The protests at Shaheen Bagh and Jamia Millia Islamia, not to mention the protests inspired by them across the country against the CAA-NRC-NPR, were a remarkable break from the past and a repudiation of stereotypes. Virtually leaderless masses of students and women took to the streets to register their presence and participation in Indian democracy.
Of course, the usual suspects, activists and would-be leaders from fringe movements, tried to muscle in whilst others put up barriers for the leaders and parties, with whom they had real or imagined scores to settle.
The crowds had Jamaat-e-Islami supporters who kept secularists away, ultra-left Marxists who queried the invites to former ministers of the Congress, new-age Dalit cause converts who did not wish to cede space to established parties, local musclemen and land grabbers who wanted to use the movement to create safe havens, genteel social activists constantly wary of the potential for confrontation and local politicians trying to elbow each other out. With the filing of the charge-sheets, there is apprehension that fifth columnists had infiltrated the unique movement from the beginning. With friends like these, who needs enemies? When I tried to persuade the organisers at Jamia to invite some former ministers, I was told that it had been difficult enough to accept my presence.
It was COVID-19 and the responsible response to the administration’s requests that brought the protests to a pause, hopefully not to an end. It certainly was not the police and government’s strong-arm tactics that made the 24×7 protests fold up. It is silly to link the protests to the subsequent riots of February, which cannot be de-linked from the divisive politics pursued by the ruling establishment at the Centre. What might be made of the ambivalent and slippery politics of the AAP, who gathered the reluctant vote of the protesters, is a million-dollar question.
Interestingly, the 17,500-page charge-sheet filed in FIR 59/2020 has S161 (not admissible) and S164 statements mentioning the names of several speakers, including mine. The statements indicate that the speakers used “provocative language and motivated people to join the protests”. Putting diverse people together in a statement as though they had a collective or corporate personality and to bind all with one statement is an interesting sleight of hand. Or perhaps it is just plain laziness in an investigation. But the larger issue is that the protests are sought to be perceived as the precursors of the unfortunate riots.
We know that riots happen for a variety of local reasons and the prevailing atmosphere has a great deal to do with it. The riots that took place in northeast Delhi have left many questions unanswered. It is not surprising that former Supreme Court judges and a celebrated former police chief have expressed their disquiet about the investigation.
The Mumbai Police blotted its copybook during the 1992-93 riots in the city and the Delhi Police has followed suit in 2020. Assiduously built relationships between the local police and the populace, without which policing is impossible, have been fed to the vultures who feed upon the carcass of a divided society. The damage that will be done to a generation of young Indians will be bad enough, but the police will not escape the damage that could take generations to repair.
There is much history to take lessons from. When the curtains come down on this era of discontent, the downstream perpetrators of injustice will not even be remembered as villains — a sobriquet reserved for the high and mighty who fall from grace.
The right to protest peacefully will be illusory if every such gathering is declared unlawful as a matter of routine. Harsh words against a government that more than deserves them being labelled as sedition will virtually negate Article 19 and free speech. Curiously, many persons who support the action against CAA protestors are lining up to bemoan the Supreme Court showing prima facie concern about the content of the Sudarshan TV tapes on the UPSC selection of candidates coached by Jamia and other organisations. One man’s meat is another man’s poison.
While the government may be congratulating itself for destroying the spontaneous voice of the people (according to them, only some people), there are two explanations for its position: It is either fear of vox populi or a perverse ideological posture on equality. Perhaps it is a bit of both. But from the point of view of democracy, one wonders what happens to spontaneous movements like the outburst of young people in the heart of Delhi after the December 2012 rape and murder and then the Shaheen Baghs across India? Are they destined to plant the flag of protest, leave their footprints on the sands of time, and move on for another generation to consolidate? The government will soon discover if the CAA protests were designed and executed by the conspirators mentioned in the charge-sheets, in which case the streets and barricades will not be occupied again. On the other hand, if they were organic and spontaneous, they will spring up again. The movement would have learnt costly lessons, but one wonders if the government did so too. From the contents of the charge-sheet, it appears that far from learning, the government continues to celebrate ignorance, persecution and falsehood.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 26, 2020 under the title ‘The criminalisation of protest’. The writer is a senior Congress leader and a former Union minister.
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