One of the contributions of the 20 days of sit-in at Jamia’s Shaheen Bagh may well result in a large-scale revival of Habib Jalib’s “Dastur”, or custom, as the voice of India’s youth.
“Phool shakhon pe khilne lage, tum kaho,
Jaam rindon ko milne lage, tum kaho,
Zakhm seenon ke silne lage, tum kaho,
Is khule jhoot ko, zehn ki loot ko,
Maen naheen manta, maen naheen manta”
(Proclaim, they insist, that flowers are blossoming everywhere
Proclaim, all glasses are full
All wounds have healed
These are outrageous lies
With which they vandalise our minds.
We shall not accept these falsehoods,
The mood was tinged with the kind of self-assurance which can be easily mistaken for rebellious fervour in which the New Year was wrung in by the Jamia Millia Islamia students, neighbours and youth from other colleges. There were magical moments when poetry mingled with music. Since the December 13 and 15, the police high-handedness (watched by the nation on TV) against peaceful protests demanding withdrawal of the Citizenship Amendment Act, the demonstrations had settled down in an unbroken vigil interspersed with a series of cultural programmes reminiscent of Indian Peoples’ Theatre of the 1960s and 1970s.
Yes, the atmosphere was electric. A settlement may well be taking place somewhere near the base because one is hearing stories of students arguing with conservative parents before trooping out to join a hostel here, a college there, to merge in the nationwide protests. These are “ostensibly” against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). “Ostensibly”, because a mass upsurge does not possess the precise comprehension of a complicated issue nor its geometric lines. It proceeds on the basis of an intuitive grasp of a larger reality — something evil is afoot. What is at question is something as basic as citizenship and ownership of whatever little they possess. From Jamia, the protests have spread out to campuses across the nation. In a nation where 65 per cent of the population is under 35, this could be unsettling.
The mood at Jamia, however, is at a sharp variance from the bleak reports coming out from UP. Are the unspeakable brutalities of the UP police some sort of rearguard action on the government’s part to protect the key bastion? All fangs bared, psychologists will tell you, is a sign of fright.
The police barging into Muslim mohallas, terrorising the elderly and women, picking up the youth (not always without an eye on ransom money), in brief, inviting “skull caps and beards” onto the street to provide visuals for a gleefully complicit media. But focus on the partisan media must not obscure the oases of courageous, balanced journalism with the likes of Ravish Kumar of Hindi NDTV in the lead.
It was bad enough that the protests erupted with the suddenness of revelation, what is worse for the government is the fact that they have taken place against the backdrop of electoral decline — reverses in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, a narrow shave in Haryana.
Even though the Supreme Court gifted a judgment to the BJP affiliates enabling them to build a Ram Temple in Ayodhya, the political consequences of this outcome are negative for the party. Communal polarisation burgeoned when the temple was an issue, with Muslims pitted on the other side. For the faithful, a temple exactly on the spot where Ram was born is a matter of supreme satisfaction. But by the same token the politician has lost an issue — the goose that laid the saffron egg is dead.
This may have been an additional reason why the citizenship issue was urgently required to keep up the communal temperature. But a great miscalculation attends this move. Ram Janmabhoomi had been an issue since the 19th century, given a boost by the idols being placed inside Babri Masjid in 1948. The “Shila” processions in 1989, the carrying of bricks consecrated in thousands of village temples all the way to Ayodhya was a marketing strategy that would leave Madison Avenue gasping. Even more spectacular was L.K. Advani’s Rath Yatra, carrying a replica of Ram’s carriage from Somnath to Ayodhya, generating sufficient saffron to boost the BJP from a mere two seats in 1984 to power under Atal Behari Vajpayee in a little over a decade.
Narendra Modi had this advantage. Further, there was the tailwind of post 9/11 global Islamophobia to which Mr Modi added his own “Mian Musharraf” rhetoric (grinding his teeth) in the Gujarat elections and the sky-high communalisation after the 2002 Gujarat pogrom.
The citizenship issue, though loaded with communal intent, has resonated quite differently with the youth — of all denominations. The citizenship issue terrifies the Muslim but the image of petrified Muslims has, contrary to Hindutva expectations, touched a soft Hindu chord. Women, with students in the vanguard, in occupation of spaces of progressive politics is a heart-warming trend.
How New Delhi proposes to firm up the Citizenship Register in Assam without upsetting the warm relations with Dhaka is something of a puzzle. Does the lack of anxiety on Sheikh Hasina’s brow indicate back channel assurances? Will Muslim distress across the border not provide a handle to the Opposition in Bangladesh? The authors of the CAA and NRC probably had two simultaneous ends in mind — keep the people distracted from their abysmal economic lot and focused mindlessly on Hindu consolidation.
The expanding protests have given heart to various groups. The traditional metropolitan elite, distanced from power with the consolidation of the Modi-Shah duet, has already pulled out its calculators, working out the electoral mathematics for the future. The habitual quest for “connections” causes them to dream dreams of an implausible two-party system. The emerging reality is much more federal. Delusory dreams are in any case premature because the BJP is not disappearing in a hurry. If the party ever has its back against the wall, there is still that willingness to surpass Balakot by yards.