It was cold, it was dark, they had babies in their arms whom they held close to keep them as warm as possible. But, nobody left. They waited for the finale of their protest in Delhi last week, waited until they had sung the National Anthem from the steps of the Jama Masjid.
It is not the first time that protesters against the amended citizenship law have sung the National Anthem as a song of protest. And, it is not the first time that the symbols of the protest have been the Indian Constitution and India’s flag. But, what should become clear to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his closest aide, Amit Shah, is that the protesters have stolen the symbols of nationalism out of their hands and made them their own. And it has become increasingly hard for the BJP’s social media army to label Muslims, leftists, liberals and dissidents as being ‘anti-national’. This is an extraordinary achievement.
Unsurprisingly, a nervousness is evident in Modi’s ministers that they find hard to conceal with hysterical speeches and denunciations. After the Home Minister’s clumsy attempts to crush the protests under his jackboot, he and his comrade in arms, Yogi Adityanath, have been pulled back from the frontline and other seemingly more acceptable faces have replaced them. Smriti Irani has come forth to denounce Deepika Padukone for standing beside those who want to ‘break up India’ and those who ‘celebrate every time a CRPF jawan’ is killed.
It is slightly shameful that a minister of the Union of India should feel the need to cross swords with a Bollywood star, but it is an indication of nervousness. Other milder voices like those of Prakash Javadekar and Nitin Gadkari have been heard in recent days in the hope that they will improve the Prime Minister’s tarnished image, but so far nothing has worked.
The Prime Minister has himself assured Indian Muslims more than once that they have no reason to fear losing their citizenship and that there is in any case no NRC (National Register of Citizens) going to happen in the near future. But, when a community has spent six years silently watching the lynching squads and the cow protection gangs unleash terrible violence against them, it will be hard to shut them up now that Muslims have found their voice.
No state government has used more violence to silence Muslim protesters than the government of Yogi Adityanath, and he has failed despite allowing his police force to kill nearly 30 people.
The protesters are no longer only Muslims. Their ranks have been joined by people whom the BJP’s shouting brigade calls ‘libtards’ and ‘sickularists’. And, the reason why they have joined is not because they fear being kicked out of India when citizenship inspectors come around, but because they see that what is being done to India by the Modi government is very, very wrong. So wrong that if anyone can be called the ‘tukde-tukde gang’ it is them. I say this after careful consideration because I have covered Pakistan as a reporter for decades and met many, many senior military men who have nearly all confided to me that they are certain that India will break once more because of the alienation of its huge Muslim community.
If this happens, it will not be because JNU students shout slogans but because our most senior elected officials have misused their enormous power.
It made me happy to hear the Supreme Court declare, while ruling on Kashmir, that shutting the Internet down indefinitely and imposing restrictive colonial laws like Section 144 indefinitely was an ‘abuse of power’. It is. And, since Modi became Prime Minister for the second time, there has been too much abuse of political power. If the protests have continued in the streets of our cities and on campuses across India for nearly a month it is because people realise how powerless they are individually against he might of the Indian State.
In Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath has abused his power to the extent that he has started seizing the properties of people who have been digitally recognised at protests. He is so smug in his right to do what he likes that he has jailed writers, actors, poets and ordinary housewives. The man he has damaged most is the Prime Minister.
Since he first became Prime Minister, Modi has assiduously cultivated an international image of being a statesman and a modern leader. That has been shattered almost beyond repair. But, what he perhaps needs to worry more about is his image within India. He needs to step out of his echo chamber of hysterical ‘nationalists’ and go and talk to the people who are protesting. He needs to notice that it is they who also carry the Indian Constitution as their protest manual and the Indian flag as their identity.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 12, 2020 under the title ‘The cost of abusing power’.