A protestor at a demonstration against the Citizenship Amendment Act in New Delhi, December 2019 (Photo: Getty Images)
Popular account has it that India is in the throes of an anti-democratic revolution. Dissent—the most precious freedom available to citizens to protest against government—is about to be squashed by a regime that has a brute parliamentary majority. Worse, Indians at large are complicit in this killing of freedom. India, while formally remaining a democracy, is entering an authoritarian phase of the kind that it has never seen before.
If this is to be believed, political India is staring at an abyss. Activists protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) have been taken into custody by using the harsh Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 (UAPA), a law that imposes stiff conditions for securing bail once someone is detained. Then there is the second-order ‘chilling effect’ of such arrests on the ability of others to engage in dissent. Everything is pretty much in the freezer.
The qualifier ‘if’, however, gives away the game. Matters are more complicated than the standard narrative. This is for the simple reason that any story has at least two sides to it. This one is no different.
What is notable about dissent in terms of ideas and those who propagate them—intellectuals, activists and some prominent journalists—is their reliance on the past. Even when dissent is about present events, the explanation and, in many cases, the genesis of ideas themselves lie in the past. In the case of current events, one can discern two such periods: the 1970s and the first decade of the 21st century.
Activists and intellectuals often hark back to the 1970s while explaining the present situation. The attempt at linking the present and the past is clear: just as the 1970s was a period of ‘chilling’ of dissent, so is the current time. The Emergency of 1975 led to a crackdown on the opposition. Politicians, activists, academics and anyone remotely seen as opposed to the regime of Indira Gandhi were locked away. Basic rights such as the freedom of speech and freedom of peaceful assembly were suspended and the judiciary signed on the dotted line penned by the executive. It does not take much imagination to see the alleged parallels between the two periods. Finally, then as now, there was a strong Prime Minister at the helm.
These parallels are held to have explanatory power and an obvious prescription as well: whenever a strong leader heads the government in India, rights, freedoms, norms and institutional checks and balances are weakened or dismantled.
There is, however, another legacy of the 1970s that is elided in this debate: the exhaustion of countervailing political ideas and the loss of intellectual traction for dissent. If one sketches a line from December 16th, 1971 to June 25th, 1975, one can see two rival political ideas: Nationalism and Nothing. In those eventful years, India dismembered Pakistan, carried out a ‘peaceful nuclear explosion’ and calmly merged Sikkim with itself, which was until that time an independent kingdom. With each of these events, Indira Gandhi’s stock went up even as that of the opposition went down in a zero-sum game fashion. Unlike the present era when the opposition is defined in terms of well-recognised coalitions or powerful regional or national parties, the term opposition was fluid then.
Coalitions were not known and ‘arrangements’ were like shifting sands. The weakness of opposition parties had as much to do with organisational disarray as with lack of motivating ideas. There was a simple slogan that acted as a substitute for ideas: “Indira hatao, desh bachao.” This is a neat parallel from that era, one that is fervently held by intellectuals today, even if names have changed.
In the six years that Modi has been Prime Minister, permutations and combinations of ‘dissent’ amount to nothing more than intellectual vacuum unable to cope with Hindu resurgence. Much as this class wants to ‘intervene’ in Hinduism and make it ‘safe’, it is too late for that
Share this on
Now, as then, there are no countervailing ideas. There is, however, a feeble attempt at creating a match: nationalism versus a compound of liberal democracy, secularism and federalism. Contemporary dissent is about preserving the latter set of ideas while trying to contain nationalism. At one level, the contest is even more one-sided than in the 1970s. Then, there was a catch-all “Indira hatao, desh bachao” that Indians at large could comprehend. The current amalgam is beyond the grasp of the ordinary Indian. It should surprise no one that dissent has virtually no traction except among a microscopic minority of intellectuals. What people see are individuals booked under the UAPA for riots and threats to dismember the country.
While the 1970s provide ‘atmospherics,’ so to speak, for the current round of dissent, what about the substance of the ideas themselves? These are much nearer in time, dating to the first decade of the 21st century, roughly from the penultimate year of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Government (2003) to the Tadmetla massacre in April 2010 when 76 CRPF troopers were killed in Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada district.
These seven years witnessed two simultaneous trends. One, the continued fragmentation of Indian politics that began in the late 1980s but dramatically accelerated from the mid-1990s. Two, India appeared ungovernable in these years. Maoist violence in the ‘Red Corridor’ and recurring rounds of mass protests in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) made the Union Government appear powerless even in those areas where it set policy.
Clear-sighted analysts and scholars observed this and based their conclusions accordingly. Public intellectuals went even further. For Kashmir, the ‘Indian end-game’ was held to be progressive autonomy for the province. The famous six-point formula for peace in J&K, dished out by the Delhi Policy Group, included recommendations that were anathema to any government in New Delhi even as they seemed inevitable. The nomenclature for the governor and the chief minister was to be re-done. They were to be called Sadar-i-Riyasat and Wazir-e-Azam; the governor of the state was to be elected by the State Legislative Assembly; the state was to be exempted from the purview of Article 356 (that deals with breakdown of constitutional machinery); the state government was to have a much bigger say in appointment of officers to the All-India Services; a regional election commissioner was to be appointed to ‘help’ the Election Commission of India and finally, ‘iron-clad’ guarantees to preserve these devolved measures.
Even a thoughtful diplomat like Chandrashekhar Dasgupta—whose nationalist credentials are beyond doubt—considered it wise that local politics in the state should not acquire a too pro-India flavour. His prescription: The ruling party in J&K should offer only conditional cooperation to the ruling party at the Centre and, at the level of state politics, the party needs to adopt a stance of qualified opposition to the party at the Centre ‘in order to maintain the image of a local party dedicated to advancing the interests of the state.’ (See his essay ‘Jammu and Kashmir in the Indian Union: The Politics of Autonomy’ in Prospects for Peace in South Asia, edited by Rafiq Dossani and Henry S Rowen, Stanford University Press, 2005.)
Whatever be the extent of sugar-coating, for all practical purposes, J&K was to be carved out as a distinct zone from the rest of India. Seminarists in Delhi openly speculated that a political package for J&K that restored ‘autonomy’ was just a matter of time.
If these ideas had some plausibility—given the unusual circumstances in which J&K acceded to India—those about Maoist-affected states had virtually no currency, even in theory. But that did not prevent intellectuals from arguing for the Union Government to engage in ‘negotiations’ with Maoists. Unlike J&K where the security situation was under control, the forests of central and eastern India were ‘no-go areas’ for security forces unless they ventured there in strength. The absence of any infrastructure—roads, communications and basic healthcare facilities among others—ensured that the heated ‘development versus security’ debates of that time were meaningless. It was a common sight to see helicopters ferry injured paramilitary troopers to state capitals from the interior areas of states like Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand after deadly encounters with Maoists. One can still remember the grim faces of chief ministers who could do virtually nothing. The Centre was powerless in its own way.
In the wake of this fragmentation —weak prime ministers, inchoate Parliaments and intransigent coalition partners—a set of new ideas gained extraordinary force. Federalism: India could no longer be governed from Delhi and progressively powers had to be distributed to states. In J&K, this was grafted to another idea that was to mutate over time. Back then, it was that India needed J&K for secularism to survive. A decade later, it transmuted into the assertion that ‘autonomy of India’s only Muslim-majority state should not be tinkered with.’ On the eve of Narendra Modi’s arrival in Delhi, these ideas were articles of faith. India could no longer be run as a centralised state.
In the last six years, these twin trends have been reversed in a near absolute fashion. In addition, other threats—such as the demographic danger to Northeast India from unchecked illegal migration—have been sought to be arrested by the CAA and the possibility of creating a nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC). Article 370—that provided a special status to J&K—has been abrogated. The ruling party has secured a comfortable majority in Parliament for the second time in a row.
All this has demonetised the ideas that were formulated when the Union executive bled strength. On top of that, another symbolic idea—secularism, as imagined by intellectuals—was rendered meaningless after the CAA. When combined with the NRC, many viewed this as fatally weakening the prospects for Muslim politics in India. This idea is never elaborated publicly in opeds or in any other format. But for many ‘secular’ intellectuals, this was not just a countervailing idea: the influx of illegal migrants could at some point serve as a balancing force against the middle class and large swathes of the electorate that were swayed away—possibly forever—by Hindutva. This is the stuff of conspiracy theories but the vehemence with which the CAA was opposed—including an outbreak of deadly riots in Delhi—left many ordinary Indians wondering. All this came after repeated assurances by the Union Home Minister that the rights of no Muslim citizen would be affected in any way. The fact that the CAA is geared towards prospective citizens and not existing ones cut no ice.
This complete reversal of the trends seen in the decade from 2003 to 2013 devalued each major idea championed by intellectuals during that time: Federalism, secularism and liberal democracy. The psychological blow from the irrelevance of these ideas, resulting from changed political circumstances, has been immense. This is the fons et origo of contemporary dissent. As in the 1970s, the ideational challenge to nationalism has been feeble. In intellectuals’ imagination, this is close to a lost cause, for Indian nationalism is now fatally contaminated with ‘political Hinduism,’ making it a toxic brew that is irreversibly mixed in the body politic. Dissent is now for dissent’s sake and serves a cathartic function. It exists in some ether far removed from day-to-day realities. That, however, does not matter.
On the day of the bhoomipuja in Ayodhya (August 5th), political scientist-turned-politician Yogendra Yadav penned an opinion where he excoriated the liberal class for the destruction of secularism in India. He wrote: ‘Today, we must recognise that secularism was defeated because its custodians refused to engage in a battle of ideas among the people. Secularism was defeated because it disavowed our languages, because it failed to communicate with the language of traditions…specifically, secularism was defeated because it chose to mock Hinduism instead of developing a new interpretation of Hinduism suitable for our times.’
These are bitter words but they have truth to them. Ideas have the power of belief in them as long as they lead an independent existence. Once they and their bearers are seen to serve power, changes in the formula of power can endanger them. The possibility of their losing traction with people they are supposed to convince becomes a distinct possibility. Secularism, federalism and liberal democracy (but not democracy in itself) have met this fate and are widely doubted by the people of India. The anger and agony of those who pushed these ideas are now sought to be elevated as dissent. Put even mildly, this is a shibboleth. In the six years that Modi has been Prime Minister, permutations and combinations of ‘dissent’ amount to nothing more than intellectual vacuum unable to cope with Hindu resurgence. Much as this class wants to ‘intervene’ in Hinduism and make it ‘safe’, it is too late for that. Yadav’s analysis is on the mark.
Dissent and voice are valuable attributes and should not be junked in a diverse country like India. But for people to believe dissenters and dissenting ideas, a degree of honesty is necessary, one that the current crop of intellectuals is incapable of. What can be done? The old saying about retracing steps when one loses sense of direction is an obvious starting point. Is that possible? Here, one enters an uncertain domain. These ideas have been wedded to a certain political outlook for so long—from their gestation after Independence to their becoming governing principles later—that any intellectual re-evaluation is likely to be painful, if not impossible.