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Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Will there be a George Floyd moment in India’s public life?

India seems to have lost that urge to consistently relate to injustice as an assault on democracy. Be it plight of migrants or minorities, their failure to strike wider chord tells truths about us.

Written by Suhas Palshikar | New Delhi |
Updated: June 11, 2020 9:47:14 am
George Floyd, migrant workers suffering, outrage over injustice, assault on democracy, Indian express opinion For the past two months, all media is abuzz with images of the suffering of migrant workers… There was no public outcry over this human tragedy and the victims themselves chose to mostly suffer in silence.

Will there be a George Floyd moment in India’s public life? Surely, it is not merely about outrage over an act of injustice. It is about comprehending the urgency of aligning with the victim; it is about realising systemic bias against the marginalised; it is about crossing the threshold of “we” and “them”. Above all, it is a moment of citizen initiative. Of late, India seems to have lost that urge to consistently relate to injustice as an assault on democracy.

For the past two months, all media is abuzz with images of the suffering of migrant workers. Two things about this suffering have been striking. There was no public outcry over this human tragedy and the victims themselves chose to mostly suffer in silence. They may have grumbled, or cursed under their breath, but our democracy does not seem to have encouraged them to really assert or demand their rights. Not just migrants, minorities too have been subjected to the untold misery of being excluded from the idea of the public. And more routinely, women, rural poor, Dalits and Adivasis have been objects of humiliation.

This begs the question: How does India’s democracy afford to victimise large sections and manage to ensure that victims will remain docile? This docility of India’s democracy needs to become a subject of introspection and examination. Three sets of answers can be imagined — answers that are generic about democracy; answers that are historical about the nature of the Indian state and answers that take us to the contemporary moment.

The practice of democracy has the notorious tendency to become paradoxical. It begins in the name of the “demos” but goes on to construct the demos rather narrowly; oftentimes, sections of the population manage to ensconce themselves as “the people”, they count as the public, their ideas masquerade as the people’s ideas. This inevitably produces a layered citizenry. Democracy also starts off by investing agency in the individuals but sooner or later divests them of that agency as interference by the ignorant. Democracy inspires ideas of rights but allows the taming of rights for purposes of order. In short, it is these tensions between the elite and the masses, between active citizens and obedient citizens, between rights and order, that mark the life of democracies. This is not merely about the distance between theory and practice, between concept and its concrete life. It is about imagining that the course of democracy is predetermined. Democratic politics needs to be carved out with effort, rather than believing that adopting formal democracy automatically ensures vibrant democratic practice.

The approach of the Indian state to citizen participation has always been based on arrogance. It is also informed by overemphasis on the rhetoric of law and order. The former leads the state to believe that citizens are not, and should not be, active agents. This means that citizens must wait for leaders to mobilise them and guide and supervise their actions. Similarly, citizens must depend on the largesse of the state in deciding what is good for them. This gives rise to the syndrome of government as caretaker/parent and leaders as political chaperons. The Indian state also privileges the idea of law and order. If a parental state negates the idea that people have agency, the emphasis on law and order legitimises that negation. Thus, the discourse of rights and individual dignity becomes permissible only if it is subservient to the statist idea of “order”.

Legislative imagination, judicial interpretation and public perception are all stacked against the idea of the citizen as protestor. In contrast to the legacy of the freedom movement, democracy and popular participation are seen, both theoretically and legally, as inconsistent with, and often even opposed to, an orderly society. Whether it be the AK Gopalan case (1950) or the many legal monuments against individual liberty such as the currently infamous UAPA, the emphasis has been twofold: That the state knows, the state is right, the state must be privileged, and that citizen action is suspect, potentially disruptive and liable to punishment.

It is in the backdrop of this subdued rights discourse and de-legitimised agency of the people that the current moment has unfolded wherein criticism is almost seditious, claiming rights for marginalised sections can be termed as waging war against the state and empathising with victims of social injustice is ridiculed or forbidden. The current regime has converted the penchant for sub-democratic state action into a fearsome art.

Since we are discussing this in the month of June, one cannot but forget the somewhat amateurish takeover of the entire state apparatus by the government in 1975. A much more concerted and systematic mechanism of silencing citizens is underway today. But it is not the repressive aspect of the state apparatus unleashed on protesting citizens that adequately answers why citizens choose to remain quiet in moments of acute injustice to “someone else”.

This might appear ironic, but in spite of a comparatively higher degree of repression, the lack of popular protest is more because of the success of the regime in constructing and popularising a narrative that not just delegitimises but simply denies the existence of suffering, injustice and victimhood. This is the narrative of subverting reality into its opposite.

In this world of alternative reality, the victim is the offender (as in case of Muslims), suffering is sacrifice if not ill-informed exaggeration (as in the case of migrants’ plight) and marginalisation or exclusion are outcomes of past politics (as in the case of Dalits or Adivasis). This narrative posits two contrasting social camps. One is the nation. It represents unity, progress and a possible millennium. All else is fragmentary and divisive. So any voice speaking of a particular group’s suffering becomes a hurdle in the march of the nation; any coalition of the marginalised by definition assumes an anti-national tenor.

Such is the power of the narrative that the facts of suffering, humiliation or injustice lose their evocative potential; they cease to scandalise, they are unable to evoke a moral response. Democracy can thus afford the co-existence of multiple injustices and a quiet citizenry when such narratives are able to reconstruct facts and convince the masses of the validity of that reconstruction. The silence today is a result of the popular acceptance of reconstructed reality and adherence to an alternative morality.

When US president Donald Trump says that George Floyd “is looking down” and saying (decline in unemployment) “is a great thing… happening to our country”, he represents the subversion of the fate of Floyd, he is rewriting the grammar of democracy. Not the killing of Floyd but the small decline of unemployment is the significant fact of the moment; Floyd would not be angry at his murderer, he would be angry at the economy; what needs to be fixed therefore, is not institutional bias against a community but the dishonour caused by the protests.

A careful reading of this response should tell us that India is truly living in its own Floyd moment.

This article first appeared in the print edition on June 11 under the title “Where’s our George Floyd?” The writer, based in Pune, taught political science and is currently chief editor of Studies in Indian Politics.

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