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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 13 New Delhi March 14, 2020

Cruelty, Betrayal, Resurgence: Notes from the Republic at a Crossroads

Sunday 15 March 2020, by Badri Raina


We must concede that the honourable Home Minister of India has an impeccable sense of priorities.

While bodies were still being gathered and counted in northeast Delhi, he was promptly off in Kolkata to ensure that the abject defeat of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the Delhi Assembly elections was not repeated in the municipalities of West Bengal.

And if that required zestful supporters there as well to be shouting the “shoot the traitors” slogan, so be it. Shah made no complaint.

It is another matter that the West Bengal Police equally promptly did what the Delhi Police did not—register FIRs against the culprits and arrest a few them.

Recall what the loyal Attorney General said in court with respect to the originators of the slogan in the Capital—that time was not ripe for lodging FIRs against notables of the ruling party who had weaponised and poisoned the social and political ecology of the city leading up to the Delhi elections. As a cooperative DCP stood by, the call to killings had been given by a Bharatiya Janata Party scion still smarting from his defeat in the Assembly elections.

If Justice S. Muralidhar thought that argument from the State’s law officer was corny, he was duly rewarded for his uppityness by being shunted out at the proverbial midnight hour to go man some other court, where an enemy government is in place.

The matter was further straightened out by the honourable Chief Justice at the subsequent hearing, where the government was granted four weeks to return with their thoughts. The next hearing will follow in six weeks, on April 13, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre day.

The Ruling Party’s Desperation

Like it or not, the story returns to Shaheen Bagh. Never in their wildest sectarian dreams had the Hindutva Right-wing contemplated that Muslim women “empowered” by the benevolent state during the triple talaq munificence would come to present the face they did at Shaheen Bagh. Whereas the Hindutva forces would have expected Muslim housewives to return to their hijabs, wonder of wonders, they came out not as Muslim women but citizens of India, complete with the national flag and the Constitution, to protect not Muslim rights alone but to defend the democratic republic.

As the days went by, this conundrum began to be unbearable. And after some initial quietude, the BJP thought it best to make this “Muslim effrontery” the substance of their electoral campaign in Delhi.

The more impervious that the man on the street seemed to the tactic, the more the calumny and abuse intensified. A parliamentarian of the BJP was heard to caution how among the grannies at Shaheen Bagh were suicide bombers and potential rapists from whom the neighbourhood would not be safe.

The police received instructions to barricade routes wholly unconnected to the site of the protest so that some righteous anger could be whipped up from commuters against the women at Shaheen Bagh, who refused to oblige either by going violent or raising “anti-national” slogans.

Lo and behold, where the whole point and purpose of the CAA legislation was to fracture the polity in a far-reaching and constitutionally decisive way, quite the opposite seemed to be happening: not only did Muslims come forth as citizens, but were now joined by men and women of all denominations in a confounding consolidation of secular citizenship. This was a fine, unintended consequence of grievous implications for the Hindutva Right-wing, who had hoped the CAA measure would be the thin end of the Hindu Rashtra wedge.

And, as if by some alchemy hidden hitherto from the surveillance of the big brother, the virus of peaceful protests spread through the length and breadth of the republic, un-dislodgeable by either fake persuasion or forthright displays of clout.

Where the nation had gone somnolent for years, an incredible madness of citizen resolve seemed suddenly to have become a deluge of unmanageable proportions.

All of this left the powers-that-be to mobilise to dog-whistles, and to have at them.

An added incentive might have been to demonstrate to Donald Trump how our democratic republic was indeed plagued by “radicalism” of the impugned sort.

The Aam Aadmi Party

If the proliferation of citizen-power presented the ruling Frankenstein with a monster of people’s resurgence across the board, it equally presented the victorious AAP with a dilemma.

Having received overwhelming electoral support form all subaltern sections, including Muslims, how was the Kejriwal dispensation now to declare itself in the precipitate cauldron of allegiances?

To its shame, it chose to betray its electorate by opting for a course of not just eclectic but cynical pragmatism. The AAP simply turned its back on the issues raised by the women at Shaheen Bagh, using the disingenuous argument that the CAA was, after all, a matter that concerned the Centre rather than the State Government. And, further to that, the matter was best left to the judiciary.

It must be said with great sadness that this political abdication from the principles on which the constitutional republic was founded will for long remain a blot on the Kejriwal party and government that had garnered such unprecedented commendation from the hoi polloi. Most laudable as the general welfarism of the praxis of the AAP has been, it will need to ponder whether it can have any sort of national future should it stay away from addressing the fissures and injustices that render the republic fragile and unconvincing.

The Women and the Youth

Let there be no mistaking: the magnificent resurgence of “we the people” that India is now witness to is not the doing of dithering, organised political forces. It is the women of India who have for the most part been determined to assume the republic. So sentient and dogged has been this new leadership that writers, artists, intellectuals, well-informed working people have received the adrenaline to follow that leadership, with a recovery of conviction and hope lost to them for years now.

Suddenly, the numbing, authoritarian prose of edict is coming to be submerged by the verve and searing truth of poetry in street and lane, nook and corner. As the emperor comes to be more and more without clothes, the pall of gloom and fear that has hitherto paralysed the polity falls off the common Indian, who now feels she can make bold to critique the Modi era in ways and areas thus far forbidden.

Remarkably, even as the Shaheen Bagh phenomenon has drawn such vile calumny from scions of the ruling establishment, other voices within it have felt the beauty of the happening. No less than the erstwhile Speaker of the Lok Sabha, Sumitra Mahajan, has made an enthused public averment in praise of the women of Shaheen Bagh. By no means an ordinary occurrence that, you might agree.

Much as one hesitates to make an argument form “nature”, let us for now in this rather inebriating moment acknowledge that women have a capacity for truth rather more than most men, especially in politics.

A further instance of this has been made available by another talented woman from the BJP. Meenakshi Lekhi, who pleaded in court on behalf of women officers in the Army denied the right to permanent commission, found the integrity and courage to charge that the “Army had misled the court” in the matter.

Where for six suffocating years, the nation has been pulverised into never critiquing the security establishment, what a path-breaking averment has come from the reputed advocate.

This gathering popular revulsion against the events of the last week has indeed obliged some leaders of the BJP to demand action against the culprits of their own clan—a most salutary recovery from a man who had some months ago made gauchely ignorant statements about the goings-on in Kashmir.

Northeast Delhi

The attacks we have witnessed leave little room for facile consolations. The deaths in the Capital city bring irremediable shame and guilt to India.

And yet, stories emerge of incomparable humanity from among the cinders and the corpses. Not an occasional story but many indeed of Hindus rescuing Muslims and vice versa, of neighbours setting up human chains to protect the houses and places of worship of the impugned “other”. Stories that one rarely accosts when it comes to inter-racial carnages in other parts of the world.

That is an India worth living and dying for.

Can we hope that in the electoral contests to come, the Hindutva Right-wing and its governments, who have demonstrably failed to deliver to the nation and its hard working people an improved livelihood across all economic and human indices, will nonetheless take warning from the consequences of its cynically sectarian politics and governance and desist from repeating the course it chose to follow in Delhi?

On that it must be said that, regrettably, the jury is out, given the ideological ecology of the making and political history of these forces.

That any attempted repeat of its follies are now likely to receive far greater pushback than before seems much more likely. Such hope resides in the awakening the republic has seen and that is underway with increasing conviction and energy.

It is to be hoped that organised political forces in the opposing secular camp will have learnt lessons from the spontaneous leadership furnished so numerously and concertedly by “we the people”. Should they fail yet again, there is no telling how the future of the republic may shape in the decade to come.

For now, let us salute the women and youth of India for what they have done and continue to do.


The author, who taught English literature at the University of Delhi for over four decades and is now retired, is a prominent writer and poet. A well-known commentator on politics, culture and society, he wrote the much acclaimed Dickens and the Dialectic of Growth. His book, The Underside of Things—India and the World: A Citizen’s Miscellany, 2006-2011, came out in August 2012. Thereafter he wrote two more books, Idea of India Hard to Beat: Republic Resilient and Kashmir: A Noble Tryst in Tatters.

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