A Moment of Unprecedented Possibilities


Beginning this week, we are starting a column which will appear every Thursday. The name of this column, ‘Parapolitics’, is meant to indicate something that happens all the time, outside the formally designated sphere of politics, or what is sometimes called ‘the political’ by political theorists. As a matter of fact, most of such politics – parapolitics – takes place everyday and is deeply tied to our everyday lives. It is also what we may call ‘existential politics’:  the dalit boys flogged by upper caste men inside a police station in Una, the woman of Unnao, whose family is decimated by the rapist’s henchmen, the mob-lynching to which Muslims are subjected on a daily basis, the farmer or the unemployed who commits suicide, the displaced adivasis or the workers who fight back – all these are instances of things deeply political but occurring away from or beneath the ‘proper’ domain of politics. The ‘proper domain of politics’ – that of state/government, parties, elections, alliances and so on – has repeatedly historically revealed its fundamental disconnect with such existential politics. Indeed, whenever faced by mass protests, the first response by the political class is to reduce it to the purported machinations of ‘opposition parties’. It cannot think of people, ordinary people, coming out in autonomous action. We might recall the response of the UPA government, at the height of the anti-corruption movement, challenging the locus standi of the protesters with the questions: ‘who are you?’ or ‘who has authorized you?’ etc Parapolitics is that unauthorized politics of everyday life, which often bursts out into the open but may also simply go on under the surface without any necessary public manifestation.

Students protest in Bengaluru, photo courtesy PTI

The most striking aspect of the present upsurge of popular anger around the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), as has been widely noticed, is the way defiant young women have become the face of the struggle. I am not referring here only to the women whose iconic images are circulating everywhere today, but also to the sheer number in which they have come out and the power with which they have been speaking their mind before the media. And they belong to all communities.

‘Detention Camp’ – installation at Shaheen Bagh

The other striking feature that is perhaps no less important is that these protests everywhere are being led by the young, mainly students. And even where the Muslim masses are concerned, it is not the traditional leaders of the community who are at the helm of affairs but young dynamic men and women. In fact, now it is Muslim women who form the backbone of the struggle in its current phase. Friends from within the community say that these traditional leaders who stood quite discredited and marginalized, have lately been making an attempt to gain control though by and large the ethos of the struggle remains with people who are not weighed down by issues that these leaders have tried to keep them tied to. The banner of struggle is an inclusive idea of India, its icons are Gandhi and Ambedkar and its constant reference is the Constitution of free India. The tricolour is, like the national anthem, now reclaimed as the emblems of popular struggle.

A demonstration in Delhi, photo courtesy PTI

The times are clearly changing and we are witnessing the birth of a new India from within the moribund and sick political system that democracy in India had been reduced to. The anger on the streets is palpable.

This time round, they grossly miscalculated. With Amit Shah as Home Minister, the Modi regime 2.0 had just recently played their biggest gamble yet, when they abrogated article 370 and subjected Kashmir to a complete lockdown, arresting all its political leaders and reducing it from a state to a union territory overnight. The sheer audacity of this move was breathtaking and was undertaken with complete disregard for India’s Constitutional commitment to the people of Kashmir as well as the huge human cost this move would entail.

The complete suppression of information flows between Kashmir and mainland India, combined with the threat of ‘sedition’ charges being slapped on critics had ensured that the opposition to this cynical game was muted – except inside Kashmir itself.

Drunk on this ‘success’ and with the country sufficiently polarized, thanks to the endless divisive propaganda and hate-spewing campaigns of the previous years undertaken under its tutelage, the regime had calculated it would have a walkover on the CAA as well.

The country watched aghast at the ease with which both houses of parliament passed the legislation with practically no opposition. The ruling dispensation had thought it had pulled off this gamble too and now it would be just a matter of handling some outbursts of protests from Muslims here and there. And if the government managed to make an example of Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) and Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) through sheer brute force, then that would be the end of it. That the anti-CAA protests would acquire this dimension was beyond their wildest imagination. Some BJP leaders seem to have anonymously acknowledged as much, according to a report published in the Hindi daily Jansatta a few days ago. The protests are of unprecedented scale and have been continuing relentlessly for almost a month.

So what happened? What brought forth this massive groundswell of popular anger?

To understand this, we must remember first of all, that the feeling of utter helplessness among ordinary people has been building up over the years, alongside the recognition that you cannot trust the political parties with anything and that ultimately they have to act on their own. Though this sense has been there at least from the time of the 2011 anti-corruption movement and the subsequent massive protests against the Delhi gang-rape in December 2012, we have seen the groundswell of ordinary citizens marching against the growing incidence of mob lynching during the Modi regime itself.

The ‘Not in My Name’ protests indicated that all was not well, though they could still have been attributed to a small section of the ‘secular’, English speaking type. The regime had banked on the idea that the high dose of anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan rhetoric of the last so many years had sufficiently polarised the population for there to be any significant resistance.

No less important is the fact that once you have suppressed all dissent and allowed yourself to start believing in the myth of your own invincibility, you start living in an echo chamber of your own making. You really have no clue how deep the resentment against you is. That is what has happened.

All mass movements emerge out of an accumulation of many different conflicts and discontents. They suddenly congeal around a common point of articulation, which in this case was the CAA. Similar was the case when the anti-corruption movement burst forth in April 2011, which was often misread by many as simply a matter of some nebulous thing called ‘corruption’. ‘Corruption’ was in fact the point at which a large number of conflicts and discontents of the time collected. This time it was the CAA and the National Register of Indian Citizens (NRC or NRIC) that emerged as the point of articulation of different discontents.

What puzzles the regime, however, is how the CAA, so cleverly designed to isolate the Muslims, could become such a common point of articulation. The polarization that they were expecting to come into play just did not. The violent police-cum-hoodlum attacks on the students of JMI and AMU did not lead to just some minor Muslim protests as it had expected. The prime minister’s early statement that you could recognize the people indulging in violence by their clothes was a clear indication that that was he was confidently expecting. However, it soon became clear to ordinary people too that the violence was state-sponsored and only in BJP ruled states.

We can only understand what defines this moment if we recognize that it is a moment of the coming together of many different discontents. The accumulated anger against demonetization, which never found expression, remains crucially important. Close to 150 people were said to have died and millions became destitute and any attempt to question it was branded anti-national. This was not a Muslim issue.

Then there is the accumulated anger, especially among young women but also more generally, around the way the question of rape has been handled by the regime and its cohorts. From defending rapists like Kuldip Sengar, Unnao BJP MLA to so-called god men like Asaram Bapu and Chinmayananda, to charging the victims with false cases, we have seen perhaps the most blatant and sordid misuse of power in our history. That this has been the most vicious anti-women regime we have ever seen is now so clear that the large presence of defiant young women in the movement should not surprise us.

It is also important to remember that among large sections of dalits too, there is an increasing feeling that not only have they had to face heightened attacks under this regime, now ‘Ambedkar’s Constitution’ too stands the threat of being dismantled. The heightened aggression of the upper castes during the last six years.

‘I Am Tabrez’ – installation at Shaheen Bagh

Last but not the least, universities and other institutions of higher learning as spaces of critical thinking and debate, have been the focus of this regime’s attacks from the very beginning. That has obviously not gone down well and that too accounts for the fact that they have been in the forefront of the resistance to this regime.  Freedom of expression that is so central to the development of critical thinking stands threatened today like never before (except the brief interregnum of the Emergency).

The burst of creative energy in and through this movement is another widely noticed and commented upon aspect. This is so evident in the songs, poems, innovative and funny slogans, plays, stand up comedy, wall and street art, street installations has been another remarkable feature of the movement. And that is a sure sign of its spontaneity.

2 thoughts on “A Moment of Unprecedented Possibilities”

  1. While I too am cheered to see women and students, and also (in some places at least) Muslims, active in the protests against the recent actions and stated plans of the BJP government, there is little evidence that those who do not live in urban areas or for whom higher education is distant or inaccessible, are protesters.

    I see no cleverness in the design of the CAA. The exclusion of Muslims is blindingly obvious, as is that of several “persecuted minorities” (variants of Islam included and perhaps the most important) in neighbouring countries. The way in which CAA, NPR and NRC are being tossed about — sometimes related to one another, sometimes not — can indeed be called clever — too clever by half.


  2. excellent reflection on the current moment in India except the uncritical remarks on the secularism of Indian constitution which suffers from many Hindu biases in its formulations. One can add to the general correctness of the argument of Aditya Nigam here is the sharp decline in the sheen of Modi abroad compared with when he came to power first in 2014


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