The new year greets us with the murderous rampage by the Hindutva brigade in the JNU campus against students and teachers who have been protesting against the authoritarian policies and acts of the BJP regime. The practice of assaults and lynching against Muslims and Dalits in the public space since Narendra Modi’s coming to power, was extended to students of Jamia Millia in Delhi and Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh, at the end of last year, that was carried out by the police force, which invaded the campus and roughed up the students there. The contest between democratic protests by civil society and the public on the one hand, and their violent suppression by the present state administration and its political agents (the VHP and ABVP goons) on the other, will continue as a legacy from the preceding year.
The last year was marked by unpredictable developments that indicate the mercurial nature of the Indian public mind. Despite the travails suffered by them because of demonetization and GST, mounting farm distress and unemployment, about 40% of the electorate (more than 30+% registered in the 2014 Lok Sabha poll) voted back Modi to power in the 2019 Lok Sabha poll. Yet, within a few months at the end of the year, we found mass upsurges taking place against measures like the CAA (Citizens Amendment Act) and the NCR (National Citizens Registrar) – laws that do not threaten them economically (which demonetization, GST and agricultural crisis did), but challenge their constitutional rights. Explaining the renewed mandate won by the BJP in the last parliamentary election, some observers attributed it to the hype of militarist nationalism against Pakistani threat that Modi was able to whip up during the electoral campaign (citing Uri and Balakot). We were also told that the Indian youth, invigorated by Modi’s promises to meet their aspirations, voted for him.
Yet, the same youth – the students among others of their generation – are today sparking off a mass agitation all over India against Modi government’s controversial measures. Following this outburst, the usually arrogant Modi has now been compelled to recognize the challenge of the youth by trying to woo them back to his fold through his December 29, 2019 speech, where he lauds them for being “extremely talented” and getting “restless if the system does not respond properly” – without acknowledging that he himself is responsible for running the system that does not respond. In a further attempt to persuade them away from street agitations, Modi suggested that the youth preferred to “follow the system” and “detested anarchy.” In his speech he never addressed the main problems faced by the youth – curtailment of students’ rights within the universities and wide-spread unemployment outside – which is driving them towards public outbursts, which Modi describes as “detested anarchy.”
Apart from the youth, vast sections of the population came out in peaceful protests against the CAA and NRC during the end of 2019, in demonstrations of an unprecedented nature of Hindu-Muslim unity in recent years. The message of the people sent to the ruling powers was succinctly expressed by Maulana Umraih Mahfooz Rahmani , convenor of Dastoor Banchao Committee (Save Constitution Committee), who addressing a mass rally in Malegaon in Maharashtra on December 19 last year said: “(It) is a historic date, when the British hanged two freedom fighters – Ashfaquallah Khan and Ram Prasad Bismil. We are their descendants….”, thus recalling the legacy of the anti-colonial freedom movement that brought together Hindus and Muslims.
In the face of this popular upsurge, the Modi government appears to be in a damage control and defensive position. While the prime minister is claiming that the NRC (National Register of Citizens) issue was never discussed (a blatant lie as proved by his home minister Amit Shah’s repeated claims that it will be implemented all over India), his law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has now come out with the acknowledgment that no legal rules have yet been framed for NRC. By all indications it looks as if the government, in order to assuage the discontent among the people, may procrastinate by resorting to long pending bureaucratic procedures of registration under the CAA , NCR and NPR (National Population Register), thus preventing immediate outbursts by protestors. For instance, the nationwide NPR is proposed to be held from April 1 to September 30 in 2020 to record the `usual residents.’ The NCR will follow that. By then, the government hopes, the present agitation will die down due to fatigue.
Meanwhile, Narendra Modi has chickened out of his scheduled programme of inauguration of Khelo India Youth Games in Guwahati on January 10, as he feared mass protests against his presence in Assam. Earlier, he faced a snub from the Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe who cancelled his visit for the India Japan Summit which was scheduled for early December last year in Guwahati – because of the anti-Modi popular agitation there. Thus, popular agitations indeed appear to halt the march of the Modi-Shah led `ratha-jatra’ of Hindutva, to some extent, proving that they are not invulnerable.
Future contours of popular agitations
This brings us to the nature of the spontaneous mass upsurge against the citizenship laws that has taken us all by surprise. Is it an expression of the simmering discontent that had been accumulating in the public mind against the Modi regime since demonetization and GST ? Has the discontent found an avenue of protest in the current agitation that has drawn in the other disgruntled and dissenting segments of the population, who beyond the citizenship laws, are frustrated with the Modi government’s failures in economy ? The discontent exploded in the nation-wide January 8 general strike that paralyzed the entire industrial system. Will such working class strikes and the anti-CAA and anti-NCR agitation become a catalyst for the emergence of a mass movement during the next four years to ultimately overthrow the BJP government in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls ? These are the queries and challenges that the secular national Opposition parties (like the Congress and the Left) as well as regional parties will have to address in the coming years.
In order to face this challenge, the Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has appealed to his counterparts in eleven states (ruled by non-BJP parties) to join him in opposing the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), and consider passing resolutions in their respective state assemblies demanding the repeal of these legislations. If the non-BJP political parties which are running these state governments come together to oppose these unpopular laws, refuse to implement them in their states, and support the present anti- CAA and anti-NRC agitations, it will pave the way for the building up of a united Opposition front during the next four years that can overthrow the BJP government in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. In such a situation of non-cooperation by the non-BJP state governments, the BJP-ruled Centre can retaliate by dismissing these governments and imposing President’s rule, or starving them by withdrawing financial and other facilities. This could further aggravate the tensions between the Centre and these states, and alienate the electorate there.
Till now however, the Opposition parties seem to remain on the sidelines of the popular agitations, which are primarily spontaneous demonstrations by students (as in Jamia in Delhi and Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh, and some fostered by civil society groups and minority community organizations in Assam and Hyderabad for instance). One hopes that all these organizations are brought together under an all-India umbrella to oppose CAA and NRC. The Opposition political parties can mobilize their cadres to support them, and inspire them to move beyond these immediate issues and combine them with the larger issues of unemployment of the youth, starvation deaths of farmers in the countryside, the failure of the Modi government on the economic front.
But the spontaneous youth upsurge which we witness today in India may dissipate like the Arab Spring (a popular agitation that was hijacked by the Islamist religious fundamentalists) – in the absence of a political leadership to organize the upsurge in the direction of a secular and socialist goal to defeat the communal and divisive agenda of the ruling BJP . Bereft of any holistic vision and focus, these sporadic youth outbursts in the campus and outside, can be snuffed out by the administration through the dual policy of violent suppression of the political dissenters (as evident in JNU on January 5), and co-option of the acquiescent among the students into the folds of the ABVP – the students wing of the Sangh Parivar.
Unity of purpose
The various agitations – ranging from youth uprisings in cities, the January 8 nation wide industrial strike and farmers protests in the countryside – require to coalesce into a larger national movement. This needs a political leadership. To start with, the anti-BJP Opposition parties, can take up the slogan that had sprung up from the demonstrations of protest against CAA and NRC – “Kagaj Nehi Dekhayenge” (We will not produce any documents) – which expresses the popular sentiment against bureaucratic harassment of citizens by demanding officially stamped papers which they do not possess. They can organize a nation-wide movement of non-cooperation with this bureaucratic process of coercive registration that will leave out thousands of our people from official citizenship. Through their cadres and followers, the Opposition parties have the ability to paralyze and sabotage Modi’s game plan. They need to patiently work during the next four years in building upon these agitations by bringing to the fore demands for wider socio-economic and political changes. It is by only through such political intervention that the present spontaneity can be translated into a coherent political movement that can `tukde-tukde’ (torn into pieces) the Modi-Shah-led gang and dislodge the BJP government at the centre in 2024.
Sumanta Banerjee is a political and civil rights activist and social scientist. Email: [email protected]