IN INDIA, THERE’S a mutiny brewing in every corner. Some are spontaneous. Many are manufactured.
When Narendra Modi took office as prime minister in May 2014, the opposition, smarting from defeat, predicted there would be ‘riot after riot’. His record in the 2002 Gujarat riots hung over him like the sword of Damocles aimed at his political jugular.
How could a man, who as chief minister of Gujarat had presided over the deaths of 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus in three blood-soaked days in late February and early March 2002, not cause riots across India as prime minister?
When riots failed to materialise, other mutinies were manufactured: artists returned their awards; historians wrote open letters denouncing a climate of intolerance; producer Kiran Rao declared she would leave the country (she didn’t); Arvind Kejriwal called the prime minister a psychopath; Rahul Gandhi questioned the Indian air strikes in Balakot, deep inside Pakistan.
In India, the mutinies never end. Having won Assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh four months before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, Congress was confident of ending the five-year shift of the ‘chowkidar’.
When the chowkidar turned the tables and got elected for another five-year shift, there was an eerie silence. But the mutineers soon received an unexpected gift: the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA).
The troops were quickly marshalled. The principal recruitment grounds were already in ferment: Jawaharlal Nehru University, where 32-year-old students labour over desultory PhDs, and Jamia Millia Islamia, a made-to-order tinderbox.
Other mutineers from among those disaffected by five years in the political wilderness rallied enthusiastically to the cause. Shaheen Bagh was a warning shot across the bow to the usurpers of power.
Fortune occasionally favours the anarchist. Serendipitously, US President Donald Trump arrived with his official entourage and a large possé of family. Within hours, the mutineers got their riot. They had spent nearly six years flailing and failing to engineer one. Now, in front of the presidential party and the international media, they finally had one, made to precise specifications.
But it wasn’t to prove enough. The courts had the effrontery to chargesheet the mutineers for the Delhi riots that killed over 50 people. The pandemic finally did to Shaheen Bagh what the Government had failed to do by design: end the capital city’s blockade.
A mutiny cannot succeed if the narrative spun around it doesn’t succeed. In the past, several narratives had been impaled by facts: church attacks that weren’t; a Dalit rape that wasn’t.
The Narendra Modi Government had itself to blame for allowing fraudulent narratives to acquire a life and momentum of their own. Modi refused to hold press conferences—a fatal mistake. The job of journalists is to be adversarial to those in power. The obligation of leaders is to be open with the media, however biased they might think sections of it are towards them.
If you don’t control the narrative, the narrative, however spurious, can subvert the facts. Open, even combative, press conferences denote strength, not weakness. They remain the unfinished business of Modi’s second term.
But the mutineers never give up. India’s complex social architecture allows many opportunities. The farm reforms presented themselves in the nick of time. Quickly, a coalition of the disaffected and disenfranchised was assembled. The catchment area was wide: communists, Punjab separatists, opposition opportunists and farmers’ wealthy commission agents.
The farmers of Punjab will return eventually to their fields. But in dealing with the farmers’ protests, the Modi Government has displayed a weakness: vacillation. When confronted by protests against policies that are in the public interest—as farm reforms clearly are—never compromise on core principles. If you do, it opens the way for a new mutiny.
When VS Naipaul wrote India: A Million Mutinies Now in 1990, he saw rumblings of dissent as a sign of India finally awakening from its postcolonial slumber.
Naipaul travelled around the country to research his book. He found areas of darkness slowly emerging from the shadows. A civilisation wounded by invasion and fallen into ennui was beginning to stir. In the last decade of his life, Naipaul—to his admirers’ consternation—had leant right.
Meanwhile, the left-leaning opposition in India has yet to fulfil its prophecy. The Modi Government might oblige it in the new year. It has promised to notify the CAA. The gleam is back in the eyes of the impatient mutineers seeking their elusive riot.