The recent arrests of Jamia student Asif Iqbal Tanha and two JNU students, Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal, both activists with Pinjra Tod, shows that the union home ministry is convinced the 'Bhima Koregaon model' works and must be replicated.
What is this model? You start with a few arrests, for instance, the first round of the Bhima Koregaon five or the Jamia students Safoora Zargar and Meeran Haider. Then you widen the net indiscriminately to build up a picture of an immense threat to the nation from a nexus of Dalits and Maoists, Islamists and Marxists or whatever. In actuality, the major threat this government fears is the Constitution, in whose name all these activists have worked, and which the ruling party wants to gut.
As with the Bhima Koregaon struggle, which was a symbol of Dalit assertion against neo-Brahminism, the BJP government is trying to completely change the narrative around the anti-CAA protests. At least six clear motives appear to be at work in both cases.
1) Delegitimize all constitutional protest, as well as efforts to invoke the Constitution. In media reporting of the Bhima Koregaon case, the term used is simply 'Bhima Koregaon violence' without without mentioning that it was primarily Dalits who were attacked leading to state-wide bandhs. At best, the term 'Bhima Koregaon' now evokes indifference, some vague idea of Dalits turning violent, or a 'conspiracy of anti-national elements'. A once brave resistance against caste oppression has been successfully tarnished. Similarly, an attempt is now being made to erase from public memory the energy, peacefulness and ingenuity of the anti-CAA satyagraha and portray it as part of some sort of violent conspiracy. By insisting that citizenship must be identity-equal, those involved fought for all of us, not for any self-interest.
2) Turn the actual victims of violence into perpetrators and exonerate the real culprits. The Hindutva leaders responsible for attacking Dalits at Koregaon are treated with kid gloves - Milind Ekbote is out on bail and Sambhaji Bhide was never arrested - while Dalit and pro-Dalit activists are arrested and framed in their place. Similarly, the fact that it was largely Muslims who were victims of targeted violence in the February 2020 Delhi riots is being purposefully erased, and FIRs are being filed against the anti-CAA protestors whom even the police is forced to acknowledge remained peaceful. At the same time, incendiary speeches made by BJP leaders Anurag Thakur ("goli maaro saalo ko") and Kapil Mishra, aimed at introducing violence into the narrative, are deliberately ignored.
3) Take revenge against any marginalized or minority group that dares to assert its rights constitutionally and confronts the RSS attempt to monopolise the country for Hindu upper castes. If Bhima Koregaon was an affront to Caste Hindu supremacy, the memory of the anti-CAA protests must be stamped out since they were the first major challenge to this regime, and to Amit Shah personally, since he was the face of the CAA.
4) Break the emerging spirit of solidarity by portraying democratic protests as the assertion of sectional interests. The BJP disliked the fact that students across the country, in IIMs, IITs, the IISC and elsewhere, joined the protest against the CAA, as did Dalit leader Chandrasekhar Aazad, or that hundreds of people lent their voice to Shaheen Bagh. Just as in 1857, the British singled out Muslims for exemplary punishment for a united anti-colonial rebellion, the police is trying to portray a movement which brought together people of different backgrounds behind the preamble to the Constitution as an 'Islamist-Marxist' plot.
5) Blaming student groups like the Jamia Co-ordination Committee (JCC), All India Students Association (AISA) or Pinjra Tod for organizing peaceful protests is also a clear attempt to break links between students and society. Unlike JNU, Jamia and Aligarh are embedded in the communities where they are located. The fact that JCC, Pinjra Tod and AISA moved beyond the campus to mobilize women in places like Jaffrabad and Seelampur is being held against them. In the RSS vision, student bodies must confine themselves to organizing college fests. There is also a clear game plan to clear campus space for the ABVP to dominate. Why isn't the 'Dil Ki Police' arresting the ABVP stormtroopers who attacked JNU and assaulted teachers and students on January 5? The courts, too, appear selective in what they consider 'urgent'.
6) The criminal cases have the useful effect of embroiling activists in legal battles, taking away scarce resources from all their other work and the questions they are asking of the state.
The Delhi Police proclaim that they are the people's police ('Dil ki police'). But the police narrative of a conspiracy by Muslims and activists in February 2020 closely echoes the RSS narrative on the ground. Exasperated Muslim refugees ask if they had planned the violence so carefully, why wouldn't they have ensured they had money, valuables and documents, instead of fleeing at night with nothing on them?
In reading the FIRs against the student activists, one can clearly see that they too have little to do with the offences and sections formally listed, and more to do with revenge. Legal anthropologists note how Indians took to colonial law because it was useful as a way to harass their enemies rather than because they expected any definite outcome. It now seems the state is adopting the same approach to its own law. Safoora Zargar, for instance, has been charged with conspiracy, murder, possessing arms etc., even though there is no evidence of this. After the Courts gave bail to Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal because there was no proof they had engaged in violence, the police arrested them again under even more stringent charges including attempt to murder.
The public's only recourse is to keep alive the Constitution and the causes that these people were fighting for.
(Nandini Sundar is a Delhi based sociologist.)
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