If you were to ever ask any political or social commentator in India about the possibility of the whole country being ruled by a single despotic ruler, the chances are that you would get a resounding ‘NO’ as the answer. We are too diverse for any single ideology to convince each and every part of India. As Amartya Sen points out in his book, The Argumentative Indian, your average Indian is too argumentative to not question, dissent, resist, or rebel. Dissent is an inevitable facet of Indian life, a practice present in the very moral and social fabric of India.
Protests and rebellions are customary in the country, so much so that one of India’s most recognisable monuments, the Jantar Mantar observatory in New Delhi, is now synonymous with demonstrations and resistance. The two protests at the focus of this article are the 2020–21 Indian farmers’ protests and the 2019-20 Anti-CAA-NRC protests. Not only was the nature of the two rebellions very different, but the consequences and after-effects of the two were also almost diametrically opposite.
The 2020-21 Indian farmers’ protest was a year-long protest against the three farm bills, which aimed to limit governmental control in farming and open up agriculture for private investors. This meant the removal of state protections for farm produce (which were already considered insufficient and unsustainable), and enabling the private players to buy the produce directly from the farmers. This meant these players could dictate the selling prices and control the farmers’ fate.
The bills led to nationwide agitation from the farmers. There were calls for ‘Bharat Bandh’ (nationwide shutdown in India) and ‘Rail Roko and Dilli Chalo’ (Stop the trains and march to Delhi). Following this, huge processions of farmers headed to Delhi, where they were restricted from entering the national capital. They camped around the borders of the city, enduring the use of tear gas and water cannons, and the roads dug-up by the police forces.
Farmers accused the national media platforms of maligning them because they tried to portray the protests as ‘anti-national.’ Politicians, including several key members of the ruling party, BJP, were involved in the propagation of news, which later turned out fake. Soon, the government had to succumb to the mounting pressure (and the fear of losing the upcoming polls in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh) as they repealed the three farm laws. Repealing the farm laws marked the protest as perhaps the most famous and relevant example of non-violent resistance in modern India, even as dozens of farmers died from the summer heat, the chilling cold of Delhi, and the deadly second wave of COVID-19.
However, the first wave of COVID-19 consumed another significant protest across the country; the Anti-CAA-NRC protests of 2019-2020. The demonstrations were held to oppose the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which amends the India Citizenship Act to accept migrants who are Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Parsi, Buddhist, and Christian from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, neglecting Muslims, along with Sri Lankan Tamils, Rohingyas from Myanmar, and others. Additionally, the bill was called the ‘anti-poor bill’ because many of the slum-dwellers in India, along with massive populations of India’s homeless, could not have fulfilled the requirement to provide citizenship documents to be recognised as a citizen of India.
The protests that followed the bill’s passing were exemplary and, in many ways, unique; protestors read aloud and highlighted Article 15 of the Indian Constitution at the protest sites, and also deployed creative comics and illustrations. ‘Hum Dekhenge’ (We Will See) by the legendary Pakistani poet Faiz, and poet Varun Grover’s ‘Hum Kaagaz Nahi Dikhaenge’ (We will not show our NRC papers) became the anthem of the protests.
The BJP-led NDA government responded by using ‘lathi charges’ (baton charges), mass arrests, Internet shutdown, curfew, transport restrictions, water cannons, and imposing bans on assemblies. Several protestors were detained for defying the ban. Charges of sedition along with the draconian UAPA were imposed on them, with the prominent arrested figures being Umar Khalid, who has been in jail for more than three years now without any trial, Safoora Zargar, a pregnant student who was jailed for more than two months, Natasha Narwal, Meeran Haider, and many others. Different human rights organisations slammed the central government for multiple violations of human rights, as the infamous attacks on some premier educational institutions like Aligarh Muslim University and Jawaharlal Nehru University dominated the headlines.
The methods adopted to stop and silence the CAA protests were chilling, to say the least, and their effect on demonstrations and protest participants in India has been enormous. Democratic spaces are shrinking in India, and its champions like Khalid are still awaiting trial after three years. One can only try to not lose hope for a more liberal, secular, and inclusive India and cling to the words of our great poet, Shailendra:
ये ग़म के और चार दिन, सितम के और चार दिन,
ये दिन भी जायेंगे गुज़र, गुज़र गए हज़ार दिन.
कभी तो होगी इस चमन पे भी बहार की नज़र,
अगर कहीं है स्वर्ग तो उतार ला ज़मीन पर. तू जिंदा है.
(tr. Four more days of grief, four more days of torture,
These days shall also pass, as did thousands before them
Someday, the spring will beam down upon this garden, too,
If there is a heaven somewhere, bring it down to the earth.)
By Ishan Tripathi