Anger is amongst the most powerful of emotions. It is also ephemeral. Therefore, how the sentiment is channeled across time and space determines how its incidence will eventually be judged — as an enduring celebration or as mere frustration. We have been furious often, but have failed consistently in harnessing our rage for sustainable change. Hopefully, the current clamour over citizenship is different.
In 1979, the Mandal Commission was established with a mandate to identify socially or educationally backward classes of India. Though its report, which advocated reservation, had been completed in 1983, the V P Singh government declared its intent to implement the report in August 1990. This led to widespread student protests including self-immolation by Rajiv Goswami, a student of Deshbandhu College in Delhi. While the dispossessed rallied for reservation, the privileged defended their privilege. Since then, there have been political, administrative and judicial efforts to increase access for the marginalised by way of reservations. However, caste-based discrimination has only worsened outside the walls of institutions that grant symbolic space.
In 2010, the self-immolation of Tunisian, Mohamed Bouazizi, triggered the Arab Spring — a series of anti-government protests across the Islamic world. The early hopes that these movements would end corruption, increase political participation, and bring about greater economic equity collapsed in the wake of the counter-revolutionary moves by foreign state actors in Yemen and of the Saudi-UAE linked military deep state in Egypt, the regional and international military interventions in Bahrain and Yemen, and the civil wars in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen.
In 2011, the India Against Corruption movement evoked widespread resentment against corruption. Given the subject’s secular appeal, campaigners came from across socio-economic strata and geographies. On December 27, the government passed the Lokpal and Lokayukta Bill 2011. Among the several outcomes of the protracted agitation was a hope that the venality of the state and its arms would end. Yet, graft at all levels continues unabated.
In 2012, in the aftermath of the Delhi sexual assault case, millions of Indians poured onto the streets across the country. A legislation — the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013 (Nirbhaya Act) — was passed by both houses of the Parliament in March 2013. It provided for amendments to the Indian Penal Code, the Indian Evidence Act, and the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 on laws related to sexual offences. For good measure, we got a Nirbhaya Fund too, for schemes that would improve women’s safety. Yet, women’s safety continues to be a distant dream.
What was common across all these episodes? Each of these initially had at least two kinds of participants — those who were impacted by the event and those who were sympathetic to the cause. In most cases, the former continue to suffer and persist, while the latter moved on. In many of the cases cited above, the revolutionaries sought institutional and specifically, legislative responses; they gave up too easily. The causes warranted additional societal efforts.
In 2019, people across the country have rallied against the Citizenship Amendment Act on the grounds that it discriminates against Indians based on religion. At least 24 lives have been lost in the protests. Among the remedies that have been sought, the ones trending call for a rollback and for state governments to reject it. Sloganeering apart, will these steps truly end religion based discrimination? Legislative changes may be necessary, but they will be woefully insufficient in altering mindsets.
Based on the evidence from India and elsewhere, our grim reality points to a few lessons that the current crop of rebels must bear in mind. Rallying for causes needs a consistent critical mass in an attention-deficit world. Will the movement have enough votaries to sustain it when the news cycle changes? Seeking legislative answers as magic bullets is the surest way to prematurely lose our battles. Real remedies may be above and beyond the political and institutional realms.
The current uprising points to growing national consciousness. It seems to be saying that on discrimination, we have had enough and we want our voices to be heard. What we are yet to discover is whether the revolutionaries will do enough. Do they have the strategy and stamina it takes to defend an important term in the preamble of our Constitution, and move beyond it, towards creating a deeper resistance enterprise?
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 26, 2019 under the title “Protests And After”. The writer is founder, WalkIn. He previously co-founded, FourthLion Technologies, a political campaign planner.