The participation of thousands — or is it tens of thousands? — of its residents in marches, sit-ins, and the making of human chains to protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, a series of emotion-filled actions sustained over a period of nearly two months (and still unflagging), has helped New Delhi reclaim its romanticism and fame packed in the old line “Dilli dil walon ki!”, which means that people of this city have a great heart.
In particular, Shaheen Bagh, a slum in a far corner of the city, is likely to be etched into the history of protest movements in modern India. It will be impossible for BJP-RSS censors to efface it since it is invested with public emotion on an unbelievable scale in the face of the State and its agents seeking to revile it through calumny day in and day out.
In recent decades, New Delhi — being a city in a near permanent state of transition — has had its composure disturbed. It has come to be regarded as a self-absorbed, callous, soulless place. But the spontaneous outpouring of its citizens on a sustained basis, for a task that is no less than the defence of the Constitution in the face of heavy-duty police repression, changes all that.
What’s remarkable is that those who came out to challenge the might of the State were mostly women (of all ages) and young people, chiefly students, who looked the kind that had never taken part in protesting in public — braving police batons and firing — before. The age of innocence has died for them, and God knows what kind of anger or frustration has been born in their young minds, and what politics this might presage.
There is, however, also another noteworthy aspect flowing from the recent dramatic events in Delhi (which have served as a model for the country). This too marks itself out for posterity. It will doubtless be remembered for long that the Government of India did not see it fit to engage with citizens who have already spent more than 50 days and nights out in the open in the harsh winter protesting its policy direction and law pertaining to something as basic as the definition and rules of citizenship.
This tells us something about the canon of governance adopted by those at the helm. In November 2018, lakhs of farmers had descended on New Delhi to apprise the Narendra Modi government of their condition in a time of farmers’ distress. The government gave them short shrift, making no effort to engage with them.
And yet, a few months later, the farmers of India backed Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a second term and gave him a splendid election result even as the country reeled under his misguided policies that had brought ordinary Indians to their knees.
Political common sense suggests this outcome flowed from creating a communal schism by depicting the country’s largest religious minority in lurid colours, culminating in the Balakot airstrike against Pakistan. Hatred and anger were mobilised against our western neighbour, which was made to stand in for the principal minority community. The signalling was crude but effective as it played on prejudice.
We are seeing the same strategy being repackaged in the campaign for the Assembly poll in New Delhi. Evidently, the party’s hopes are again pinned on exploiting a vicious polarisation. His time around, Shaheen Bagh, a Muslim locality, has been made a substitute for Pakistan. Addressing NCC cadets — young impressionable minds — two days after Republic Day (nothing is sacrosanct any more), the Prime Minister said India can make Pakistan bite the dust in no more than 10 days. Regardless of the realities of our geostrategic environment, this amounted to a proxy war or surgical strike against Shaheen Bagh and everything it stands for, not against any country.
When the PM leads the way, why blame communal motormouths like junior minister Anurag Thakur and a Delhi BJP MP for their shameful remarks (which the Election Commission has practically ignored), or even the Union home minister, who has said enough to cause national offence while campaigning in New Delhi? In the event, within a space of three days last week, two pistol-wielding Hindutva-crazed young men opened up with their guns — one at Shaheen Bagh and the other at Jamia Millia Islamia.
This is not the one-way dialogue the people of India, not just the protesters at the above locations, would have desired. But this is a signal to those who believe it is their right to protest peacefully. Nor is this only about the minority community, although they are an easy enough pitch to bat on. There was no protest on at JNU at the time, yet a Hindutva horde descended on it with clubs and rods because the idea of JNU, which has stood all these years for scrutiny and enquiry to advance knowledge creation, was anathema to it. At a fundamental level, it appears that those who question the government’s ways, or question the basic premise of its progenitor’s philosophy, may be at risk of being abused, demonised or attacked. Our democracy is indeed at a crossroads.
Has the State then been hijacked by irregular elements already? That may be too large a proposition to advance just yet. But we can see that the compact struck between the State and its citizens (or Gramsci’s “civil society”) at the time of the founding of the Indian Republic in 1950 has come under strain on account of the spread of an ideology whose essential postulates are antithetical to democracy.
Will the BJP win the Delhi state election on February 8 through the diffusion of a particularly aggressive strain of the communal virus? That is possible but does not appear probable as of now.
However, the party’s current stance does seem to be a careful preparation for the longer term — the next Parliament election. It is evidently important to have national power in the bag.
Pakistan is of course essential to this preparation; indeed, it is hard to imagine the existence of a BJP without it. If there were no Pakistan, one would have to be invented to give the BJP — and its theories on Partition (and Muslims) — traction. The PM urged NCC cadets to “read the right kind of books” by “unbiased historians” to learn the truth about Partition, but he did not offer a single reference. Obfuscation is needed in the game of name-calling to dominate what Gramsci called “the war of position”.