So many of the images and videos from the people’s protests in cities across the country on Thursday, including and especially the national capital, are a reproach to the Narendra Modi government. They frame mostly young, mostly anonymous people who took to the streets mostly peacefully, to raise their voices against a citizenship law that seeks to recast and redefine citizenship of this country in majoritarian terms, faced with a grim and repressive state machinery in BJP-ruled states. They frame historian, Gandhi biographer and prominent public intellectual Ramachandra Guha being pulled and pushed and arrested by policemen in Bengaluru for no evident crime other than holding up a placard showing a picture of the father of India’s Constitution, BR Ambedkar, and articulating his own disagreement with the regime’s new law. They frame intellectuals and writers and activists being hauled away from protest venues in Delhi. They frame, essentially, a nervous and paranoid government that appears to have lost the ability to either listen to its intellectuals or its young, or to talk to them. A government that seems to respond to dissent only by suppressing it — by imposing Section 144, through arbitrary detention and by snapping voice, internet and sms services. That the world’s fastest growing internet market is also now a global leader in cutting off access to small and large swathes of its population, that the internet clampdown as a way of blocking protests is becoming increasingly commonplace, and that in this, India is in the company of countries like Myanmar, Pakistan, Sudan, Syria and Venezuela, is a reason for deep embarrassment to all those who take pride in the argumentativeness of its democracy.
The summary attempt to crack down on dissent against the citizenship law takes place in a grey context. In the backdrop of the current moment is the revocation of Article 370 in Kashmir in August in a manner that has isolated and continues to isolate its people, the detention of thousands of its political workers and leaders, including 83-year-old former chief minister Farooq Abdullah — his incarceration was extended by three months a few days ago — and the longest ever continuous internet shutdown in the country. The scenes that played out in the national capital on Thursday have sent out the signal that the apparent obduracy and imperviousness of government is not limited to its treatment of a long-standing trouble spot. It is the reflexive response to all disagreement and discontent. This is a disquieting signal to the country.
There has also been violence and arson, as in Seelampur in the capital, in parts of Lucknow and Mangalore on Thursday. It is incumbent on the state governments and the entire political establishment, including the Opposition, to do whatever it takes to keep the peace. But in doing so, the world’s largest democracy cannot look like it cannot accommodate its young who disagree, it cannot afford to signal that it is so ill at ease with itself. At any time, and especially when its economy is in slowdown, India risks a lot if it begins to be seen as a place where the dissenter’s mind is not without fear.
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