India is descending into a night of dread and despair. The ongoing riots in Delhi are not a tactical aberration, some absent-minded lapse of attention. They have been in the making for a while, and represent the future that our ruling classes, with our aid and support, have imagined for us. The idea is to carpet bomb the Indian republic as we know it, and replace it with a regime that thrives on cruelty, fear, division and violence. Even as the politics of revenge starts, it is important not to forget the dynamics that led up to this moment.
As was clear from the start, the purpose of the CAA was not to solve the problem of non-Muslims refugees from our neighbouring states. That objective could have been achieved by a bill that did not discriminate on the basis of religion and did not align religious identity with the prospects of citizenship. The assurances of delinking the NRC, CAA and NPR processes were never credibly made. The result was a civic cruelty of the worst kind, where millions of ordinary Indians, especially Muslims, were made uncertain about what this process meant for them. The spectre of camps is too hard to ignore. The protests and violence could have been easily stopped, and still can be halted, if the government commits to legislation that does not discriminate, and a process that does not put the civic standing of anyone living in India at risk. The effect of the government’s refusal to do this was to humiliate minorities, and keep the issue on the boil.
The Supreme Court gave the cruelest blow of all. By refusing to send a clear signal on basic rights of habeas corpus, the checks against preventive detention, the court decimated the Constitution that binds us together. By systematically appearing to side with government on practically every issue, by delaying hearings on something as fundamental as discrimination, by genuflecting paeans to the Great Leader, it dashed all hopes of fair constitutional adjudication. Citizens had to turn to other non-violent means of civic protest.
These non-violent civic protests, spearheaded by women, minorities and students, resolutely stuck to a grammar of non-violence and constitutionalism. This was despite repeated provocation and the fact that it is legally difficult to protest in India. There was some violence in states like UP. But that was used as a pretext to unleash an unprecedented reign of repression and cruelty by the government. There was always the danger that long and sustained protests with no attempt at a dialogue open the way for radical elements to take over. In fact, the government was waiting for even the slightest hint of that radicalisation which leaders like Waris Pathan, or a gun-brandishing hothead would obligingly provide. But it is important to remember: The government uses the fear of radicalism as a pretext, far in excess of the reality of the phenomenon.
The real cruelty was the government’s strategy. In Delhi, the protests were allowed to continue in Shaheen Bagh, not because the government was soft. It thought it could use the protest as pretext to consolidate majoritarian sentiment: Look at these minorities blocking roads and standing against Hindu rights, went the refrain. The BJP’s poisonous campaign during the Delhi election was a classic Catch 22. First, we discriminate. Then we make sure there is no institutional redress. If there is protest, we use it as further proof of the perfidy of minorities, intellectuals and other so-called anti-nationals. BJP leaders then call for violence to be unleashed, and when violence is unleashed, we blame them for violence. Never has a more diabolical moral circle been created.
Meanwhile, other institutions merrily failed us. So many brave reporters have put their lives on the line to bring us reports from the frontline. But the institution of the media failed to put the requisite pressure on the government. They are too much in awe or too intimidated by the Home Minister to press basic questions of accountability. The Opposition parties have been like deer caught in a headlight at best, morally mendacious at worst. The Delhi CM is reduced to staging photo-ops at Rajghat; the rest of the Opposition seems to muster about as much energy as it takes to put out a tweet. It has more consultants than convictions or courage.
It is the first time in independent India that minorities cannot turn to any electoral formation or force to provide even basic protection. This is the depth of corrosion of normal politics. Such a deep political vacuum is bound to be filled by forces we cannot predict.
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Meanwhile, so much of civil society resembles a scene of moral desolation. The casual legitimisation of violence against minorities and the inversion of all moral values is at an unprecedented level. People cheer as “Jai Shri Ram” has moved from being a call to piety to almost a call for killing. Someday a sociologist will have to decipher the phenomenon of hordes of young men now looking to feel alive, to get a sense of purpose, by participating in mayhem. Even apart from the communal angle, the availability of this mass of young men on the streets betokens a society that increasingly has little sense of its own future.
The national anthem is sung while brutal assaults take place, mosques nonchalantly “conquered”. And we are back to a barbarism where crowds threaten to strip you to ascertain if you have a right to any civic standing. The purpose is to strip us of all the decencies of ordinary humanity; the only thing that matters will be the identity that can be inscribed on your body.
The moral resistance to this brutalisation is feeble. And then there is the abdication of the state. Even as policeman themselves become victim of the games their masters play, there is no doubt that the state could have stopped the violence more quickly if it had wanted.
The Delhi violence will hopefully stop, but it is just an event in a larger chain. If the literature on riots is any guide, the Delhi riots look more like a prelude to a possible pogrom, or at least ghettoisation. The state looks for a pretext to crack down; the crack down is disproportionately targeted at particular communities, especially their businesses; the police and political establishment are bystanders or egging on the violence.
The government can still do the right thing: Ensure fair law and order, and address the underlying anxiety it has itself produced. India will have to mobilise in full force to resist this brutalisation. Otherwise our republic will become what our rulers want it to be: A charnel house of rotted moralities, a nation that measures itself by the cruelties it can inflict.
This article first appeared in the print edition on February 27, 2020 under the title ‘The Delhi darkness’. The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express.
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