The images and videos of the Delhi Police rampage on the Jamia Millia Islamia campus following students’ protests against the new citizenship law in the national capital on Sunday underline an awful, dispiriting dissonance. The police force in Delhi, as in many other states in India, remains, for the most part, a heavy-footed anachronism in a democracy of the young, a brutalising left-over from a more repressive time. But the rankling gap between police and the people showcased on Sunday is about more than just lathi-happy policemen. The silence of the government in the aftermath of the outrage at Jamia — where the police barged into the campus without permission, forced its way into the canteen, mosque and library, dragged and beat up students, rounded up and detained them, using as pretext acts of arson and vandalism outside the university — is part of the problem. Now in its second term in power, the Narendra Modi government is yet to find the language to talk to those who protest and disagree. And this absence, this lack, becomes more glaring, more grave, when it is confronted with restive students.
It is not just that the government, otherwise in constant communication or propaganda overdrive, turns a hard and frigid face to them. It is also that instead of listening to them, it seeks to tar and taint, stick labels and attribute motives, invoke spectres. The distortion of words and meanings goes to the very top — or flows down from there. Listen to the Prime Minister, campaigning in Dumka, in poll-bound Jharkhand, on the day Delhi Police ran riot in Jamia. Those “spreading the fire (aag lagaane waale)” can be “identified by their clothes (kapdon se hi pata chal jaata hai)…”, the PM said. He also invoked Pakistan, likening the protests against the CAB to protests by “people of Pakistani-origin …” against the court decision on Ram-Janmabhoomi and Article 370. It was a bid to discredit the students’ protest by painting their criticism of a citizenship law that discriminates against Muslims as anti-national and pro-Pakistan.
Such talk is in tune with the spirit of the law that this government has steamrolled through Parliament, a law that virtually closes India’s doors to illegal immigrants who are Muslim because they are Muslim. And it is not the first time that PM Modi, a minister in his government, or a senior functionary of his party, has sought to portray dissent as anti-national. This isn’t the first time dog-whistle politics has been deployed. And yet, each and every time it happens, it is cause for concern. Because it does not behove a government in a country of India’s diversities and democratic standing to sound so insensitive, either to the apprehensions of its minority or to the voice of its young. On Monday, the Prime Minister said no “vested interest group” would be allowed to “divide us and create disturbance.” Hopefully, those words are meant to reassure all — irrespective of what they wear.
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