As the Indian Republic completes another year, there is uncertainty in the air. India finds itself in the middle of nowhere. After gloating about being a global power, it has been reduced to justifying its domestic actions to the world outside. After seeming to emerge as a strong economy, it has slipped up badly — but the government appears to be cavalier about it. It has reposed faith in a leader who has stooped to nauseating arrogance and aloofness. The country is at a dangerous cusp, politically. It has chosen to undermine most institutions of prestige — in fact, its democracy itself. It has a regime that relies on surveillance and suppression. The “emperor” appears devoid of the clothing of compassion and concern. From the surge of hope and expectation that marked 2014, India has dipped to a resigned nothingness.
The spate of protests in the country since December last year needs to be understood in this larger context of anxiety and loss of hope. In a sense they represent the moment — they are indeterminate and inconclusive while the regime is unresponsive and ill-intentioned. While the protests do not seem to stop, they also don’t seem to be heading anywhere. In their spontaneity and persistence, the protests seem to indicate there is something deeply wrong with politics, governance and public policy. Yet, the state of stalemate carries a warning about valuable human energy evaporating without effectively addressing the ills that led to the protests in the first place.
Even then, the dispersed protests are an immensely valuable democratic resource for three reasons. First, the sheer resilience and patience of the protesters. We can ignore or belittle them only at the peril of our basic social sensibility. Those protesting are not demanding anything for themselves — that is a rare moment in a life of a democracy when people suffer simply to make a point on a matter of principle.
Two, these protests are also important as a warning. They warn all of us — the rulers, the elite, the bystanders. They warn us of a deeper rot, and not just about the CAA or NRC. More than the immediate provocations, the protests tell us something about larger societal apathy coupled with the ruling establishment’s cynicism. They tell us about the institutional callousness that marks this moment and inform us about the uneasy social status of many communities whose location in the Republic is always at the mercy of someone else. They warn us of the fragility of the social contract that holds our republic together. In fact, the protests alert us to the impending loss of the social contract which made the Indian Republic possible.
Third, the protests are a reminder of people’s energy that alone can invigorate the Republic’s democratic essence. And for that reason, they also constitute a moment of assurance in these times of scepticism. This assurance has multiple facets.
To begin with, the protests have exemplified the worth of constitutional and democratic methods of popular resistance. That Muslims are participating in the protests in large numbers is reassuring in itself. Minority politics often finds it difficult to fit itself into the vocabulary of “secular” politics, but these protests have helped us rediscover the strength of secular political routes for articulating the minority’s concerns. Having been at the receiving end for the past five years, the minorities have refused to be cowed down. But they have also refused to be driven to daredevilry. While articulating their exasperation, they have laid claims on the Constitution and tricolour. The claim on the nation and its democracy means that irrespective of who the protesters are — or whatever clothes they wear — the protests cannot be easily rejected as an agitation “by the minorities”. This has ensured that the issues at stake do not remain confined to the interests of a particular community. They, instead, appeal to anyone who is reasonably inspired by the wisdom of the Constitution — and the dream of democracy.
A vocabulary that draws on the Constitution and is inspired by national pride has opened up another positive possibility— the return of intergroup dialogue. One of the worrying developments of the 1990s was the eclipse of dialogue across caste, religion or region. The Republic has probably rediscovered that such conversations are possible — within the frameworks of our sectarian and identity-based social and political existence, there is scope for carving a common platform as citizens. This fits well with the initial non-homogenising imagination of the Republic wherein one does not have to give up other identities in order to be an Indian.
An agitation that began in response to an assault on the constitutional idea of citizenship has opened the doors for redefining the idea in a manner that would have made the Republic’s founding fathers proud of today’s protesters. On the occasion of Constitution Day, the PM chided citizens about not following their duties. Little would he have expected that citizens would take his admonition seriously. The current protests are a classic instance of citizens selflessly doing their duty towards the nation — the duty to protect the Constitution, to consolidate fraternity and to ask for dignity of all irrespective of religion. In fact, probably for the first time since the founding of the Republic, the Constitution has become the centre of public conversations. That the Preamble is being read out at small and large gatherings speaks of a resolve to enrich the spirit of the Constitution by taking it out of libraries and lawyers’ chambers.
But these are only silver linings. The Republic is gripped in melancholy. In part, this is because the government takes no note of the protests except through undemocratic police action and insensitive political name calling. The democratic urge of the protesters is matched by the complete cynicism of the ruling powers.
The other reason for the melancholy, as mentioned earlier, is the possibility that these protests would perhaps become a mere footnote in the history of Indian democracy’s demise. An absence of coordination, a romanticism reflected in the lack of leadership and a void in the realm of strategy stare the protesters in the eye. The Republic requires astute and resolute resistance while what we are witnessing presently are ideologically ambivalent and strategically ill-prepared series of autonomous protests. They may recover the vocabulary of the Constitution, they may show us the possibility of a new idea of citizenship. But only if the protests of today graduate into a movement, would there be a recoupling of the Indian state and democracy. And only then, will the Republic survive.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 25, 2020 under the title “A moment of melancholy”. The writer, based at Pune, taught political science and is currently chief editor of Studies in Indian Politics.