The State responded with deliberate pointed violence.
The placards said it all: “Jab Hindu Muslim raazi/ Toh kya karega Nazi”, “Main Hindu hoon, chutiya nahin” (I might be Hindu, but don’t take me for an idiot) and my favourite, inspired by Sir Mix-A-Lot’s rap classic Baby Got Back, “I hate big bhakts and I cannot lie”, a play on the line: “I like big butts and I cannot lie.”
Assam was the firestarter. Then came Jamia. Muslims, pushed to the wall for a while, finally rose in rebellion from Mangaluru to UP. Soon entire cities, and vast swathes of the population, were up in arms, for different reasons. As we speak, India’s people have been battered physically, emotionally, ideologically. The CAA and NRC was the final straw, igniting multiple resentments — stoked by the Hindu Right — that were simmering for long. The execution of the Hindu Rashtra project, it seems, is going to be bloody.
The State responded with deliberate pointed violence. People are allowed to protest peacefully. When you push through something as radical, defunct and overarching an idea as Hindu Rashtra, in a democracy of a billion, protests are expected. The message the government has sent out is of the iron hand. It has responded by giving the entire country a taster of what it’s like to be in Kashmir: curfews, Internet clampdowns, pistols, batons, lathis, teargas, water cannons. Activists and intellectuals were detained, manhandled, their right to peaceful protest denied.
Look at it from the Hindu Right viewpoint. Jamia had to be dealt with a heavy hand, so did earlier protests against the JNU fee hike. The Hindu Right has two long-standing enemies: Islam and the Left. Institutions like Pune’s FTII, Pune, seen as liberal bastions, were destroyed too.
The police was clearly told to respond to peace with violence; the enemy had to be crushed. Where the police was asked to act differently, like Mumbai (because their masters, Maha Vikas Aghadi, were different), the protests passed off peacefully.
The narrative of violence, in such a fluid context, is cleverly harnessed by the State. First it sends in its own people to infiltrate and join peaceful protesters, foment more violence. It then uses the violence it instigated to justify more brutality. It uses the violence to change the narrative.
As the citizen suffers because of traffic restrictions, curfews and Internet shutdowns, and resentment builds against the inability to get on with daily life, the State transfers the responsibility for this to the protesters. It works quite well for the bhakt base, which is fundamentally incapable of asking itself the question: But why are people protesting in the first place? (The bhakt base is incapable of this as they are convinced Hindus were hard done by centuries ago. On this, the bhakts will brook no discussion.) A movement for and by the people is turned against the people it is meant for.
But not every Indian is a flag-waving bhakt, or left-liberal. To say this isn’t being what liberals refer to sarcastically as “an enlightened centrist” or a “fence-sitter”. It’s to state a simple political fact. Millions of Indians have been watching what’s happening, on TV and social media. Not all are in agreement with bhakts. Many feel the violence unleashed on the protesters is unnecessary. Many Modi voters are moving to being fence-sitters. That is progress. It was always an open question: Did Indians vote for Modi out of Modi-love or did they vote for the RSS ideology that birthed Modi.
No saffron wave brought Narendra Modi to power. The horse he rode in on was development, prosperity and governance. This category of Modi voter feels the BJP has gone too far. It’s a change of heart that should be welcomed, harnessed. Modi’s charisma is losing sheen.
The Indian fascist is chatur and dhoorth. The Indian liberal is apocalyptic and cliquey. In recent protests, several liberals come across as hijacking the present movement. They say things like: “We were here first, fighting this battle”, “Oh, now you’ve changed your mind and joined us, buzz off”. Well, India doesn’t belong to you. People can change their minds a hundred times and speak their minds even louder. Every single voice matters. The poor Muslim fighting in UP or the squeezed Assamese fighting in Assam has nothing to do with liberals. The liberal needs to learn how to be liberal, and cleverly channelise a change in wind direction rather than fanning themselves with their pretty hand-fans.
Liberals also take a pointlessly principled moral high ground on things like the “unholy” Shiv Sena-Congress alliance. Or attacking Rahul Gandhi and dynasty politics. This is hardly a pragmatic approach. The past doesn’t matter in politics. The future does and it is decided by the present, as in Maharashtra.
As Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh have shown, the Congress is a lambi-race-ka-ghoda. It’s embedded in the system. With or without Rahul, Indians vote for it when they are upset with things. It’s a solid option. The Congress goes on despite itself: It’s an author that long stopped writing, convinced that what he was writing was rubbish, but readers still keep buying the books.
This becomes an effective weapon against the Hindu Rashtra’s march. It can be and is halted in states which are Congress-controlled. So stop attacking the Congress for its obsession with Rahul’s future, and lack of leadership in the streets in this important political moment. It still plays an incredibly crucial role in preventing the slide into a Hindu nation.
This slide though is inevitable. The BJP has no desire to dilute its hard Hindutva. Not enough Indians feel the idea of India is under threat. But, as the nationwide protests show, it won’t be easy for the BJP. “All is Quell” is a very different tune from “All Is Well”.
The worry is that the anti-Muslim rhetoric and actions will spur self-radicalisation among the community. Muslim resentment can be tapped by wrong sources; each violent manifestation can be harnessed by the Hindu Right to further its own agenda, as they are doing now.
The best part of these protests is that they have involved everyone, but not by design: urban middle class, Muslim poor, the Northeast, students cutting across city, caste, class, gender and religious lines. They have shown when the dark winter comes, people don’t burrow further in their razais and duvets, but throw it off, take to the streets and fight the cold.