Politics is a double-sided phenomenon. At one time, it looks brutal and asymmetric, the state behaves like a Hobbesian Leviathan that brooks no opposition and, in fact, defines dissent as a violation of the social contract.
Things look bleak and grey as the media amplifies the emptiness. Then, suddenly, the winter is over and spring begins. Politics acquires a sense of the carnival and citizenship conveys a new sense of theatre and meaning.
It is like one of those keychains sold in the market, one holds the graphic at one angle and sees a woman looking angelically at you. Shift the angle and she winks wickedly and invitingly. One is hardly prepared for a gestalt shift in such an innocent object as a keychain. The last few weeks of the Modi government have signalled a similar change. One sensed inevitability to the policies of Home Minister Amit Shah and PM Narendra Modi after the elections.
Demonstrators attend a protest against CAA and NRC outside the Jamia Millia Islamia University. (Photo: Reuters)
The citizen as potential dissenter felt almost fatalistic before the juggernaut. The government had captured keywords like 'security' and 'patriotism' to keep civil society in line. It had earlier beaten major universities into abject submission. Then the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA) happened. The initial round of protests seemed routine until the violence at Jamia Millia Islamia took place. Something changed alchemically. Maybe, it is the scale of brutality that undermines the legitimacy of the regime.
The media failed to deodorise the unfairness of the regime. A protest we would have dismissed as minoritarian a fortnight ago, acquired a new sense of theatre, a powerful new script. The word 'citizenship' exploded with cosmopolitan poetry to trump the efficacy and ugliness of official words like 'security' and 'patriotism'. One must salute two things which changed the situation, created a metamorphosis. Suddenly, the university, from portraying the anarchy of democracy now appears like a hopeful microcosm of democracy.
There is a cosmopolitan air to protest, even a sense of non-violence as the state appears more brutal. The university signals to the state that the syllabus and the Constitution have a sacrosanct relationship. There is a celebration of ideas, their intensity and authenticity here.
Protest becomes a lesson in pedagogy where the university as an institution emphasises its faith in the lived world of ideas and the creativity of the Constitution. A younger generation, many of them protesting for the first time, has taught us a lesson of courage and decency. They congregate together because they believe in the togetherness of ideas. There is a belief in the power of community.
It is a beautiful moment where the government, pontificating for years, gets a lesson in politics. For all its brutality, the government is speechless. The words it utters are cacophonic. When Shah refers to the 'tukde-tukde' gang, it now sounds hollow.
Mentality of openness
The second event which is fascinating to watch is the life of the word 'citizenship'. It exuded a passive connotation of ritual acceptance and passive spectatorship, a constipated concept which behaved parochially and excluded people. Suddenly, a word which had lost its sense of hospitality in the majoritarian decade mutates and blossoms differently. Now, civil society is telling the government that citizenship is not a clerical ritual of identification and certification. Citizenship is a community of caring, a mentality of openness.
The culture of protests using Kolam is fascinating. (Photo: India Today)
The sheer body language of protest conveyed a message that no enlightenment philosopher could have stated better. The culture of protests, especially in Chennai and Karnataka, was fascinating. The use of the Kolam, the everyday drawing of hygiene and domesticity, was brilliant. Kolam is not graffiti.
New ways to dissent
It is everyday hygiene and art, but its use and the arrest of housewives showed how fleet-footed the regime was. As Stalin and other DMK politicians visited these housewife artists, one realised and sensed the new vernaculars of protest. If imitation is the sincerest form of the flattery and awe, the BJP attempt to replicate the move brings a glint of the comic to one's eye.
JNU has become a microcosm of Indian protest which has left the regime dumbfounded. The recent violence by masked men in JNU hostel is only the first indicator of regime losing control. Civil society should expect more violence and be ready to protect the institutions it cherishes. Beyond cosmopolitan and participation, the students and civil society are merely telling the government that protest is a part of citizenship and an effort to amplify ideas so that the government understands.
There is a gentleness and firmness to protest as an idiom, which the regime has failed to understand. There is an old saying that "those the Gods wish to destroy, it first makes mad." The Indian variant is gentler. It makes the powerful deaf to democracy. A regime senses its collapse in a festival of doubt and difference. Democracy has a gift for the unexpected. Politics has once again become my favourite serial.
(Courtesy of Mail Today)