Are we witnessing a 1974 moment when students were protesting in Bihar and Gujarat at a time when Jayaprakash (JP) Narain was yet to emerge as the tallest leader?
Why have so many young people across India come out on to the streets to protest the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the attempt by the Narendra Modi government to put together a countrywide National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the National Population Register (NPR)? Is it simply because the CAA and the NRC are perceived to be discriminatory against a particular religious community that comprises one-seventh of the country’s population, namely, Muslims, and that this is the first time in India that religion has formed the basis of Parliament amending a law?
The reasons why the youth of the country are so agitated go beyond the CAA and the NRC that are seen by many as tools being used by an authoritarian and fascist regime that believes in a Hindu Rashtra (nation) and which is sending a clear message to Muslims and those belonging to other minority communities that they can live in this country only as second-class citizens. Many young Indians are extremely uncertain about their future. No jobs are being created. The economy has gone into a tailspin. Importantly, this scenario has to be understood in the context of the demographic profile of India: for the first time in the history of this country, around half of our total population of 135 crores is below the age of 26.
The importance of the youth and their ability to fearlessly challenge those in power and authority are being demonstrated. Although the protests have so far been confined to urban areas and educated sections of the youth, the unrest could spread to young people in rural areas in the months ahead. A significant aspect of what is taking place is that the protests have been largely spontaneous. Women have participated in the agitations in large numbers. It should also be noted that many non-Muslims have come forward to protect and support their Muslim sisters and brothers who have been targeted by the police and the administration in states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, states like Uttar Pradesh (the country’s most populous state where one out of six Indians reside) and Karnataka. Wherever the BJP is not in power, police personnel have not been violent towards the youth who are protesting, nor hold them responsible for the destruction of public property.
This kind of outpouring of anger was not witnessed after the government in New Delhi wrote down Article 370 of the Constitution and made two Union territories out of the undivided state of Jammu & Kashmir. Nor was there such a huge public outcry after the Supreme Court cleared the way for the construction of a Ram mandir (temple) at the site where the Babri masjid (mosque) built in the 16th century was demolished by mobs of Hindu fanatics in December 1992. What then was the tipping point for young women and men – some of whom had earlier voted for Modi and had never participated in public protests – to shed their reticence and come out on the streets in large numbers?
The answer to this question may be found in the changed political atmosphere of the day. The BJP just about scraped through in the Haryana assembly elections. The party was unable to form the government in Maharashtra. The Prime Minister made a fool of himself when he usurped the powers of the Union Cabinet late at night (by resorting to a rarely-used rule meant to be used in emergency situations like a natural calamity or a war), woke up the President early in the morning to sign on the dotted line and then called on the Governor in Mumbai to swear in Devendra Phadnavis and Ajit Pawar to form a government that did not last even four days!
The desperation of Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah became apparent because they could not do what they had earlier done in Goa, Manipur and Karnataka, that is, manipulate the electoral verdict by blatantly using money power. The BJP’s ally of 30 years, the Shiv Sena, ditched them. Among the first decisions of the Uddhav Thackeray government was to stop the cutting of even a single tree in the Aarey forest in Mumbai, freezing work on the project to build the ‘bullet train’ to Ahmedabad and withdrawing hundreds of police cases that were filed against those accused of violence in Bhima Koregaon in January 2018.
The supporters of the BJP and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), may have thought that the protests against the CAA and the NRC would be confined to Assam, parts of the North-East and West Bengal, but they were clearly taken aback with the scale of the agitations. Those in power perhaps thought the students’ agitations would not go beyond Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University. Once again, they were out of touch with reality as the protests spread like wildfire across the length and breadth of the country – and even to elite educational institutions, like the Indian Institutes of Management.
Internal resentment against Modi, Shah and RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has grown within the Sangh Parivar (family). But it would be unrealistic to expect an implosion within. Power is a great cementing force that keeps squabbling factions together. After voting to amend the Citizenship Act, the allies of the BJP in the National Democratic Alliance read the writing on the wall. They did a neat somersault and said they would oppose the implementation of the NRC. Such allies included the Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab, the Janata Dal (United) in Bihar and the Biju Janata Dal in Odisha. Then came the humiliating loss for the party in Jharkhand. Those opposed to the government have rallied together at Ranchi during the swearing-in ceremony of Chief Minister Hemant Soren.
The Modi government and BJP-ruled state governments have sought to curb dissent by shutting down access to the internet in many parts of the country and also by misusing the provisions of Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code. The big question: Will the combination of all these circumstances marks the “beginning of the end” of the ruling dispensation? Are we witnessing a 1974 moment when students were protesting in Bihar and Gujarat at a time when Jayaprakash (JP) Narain was yet to emerge as the tallest leader who would bring together all those opposed to Indira Gandhi before she imposed Emergency rule in June 1975?
It’s early days to make a prognostication. There is no JP-like personality to oppose Modi. Well before the 2014 general elections took place, he had successfully personalised politics in the country and converted elections in India’s multi-party democracy into an American-style two-person contest. The new reality is that voters are exercising their franchise differently in state elections and in national elections.
At the same time, there is an excessive concentration of power in the hands of two individuals. Many who had supported the BJP not very long ago are unhappy with the current state of affairs. The stagnation in the economy, the squeeze in the finances of state governments and inflation in the prices of onions, milk, vegetables and petroleum products, are hurting all sections of society, in particular, the poor. The Modi-Shah combine may not be able to continue to divert public attention by harping on its hyper-nationalist credentials and seeking to spur anti-Pakistan sentiments.
So what will the government do from where? Expect more populist sops in the budget, including cuts in personal income tax rates. Given the nature of this regime, it appears unlikely that it will go slow in coming down hard on its critics. One cannot be complacent. The struggle will be long and protracted. The regime is certain to become more oppressive. Modi and Shah will continue to follow a divide-and-rule policy against the Opposition that had been used effectively in the past by India’s British colonial masters.
The time has come for progressive forces all over India to align together against the regime and even form temporary tactical alliances against some of its erstwhile ideological opponents. The Second World War would not have ended and Hitler would not have been defeated if Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill had not come together. It took a JP to get the Left, the Right and those who left Indira Gandhi to come together. The unanswered question: How soon will that juncture come when all the forces opposed to Modi and Shah would be able to sink their differences against a common enemy?
(The writer is an independent journalist, author, publisher, documentary film-maker and teacher with over 42 years of work experience.)
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