Urban Naxals and Anti-Nationals: What’s a Democracy Without Its Dissenters?


Urban Naxals and Anti-Nationals: What’s a Democracy Without Its Dissenters?

Illustration: Ahmed Sikander

The arrests of eminent human rights activists and lawyers – Sudha Bharadwaj, Varavara Rao, Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves, and Gautam Navalakha – last month has left the nation divided. It’s the same old fight between liberals and the hyper-nationalists with a new epithet – the #MeToo Urban Naxals vs anti-Urban Naxal brigade who believe that the gang of five “intellectual” men and women was plotting to assassinate the PM and overthrow the government.   

Urban Naxalism seems the latest “threat” to the nation today, yet another iteration of “tukde tukde” politics. Still the meaning of the phrase remains a mystery.

What does it mean to be an urban Naxal? Vivek Agnihotri, that great compiler of the list of urban Naxals, used the word to describe a group of metropolitan intellectuals, activists, and influencers who want to bring down the government – although when asked for hard facts, Agnihotri seems to have trouble with the concept of what a fact even is. As for how urban Naxals can be identified, Agnihotri has been equal parts vague and conspiratorial, referring to them as invisible enemies who spread insurgency.

The vague definitions are no accident. For now, we know an urban Naxal might live in Hyderabad or in Faridabad. They might be a man or woman, professor, journalist, lawyer, or activist. They might be left-wing, or merely left of the state. They might have been targeted by the previous government, or by the police, under a gamut of shadowy laws like UAPA. The thread that ties this diverse group together, then, is that they are all supposedly “anti-national.”

Proponents of anti-nationalism have, again, not nailed down exactly what this weaponised term is supposed to mean. It has been used against communities who eat beef, from Muslims to Malayalis; to describe those who criticise India on foreign soil, like Arundhati Roy; or for those who dare to criticise India at all. Each of these so-called urban Naxal activists has been tarred with the same anti-national brush, long before any news emerged of prime ministerial assassinations.

A truly great nation requires uncomfortable conversations, engaged citizens who exercise their democratic rights.

If “anti-national” describes those who are against the interests of the country, it seems ludicrous to lump Sudha Bharadwaj, a lawyer who renounced US citizenship to represent the most underprivileged Indians, into that category, while lauding the spurious US-based academic Rajiv Malhotra, who recently requested his followers of Twitter to donate only to Hindu victims of the Kerala floods, as a nationalist. And yet, it comes down to a fundamental difference of opinion on one question: What is the purpose of the country, and for whom?

While it’s tempting to dismiss Agnihotri, Malhotra, and their ilk as intellectually dishonest hacks who play on a panicked “breaking India” rhetoric, they have not been able to mobilise their ideology for no reason. Their fear-mongering taps into real concerns over the state of the country. While equating anti-government dissent with treason suggests that the final arbiter of the nation’s interests is not its citizens or its Constitution, but the elected government, there is little argument that the BJP government has been democratically chosen by the people. For many, this means that their will reflects the will of the people, and must be respected. Others balk at the thought of representing India in a negative light on the global stage, and feel that someone like Malhotra strengthens the cultural narrative of India.

Those who fear anti-nationals and urban Naxals, see the nation as a monolith, an identity in and of itself that is worth preserving. The idea of a tukde-tukde gang breaking India is an insult to a hard-won national unity. However, those on the other side believe that a nation should function for its people.

What is the point of a country, after all, if not for the citizens it serves? If Sudha Bharadwaj and the other arrested activists work for the good of Indians, how can they be anti-national? Nationalism is about the best interests of everyone in the county and not just the popular majority, isn’t it?

An essay by Rana Dasgupta titled “The Demise of the Nation State” warns, “National political authority is in decline, and, since we do not know any other sort, it feels like the end of the world. This is why a strange brand of apocalyptic nationalism is so widely in vogue. But the current appeal of machismo as political style, the wall-building and xenophobia, the mythology and race theory, the fantastical promises of national restoration – these are not cures, but symptoms of what is slowly revealing itself to all: nation states everywhere are in an advanced state of political and moral decay from which they cannot individually extricate themselves.”

India, with its massive diversity of beliefs and customs, its constant contradictions and cheek-by-jowl disagreements, has never been easy to govern. But for some, good governance means upholding democratic values even when it’s next to impossible. This was the challenge, and the great potential, of the Indian experiment of 1947.

And unlike the arbitrary terms used to jail activists, democracy is well-defined, and has been honed over decades. It means that like fair elections, there must be freedom of speech: freedom to peacefully dissent, to loudly criticise any aspect of the country, and still be defended by the state. A truly great nation requires uncomfortable conversations, engaged citizens who exercise their democratic rights.

The most important aspect of India is not that it exists. Instead, it’s the reason why it came to exist in the first place: a firm belief that democracy must flourish, even in the unlikeliest of places.