despite its incendiary content, the speech evoked no penal response from the state. Shortly after, violence engulfed Jaffrabad and surrounding areas. Amid reports of violence from “both sides”, Jaffrabad’s anti-CAA sit-in was broken up. Along the way, a plausible narrative linking violence and anti-CAA protests had been established.

In this context, especially in the light of reports suggesting police bias against anti-CAA protesters, allegations of complicity of the establishment in the Delhi violence cannot be taken lightly. On the one hand, building a perception that anti-CAA protesters are “violent” makes state violence against these protesters more acceptable to the public. On the other, building a perception that opposition to the CAA is solely from the minority community makes state violence against anti-CAA protesters quite appealing to the ruling party’s majoritarian constituency. The riots have a larger dimension that goes beyond the issue of support for, or opposition to, the CAA — pure sectarian hatred.

At any rate, one cannot ignore the politics behind the dominance of the violent/non-violent binary in protest-related discourse. By focusing attention on form to the exclusion of content, it serves as a useful discursive tool for authoritarian regimes determined to discredit peaceful dissent. During the freedom struggle, Mahatma Gandhi deployed an array of protest strategies against the British, with an escalating ladder of non-violent militancy, culminating in mass civil disobedience. Anti-CAA protesters do not have the luxury of being led by an apostle of non-violence who can exert inexorable moral pressure, not only on the state but also on sectarian sections of the majority. The last thing the country needs now is an elected government sending out the message that non-violent protest has no place in Indian democracy.

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Printable version | Dec 5, 2021 11:38:24 AM |

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