Before engaging with Professor Partha Chatterjee’s essay published in the Wire, 18th January on the anti-CAA protests going on at nation-wide, let me briefly give his academic background and kind of works produced by him. He is one of India’s leading scholars who have produced large volume of the literature on themes like Nationalism as derivative discourse, Secularism, debates around political society vs. civil society, political economy, women questions, Caste questions etc. He is also one of the leading members of Subaltern studies, the project which had started in the late 1980s. Unlike Liberals, Nationalists, and Marxists historians, the project of subaltern studies which was primarily initiated by well-known historian Prof. Ranjeet Guha and later joined by other renowned historians; the major the objective of subaltern historiography is to write history from ‘below’ and highlight regional social history of voiceless and oppressed social groups hitherto left out by the mentioned school of thoughts which are ‘elitists’ in nature, as pointed out by the collective of the subaltern school of thought.
In this piece, I am not going to enter into the debates around historiography, my purpose is, to critically engage with Prof. Chatterjee’s recent piece published on The Wire, titled “True Federalism Is the Counter-Narrative India Needs Right Now”, dated 18th January 2020. No doubt, his writings on the said themes has inspired generations of young academics, scholars and social activists in the larger public domain.
For setting the context, let me highlight the discourse around the anti-CAA protests. Till now, the Indian academics and scholars have said many things from their own theoretical vintage pints, about the ongoing protests which have now completed two months. Broadly speaking, a section of secular-minded scholars have expressed that ongoing protests are unprecedented in the history of post-independence India. More importantly, some section of scholars have termed the protests around CAA-NRC as a second unfinished agenda of freedom struggle which moves around the Azadi ( the term is erroneously misinterpreted by the Sangh Parivar and communal frenzies, as if protestors are demanding freedom from India and having separatists mentalities) from Hunger, unemployment, discriminations, fear-mongering and hate speeches. Several noted scholars including Chatterjee has underlined that we have not seen and witnessed (even during the anti-emergency movement led by Jay Prakash Narayan, famously known as the JP movement) this kind of large scale protest since the freedom struggle of India fought by our freedom fighters under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi. As far as the social composition and nature of protests is concerned, secular minded scholars have argued that the movements are going on in accordance with the progressive values enshrined in our Constitutions and based on principles like secularism, pluralism, diversity, socialism, equality and deeply embedded in ‘Constitutional Morality’ as visualized by Babasaheb Ambedkar long ago.
For the BJP-RSS combined, these protests are led by anti-nationals, jihadists, communists and anarchists to spread and incite violence and chaos in the Indian society. These allegations are spread by the BJP senior leaders like Amit Shah, PM Modi and CM Yogi Adityanath during the Delhi Assembly election campaign just concluded. To note that Shaheen Bagh protest led by Muslim women has been the focal points during the election campaign. Most of the BJP’s senior leaders as mentioned above have targeted the protestors mainly of Shaheen Bagh and attacked CM Arvind Kejriwal for supporting protestors. They (the BJP leaders) alleged that AAP (Aam Admi Party) and their leaders are distributing biryani to the anti-nationals, pro-Pakistan and anarchists who are inciting violence and creating disorder in society (under the pretext of opposing the CAA which has been passed by the Indian parliament by adopting democratic methods) amidst the election campaign of the Delhi Assembly.
As of now, those who are sitting at protests sites (Shaheen Bagh and Jamia have witnessed sporadic violence because of open bullet firing carried out by communal frenzies) are facing both ‘state authoritarianism’ (police brutality which took place at Jamia’s students on 15th December, and triggered massive protests and rabid communalism in the form of violence and hates peaches unleashed by communal forces. It is too early to suggest and forecast the shape and political directions of protests in the coming future. These concerns need to be addressed in the public domain.
The latest issue of Organizer January 2020, the RSS mouthpiece has also brought out the communal arguments and compared the ongoing protests with ‘Arab Spring’ (the articles published in the Organizer have misinterpreted the ‘Arab Spring’ with communal and Islamophobic angle rather than secular and democratic perspective as done by several secular-minded scholars). The Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa which took place in 2011 had also brought out chaos and civil war-like situations in the region pointed out by an article published in the Organizer. Contrary to secular civil society groups and academics, for the RSS-BJP combined, the ongoing anti-CAA protests are nothing but a ‘sinister design’ to achieve the said objective and create chaos, anarchy and civil war-like situations as happened in the Middle East regions rather than fighting to ‘save the Constitution’, pluralism and safeguard the shared secular heritage of India. However, a scholar like Prof. Prabhu Mahapatra, a noted labor historian of Delhi university expressed that it is wrong to see the ‘Arab Spring’ (which were mostly led by young generations through the means of using social media platform against the existing authoritarian regime in the Middle East, the point is also brought by Chatterjee in his article) from the Islamists’ perspective. For him, it was having secular orientations and brought out several positive changes and social reform rather than looking from lens of sectarian and Islamists perspective as seen by RSS’s idealogue. However in the later phase, some discrepancies had emerged and illiberal/Islamists elements had hijacked the movement said by Prof. Mahapatra during the conversations at Jamia’s protest site. Having said that let me come back to Chatterjee’s points made by him in his piece.
The questions need to be foregrounded here such as; are Chatterjee suggestions relevant and worthwhile to consider it seriously mainly how to create counter-narrative against the Hindu nationalists and able to stop the unconstitutional CAA-NRP-NRC? Is the path of ‘Federal Republic’ as Chatterjee emphasized in his piece, the only way to counter Hindutva narratives and fight against said Act? No doubt, the regional forces like North-Eastern states and Bengal, Kerala are at the forefront as far as fighting against the Hindutva project is concerned and can be formidable forces against the CAA-NRC campaign too. However barring these states, most of the states and regional forces have still not taken any firm political stand against the said Act and not come out on the streets strongly so far. The nation-wide protests which are primarily lunched by students, Muslim women and later joined by Dalits, Skihs, civil society activists and sexual minorities, as stated above, are really posing major challenge before the existing ruling dispensation led by PM Modi rather than ‘opposition party’ led by Congress Party as Chatterjee has also hinted. For him, counter-narrative will come only by ‘strengthening vibrant federalism’ rather than from political parties such as Congress, SP and BSP. For me, it is crucial to strengthen the federalism but given the role and ambivalent positions of northern Indian states, (which is known as Cow belt, where communalism is widely permeated at the societal level and decides the fate of political parties for instance, who will acquire political power at the center) it is hard to say that respective states of northern India will fight against the BJP and would provide counter-narrative. These are some of the questions need to be addressed since 60 days of the protest have been passed. As theorists of civil society have argued that through the widening the democratic space for dissent and protests at nation-wide, we can check the authoritarian tendencies of the ruling dispensation. On the basis of past experiences in India as seen in the case of emergency during Indira Gandhi and elsewhere; it could be said that through sustained protests and agitations we can compel the existing government to roll back unconstitutional law as happened in Hong Kong and Chile.
I agree with Chatterjee that the nature of current protest against CAA-NRC is an unprecedented since the freedom struggle and protests are leaderless. I have no serious disagreement as far as his explanations and descriptions about the ongoing (barring that he has not mentioned in his essay on the role of Students of Jamia and Shaheen Bagh which are still’ epicenter’ of the protests and widely discussed in the public domain. Both protests have faced stiff opposition from the communal forces) protests are concerned.
However, I am not fully persuaded by Chatterjee’s arguments that ‘Republic Federalism’ is the only way to counter the current Hindutva forces. Of course one cannot deny that regional movements against the Hindutva forces which have the potential to derail the project of Hindu Rashtra because of given diversity, pluralism and regional dynamics of North-Eastern states. These States have played and still are plying as major forces against the CAA-NRC exercise (for instance, Assam, Kerala, and Bengal can be cited as cases in point). However, my concern in this piece is that the ongoing protests launched by students (primarily by Jamia’s students and later joined by other students like JNU, DU, AMU, BHU, HCU and may other Universities of students) and Muslims women (at Shaheen Bagh, followed by Khureji and other places which are being organized after getting inspired by Shaheen Bagh protest) and later joined by Dalits and Sikhs and other subaltern groups cannot be undermined. In fact, it would be not exaggerate to put forth that because of the large scale and sustained protests against the CAA -NPR-NRC which are being launched by said oppressed groups and students; the oppositions parties and various state governments have succumbed to pressure and now changing their earlier positions and started rallying behind the protests. Due to the sustained protest for the last 60 days, now it has actually taken the shape of ‘national and international character’ and discussions around the said issues are widely noticed in the global media too. For instance, recently the European Union and other international humanitarian organizations have taken cognizance and put the proposal for discussions with respect to the unconstitutional CAA. The second point which Chatterjee has raised in his piece that only ideology of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru are not enough to fight against the Hindutva forces and hence cannot provide counter-narratives to the Hindu nationalists forces in the public domain.
Like several commentators, I on the basis of my reflective and regular observations at Shaheen Bagh and Jamia protests sites, have argued that the ongoing protests at both sites are inclusive, democratic and secular in nature and guided by Gandhian methods of non-violence. The social groups like Dalits, Sikhs (just a few days’ backs nearly 5, 00 Sikhs came from Punjab and expressed their solidarity at Shaheen Bagh), secular forces and even the LGBT community are also coming at the protest sites to extent their solidarities. Contrary to the RSS-BJP combined, the ongoing protests mainly at Jamia and Shaheen Bagh are secular and democratic in nature and mode of protests are deeply attached with the Gandhian values like moral force, satyagraha, and non-violence as stated above. For me, it is too early to predict which direction protest will move, however, protests at various sites are every day educating, energizing the students and engaging with the masses as Chatterjee has also pointed out in his article.
The author is a Research Scholar University of Delhi