Mobs and rulers masquerading as leaders cannot be allowed to dismantle a marvellously democratic experiment.
IT CAN be safely presumed that an American president was invited to our shores because we wanted him to see for himself our ‘new India’. And, it can also be asserted with confidence that the India the visitor from Washington ended up seeing was an old India, drenched in medieval animosities and passions. And, if it is to be assumed, as is being suggested by the ruling party’s apologists, that a ‘conspiracy’ was afoot to mar the Donald Trump visit then we are staring at a terrible failure of all our institutional arrangements and of our rulers’ pretentious assertions. This failure has been in the making for some time now, and can get only aggravated because our cunning political saviours remain indifferent to their obligation to strive for healing and harmony in society.
Delegitimising a movement
THE rough and ready violence, witnessed in Delhi these last few days, had almost become a certainty because with each passing day it was becoming imperative to de-legitimise Shaheen Bagh and the resistance it came to symbolise against a flawed and discriminatory law like the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or CAA, 2019. For over two months, the entire nation has seen images of Muslim women, old and young, staying put, peacefully, braving Delhi’s winter, refusing to get provoked by threats or temptations.
Shaheen Bagh also saw Muslims innovatively using ‘national’ symbols — the constitution, the flag and the anthem — to assert their rights as citizens and as a religious minority. Soon ‘Shaheen Bagh’ became a secular project, even though the ‘boots’ were provided mostly by the Muslim community. A new civic imagination was at work, and, what was more, ‘Shaheen Bagh’ also acquired a moral sheen and attracted global media attention. And, before the managers of ‘new India’ could catch their breath, Muslim women across the land were replicating ‘Shaheen Baghs’ in towns and cities. A new defiance was crawling its way to the centre of our political landscape. This was deeply galling to those who thought they had the dominant control over the street, the media and the national imagination.
The Shaheen Bagh experiment and its peacefulness became deeply frustrating for those who had conceptualised the new citizenship law as a clever project in political polarisation. Even more exasperating for these self-styled chankayas was a failure to cast Shaheen Bagh as a case of ‘Muslim uprising’. Shaheen Bagh became a perplexing affront to our new rulers who have come to believe that state repression can overcome any political dissent and democratic resistance. Shaheen Bagh, with all its imaginative invocation of republican values and secular chants, had become an ideological eye-sore to the impresarios of a ‘New India.’ Something had to give.
After the election rebuff
THE Bharatiya Janata Party leadership, overloaded with self-belief, saw an opportunity in the Delhi Assembly election. From the Union home minister downward, the BJP leaders, from all over India, were commandeered for election duty in Delhi where they worked themselves into frenzy, inciting violence and invoking ‘deshbhakti’. The voters were invited to send out a message to the Shaheen Bagh protesters. The BJP strategy was to convert the Delhi Assembly polls into a referendum on its politics of religious polarisation and the presumed popularity of its leaders. The Delhi voters denied, firmly and clearly, the BJP this endorsement. Undaunted by the humiliating defeat, the BJP leadership and its cheer-leaders refused to acknowledge the rebuff, and, instead, chose to take comfort from the party’s vote-share and applied itself once again to provoking the Shaheen Bagh constituency. What followed was BJP leader Kapil Mishra’s ultimatum to the Delhi Police to clear the roads of anti-CAA protesters in Jaffrabad.
Perhaps the BJP leadership had also shrewdly gauged the unhappiness in the traditional Muslim leadership with the Shaheen Bagh model — the women were in the forefront whereas the mullahs, the imams and maulvis had been pushed into the background. The Shaheen Bagh model is as much a challenge to familiar ‘community leaders’ as it was to the saffron extremists. The traditional Muslim leaders were losing control over their women and the ‘kaum’. The traditionalists were deeply disconcerted that the Supreme Court-appointed interlocutors were engaging with the women at Shaheen Bagh, and not with them.
Nor could the BJP leadership have been unaware that just a few miles across Shaheen Bagh in Yogi Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh the police force had been let loose on anti-CAA dissenters. Tales of excesses by the UP police against the Muslim community floated across the Yamuna, inducing doubts about the efficacy of a peaceful, silent Shaheen Bagh; but worse was the total absence of any institutional restraint on a vindictive regime in Lucknow. Neither the judiciary nor the political parties nor the media nor civil society was able to intervene effectively against a biased, rogue police force. There was anger — and, helplessness — in the Muslim ‘street’. The traditional hotheads knew that Muslim lumpens and under-classes were on a short fuse.
Two extremist factional impulses had a convergence: the coherence and solidarity of the Shaheen Bagh model and its secular promise had to be undermined; the constitution-waving crowd had to be dissolved into a mob. This convergence finally produced the explosion in Delhi over the weekend. The veterans of the 2002 Gujarat riots perhaps thought that they had a mastery over the art of choreographing street violence. The sly manipulators can take some comfort that finally the capital has witnessed a full-scale communal riot, first since the 1984 carnage against Sikhs; there must be considerable satisfaction in some quarters that we are back on the familiar Hindu-Muslim divide terrain, with an enticing prospect of a rich electoral dividend.
BUT this is also precisely the moment to remind ourselves that this ugly denouement was inevitable, given the Modi regime’s barely concealed commitment to dismantling the inclusive and pluralistic elements of the Nehruvian consensus. And, that is the challenge: are our constitutional institutions and instruments robust enough to roll back a ‘this-land-belongs-to-the Hindus-only’ politics? A deeply divided society may reward a few practitioners of conspicuous bigotry but it becomes the sacred duty of all our democratic arrangements to defeat a sectarian regime and its perverse policies and priorities.
The other day, a judge of the Supreme Court of India, Justice Deepak Gupta, came very close to identifying the crux of our — and our rulers’ — dilemma. ‘Rule of majority is an integral part of democracy but majoritarianism is an anti-thesis of democracy,’ argued Justice Gupta. The judge reiterated the basic principle: a political party could possibly come to power, winning 51 per cent of the popular vote, but that did not mean that the remaining 49 per cent were to remain dis-empowered for the next five years. This simple truism should be obvious to one and all, yet it took a Justice Gupta to remind us that the Constitution of India imposes an inescapable obligation on every single office — from the president of India to the prime minister down to the lowly police constable — to work for the welfare of all citizens.
It is this kind of clear-headedness that the Shaheen Bagh imagination had sought to re-kindle. The Shaheen Bagh protest is anchored in a hope and a belief that a democratic arrangement can find peaceful ways of addressing the grievances and anxieties of a minority. And, it would be an unmitigated tragedy for Indian democracy if the violence instigated in Delhi is used to delegitimise Shaheen Bagh’s democratic potential and promise.
TheHindu.com, February 28. Harish Khare is a senior journalist based in Delhi.
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