Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
Exactly a day after the pomp and the show of India’s celebrations of Republic Day 2020 faded, a young law student standing in the imposing shadow of India Gate in New Delhi, the country’s iconic war memorial,passionately confesses her uncomfortable dissonance with the lavish display.
‘All this passion, where will this lead to?’
‘We are celebrating the Indian Constitution which held millions together with the golden thread of civil rights. Now, Republic Day marks the very opposite of what B.R. Ambedkar’s Constitution stood for; military might, crude nationalism and the disparaging of minorities’ she says.
‘India invited Brazil’s Bolsonaro as the guest of honour not coincidentally’, she adds. ‘This is to pass a not-so-subtle message, that the old order of striving for equality and justice has given way to nationalist strongmanship. We, the young people of India have risen against supremacist Hindutva ideology and will continue to do so.’
Elsewhere in the sedate and scholarly confines of the India International Centre, older (though perhaps not necessarily wiser) pundits shake their heads in half perplexed bewilderment. ‘All this passion, where will this lead to?’ a historian asks. He acknowledges that nation-wide protests over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), the National Register of Citizens (NRC), and the National Population Register (NPR) were eminently justified. Even so, the worries are real. He points to Hong Kong youth standing up to China’s might over an extradition Bill that would have abandoned criminal suspects to the uncertain mercies of mainland China’s compromised legal system.
Trigger sparking national fury
The bill was withdrawn but protests continued. Hong Kong’s young explained that they were fighting for the ‘soul’ of their birthplace even as the self-administered territory experienced an economic downturn after months of riots and protests. Similar economic negativity would be devastating for India which is already coping with slow growth rates and a predicted recession. Like in Hong Kong, public anger came to a head with the Modi Government’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) which overrode the secular basis of India’s Constitution by promising citizenship for persecuted religious minorities excluding Muslims.It was justified on the basis that it only sought to give protection to Hindu minorities fleeing state reprisals in majority Muslim countries in the region.
Earlier, the Government which had come sweeping back into power on a punishing wave of popular demand, revoked the special status given to Kashmir.
Nonetheless, the raft of citizenship amendments sparked national fury. Protests erupted in major cities and unprecedentedly, spilled over to renowned universities including Jamia Milia Islamia University and the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Masked attackers carrying clubs and sticks disrupted a meeting held by JNU students to protest against actions of a Bharathiya Janatha Party (BJP) linked right-wing student base and assaulted academics and students alike as the police watched. Images of traumatised professors and students with bleeding head injuries flashed across television screens around the world, leading to global shock and severe damage to India’s reputation as a liberal democracy.
The Government back-pedalled with swift damage control measures. Senior Ministers voiced their disapproval of inactive law enforcement officers as the campus was invaded. On Republic Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi cautioned that violence was never a solution to any issue but elsewhere in the city, Shaheen Bagh became the epicenter of protests as students and even parents recited resistance poetry.
Undeterred, students in universities across India continued to hold vigils in sympathy with embattled colleagues in the capital. Interestingly, private campuses, business colleges and engineering schools, joined the agitation. Even though the Citizenship (Amendment) Act was passed in early December by a Government dominated legislature, some states have refused to implement its provisions. The crisis therein demonstrates afresh the dangers of giving juggernaut majorities to any one political force.
Unmistakable warning to rightwing factions in Government
Even so, India’s mass protests transforming the political reality of the day was an unmistakable warning to powerful right-wing factions in Government that India’s young was not going to yield. ‘We will not give up our country to fascists without a fight’ declares my young conversationalist at India Gate. Some of this frustration is also traceable to the slowing down of the economy apart from growing awareness that India’s secular constitutional democracy is under siege. Yet absent a galvanised Opposition, there is only so much that people protests and the anger of students can accomplish.
Much like Sri Lanka’s dysfunctional Opposition with the United National Party led by a man who has liberal credentials to his name but has sadly undermined all those gains by an aloof and out-of touch style of leadership, India’s Congress Party remains demoralised.
Thus, the anxiety of the scholar who asked me where India’s protests were heading is perhaps understandable. But the young listen to the cautions of the old soberly, yet only up to a point. There is a gut instinct driving their anger as they see India turning into a country which is becoming very different to what their parents experienced.
‘This is not right. We must do something’ corroborates others who join the conversation at India Gate. They are also students at the Law University, Delhi. Emotion moves them, irresistibly. ‘Later, we should not be sorry that we kept quiet’ they say.
Their courage and steadfastness is a lesson for Sri Lankan students and activists who recently issued a statement in support of the struggle being carried on by their peers over the Palk Straits. However, it must be stressed that civil rights activism amounts to far more than the issuing of statements and pontificating on social media.
The main takeaway of civic protests in India
Today in Sri Lanka, as nationalistic forces gather strength, the effort to combat that menacing development must not be through social movements linked to compromised political forces masquerading as ‘independent.’ This is what crippled the ‘yahapalanaya’ effort. Lawyers, academics and academics paraded under party political banners for personal and professional profit, forsaking the core values of objective and independent critique. In effect, the very faults of the political parties and the political establishment were replicated in those efforts which were, ultimately self-defeating and counter-productive in the main.
That compromised process has enabled subversive attacks on even the small and limited democratic gains in Sri Lanka during the past few years. Political turncoats and perfidious men try to demolish institutional protections by saying that they were prompted by mala fide and ulterior motives. This has the potential of undermining of the Constitution and the ideal of independent institutions and replacing them with that exact notion of strongman centralisation of power that India’s young is protesting against. The agitations of the Indian youth in regard to dangerous shifts in the country’s basic structures of governance, are principled and devoid of political agendas.
This is the core takeaway for Sri Lankans as, along with India, we face multiple challenges in preservation of the democratic space in the months ahead.