Undeniably, the year 2019 has witnessed a decisive shift in what it means to be Indian — and what it means to defend the idea of being Indian. For the first time in the five and a half years of BJP rule, the slow fire of an unarticulated despair and powerlessness among common people, especially Muslims, in the face of a repressive, arrogant and communal government, burst into resolute resistance.
The proximate reasons for this were twofold: The passing into law of a black bill that sought to skew the notion of citizenship along religious lines; and police brutality trained at the most vulnerable and most valuable section of Indian society, its youth. The acrimony caused by the first segued seamlessly into the outrage over the second, and sparked a wildfire that spread across the country.
It’s only when one considers the year as a whole that the full significance of all this can be understood. That the BJP’s return to power for a second time with an increase of 21 seats this May would see a consolidation of Hindutva politics was a foregone conclusion. Less anticipated was the swiftness with which this was sought to be achieved.
The year began with communalised electioneering that weaponised the Pulwama attack and Balakot strike. Narendra Modi’s poll speeches fused the masculinist (“mard sarkar”) and militaristic (“Can your vote be dedicated to the brave soldiers martyred in Pulwama?”) tropes, with the majoritarian.
The revocation of Article 370 three months after the verdict was an emphatic moment of “conquest”, an apotheosis of the Pulwama-Balakot rhetoric. The congratulatory sentiment the move evoked among many — in utter disregard to the human tragedy unfolding in Kashmir — was driven by the sentiment that the piece of land crowning India on the map was now firmly secured, even as India’s only Muslim majority state had been wiped off it.
Land — 1,500 square yards of it — was also central to the mosque-temple Supreme Court verdict of November 9. The court acknowledged that the masjid had stood on that site since 1528 and that its demolition “constituted a serious violation of the rule of law”, but it nevertheless allotted it to the Hindu petitioners. There was rich irony in the language of this judgment which conflated the parties to the dispute with the Hindu and Muslim communities as a whole.
The prime minister was quick to put his stamp of approval on the verdict, hailing it as a “new dawn for us”, a “new start for a New India.” But the answer to the question as to who exactly were New India’s children, with full citizenship rights, came exactly a month later. While passing the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) into law, the BJP kept emphasising the plight of minorities in the three countries listed in it. The cruel irony of this rhetoric lay in the fact that its long-term plan was to fuse the new law with an administratively crafted all-India National Register of Citizens (NRC), to ensure permanence to the persecution of a significant minority in this country — its Muslims.
The sole anxiety the BJP had harboured about the proposed law was its potentially adverse impact on the 2019 general election, which was why it was not pushed through in its first term despite the Lok Sabha having cleared it. This time it took the calculated risk to do so because it felt it had the political capital, capacity to manage political contradictions and time enough to ride out adverse reactions. Perhaps it had also calculated that Muslims in the country, having experienced half a decade of vigilante violence without street protests breaking out, had been sufficiently beaten into submission.
When the first signs of widespread anger in the Northeast broke out, the BJP government responded with some circumspection, placatory words and a slew of exemptions. In sharp contrast, the protests in the campuses of universities like Jamia and Aligarh were met by the crassest of communal profiling and a police force invested with the licence to kill, even as the country’s heartland — Uttar Pradesh — was turned into a killing field and penitentiary. The idea was not just to terrorise students but to signal to the country, specifically Muslims, the government’s determination to persist with its citizenship agenda.
It had an unintended consequence. A drive to divide people along religious lines saw the re-forging of unity across every divide — caste, class, gender, religion. When hijab-clad women waved the tricolour and sat out on the streets for days together; when seemingly “non-political” students from “elite institutions” like the IITs raised their voices along with their counterparts from Jamia Millia Islamia; when ordinary “peace-abiding” people gathered to protest and read out the Preamble with its forgotten words like “secular”, democratic”, “socialist”, “justice”, “liberty”, “equality”, it was hard to miss the new “fraternity”.
The year began with the seeming unassailability of a majoritarian political order and ended with a sharp reminder of the limits of its hubris. But is this just a short break in the onward march of Savarkarite Hindutva, or a decisive reclamation of common citizenship by the common Indian?
If the present times constitute a moment of truth for the Modi government, so too do they for the people of India.
Philipose is author of Media’s Shifting Terrain: Five Years that Transformed the Way India Communicates
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