The shocking violence at JNU should convince you of one simple proposition: India is governed by a regime whose sole raison d’etre is to find an adversarial rallying point and crush it by brute force. Cowardly thugs running amok in one of India’s most premier universities, inflicting head injuries on teachers and students, is not a minor scuffle explained away by JNU’s local conflicts. To better understand what is at stake, it is important to listen to the entire range of speeches our honourable, “He Who Must not be Named” Home Minister delivers. One thing will become abundantly clear. The current political regime cannot exist unless it finds a new enemy. It now legitimises itself, not by its positive accomplishments, but by using the enemy as a rallying point. The targeting of enemies — minorities, liberals, secularists, leftists, urban naxals, intellectuals, assorted protestors — is not driven by a calculus of ordinary politics. It is driven by will, ideology and hate, pure and simple. When you legitimise yourself entirely by inventing enemies, the truth ceases to matter, normal restraints of civilisation and decency cease to matter, the checks and balances of normal politics cease to matter. All that matters is the crushing of real and imaginary enemies, by hook or by crook.
The events at JNU are another symbol of the apocalyptic politics this government is playing. It is apocalyptic in a triple sense. At the level of discourse, the normalisation of the phrase “tukde tukde gang” abetted by the home minister, with the help of a pliant media, laid the background conditions for this kind of violence.
There is no doubt that many of those who were cowardly enough to assault unarmed professors and students and hit them on the head, see themselves as some kind of nationalist warriors: Avenging national honour by unleashing violence in a university. But the fact that they think in this way has been enabled by the larger ideological climate, something government functionaries have done much to inculcate.
There is no getting away from the fact that hunting down your own citizens as anti-national is now part of the ideological construct of this government, as evidenced by the home minister’s speeches. There is no getting away from the fact that the kind of state response that you have seen in UP against minorities, on the heels of the tepid response to earlier episodes of lynching, emboldens the worst elements of our society to act as vigilantes. The state will, directly or through proxies, encourage violence against anyone who is not in tune with it.
This violence is apocalyptic in another sense: Its purpose is to foment more violence, so that targeting enemies becomes self-fulfilling. The logic is: Apply force and intimidation. If it succeeds, all well and good. If it does not succeed respond in two ways. One is to ideologically discredit the opposition even more. The pattern is depressingly familiar. The attacks on JNU will be presented as some kind of “left-liberal” conspiracy. They will intone, as many are doing on social media, “these left liberals are so fanatical that they will smash their own skulls to embarrass government”. The second strategy is to use the violence as a pretext for more control and violence. “See these anti nationals, they refuse to be crushed by violence. So, we need more violence.” This is the strategy in Kashmir, this is the strategy in UP, and now it is coming to the heart of the capital. There will be a massive disinformation campaign. Remember, the government exploits the asymmetry between doubt and truth. It will use odd bits of information, without context, to buttress its claims that this is a conspiracy. Meanwhile, the most obvious questions will go unanswered.
Let us for a moment assume there was a local scuffle between students — those wanting to register and other students preventing them from the registering process. That cannot explain the fact that armed goons from outside the campus were allowed to run amok; that does not explain the fact that the police, which had no compunction in cracking down in Jamia, stood by as mute spectators and even respectfully seem to have escorted out the thugs. That cannot explain why unarmed professors and students would be hit in the head. The government is counting on the fact that it thinks we are looking for a pretext to support it. It thinks pictures of disorder — the spectre of rioting minorities or leftists — will increase support for authoritarianism. The worst indictment of India is that the government thinks the people are behind it in this apocalyptic vision.
The third apocalyptic element of the vision is the literal destruction of all institutions. The most pathetic moment of the long night was two “who do not deserve to be named” ministers — the finance minister and minister of external affairs — reduced to tweeting a general, anodyne condemnation of violence. They are members of the cabinet committee on security. They could have arranged, through their colleagues, for Delhi Police to act. If they, with their privileges, exude this kind of pathetic helplessness, think of the ordinary JNU student or citizen in UP or Kashmir. Think of those who are the target of vigilante violence and have no recourse to justice; think of those whose homes were invaded by UP police; think of those who have disappeared in Kashmir. The aim of the government may or may not be literal annihilation of its citizens. But its aim certainly is that it annihilates our will, our reason, our spirit, so that we all become willing supplicants in its ideological project.
The silver lining is that, as recent events have shown, enough Indians are refusing to be cowed down. This is embittering and shaking the government and its supporters even more. In the short run, we need three things. There has to be an absolute refusal to patronise anyone who normalises the “tukde tukde gang” talk — licensing the militarisation of domestic politics. There has to be institutional accountability: From the JNU VC to the home minister. But, this moment will also require the forces of protests to be more visible in the peaceful and dignified way they have been over the last few days. The government’s strategy is not to solve old issues; it is to divert attention by bringing in new adversaries in the hope that we remain divided. But now the movement against the government has to turn this very fact into an advantage. The one thing the violence in JNU, and Delhi more generally, should bring home is that plain truth: In the eyes of this government, no one is innocent. None of us have the choice to even pretend otherwise.
This article first appeared in the print edition of January 7, 2020, under the title “Innocents no more”. The writer is contributing editor at The Indian Express.
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