By Bhanuj Kappal Aug. 12, 2016
The battle for India’s democratic ideals is not being fought in the offices of English newspapers. It is being fought at the level of grassroots movements around the country.
Last month, I found myself in a Gurgaon park where Relaa Collective, a group of Left-Ambedkarite cultural activists from four states, conducted an impromptu performance for joggers, picnickers, and anyone else crazy enough to spend a hot, humid evening in the sun. We were in the park because the group’s scheduled performance for the Maruti Suzuki Workers Union, a couple of kilometres away, had predictably been shut down by lathi-wielding cops ten minutes after the drums started.
The performance ended with an excellent bit of agit-prop street theatre by Maharashtra’s Yalgaar Collective, which poked fun at the fact that all dissent was now shouted down as deshdrohi – anti-national. The small group of kids sitting next to me laughed at every punchline, oblivious to the edgy tension building in the crowd. Halfway through, one person started shouting that the group was funded by Sonia Gandhi. By the end of the performance, he had been joined by a few more men, who, typically unaware of the irony, started shouting “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” and accused the performers of being, wait for it, deshdrohis.
The original instigator was busy making phone calls in between warning Yalgaar that they will “soon be taught a lesson”. But as the performers quickly packed up their instruments, eager to avoid an unnecessary confrontation, they found unlikely defenders in a part of the audience. Quickly, a circle formed, the protectors of the nation surrounded by citizens of the nation arguing that everyone has a right to speak. In return, they were treated to abuse and pro-Modi sloganeering. The situation teetered on the edge of violence, but realising they were outnumbered, the Modi bhakts quickly melted away.
On reflection, it’s easy to see the events of that one muggy evening as a microcosm of the public discourse around the country. The same fault lines – between middle-class Hindu patriots and Dalit, working-class, and minority dissenters – have been exposed all over the nation. This had started happening long before the Modi government came to power and raised the stakes. As India approaches its 70th Independence Day, you’re going to be treated to a lot of competing narratives about the State of the Union: Faux triumphalism about economic development and the “strong nation” set against a miserablist paranoia about an inevitable slide into fascism.
Both of these narratives are built around a nugget of truth, which are buried under a truckload of obfuscations, half-truths, and plain loony nonsense. I’m more interested in the State of the Resistance(s), the grassroots movements around the country that are invested in fighting the Indian state’s encroachment of their rights, resources, and ways of life than they are in the ideological one-upmanship of electoral factions. Because it is there, not in New Delhi’s English newspapers, that the battle for India’s lofty democratic ideals is being fought.
First, let’s understand that the Indian state has been authoritative since its inception. The veneer of Nehruvian socialism and liberalism was overlaid on a Union that has always been exploitative, illiberal, and divisive. Most of the battles being fought today trace their history to the Congress and its benign authoritarianism, which showed its not so benign face as UPA II turned the screws in response to crisis after crisis. It was UPA II that introduced a more draconian Foreign Contribution Regulation Act as a means to target civil rights NGOs. This raised the pitch of violence against adivasis in Bastar under Operation Green Hunt and cracked down on environmental land rights movements across the country.
Wary of political opportunism by parties like the Congress, they’ve realised that they have to collaborate to survive.
It’s also true that the BJP has accelerated the process, using its rhetoric of Hindu superiority and hyper-violent patriotism as a cover for its increasingly anti-people policies and actions. Between the two, India’s many radical – and not so radical – grassroots movements have been pushed against the wall, as the space for legitimate dissent contracts and the state’s response becomes increasingly heavy-handed.
But after a few years of constant retreat, many of these movements are starting to fight back, revitalised by an odd mix of desperation and assertion. Take the student Left, for example, which had been sidelined in the last couple of decades. Derided as paper revolutionaries their voices were rarely heard outside the university campus. One of the many ironies of the BJP’s drive to sanitise universities of opposing voices, is that it has made student politics relevant again.
Before the Delhi police’s ill-advised crackdown on JNU in February, Kanhaiya Kumar was known to about 5,000 JNU students. Last month, he was in Mumbai, leading tens of thousands of Mumbaikars at a massive Dalit protest against the BJP, chanting “Azaadi”. In Hyderabad Central University, Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide started off an important conversation about casteism in the university and kicked off an ongoing confrontation between Dalit students and the university’s vice-chancellor. The police’s violent response to both these protests – including turning HCU into a de facto prison camp – only served to further the impression of a university and state apparatus that is intolerant of dissent. As a bonus, they have forced the notoriously fractious Dalit and Left student groups to work together, infusing new hope into the much theorised, rarely practised fantasy of a united Dalit and Left movement that the Congress (helped along by the Left party leadership) put so much effort into scuttling.
You can see the same dynamics at play in the aftermath of Narendra Modi’s much vaunted, and now disavowed, “pink revolution”. Responding to the BJP’s rhetoric about cow-protection and thinly veiled attacks on minority communities who eat beef, many of the Hindu Right’s more hands-on cadre have been harassing, assaulting, and lynching Dalits and Muslims across the country. The Dalits in Gujarat decided they’d had enough last month, and kicked off a Dalit uprising that has echoed across the nation and delivered a big setback to the BJP’s attempts to bring Dalits into a consolidated Hindu vote.
Once again, you see a newfound solidarity not just between Dalits and the Left, but also between Dalits and Muslims. As I write, news is just emerging that Ashok Parmar, the face of the 2002 riots, has just joined the Azaadi Kooch rally from Ahmedabad to Una, and wants to work for Dalit-Muslim unity. Given that many Dalits were foot soldiers in the 2002 pogrom, any signs of that rift healing will be bad news for the Hindutva project.
In fact, everywhere you look, government crackdowns and anti-people policies are being met not with dejection, but renewed commitment and activism. In Bastar, where police and vigilante violence is aimed at silencing witnesses to atrocities, Soni Sori and Malini Subramaniam continue to stay and report instead of fleeing. Even as environmental activists deal with the onslaught of policy changes that dilute rights and protections in favour of “development”, farmers and adivasis are working together to assert their rights and face down the increasingly militarised state response. Environmental and lands rights movements across the country are coming together to lend each other support, come up with new strategies, and co-ordinate their responses.
For every victory there is a litany of losses. But the onslaught has given these movements new vigour. Wary of political opportunism by parties like the Congress, they’ve realised that they have to collaborate to survive. New information networks are being created, as these movements use technology to bypass a media that is beholden to entrenched interests. New tactics are emerging, such as Una’s boycott of cow-scavenging and Raigarh’s coal satyagraha. Humour and satire are being deployed as weapons to counter narratives of development and nationalism. The Resistance’s answer to State authoritarianism is Solidarity.
I don’t know how long this solidarity will last, or how effective it will be. It may just turn out to be a rearguard action, a desperate last stand. But as long as these movements – caste movements, workers’ movements, adivasi movements – continue to exist and fight an authoritarian state and a tyrannical society, there is hope for an India that actually lives up to the high ideals enshrined in her constitution. The BJP government only needs to look back to 1977 to be reminded of the cardinal rule in Indian politics: Fear the subaltern.
Bhanuj Kappal writes about music, culture, and anti-nationals. After doing a bunch of odd jobs in the culture industry, he’s now decided to be a freelance journalist, and live at the mercy of newspapers’ accounts departments. Will write for food.