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