In cities large and small across this vast country, young Indians have erupted in protest. They have marched in anger, in frustration, and in solidarity. Some demonstrations have turned violent, but the vast majority are meant merely as expressions of patriotism - of belief in a better India. Most understand the stakes: The CAB and the NRC together have opened up the nightmarish possibility that Muslims across India will be forced to prove their citizenship, and that they will have no recourse if they fail to do so.
Naturally, as is only right and appropriate, many in these gatherings are from Muslim backgrounds. But the bigots will be disappointed that so many of their fellow Indians of other faiths, or of no faith at all, have come out in support. Even some cynical liberals - in which awful number you should probably count this writer - might confess to being pleasantly surprised.
These protests are spontaneous. There is no political party behind them; no clever organisers are pulling the strings; no single figurehead is sitting on a stage and fasting. This is indeed, why they are remarkable. But, enthused though I am by the sight of so many people standing up for what is right, such energy is very difficult to sustain in the absence of any organised backbone.
Is that what the government wants? Does it hope that if it just rides out this period, this too will be forgotten, as students go back home and people are forced to return to work? Perhaps. For the protestors, the lesson must surely be to keep pushing as long as they can. Even without an organisation, protests last longer when they have a specific purpose in mind, a clear endgame. So the protestors should ask for a specific promise: the repeal of the CAB, perhaps, and a public commitment from the Prime Minister to not force a national NRC.
On some levels, the protests are already proving to be a success. First, they provide unexpected and unasked-for strength to India's besieged minorities who have long thought their compatriots had abandoned them. It would have been both wrong and unwise to leave these Indians bereft and alienated for much longer. Now, at least, Muslims know that there are many still willing to put themselves on the line for India's beleaguered secularism.
Second, the next generation of middle-class Indians are being politicised. The Modi mystique depends upon universal adulation among the young. This is difficult to pull off when some young people are laughing at you and others are booing. Leaders like Modi - people who seek to embody the entire nation - typically know the importance of every citizen feeling that the leader understands and listens to them. In this case, Modi has not managed that. Those among the protestors who might have soured on the government form a small group as compared to the hundreds of millions who still admire the Prime Minister. But is an influential group. These are tomorrow's taste-makers and leaders: The future writers, scholars, artists and executives that, till yesterday, the government could have assumed would quietly become the building blocks of the Hindu Rashtra.
Third, the clever trap that they set for dissenters, especially Muslims, seems to have caught nobody. Some protests have turned violent - and were immediately seized upon by the prime minister, who directed his audience to the "clothes" of the protestors, by which he meant that Those Muslims Were Rioting Again. But the fact is that the number of non-violent protests far outweighs the violence; and anyone who has seen images with skullcaps or headscarves scattered here and there in those large, peaceful crowds knows better than to assume that rioting is what India's minorities truly want to do with their lives. Yes, the media will continue to push the government's agenda. "Journalists" on some news channels happily play grainy clips of violence over and over and literally, without any basis, identify the perpetrators as "Bangladeshis". (Why even have an NRC? Just ask these journalists.) But there are enough images of Gandhian and Ambedkarite resistance for that narrative to stumble.
Is that why the government is so desperate in its provocations, and why its reaction has been so intense? Allow large peaceful protests, and all of India will see that they have nothing to fear except for these awful laws. The cities with no crackdowns have seen large peaceful demonstrations. But if you announce prohibitory orders, lathi-charge crowds, beat up students, detain elderly intellectuals, push demonstrators on to buses - then surely these large angry crowds will not be able to retain their calm? And even if they do, if you shut down public transport, arbitrarily block highways and force the cancellation of flights - that will cause people to blame the disruption on the protestors, won't it? Can anyone provide a cogent explanation for the strange difference between how BJP and non-BJP ruled states have approached this apparently dire threat to law and order?
And fourth, the government has not won yet another battle without a shot being fired, metaphorically or literally. Earlier protests against rural distress, land acquisition, and so forth could be shrugged off as inevitable under any government. So far, all its big unique and ideological moves, from demonetisation to Article 370, have led to grumbling but not to mobilisation. Everything looked impossible, till it was done - and then the public acceptance made it look inevitable. They could have been pardoned for feeling that they truly understood the people in a way that no other leaders of India ever have. This myth has now been exploded. Perhaps, the next time they move forward on the RSS' long-standing agenda of change, there might well be a certain more humility and more careful calculation of what the country's response might be. They have not been convinced to turn back, but at least they will look down as they walk. We may still be drifting towards a dystopia of detention camps, ghettoes, violence and perpetual poverty - but at least there are now obstacles in that path.
(Mihir Swarup Sharma is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.)
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