‘Not though the soldier knew’

Jawed Naqvi | Published: 00:00, Mar 11,2020 | Updated: 00:14, Mar 11,2020


In this photo taken on January 6, protesters listen to a speaker during a sit-in protest in Shaheen Bagh area that has been blocked off by demonstrators to protest against India’s new citizenship law, near the Jamia Millia Islamia university in New Delhi. — Agence France-Presse/Prakash Singh

THE greater the sharpening assault by the delinquent state, the starker is the muddle and the helplessness of the opposition. Models and methods for the state’s visceral hatred of India’s democracy and even more of its secular promise are widespread.

It’s a given that Hindutva borrows much from European fascism, but it has also picked off useful lessons from the slow-motion ethnic cleansing with machetes in Rwanda. From the neighbourhood, the harnessing of the urban lumpen youth to violently pursue the opposition and journalists is possibly lifted from the late Sri Lankan president Premadasa’s appeal to the underclass to lynch rivals. The method of killing with burning tyres comes from America’s white supremacists, and it was successfully employed to murder countless Sikh civilians in Delhi in 1984. Hindutva has gained enormously from and continues to have much in common with the religious bigotry spawned in Ziaul Haq’s Pakistan.

Prime minister Modi’s wilful regime is often compared to Indira Gandhi’s emergency. However, there’s a big difference. Most of the leaders opposed to Indira Gandhi were in jail during the 19 months of her dictatorship and were thus helpless. This cannot be said of the current lot, barring perhaps Lalu Yadav, and, of course, the Kashmiri politicians.

There’s a bigger difference with 1975 — the stubbornly brave women of Shaheen Bagh and those they have inspired across the country were missing from among Gandhi’s adversaries. What remains of the critical media today also is braver and more vocal in its defiance of the errant state. It has suffered the consequences, naturally, which include being battered and abused on the streets by state-backed mobs apart from being officially reviled. On both valiant fronts Ibne Insha’s lines seem to describe the reality. ‘Haq achcha, per haq ke liye koi aur marey to aur achcha.’ (The quest for truth is laudable, but better still if someone else dies for the lofty cause.)

Let’s see why. It was International Women’s Day recently and true to form glowing tributes gushed forth for the Shaheen Bagh women. They had taken to the streets in December and have not budged against Modi’s communally inspired citizenship law. Without any evident strategy or clarity about the next steps though, and with the political opposition in disarray it may add up to enormous quantities of raw energy burning out wastefully.

If the protesting women really commanded the respect of the political opposition, which they should but don’t always seem to do, their voices ought to be heeded at least by their purported allies. It might become counterproductive for the protesters to continue their fight with little or no prospect of opposition unity, which alone can tame the Modi government in the political arena. That’s also the only way to end the stalemate on the citizenship law.

Critical state elections are nigh, beginning with Bihar later this year. It is not difficult to see that the Modi government would not yield an inch, not now, not until at least the West Bengal elections are settled next year. West Bengal with its high Muslim presence is the coveted Holy Grail for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Preparations began with the brutal assault on Muslims in the working-class districts of north-eastern Delhi last month. In the absence of any prospect of relief from the economic mess the government finds itself in, it would need to lean more stridently on what it believes to be its winning option — fomenting polarising violence.

Elections in Delhi showed the strategy was not foolproof. But look carefully. The Gujarat pogrom of 2002 was the outcome of a similar defeat for the RSS on February 25 that year in Uttar Pradesh. The angry Hindu volunteers were returning from Ayodhya where they tried to unsuccessfully influence the elections. The train tragedy of February 27 hit the travellers from Ayodhya. It came on the heels of electoral defeat in Gujarat, albeit in corporation elections in which Ehsan Jaffri had canvassed hard. The Bharatiya Janata Party sensed defeat at the hands of the Congress in the assembly elections. The rest is history.

Should the Gujarat model fail to win Bihar and other state elections, after its failure in Delhi, there would be reprisals, of that there’s little doubt. The gloves are off, and the brazenness of it all is stunning. A high court judge was summarily transferred after he dared to order the Delhi Police to file FIRs against BJP leaders who were publicly spewing hatred against Muslims. The rabid man who triggered the violence was accorded the honour of being interviewed for the RSS mouthpiece Organiser in which he absolved himself of any wrongdoing.

Journalists were barred from visiting the charred remains of the scene of the crime in which over 50 were killed by rampaging mobs as the police sided with the killers. Two TV channels that reported this were slammed with punitive shutdowns. Those who dared to cover the violence faced worse. Their phones were seized and cameras broken. One was shot, others were beaten and some had to prove they were Hindus in ways that would make Manto squirm.

Prabhir Vishnu Poruthiyil captured the essence of the bizarre turn of events. ‘Briefly trapped by the norms of decency and forced to respect the rule of law, the regime has slithered out by unleashing propaganda, accusing the victims and rights activists of being equally responsible for both hate speech and violence, an audacious move that has caught everyone off guard,’ Poruthiyil wrote in The Wire portal.

With opposition parties jostling against each other in Bengal, Bihar and elsewhere, the heroic women of Shaheen Bagh face an uncertain future. Alfred Tennyson described the men who rode to their imminent disaster. He might have meant the women of Shaheen Bagh.

‘Forward, the Light Brigade! | Was there a man dismayed? | Not though the soldier knew/ Someone had blundered.’


Dawn.com, March 10. Jawed Naqvi is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

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