India in 2020 looks like the United States in 1968. France in 1968 was in a similar situation. My recollection of 1968 is that normal political activity in the US had failed and the ‘causes’ had passed to the hands of students in universities and colleges. The main cause in 1968 was the Vietnam War.
The US was fighting a war in South Vietnam ostensibly to push back the advance of the Communists who controlled North Vietnam and to ‘save democracy’. In the aftermath of World War II, there was popular support for the doctrine of defending and protecting ‘liberal democracies’. The most visible battle line was drawn in Europe. There were the so-called Democratic countries and the so-called Communist countries. Winston Churchill called the dividing line the Iron Curtain.
The US had a draft. Young men were obliged to serve in the defence forces. In the initial years of the Vietnam War, many volunteered to serve. As the war dragged on, and the lies of successive governments were exposed, support turned into scepticism; scepticism turned into suspicion; and suspicion turned into opposition.
It was the youth — especially students and the draftees — who first raised the voice of protest. They asked, why is the US fighting a war in distant Vietnam? Why are young Americans dying in the hundreds? The political system failed to provide satisfactory answers.
The elected representatives in the US Congress were late in catching the wind. When they did, successive US Administrations dug in their heels and vociferously defended the war. Whether it was Kennedy’s, Johnson’s or Nixon’s, the refrain was the same: victory is just one battle away. Surprisingly, it was Richard Nixon — a hawk and resolutely anti-Communist — who sensed that the US was fighting a hopeless and unwinnable war and decided to pull out.
Something Terribly Wrong
The ferment that we witness in the campuses of Indian universities and colleges bears a striking resemblance to the events of 1968. Students and youth have sensed that something is ‘terribly wrong’ in the way the country is being governed. There were many sparks like appointment of vice-chancellors with dubious credentials, unwarranted interference by bumptious governors/chancellors, flawed appointments of teachers, mismanagement in the conduct of examinations, restrictions on student union activities, fee hikes, etc.
Some university administrations were politically biased and favoured one political group of students over others and triggered clashes — the most notable was the administration of Jawaharlal Nehru University that openly encouraged the ABVP, the students’ wing of the RSS. Voices of protest were labelled the tukde tukde gang. Sedition cases were slapped against student leaders.
If the new ‘normal’ in universities was frightening, the ‘normal’ in the country at large was also oppressive. Every day brought more horror stories of rape and lynching, trolling and abuse, and arbitrary arrests. Mendacious boasts about growth, development and jobs angered young men and women who were apprehensive about the future, especially about getting jobs. An observant student could discern that the force driving the new ‘normal’ and legitimising it was the majoritarian arrogance of the rulers that manifested itself in many ways: intolerance of dissent, contempt for other faiths, hard approach to enforcing law and order, censorship and other restrictions (such as shutdown of Internet), prolonged detention without charges, imposition of reactionary dogmas (‘inter-caste or inter-faith marriage will not be allowed’), etc.
Refusal to Engage
At the political level, the majoritarian arrogance was visible in the refusal by the government to engage with the Opposition and in rushing through controversial legislation in Parliament. Here is an example: Articles 5 to 11 of the Constitution of India deal with citizenship. The Constituent Assembly debated these provisions for three months before the Articles were adopted. By contrast, the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2019 was approved by the Cabinet on December 8, 2019, passed in both Houses of Parliament, and notified as a law on December 11 — all within 72 hours!
More than political parties — some of whom did extraordinary flip-flops — it was the students and youth who woke up to the real threat to India and the Constitution. They realised that the majoritarian arrogance and steps would lead to authoritarianism; more than that, it would divide India and pit Indian against Indian. Some Indians would become less than others in terms of rights, privileges and opportunities. It would be a catastrophic throwback to the India of 70 years ago and would erase the gains made since Independence.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Act has pierced the indifference and apathy of the younger generation. The older generation has been put to shame. Thousands of young men and women have poured into the streets to protest, to march, to hold candlelight vigils, to wave the National Flag and to read the Preamble of the Constitution and reflect on its intangible but enduring values. As expected, the ruling class has reacted with blind fury, bluster and banalities, but the rulers are nervous.
The Prime Minister has allowed his Home Minister to assert that “we will not withdraw an inch from CAA”. It seems there is an irresistible force and an immovable block. Someone — or something — has to yield. On that will hang the fate and future of India. It’s an unhappy beginning to the New Year.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 12, 2020 under the title ‘New normal angers youth’.
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