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Discrimination, not justice: Hope this generation does a better job of navigating the struggle than the one that came before

Violence will not help any cause. But when the state discriminates and calls it justice, when it stokes fear and calls it citizenship, and when it exercises control and calls its freedom, when it confuses prejudice with policy, it sets the seeds for disorder.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta
Updated: December 19, 2019 12:56:31 pm
Discrimination, not justice: Hope this generation does a better job of navigating the struggle than the one that came before Protests against the Citizenship Act in Bengaluru. (Express Photo/Ralph Alex Arakal)

India is in the midst of, arguably, the largest student protest since the Emergency. The ground of protest is clear: India cannot be a Republic founded on discrimination and a pervasive sense of fear. It cannot exclude or target anyone simply on the basis of their identity. It is hard to predict the shape of any movement. We left the current generation of students a tattered constitutional legacy, weak institutions, an uncertain economic future, a poisonous public discourse and a corrosive politics. We left them insecure and weak leaders or those whose divisive passions are their only policy. So this movement will have to find its own vocabulary, leadership and strategy for moral and institutional regeneration. But here are some possible challenges to ponder, based on past experience, especially of the Emergency.

In some ways, the fight during the Emergency was simple. It was a fight for the restoration of democracy against authoritarianism, joined by all kinds of forces. At this fraught moment there are two battles. There is a battle against state authoritarianism, its attempts to exercise pervasive control. But there is also the battle against communalism, the attempt to divide society and unleash passions that relegate minorities to second class citizens. They are two sides of the same coin — the government is fomenting both processes. But in society, the two can work at cross purposes. The BJP has a slew of proposed bills, from anti-conversion laws, to a common civil code to population control. Each one of them will, like the CAA, wear the garb of secularism; each one will, in its content, likely smuggle in majoritarianism by disguise. These will pose both tactical and moral challenges.

The tactical challenge will be that they will once again consolidate majoritarian identities, produce that fog of silence in which the CAA will be excused. The moral challenge will be to find a vocabulary and positions that nudge secularism towards freedom and equality for all individuals rather than one that pits minority and majority identities in competition with each other, as our politics often did. The communal axis will be used to divide society so that it cannot unite against the authoritarian state. So, the fight over CAA cannot be won without ensuring these issues do not divide us.

The state has advantages in this fight. It has the power of repression. No violence can make a dent in it. Even in the moments of revolution, states usually first implode from the top. But the state is often in a “heads we win, tails you lose” position. It first discriminates and exercises arbitrary power. If it works, it gets away with it. But when there is protest, it uses that as a pretext to repress even more. It will use the fear of disorder to consolidate support behind it. In the case of minorities, it applies this Catch 22 logic even more: It targets them based on their identity. When they protest, it uses that to furnish proof of their perfidy. We are in an insolent tyranny, whose hallmark is that it will take the calls for ordinary justice, decency and liberty as signs of anti-national insurrection. Its cause is served by portraying everything as disorder.

This is a difficult challenge. Once tyranny provokes, it can provoke both reactions together — the potentially morally regenerative resistance of the students; but also of forces that will use this moment for their fantasies of disorder. The roots of lurking violence in our society are complex: A toxic combination of disenfranchisement, lack of hope and sheer prejudice is building up in various parts of India. A successful movement will have to ensure that the exemplary power of what the students stand for is not overshadowed by the risky collateral that always accompanies large-scale movements. This is a battle at the level of the conduct of the movement. Its exemplariness will be its greatest power. But it is also at the level of the information terrain on which modern social movements are fought.

During the Seventies, in the backdrop of economic stagnation, there was still a readymade architecture of other social movements that could join in. The labour movement, for example, was very much in the backdrop of resistance to the state. Such social movements are harder to create. So, students will have to find different means to ensure that they are not isolated. This time, it is also dealing with a genuine authoritarian and communal counter movement in the form of the RSS that can mobilise cadres and information.

The communal and institutional fissures that we are dealing with run within our families, often even within us. The streets would not have become necessary if the normal institutional channels of upholding principles had not failed so miserably. Our institutions failed not just because of political forces, but because, few exceptions apart, so many of teachers, university leaders, Supreme Court judges, policemen, bureaucrats, journalists, corporate leaders, etc. often let us down on basic institutional principles. These are the small capillaries that hold any order together. But the people in these institutions, especially amongst the middle classes, are our most intimate acquaintances, whose social esteem is tied to the position they hold not to the principles they espouse. Even as civic movements are built, it is important to remember that the reproduction of prejudice, or the norm that is comfortable with lack of institutional morality, is nurtured in these more intimate spaces, and will have to be dealt with there.

While we focus on the government, it is also important to focus on the Opposition, for one practical reason. They control a significant number of states. Immediately, the movement will need more and more state governments to resolutely stand by a pledge not to implement the NRC, with which the CAA is allied, overtly or covertly. Their resolve will have to be strengthened.

Violence will not help any cause. But when the state discriminates and calls it justice, when it stokes fear and calls it citizenship, and when it exercises control and calls its freedom, when it confuses prejudice with policy, it sets the seeds for disorder. There are risks inherent in any social movement. But the risk of giving the state a free pass are higher. Given the complex conflicts that have been unleashed, no one can be complacent about India’s prospects. Let us hope this generation does a better job of navigating this struggle better than ours did, with more imagination, morality and grit. It will have to fight communalism and authoritarianism, even as it isolates the real sources of disorder both outside, but especially inside the state.

This article first appeared in the print edition on December 19, 2019 under the title ‘Discrimination, not justice’. The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express.

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