The Fear of Dissent:  India’s New Colonial Masters

CABProtestsAssam

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.

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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?

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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.

JamiaMillaIslamia

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 https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/cops-slammed-girls-and-boys-alike-my-brave-woman-friends-shielded-me-jamia-student-whose-assault-video-is-viral-1628720-2019-12-16

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.]

 

*The “Crawling Lane”:  A Colonial Atrocity and Extreme Humiliation

Part II of “The Many Meanings of Jallianwala Bagh”

The incident of the Crawling Lane is usually noted in passing, often as a footnote to the ‘greater’ atrocity of the Jallianwala Bagh.  Some accounts of the massacre at the Bagh altogether omit any mention of what transpired on the Kucha Kaurianwala, a street that enters the historical record as the “Crawling Lane”. But it forms more than an unusual and especially revolting chapter in the annals of colonial atrocities, offering vivid insight into how humiliation features as a motive force in history.

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Soldiers of the 25th Country of London Cyclist Batallion enforcing the ‘Crawling Order’: a contemporary photograph by an unidentified photographer.

Consequent to the arrest of Dr. Satyapal and Dr. Kitchlew on April 11, the crowds that had gathered together to voice their opposition to their arrest took matters into their own hands. That same day, Miss Marcella Sherwood, a Church of England missionary and a resident of Amritsar for over fifteen years, was unable to escape the wrath of the crowd.  As she was bicycling down the Kucha Kaurianwala, she was set upon by a crowd that knocked her down from her bicycle, and then delivered blows to her head with sticks.  Miss Sherwood rose to her feet, and had just started to run when she was again brought down by the force of the blows that struck her. On the subsequent attempt she reached a house but the door was slammed shut in her face.  She was again beaten and left on the street in a critical condition. The crowd then dispersed. Miss Sherwood was soon thereafter rescued:  an Indian doctor attended to her at Govindgarh fort, where European women and children were gathered together, and eventually Miss Sherwood was put on board a ship sailing for England.

For the next two days the city of Amritsar was quiet, but to the British it appeared that cry of revolution was resounding in other parts of the Punjab.  The massacre at the Jallianwala Bagh took place on April 13:  General Dyer had sought to create a ‘wide moral impression’ and cower the entire city into abject submission. Nevertheless, keeping in mind the staggering loss of lives, it is germane that many Indian nationalists such as Gandhi saw in the events following in the wake of the massacre yet a greater national humiliation.  On April 19, Dyer promulgated the so-called ‘crawling order’, which remained in effect until its revocation a week later.  A flogging booth was placed in the middle of the lane where Miss Sherwood fell, and both ends of the street—some 200 yards long—were manned by soldiers, who were entrusted with the task of enforcing the order that any Indian, the streets’ residents not excepted, who traversed it did so, to use the language employed by Dyer, ‘on all fours’.  Jawaharlal Nehru attempted to set straight the record, in a letter to the editor of The Bombay Chronicle that appeared on 6 October 1919, and after Gandhi had written on the “hands and knees” order, on what exactly constituted the ‘crawling order’: “The evidence of respectable citizens of Amritsar shows that people were made to crawl not on their hands and knees but on their bellies after the manner of snakes and worms.” Any infraction of the order was punished immediately with a number of lashes administered at the flogging post.  It is thought that around fifty people were compelled to undergo the indignity of crawling on their bellies.

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A public flogging in Amritsar, 1919.

“It seemed intolerable to me”, Dyer was later to write, “that some suitable punishment could not be meted out.  Civil law was at an end and I searched my brain for some military punishment to meet the case.” Testifying later before the official committee that began its deliberations on the Punjab disturbances more than six months after the incidents in question, Dyer stated that he “also wanted to keep the street what I call sacred.”  His primary motivation was to punish “the wicked”, and though he could have chosen any number of ways to implement his resolve, he “also” wanted to render the street “sacred”. But what could Dyer have meant in declaring his resolve to keep the street sacred?  And by what reasoning did he seek to uphold the idea of the sacred through the infliction of the gravest form of humiliation upon others?  Dyer claimed that he had fired at the Jallianwala Bagh to save lives: if the way to save lives is to kill people, then surely it is not inconceivable that the way to the sacred is through the treacherous path of the profane. Dyer’s action in keeping the street where Miss Sherwood was assaulted “sacred” cannot be reduced to an inversion characteristic of colonial discourse.

The Government of the Punjab, in its own report, depicts the assault on Miss Sherwood as the most dastardly act imaginable.  The crowd that pursued Miss Sherwood is said in the report to have raised cries of “Kill her, she is English.”  “The witnesses who are particularly good and have been entirely unshaken in cross-examination”, states the report, “prove that towards the end of the chase she was seized by Ahmad Din, who seized her dress and threw her down.  His brother, Jilla, pulled off her hat.”  Her assailants, let it be noted, are named as Muslims; her rescuers would be descried as “Hindus”:  perhaps another attempt, I am tempted to think, to sow division among Indians. Another man “caught her by her hair” and then struck her on the head with one of his shoes.  Here, quite unmistakably, one detects the spectre of the Rebellion of 1857-58: nothing had outraged English sentiments more than the assault on Englishwomen, though an inquiry initiated at the behest of the Viceroy, Lord Canning, in the aftermath of the Rebellion had established that no Englishwoman was subjected to sexual assault. Miss Sherwood was certainly at the mercy of her assaulters, and if nothing was more inaccessible to the Indian male than a white woman, here was a rare opportunity to make good that deficiency.  In the event, the “savage mob which had been shouting ‘Victory to Gandhi’ [and] ‘Victory to Kitchlew’ raised the cry ‘she is dead” and moved on. Then, several days later, Dyer inspected the spot where she “ultimately fell”, and ordered a “triangle”, or whipping post, to be set up at that spot.  Two British pickets were also posted, one at either end of the street, “with orders to allow no Indians to pass, [and] that if they had to pass they must go through on all fours.” In the more graphic language of the Congress Committee, “the process consisted in the persons laying flat on their bellies and crawling exactly like reptiles.”

To see what may have been running through his mind, and to surmise at the moral and political framework upon which Dyer was undoubtedly relying, we must turn to his letter of 25th August 1919 to his superiors, his letter of 3rd July 1920 to the War Office, his testimony before the Hunter Committee, and the findings of both the Hunter and Congress committees.  “A helpless woman had been mercilessly beaten,” wrote Dyer,  “in a most cruel manner, by a lot of dastardly cowards.”  She was beaten with “sticks and shoes” and knocked down several times.  “To be beaten with shoes”, Dyer wrote in his report of August 25th, “is considered by Indians to be the greatest insult”, and he admitted that it seemed “intolerable to [him] that some suitable punishment could not be meted out.” Dyer says, “I searched my brain for some military punishment to meet the case”, and suddenly he had this ‘brain-wave’. What could be more “suitable” than to make them crawl?  What could be more ‘natural’ than that for a human being, or at least a human being born and bred in an Oriental country?  Let us hear Dyer in his own words, and allow him that hearing that he, who fired upon a crowd without so much as issuing a warning, constantly complained of not receiving:

The order meant that the street should be regarded as holy ground,

and that, to mark this fact, no one was to traverse it except in a

manner in which a place of special sanctity might naturally in the

East be traversed.  My object was not merely to impress the

inhabitants, but to appeal to their moral sense in a way which I

knew they would understand.  It is a small point, but in fact

‘crawling order’ is a misnomer; the order was to go down on all

fours in an attitude well understood by natives of India in relation

to holy places.

To add to Dyer’s formal explanation of his order, we must consider also his evidence before the Hunter Committee.  “We look upon women as sacred or ought to”, he explained, and since the sacred had been rendered profane, the act of desecration would have to be undone.  Some readers of E. M. Forster’s novel, A Passage to India (1924), may recall Mrs. Turton’s initial resolve to rally Englishwomen to the support of Miss Adela Quested, a younger English lady just arrived in India who imagines that she has been the victim of an Indian male’s irrepressible sexual lust:  Indian men, she states, “ought to crawl from here to the caves on their hands and knees whenever an Englishwoman’s in sight, they oughtn’t to be spoken to, they ought to be spat at, they ought to be ground into the dust . . .”  But let us return to our narrative: The profane, Dyer gives it has opinion, would have to be retransformed into the sacred:  “I also wanted to keep the street what I call sacred.  Therefore I did not want anybody to pass through it.” Woman, because she is sacred, evokes reverence and requires worship; reverence demands obeisance, the forms of which may vary from culture to culture; and since in the East “a place of special sanctity” is “naturally” traversed by going on all fours, on bended knees, or by crawling like a reptile, why not have the natives enact this transaction on ground recently consecrated as “sacred”, ground ‘holy’ by virtue of its association with a ‘holy’ person?

Miss Sherwood, an unmarried English woman, serving as a missionary and nurse, certainly did not represent motherhood, the citadel of sanctity, and to this extent she was no beacon of light showing women the way to a good, productive, and bountiful life; but she did stand for chastity, that other great ideal cherished by the Britisher as an ornament to womanhood, an ideal which particularly in a hot country of dangerous female sexuality stood to glorify the virtues of the European woman.   Here was a woman who, motivated only by the purest intentions, a servant to the ethic of tender caring, had devoted herself to the care and uplift of Indians.  And how did these ungrateful wretches reward her, except to shower her with beatings from shoes and sticks?  Imagining Miss Sherwood as a Virgin Mary or a Florence Nightingale, Dyer erected a monument to her chastity, and did so at the spot where she “ultimately fell”. Miss Sherwood survived her attack, but Dyer had already imagined her dead—thus we hear of the spot where she “ultimately fell” not just “fell”—and indeed her ‘martyrdom’ would have served him even better.

If we may speak of the architecture of holy spaces, then it is possible to speak of the “sacred street” as a Hindu temple, the whipping post as the sanctum sanctorum.  Before the deity the worshipper must grovel, reduce himself to zero, punish himself for his sins and excesses, make himself feel contemptible.  This is not the Hindu temple we know, but that is altogether beside the point, for we have only to think of the temple which Dyer had constructed in his “brain”, which as he says “at that time had a lot to do.” Dyer stated that “in fact ‘crawling order’ is a misnomer; the order was to go on all fours in an attitude well understood by natives of India in relation to holy places.”  Here is not one claim, but several:  what Dyer is enumerating in respect of the terms of the order is really a fact, as contrasted to opinion, and therefore beyond dispute; secondly, whatever his critics may say, the natives understand him; thirdly, the natives at least would recognize the space he had consecrated as “holy ground; and, finally, the natives were only being asked to assume an “attitude” with which they were familiar, the familiar here being construed moreover as inoffensive.

The contention that both by nature and by custom the natives are used to such an attitude is particularly worth exploring.  Dyer argued that the street was not to be traversed “except in a manner in which a place of special sanctity might naturally in the East be traversed.”  But why “naturally”—because by nature the Orientals assume an attitude of reverence and obsequiousness in a place of “special sanctity”, or because custom and habit have made the assumption of such an attitude natural?  It is quite likely that Dyer intended both the readings, but what is equally remarkable about both is Dyer assumption’s that he can penetrate the native mind, and even tell the native that he must live up to his nature and customs.  Habituated since time immemorial to despotic rule, the native accepts as “natural” a great many patterns of conduct entailing obsequiousness, loss of dignity, humiliation, indeed the effacement of self—conduct that no Englishman would tolerate.  ‘Civilized’ conduct was thus an affront to the native:  it contradicted his modes of thought and behavior, reversed the ‘natural’ order to which he was accustomed, and held out the threat of creating within him a turmoil from which he could seek no escape.

(to be concluded)

For Part I, click here.

For Part III, click here.

This essay is extracted, with minor modifications, from the author’s long article, “The Incident of the Crawling Lane:  Women in the Punjab Disturbances of 1919”, Genders 16 (Spring 1993), 35-60, which can be accessed from the author’s MANAS site.  Click here for the article (not a PDF version, however).