The tsunami of protests across the length and breadth of the country has several fascinating facets. Are there any significant pointers in it? First and foremost, these are clearly the civil society’s autonomous protests, devoid of any organic links with any political party. Barring issuing some statements in support or occasional visits by leaders to a protest site, even political parties have kept themselves at a distance from these protests. Underlying the autonomy is perhaps an unarticulated feeling that the issues evoking the protests go beyond electoral battles; that these concern the very life and blood of society’s future. There is also an unarticulated assumption that the solution lies beyond the ken of one or the other political party or indeed all parties together. Therefore, reliance on a party or a group, any group, might end up in diversion, which often becomes equivalent of betrayal. The one possible link with political parties is perhaps a potential realisation by them that they might be left aside by the people if they keep the distance intact — a case of people leading the parties instead of the other way round.
The power of resistance
A consequence of civil society’s direct involvement is that it is refusing to buy the current regime’s divisive Hindu-Muslim formula. This formula has already fetched the National Democratic Alliance two terms in Parliament but seems to have hit a wall. Resistance began with society’s response to uncalled-for police brutality on students in Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University. And soon the chief target of resistance became the Citizenship Amendment Act-National Register of Citizens-National Population Register strategy devised by the regime to pit the Muslim community against the rest. The wide-ranging and unrelenting participation of people from all groups in the protests is clear enough signal of society’s refusal to fall for it. Interesting also is the Muslim community’s refusal to fall for the strategy of making their identity dichotomous with their Indian identity; the Muslims have instead sought to assert their religious identity in full concert with their Indian national identity by flaunting both at the same time, which in any case is far truer than the one which counterposes the two. The resistance from the students is an amazing aspect even as it is wise to remind ourselves that their community has been the most energetic element in India’s various resistance movements — and for that matter elsewhere around the world, whether in the anti-colonial struggles in Asia, Africa and Latin America, or the anti-Vietnam war protests in the U.S. Their protests have also grown in dimensions from repression in universities to the regime’s hitherto successful Divide and Rule policy and its latest version encapsulated in the CAA-NRC-NPR. Neither has the government’s incessant attempts to convince them of the honesty of its purpose, which could also be called brainwashing, failed to persuade them, nor has the repeated assertion by Home Minister Amit Shah of not budging an inch deterred them. One of the most vociferous charges made against the government has been its grave attempt to prevent students and others from questioning it by simply branding such people as “anti-nationals” of which various equivalents have been newly minted: “anti-Modi”, “anti-Hindu”, “Urban Naxal”. The government has also unleashed a barrage of filthy abuse and threats on social media through a highly organised IT machine under the BJP’s control. A good segment of the media — now being called ‘Modia’ — has also pitched in with its aggressive campaign of malice against anyone with the mildest of doubts against the government’s extravagant claims. Yet, all this could not crush the spirit of questioning, especially on campuses, repression notwithstanding. The examples are now beyond count: there are protests in Hyderabad University, Jadavpur University, Banaras Hindu University, the Indian Institutes of Technology, Aligarh Muslim University, Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi University and even in some of the safe and secure private universities. Jawaharlal Nehru University is an outstanding instance of standing up to repression for over four years now. Repression in any case is not the most durable of all forms of governance; this is one of history’s abiding lessons. The wider society is waking up to the limits of repression as state policy and responding.
Quality of leadership
One of the most endearing aspects of the current wave of protests is the exemplary quality of leadership displayed by students from the underprivileged social strata. Kanhaiya Kumar has become a national figure thanks largely to the Modi government’s atrocious handling of his “crime” which enabled him to demonstrate his extraordinary oratorical skill and his clear-headed perspectives to put forward his case with almost devastating ease. It is fascinating that the extempore slogan he raised on the JNU campus for “ azadi ” on his release from jail in 2016 has now become the national war cry for students and the youth. But he is one among innumerable other emerging leaders of student movements across the country. It is heartwarming to see young women taking up verbal, and now even physical, challenges to articulate their feelings and thoughts lucidly, fearlessly and forcefully. JNU Students’ Union president Aishe Ghosh has once again occupied premier space on this front, thanks again to the mishandling by the Modi regime. One also comes across a large number of such promising student leaders on local channels speaking in their local language. This is where one sees promise of a new generation refusing to buy any “line” of any party but laying down its own terms for the country’s future discourse. The conflict is no longer between the BJP and the Opposition parties’ vote banks; it is now firmly situated between the BJP government and the people of India.