Analytically, we have to admit that the anti-CAA protests have, for the moment, reached a strategic dead end. Many protestors, especially in Shaheen Bagh, have displayed the Gandhian virtues of courage and steadfastness. The protests politicised new constituencies, including women and students, and provided the glimmer that the republic would not topple over. But the protests risked running up against three dominant narratives of our contemporary moment: Communalism, authoritarianism and elite cohesion. These narratives have, for now, trapped the movement into being a curiosity at best, a pretext at worst. The movement revealed more about contemporary India, than it has succeeded at resistance.
The anti-CAA movement was poignant in its use of a new constitutional language to resist the evisceration of citizenship. It held on to that language despite grave provocation from the state, and a despairing lack of support from independent institutions. But the ruling dispensation was keen to portray it as a communal movement. It portrayed it as a velvet glove in which the iron fist of jihad was cloaked. If one moves out of our echo chambers, it must be admitted that this narrative succeeded to a shocking degree. The ruling dispensation will accelerate this narrative in coming days. The second was the violence in Delhi, which, even more than the violence in UP, allowed the communal shadow to hang over the movement.
For the ruling dispensation, the movement, and the riots that accompanied Donald Trump’s visit, were part of a single plot to defame India. People often wonder why the rioting took place to coincide with Trump’s visit. Was it an accident? Whose political purposes did it serve? We can speculate on that question. But, for the ruling party and its affiliates, the timing of the riots served as exactly the grist they needed for their propaganda mills. Judging by the tone of publications like Organiser, and sections of the Hindi media, the riots served the function of delegitimising the movement as a force that will stop at nothing, including embarrassing India. The violence allowed them to claim that all constitutional protest ends in a communal dénouement.
There are reasons why the foisting of the communal narrative around the anti-CAA protests has gained the upper hand. Communal propaganda now so seamlessly works within democratic institutions, mass media and social media. It has become so second nature and ubiquitous, disseminated through so many respectable channels of information, that they have become almost normal political reactions. In this new information order, the asymmetry between truth and doubt works against any movement of resistance, since all you have to do is cast doubt on it. The constitutional subjectivity that is being formed in the protest is running up against our diminishing ability to think from the standpoint of someone else, particularly those who might be made vulnerable.
Orwell once said, “one defeats the fanatic precisely by not being a fanatic oneself.” This was sage advice. But it underestimated the fact that under certain conditions, the success of communal propaganda is that it is already overdetermined who is a fanatic: The minority and the civic resister were already constructed as such. Under such circumstances, some citizens struggle to claim the civic standing to be heard, even when they are making demands that can easily be addressed.
If the movement became an occasion to deepen communalism, it also becomes the pretext for deepening authoritarianism. For those whom the government could not tar with the brush of communalism, it took out the card of anarchism. In some ways, the fact that someone like Harsh Mander has to be in the dock for advocating constitutional protest is the ultimate parody of Indian democracy. The idea of peaceful political and civic mobilisation has become anathema to the new dispensation. If equal citizenship is communalism in disguise, sparks of peaceful mobilisation are anarchism in disguise.
The authoritarian repression of anarchism will come in three different forms. It has become the pretext for the kind of indiscriminate repression being unleashed in states like UP. It is also increasingly manifest in the Supreme Court’s approach to governance. The Court has become the custodian of the rule by law, not the rule of law. The third form in which repression will come is the ruling party’s core constituency’s demand: That one of the reasons India is not doing well is that the government has been too soft on its critics. The fact of visible resistance or criticism of government is taken as a sign of weakness, not of the strength of Indian democracy. The political climate has now been created for further crackdown on dissent and Indian democracy will have to brace itself. Resistance, in the short run, becomes the pretext for repression.
Well entrenched states are not easy to move, especially if there is elite cohesion. The BJP might like to present itself as a victimised outsider, but the fact is that it is now the state and the establishment, with a firm grip on all tentacles of power. It is difficult to come to the conclusion that, at this moment, the anti-CAA protests have led to any defections or even softening in the establishment. No movement can succeed without some cracks in the establishment. In fact, we are seeing an authoritarian consolidation for two reasons. One, the political opposition to the government has not come up with an even minimal show of political or organisational strength. The conduct of the AAP, both in its abdication in the face of riots, and its imprimatur on authoritarian governance tactics in the aftermath, has convinced most people that there is no effective political cover for taking on the government. The Congress may have taken a stand, but it has not displayed the minimal organisational strength to be even a mild counterweight. So the self-fulfilling dynamic of authoritarianism continues, it is becoming our default condition. Every challenge seems to reveal its power, instead of shaking it.
Finally, if the exaggerated spectres of anarchism and communalism have worked, it is because it is convenient for us to believe in their power. It simplifies our political life by blaming India’s weaknesses at the door of these internal enemies. As the economic crisis deepens, the calls for order will only grow. The anti-CAA protests gave us the poetry to resist. But the hard plumbing of an alternative politics is yet to be worked out.
This article first appeared in the print edition on March 10, 2020 under the title ‘Politics after the poetry’. The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express.