The Fear of Dissent:  India’s New Colonial Masters


Protest in Assam against the Citizenship Amendment Bill, passed into law as Citizenship Amendment Act on 12 December 2019.  Source: Zee News.

There is almost nothing as fearful as a lawless state.  India is on the brink of being such a state, as the actions taken by the government to squash dissent against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) so clearly demonstrate.  It is not “lawless” in the sense of being a political despotism, “empty of law” as India’s former colonial rulers characterized the supposed state of the country before they took the reins in hand.  India is on the verge of being “lawless” in the more unsettling and insidious sense of falling into a system of political authoritarianism where law itself is deployed to subvert both the spirit of law and the rule of law.

Protests against the CAA first commenced in Assam, Meghalaya, and Tripura among segments of the general population even before the law had come into force on December 12, and have in the last several days been spearheaded by students at universities across the country.  Many in the country have been shocked by the scenes of violence, captured in this age and day in scores of videos, that have turned universities into battlegrounds.


Demonstration at Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi.  (Photo Credits: @fotosbyshadab)

At least five people were killed in police firings in Assam.  The police deployed tear gas and lathi-charged students at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and Jamia Millia Islamia, both institutions with a storied past.  Though not all the CCTV coverage has been analyzed, and there are conflicting accounts of what happened, this much is unequivocally clear:  hundreds of police barged into Jamia’s campus, wielding their lathis indiscriminately and seriously wounding dozens of students. They assaulted female and male students studying in the library.  The idea of learning, as opposed to mere job training, is so far from the minds of most of the anti-intellectuals who now occupy the positions of leadership in the BJP that it would be no exaggeration to suggest that universities are themselves something like alien territory for the present government.  The police acted, at Jamia and AMU, much as an invading army does. Perhaps the police and the politicians whose bidding they do were also venting their frustration at Muslims for exhibiting an interest in learning. Why else would a library be attacked, if not to convey a message to Muslim students that books are not meant for them?


No need for a caption:  the image is from the National Capital Region (NCR).

Jamia Millia was, it is important to note, founded in 1920 by faculty and students who defected from AMU.  Distressed at their university’s rather pro-British leanings, they decided to heed Gandhi’s call for non-cooperation and the intellectual awakening of India.  Sarojini Naidu was to say of the Indian nationalist Muslims who created the university that they built it up “stone by stone and sacrifice by sacrifice”, but the autocrats who now run the country cannot be expected to know all this.  They don’t read books, and would rather see libraries vandalized and universities become factories for producing a docile labour force.  It is evidently enough for the Home Minister and his underlings to know that AMU and Jamia are predominantly Muslim universities, which immediately makes the students and faculty at these universities suspect and a fifth column acting on behalf of Pakistan.


Scenes from the violence and police attack at Jamia Millia Islamia. A video of two young female students shielding a reporter from assault by the cops went viral:  See

The present Indian government is of the view that all Indian Muslims are anti-national, though not all anti-national people are Muslims: intellectuals, Naxalites, political dissenters, critics of the state, and especially Nehruvian-style secularists are all anti-nationals, too.  The Prime Minister talks of brotherhood but shares kinship only with hard-core Hindu nationalists.  His bear hug is intended only for foreign leaders, not for most fellow Indians and certainly not for those who do not meet his criteria of the true nationalist Indian subject.  He has mastered the art of clichés:  just how hollow “sabka saath, sabka vikas, sabka vishwas” sounds is apparent to everyone but the author of this slogan, especially now that he has, after the commencement of his second term as Prime Minister, bared his fangs.

Whether it is the Prime Minister, the Home Minister, or, to take an illustration, the junior Railway Minister, who has said that the only fitting reply of the government to demonstrators found destroying railway property is to “shoot them at sight”, the response of those presently in power to dissenting opinions is utterly predictable and follows a set pattern.  The particularities of a demonstration directed at the state matter little, since there is already in place a vocabulary for dealing with such contingencies, though, as dissent grows and the authoritarian state hardens, the knives are sharpened and the vocabulary fattened.

One element of this vocabulary of the suppression of dissent is to condemn the “fear psychosis” allegedly being created by anti-social elements, rumor mongers, and the “opposition”.  But the key elementary step is that protestors must at once be branded as “anti-social”:  this has been a feature of the Indian political landscape for decades, indeed dates back even to the colonial period, and the BJP gets no credit for inventing the term.  However, with the spectacular rise to power of the BJP with the electoral victory of 2014, the term “anti-national” was added and quickly came into vogue, becoming the favorite of the internet trolls who constitute a large unpaid cyber military force for the BJP.  Lately, “anti-national” has been embellished with the notion of the “urban naxal”, the supposed city-bred intellectual who sympathizes with Pakistanis, terrorists, and Maoists and is cut off from “real Indians”, but cleverly poses as a social worker, human rights activist, or liberal intellectual.  Now that the protests have spread to other universities and beyond, the Prime Minister not surprisingly had to fall back on this vocabulary, and at his Jharkhand rally held “urban naxals” responsible for the violence.

There can be no doubt, of course, that “the opposition” has something to gain from the current protests. No one has said that the Congress or the other parties which belong to that ragtag group called the “opposition” are models of anything remotely resembling innocence.  Similarly, one must condemn the violence and the destruction of public property. But none of this should obscure some fundamental issues that have come to the fore in the present demonstrations.  First, though many of the protestors have wholly legitimate differences with the government over the Citizenship Amendment Act, the issue now goes beyond the CAA and also has to do with the very right to voice dissenting opinions.  The demonstrations, taken as a whole, have been largely peaceful; the police resort to violence has been wholly disproportionate.

Secondly, it is absurd to suggest that the protests have all been instigated by “the opposition” or “outsiders”.  This supposes that ordinary people who are troubled by unjust laws, rank discrimination, police brutality, brute state force, or other exhibitions of inequality or the relegation of some people to second-class citizenship or worse are incapable of acting on their volition.  The absolutely deplorable idea of attributing all dissent to “outsiders” or “instigators” is the gravest insult to people’s own autonomy and sense of justice, and it suggests the deep-seated fear of dissent among the country’s present set of rulers.

Thirdly, in everything that has been done by the present government, Indians are being reminded that the country has a new set of colonial masters.  Once upon a time, a highly placed functionary of the state condemned the protests organized by people against an unjust act as “puerile demonstrations”, indicative of “how easily the ignorant and credulous people, not one in a thousand of whom knows anything of the measure, can be misled.”  The agitators, he warned, “have a day of reckoning in store for them.” These words could easily have been spoken by our Prime Minister; certainly the substance of them is found in nearly all his pronouncements upon dissenters.  But the words belong to the Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab, Michael O’Dwyer, who days later, one hundred years ago, would approve of the massacre committed by General Dyer at the Jallianwala Bagh.  Political dissenters in India must be forewarned of the “day of reckoning [that] is in store for them” under the present political dispensation.

[First published under the same title at, here.]

[Translated into Hindi as नागरिकता संशोधन कानून के विरोध में उठती आवाज और पुलिसिया कार्रवाई, available by clicking here.]


24 thoughts on “The Fear of Dissent:  India’s New Colonial Masters

  1. SHOOT AT SIGHT! we will. They are destroying the people’s property. We use them everyday for our travel to earn our bread and butter.


    • The students who have been taking part in the demonstrations also use trains and public transportation, and many of them come from working class families who also know something about earning their bread and butter. Violence should be condemned and I do that very clearly. But if you believe in “shoot at sight” orders at the slightest outbreak of violence, Sitaram Mani, then you should go and live in a totalitarian state. I am equally amazed at your “we will” which follows the “SHOOT AT SIGHT!”, which of course would suggest to every reader that you not only identify with the state, but you think of yourself as the state. Those who believe in naked power betray themselves at every turn.


  2. The fact that predominantly Hindu universities were not met with this kind of force when there were protests there (such as in JNU) indicates the special kind of animus that is reserved for Muslims. No matter the hostility towards JNU it would be hard to imagine the police barging into the hostels and the library there to beat up students and shoot teargas.


  3. Even now we see these people shouting slogans against Hinduism! Self hating Hindus too are saying “Hindutva is inextricably linked with Hinduism. If you don’t admit this, you haven’t understood the religious, political and social history of this subcontinent or worse, you are defenders of the same.” How can they expect people to come to support them when they are acting in such shameless manner about their hatred of Hindus and Hinduism! We will defend our faith! Anti-Hindu people must be rooted out!


    • Who are “these people shouting slogans against Hinduism”? Who in the demonstrations were shouting slogans against Hinduism? Don’t make up things along the way, my friend. Why are you bringing in so-called self-hating Hindus? Where do they come into the picture in the demonstrations against CAB/CAA/NRC and what in my article that you are supposedly responding to instigated such a knee-jerk response from you? Did you just pick up the bit about self-hating Hindus from reading about self-hating Jews? Think before you write. Do not think that you alone speak for Hindus.


      • The reason why Hindus are always enslaved is that there are too many “modern” Hindus who hate their own faith! There is more hatred against Hinduism on the Internet than any other religion. My response is because you are defending all the protestors when many of them have hateful views! I do not condemn all the protestors but I do not support all of them either!


      • Your claim about there being “more hatred against Hinduism on the internet than any other religion” is absurd and patently false. As a Hindu who studies religion and the internet, I can tell you that the hatred against Islam on the internet is far more prolific. I don’t see any real “hatred against Hinduism” on the internet to begin with, though doubtless there are some virulent critics of Hinduism as there are of any other religion. But this is all besides the point, since we are not out to win a competition about which religion is hated more than others. You haven’t demonstrated that the protestors in this agitation were expressing hateful views about Hinduism. Besides all this, loving your religion does not require you to hate adherents of other religions. It appears to me that you don’t understand the present protests.


    • How astonishing! When reason fails, just say anything, no matter how absurd or stupid. I’ll let your comment stand so that readers can decide for themselves what kind of person you are.


      • Dr. Lal, I had to (out of painful curiosity) establish this connection you might have had to Eicher Motors (not that that would in any way discredit your remarkably eloquent critiques that I have been following for the last few years as a graduate student)
        I admire your ability to resist even making the effort to disprove his slanderous comment and his ill-informed confusion of you for (also, it took me just 2 seconds to find this guy for fact-checking- but as you put it better “you can take the horse to the water but you can’t make it drink”).
        I just want to thank you for creating such a space for public discourse from which students like me, incredibly affected by disinformation and hateful trolls in our nascent academic careers, can learn the conviction required for resistance.


      • Thanks, Veena. There isn’t any point usually in debating trolls; one also ends up descending to their level. I have to conserve my energy for other battles. Also, there are some “painful” things that have to be said, as will become apparent when we come to Ambedkar’s views on Islam, but I do not construe my work as an effort to win or keep friends but rather to state things as I see them, while always taking the measure of things. Your kind words are much appreciated.


  4. Prof Lal, even the mainstream American media seem to echo your thinking and your concerns.
    Here are excerpts from the NYT editorial, Dec 19, 2019:

    “The law, as India’s 200 million Muslims have correctly surmised, has nothing to do with helping migrants and everything to do with the campaign by Mr. Modi and his home minister, Amit Shah, to marginalize Muslims and turn India into a homeland for Hindus, who comprise about 80 percent of the population of 1.3 billion.
    The citizenship bill was the first action that linked religion to citizenship, undermining a fundamental tenet of India’s democracy.
    Mr. Modi’s hold on power remains firm, but the protests at home and abroad have demonstrated limits to how far Indians will allow him to go in pursuit of his Hindu-nationalist agenda. The citizenship bill might still be blocked in the Indian Supreme Court, which begins hearings on it in January. But if it is not, all democratic nations need to speak out against a law, and a national policy, that is patently discriminatory and a threat to India’s democracy.”


    • My views are not identical to those espoused by the New York Times in this matter, though there is certainly much overlap. I haven’t aired my views fully as that would require a much greater scholarly exposition than what is possible in blog essays. There is, to take one instance, a long history of the imposition of Bengali culture upon Assam, beginning shortly after the absorption of the Ahom Kingdom into British India in 1826. The reason for the unrest in Assam is not quite the same as the reason for the unrest in Aligarh or Lucknow. And so on. There is, needless to say, an agenda that would take India from being a “secular state”–and one may debate what this means–to being a Hindu Rashtra, but there are many other issues lurking behind this agenda, such as an anxiety about who is a Hindu, and similarly an anxiety about Hinduism being dwarfed by Islam. The NRC and NPR are all part of the psychology of demography, too.


  5. India is not only now under colonial rulers it has been for some time. India has already committed a genocide. The 1980’s-1990’s Sikh genocide was not that long ago and India still refuses to acknowledge that. In 1983 genocide against Bengali Muslims. in 1992, genocide against Muslims all over India and 2002, the genocide against Gujarati Muslims. In 2008, genocide against Christians in Odisha. Under Congress too it was all a sham. The fact is India has never escaped from colonial rule and has committed various atrocities against different groups with a terrifying timeliness. Besides the elections once every five years, our laws, our government, our judiciary, everything, is built for a colony not a free country: there was never a revolution, simply the changing of hands between British elites to Indian elites while the tyranny of Capital continues.


    • I haven’t argued that Congress rule was not a “sham” in its own way. But massive generalizations of the sort that you have put on offer will not permit any real debate at all, because we might as well ask why we had a freedom struggle at all, and then from there simply go the next step and say that, considering the state of the country, we might as well be governed by the British. Why people might tolerate oppression from their own countrymen but not from foreign rulers is something worth talking about, but saying that everything is a “sham” will not get us anywhere at all.


      • I agree that my comment was perhaps overly flippant but I believe my main point, that returning to the “normalcy” of Congress Party rule, is insufficient. The Congress has itself taken on a communal character at times, the Sikh pogrom is only the best known example. They have engaged in unspeakable violence as well. I am not in any way for the BJP, I simply do not understand how Indians of a certain Gandhian sensibility feel that something entirely new has occurred with the BJP rule. They are simply more blatant about this stuff while the Congress was two-faced. We need a people’s movement for revolutionary change: as I had indicated the structures of governmentality in “independent” India are entirely inherited from the British Raj.


      • I have no disagreement with your critique of the Congress and the communalist policies it embraced at various times. The Congress instrumentalized religion–think of the Shah Bano case, creating the Frankenstein monster called Bindranwale, etc. However, it is not simply a matter of the BJP being more blatant and brazen than the Janus-faced Congress. I wish it were that simple. The Congress was still animated, for reasons of all kinds, by the ideas that had gone into the freedom struggle. That is all finished; the present set of politicians in the BJP absolutely loathe Gandhi. Their idea of politics is simply real-politik. But I do agree with your sentiment about the need for real change which would have to come from the bottom, and similarly it is an unfortunate fact that our institutions and practices are from the colonial era. Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code which prohibits assembly of more than four people is a striking example.


  6. Fine then, as a professor then perhaps you will see the academic argument. It is final exam season: would you not want your own students to be studying rather than out of the streets protesting right before exams?


    • If everyone had just been taking their exams, we wouldn’t have had a freedom struggle in India. Do you know how many students walked out of colleges during the noncooperation movement of 1920-22? In fact, the “exam culture” is another deep-seated problem: it is another mechanical way of cheapening education and learning.


  7. It is good to see that people have come out in force to oppose this. Ultimately what the NRC does is give the government the right to revoke peoples’ citizenship and those who would face the most issues are the poor and illiterate who likely have not been keeping track of all the documentation that would be required to prove their citizenship. This is one reason why it’s very important to be skeptical of those who do not oppose both the NRC and the CAA but only one, such as the Assamese nationalists. There have been a number of people uncritically supporting the Assam protests without recognizing that one’s enemy’s enemy is sometimes also an enemy. Your observation that the Modi government is acting as a colonial force is also very important, particularly as they invoke colonial era legal provisions against public gatherings and sedition.


    • I do intend to write about the difficulties that I have with supporting some of the supporters in Assam. The Assam-Bengal issue, as I pointed out in a comment in response to someone else, has a long complicated history. There is plenty of chauvinism to go around here, but I think you know that.


      • There really is so much happening at once it’s hard to keep track of everything. In the midst of all of this I hope we don’t forget about Kashmir which remains under a lockdown with no internet. Before we are done processing one outrage the Modi sarkar gives us another one.


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