Do social and political movements in India have a future despite the challenges posed by the regime in power? This is a critical question often raised by scholars and political leaders amid concerns and anxieties over a range of issues—from authoritarianism to strategies of political exclusion and suppression of dissent/opposition.
Yet, there really is a silver lining in political cloud and the farmers’ movement is certainly the finest case. This was the thrust of analysis on “Three Movements and the Dynamics of Indian Democracy” by Zoya Hasan, Professor Emerita, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi while delivering the Annual Lecture of the Vakkom Moulavi Memorial and Research Centre (VMMRC) in Kerala.
Prof Zoya Hasan categorically stated that “farmers’ victory is a vindication of the Indian democracy exemplified by mass protests that could powerfully challenge a powerful government.” She noted that “despite the undermining of political institutions and a partisan media, Indians have not been silenced.” The anti-CAA protests across the country and the farmers’ agitation that continued for more than a year have demonstrated that “people are making their presence felt and determinately staking a claim to democratic participation.”
Prof Zoya Hasan said that “the social and political movements have been a conspicuous feature of public life in India over decades. It would be difficult to visualise India’s modern history and critical political events without acknowledging the role of public protests and social mobilisation in their making at important junctures in the life of the nation.” She said that “over the past decade, the public protests have increased with bewildering rapidity. The spurt in protests and movements have engendered a new awakening and tumult in Indian society and in some cases resulted in progressive outcomes and policies.”
She said that the decade when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was in power witnessed a surge in protests. The most important was the campaign led by the civil society groups in India against corruption. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) also faced several protests from a range of social groups. The two most important ones are the protests against the Citizens Amendment Act (CAA), 2019 and the farmers’ movement. The passage of the CAA and the proposal to create a National Register of Citizens (NRC) “had galvanised thousands of people in an unparalleled display of anti-government opposition.”
“Beginning in November 2020, thousands of farmers had gathered in a prolonged sit in on the borders of New Delhi. These protests began eight months after the equal citizenship protests that started in December 2019. The farmers’ movement and the equal citizenship protests have been compared with the anti-corruption movement of 2011-12. While there are similarities between these protests, there are important differences which are important to note in terms of its political impact on democracy,” Prof Zoya said.
Prof Zoya Hasan pointed out that the anti-corruption movement that began in 2011 under the UPA dispensation was quite different from the anti-CAA and farmers’ protests. It had brought corruption to the political centre-stage, crystallised public opinion against the government, feeble executive and paved the way for the ‘strongman alternative’ to a floundering Congress-led coalition.” Importantly, the anti-corruption movement operated with a high degree of preparation and coordination pursuing closely calibrated timeline of protests, starting over a year before the Ramlila dharna in 2011. The organisers had established a virtual organisation, India Against Corruption (IAC) in 2010. The IAC shifted the critical conversations squarely on corruption to the exclusion of everything else. But this shift was possible because dissent was allowed the space to carry on. There is another important difference. In 2011 the media was an active participant in shaping the political narrative and in elevating the leaders of this movement to national heroes. Whereas years later, the mainstream media is unwilling to challenge the government even while it is routinely interrogating and cornering opposition parties and is reluctant to report on oppositional movements. But the key difference in the response of the regime in power is the political impact of the protests.
Prof Zoya said that “the government response to anti-CAA and farmers’ movements have demonstrated intolerance of protests while the anti-corruption movement did not face any such constraints under the previous regime. These three movements are watershed events in the history of political movements in contemporary India. They are important examples of political resistance against the regimes in power even though they have had no same effect,” she pointed out.
She said that the anti-corruption movement “took Delhi by storm and garnered wide shades of support because corruption was an issue that aroused huge anger in India.” But, she pointed out, “it was propped up by the RSS and its affiliates with a view to dislodging the Congress-led government.” “The anti-corruption movement had positioned itself in the non-political space, denying its platform to any politician. But, evidently, it had the support of the RSS, its affiliates and sympathisers. The movement steered by IAC was sustained by the RSS-BJP to finish UPA-2. They succeeded despite Manmohan Singh conceding to all of Anna Hazare’s demands — joint drafting committee, holding a special parliament session and passing the Lokpal Bill.”
With the ascendency of the right-wing BJP, “India’s socio-political landscape was radically altered through unconcealed majoritarianism, creeping authoritarianism, and abuse of state institutions, shackling of media, and the exclusion of minorities,” she added. “While public protests have progressively increased in scale and intensity, over years, the response of the regime has been predictable — ranging from reluctant accommodation of some to largely ignoring others or brutally suppressing a few with the help of heavy-handed crackdowns to branding opponents as anti-nationals.”
“Public protests have been very frequent during the BJP-led NDA rule even though this has not been closely examined by academics who focussed mainly on the ideology and politics of the regime rather than the opposition.” She noted further: “ in 2019, the government introduced changes in CAA, shifting towards a religion-based citizenship as against the prevailing birth-based definition. Based on religious identity, the CAA gave undocumented non-Muslim migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan the opportunity to apply for Indian citizenship but does not offer the same exemption to refugees and emigrants who happened to be Muslims. Importantly, the CAA is not a stand-alone law. It has to be seen in conjunction with the National Register of Citizens (NRC). This combination would mean that Muslims with ‘illegal’ status would not be eligible for refugee status or citizenship. Taken together, the CAA and the NRC were widely perceived by Indian Muslims, and not just by them, to be an attempt to force them to statelessness and this triggered massive nation-wide protests.”
“The protests first erupted in Assam and then it began to spread to campuses in Delhi and elsewhere, before extending to other groups. The protests turned out to be the biggest in decades drawing people from over a hundred cities and towns across the country. Unlike the anti-corruption movement, the anti-CAA movement was not led by politicians with ambitions or with leaders like Anna Hazare. It did not have the organisational backbone or media support enjoyed by the anti-corruption movement. The protesters devised a political drama centred on the Constitution to assert equal citizenship. The Preamble of the Constitution was read out in all meetings. Using National Anthem and the National Flag as signposts of the social movement, the protesters sought to reaffirm the democratic values of equity and inclusion. For the first time in the history of the Republic, the Constitution was used so extensively by the people. It was held out as the only document that mattered, and constitutional slogans outnumbered all other slogans.”
Prof Zoya said that “the anti-CAA movement took the form of a broad-based secular movement that underlined the unconstitutionality of new law and discrimination inherent in it. The political vocabulary of the anti-CAA protests was very different from anti-corruption movement which was directed against the political class.”
Prof Zoya reminded, “what differentiates the present regime from all previous regimes is the space it provides for the construction of ‘an enemy within’ that it needs in order for the majoritarianism to thrive. This includes the portrayal of anti-government movements as anti-national indicating high degree of intolerance. The ‘enemy within’ is being accused of anti-national and is therefore subjected to harassment, silencing and in some cases long periods of incarceration. One of the consequences of this approach is that the security advisers have begun to see civil society activists as enemies.”
The farmers’ protest became the biggest test so far to the regime and naturally it posed the most serious challenge to the government’s economic agenda. Though it had also drawn a predictable response from the BJP leaders and its spokesmen in the media, neutralising these protests through the usual tactics of divide and rule did not work unlike the anti-CAA protests, which were brutally curtailed through such tactics, Prof Zoya said. “The decision to repeal the three farm laws is a historic victory for the farmers movement” and it showed that popular protests would work despite a determined effort by the regime to crush it. “The farmers’ movement has underlined that no government, regardless of the strength of its mandate, can disregard public opinion and voices of people emerging from the ground, Prof Zoya added.
Prof P.K. Michael Tharakan, Chairman, Kerala Council for Historical Research chaired the session. Dr. Ravi Raman, member, the State Planning Board welcomed. Ambassador K.P. Fabian, Prof Prabhat Patnaik, Dr B. Ekbal, Dr V. Mathew Kurian, Sri. S. Sen, Sri. Sameer Muneer and others spoke. Prof Rajan Gurukkal, Prof Ayoob and others also participated in the session.
Prof Zoya Hasan was also former Dean of the School of Social Sciences, and former Chairperson of the Centre for Political Studies and founder Chairperson of the Centre for Women’s Studies and Centre for the Study of Discrimination and Exclusion in JNU. She also held visiting appointments at National University of Singapore, University of Zurich, University of Edinburgh and fellowships at, among others, University of Sussex, Rockefeller Centre, Bellagio, Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, Paris, and the Centre for Modern Oriental Studies, Berlin.
Prof Zoya Hasan also served as National Fellow, Indian Council of Social Science Research and was a member of the National Commission for Minorities, National Integration Council, CABE and the National Book Trust. Prof Zoya Hasan has published widely on Indian society and politics, state, democracy, party politics and political movements and on issues of equity and social justice. She is the author/editor of 18 books, including most recently Congress After Indira: Policy, Power Political Change (1984-2009); Politics of Inclusion: Caste, Minority and Affirmative Action; Agitation to Legislation: Negotiating Equity and Justice in India, India’s Living Constitution: Ideas, Practices, Controversies.
The write-up also appears in Eurasia Review and the Global South Colloquy