Reading India in the time of protest!

 

Thongam Bipin

thongamTime and again we have seen how India unfolds itself to its margin during protests. It is violent and oppressive. It has made itself clear through its actions that the state machinery is not for the protection of the public but to protect the government from the public. The public is increasingly seen as an enemy of the state. Violence and oppression get exponentially over the par when the enemy of the state belongs to a minority community. It is the design of the state to be ruthless against the protestors in the Northeast (NE), in Jamia, in Aligarh and in other parts of Uttar Pradesh. The ruthless design of the state is extracted from and sanctioned by the dominant community.

There are many who suffer not because of their own designs but somebody else’s. Yet, they cannot speak of their sufferings. Their suffering is an unspeakable suffering for the nation is greater. Because their suffering is lesser in the scale of national importance, it does not reach the masses which constitute the core of a nation. It becomes untranslatable in the language known to the nation. Thus, it does not outrage the national conscience. Simply put, the sufferings of some are mere and routine. They cannot be understood without their sufferings. It is who they are. They will cease to exist without their marginalization. Their marginalisation is the design of the nation. However, a privileged person's suffering exhorts outrage, shakes the national conscience because it is not normal for a privileged person to be suffering. She cannot and should not suffer.  It is not usual for a brahmin or a person from a privileged class/caste to be suffering. It becomes our collective task to solace her because she is the nation. 

Extending further, some resistance movement or voicing of dissent, however strong or long it has been, does not necessarily carry the same weight as it is from somewhere else. Some bear testimony of national proportion while some remain area-specific and are indicted parochial, or called names – ethno-fascist. It is a term that now describes the Northeast (NE) of India because NE refuses to accept any foreigner. NE, a geographically, culturally and militarily oppressed community, deserves such a name because they do not speak the language of inclusivity of the Indian liberal. Elsewhere, you see Dalit-Bahujans are termed casteist because they talk about caste and resist caste. Ethno-fascist is clearly a language of a liberal oppressor who sees NE without its history and politics.

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Passing of the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB, now CAA) by Delhi earlier this month and the eventual resistance movements against it in India proper are merely for the consolidation of the Indian state. The resistance against CAB is not necessarily against the Bill if we were to do a post mortem of it. It is against the BJP’s idea of India. For example, the use of modern myths such as the Indian tri-colour flag extensively in the protest, the constitution of India which governs India, reading of the Preamble of the constitution to mention a few, underlie consolidation of India. Perhaps, the difference with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lies only in its means. The end, however, remains the same. For the BJP, consolidation of India is achieved by exclusion; the protesters achieved it by inclusion.

What holds for the NE when the end of the secular resistance is but BJP? What lies ahead for the NE when the very same constitution or the preamble is a mirage? Do we realise that the region does not carry the basic right to live under the Armed Forces Act? For how long, the people of NE have to sacrifice their lives in order to keep the secular ethos of India?  Exclusionary politics of the BJP, as dubbed fascist, play a reciprocal game with the one who is seemingly against it. 

There are two modalities available for the NE as a response to the Indian nation/state and its ideology. Let us take the CAB protest as a point of reference. Firstly, after the Jamia (and Aligarh) protest and the state violence, it has become an obligation for the NE to first show solidarity then return to talk about the protest of the region. They are one step away from their voices already. But, let us also remember that anti-CAB protest in the region didn’t just start at the late end of 2019 when the bill was looming over us. We have seen the region standing up against the Bill when it was attempted to be introduced in 2016. This solidarity, I would like to call, is a strategic political solidarity and not so much of politics embodying life. In so doing, NE now talk about themselves via the protest in India proper.

Jamia protest contradicts NE as Jamia seeks to consolidate India. India cannot consolidate itself without constantly identifying and reiterating who are its minorities. India will achieve consolidation at the expense of NE and Kashmir. 

Now, NE is forced to seek solidarity despite the fact that it is but a digging of their own graves. The region has now reached a point where they have to beg for recognition and understanding of their issues and voices which cannot simply be put in the same breath as the Jamia. Fearing that one may sound/become non-secular, people from the region are quick to share and express solidarity despite knowing the consequences that are far-reaching. Are we to simply parrot the language of ‘secular’ India?

Next is the coercive assimilation. We have seen brutal force suppressing dissent in Assam and Tripura. Although, the one I would emphasis is an event held in Imphal, a few days after the passage of CAB in Delhi, by the Biren government. The government called for a mass celebration for Delhi has extended the Inner Line Permit (ILP) System in the state. Biren government disseminated a false sense of security to the people of Manipur as Delhi declared that CAB will not be implemented where ILP was in place. However, many in the state were skeptical as they saw ILP toothless before CAB. The event was organised to show gratitude to Ram Madhav of the BJP for generously handing over ILP to Manipur. The question is why the Biren government did not choose the decorated state convention centre or the BJP office in Imphal. It was held in the heart of Imphal, on the road between the two congested Ima markets. They blocked the road making mobility for everyone inconvenient. What I find interesting is the different layers of meaning of the choice of the place.

Ima market has been used, many a time, as the epicenter of anti-CAB movement since it was first introduced in the parliament a few years ago. It is a place of resistance, not just against the CAB. Ima market is witness to many and all kinds of movements in the past. Women's war against the British took place in the market. One cannot read the history and politics of the state without it, or, at least for the valley. Therefore, it is significant for BJP to welcome Ram Madhav at a place which is the epicenter of the movement. It is a strong signal to the people of Manipur that they will use whatever means to quell any movement. It is a signal which signifies control of state politics and victory of BJP (read India) over Manipur. Manipur has a long history of the movement for self-determination and many consider the treaty of accession between the king of Manipur and the new Indian state in 1949 illegal and void. It can, thus, be marked as the end of such movements thereby consolidating Manipur by force. Biren’s government needs no liberal assurance to quell the movement; they will do it without it. The event is a signal for that. It is a way of saying we will come directly to your house and celebrate the success of annihilating your house. It does not have a sense of giving respect to its already vanquished population. They will prick at the heart of the defeated and they have no regret for it.

Both variances serve to consolidate India.

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These are the two acceptable, or perhaps, the only ways available responses to the Indian ideology: wear secularism or accept brutal force. Any other means which are beyond this binary have to be about NE, Assam, and Tripura. The fact that NE can have its own voice and concern is indigestible to the people of India proper. These two strands are so powerful that the region has to often succumb to them generating a large number of populations who follow them. When the Assamese or the Tripuris raised questions of indigenous fear, and reject CAB, not on the basis of secular ethos, people of India proper were quick to judge the region. It is not accidental. Tripuris have been fascist. Assamese have been fascist. And they have paid the price for not being fascist earlier. India’s secular ethos has conveniently looked away from NE. It is an enabler of Indian internal colonialism in the region, or, as others called it, settler colonialism.

Issues of the region are of land, demographic change, culture, resources, etc which do not sit easily with the India proper’s demand for inclusivity. It is the fear of the new population that may overpower the native. They do not have to go far to look at a mirror. Tripura is a case in point that has been a bastion of the left for a long time. Secularism and a progressive political party ruled the state for a long time and the Tripuris have been reduced to a minority in their own land. This fact has never been addressed, neither by India’s progressive political parties nor by the liberal intellectuals. When this fear was brought out, they are termed ethno-fascist.

The larger question that needs answering and asking is would there have been a protest if BJP was inclusive in its invitation to the seeker of Indian citizenship? Considering that secularism is the tool for protest in India proper, there cannot be another answer but no! In that case, Northeast was to fight a lone battle? Tripuris have been fighting a lone battle too. Not that their cause garners much understanding. Considering the equation that is developing, anti-CAB movement would immediately die the moment BJP includes Muslims in its list of invitees thereby leaving NE alone in its fight for existence, just like Pundit Nehru left Assam alone during the Indo-China war. It is a signal for NE and how they have to sacrifice in order to protect India’s secularism at the expense of their life-politics.

What emerges, in the context of anti-CAB protest, is simply the suppression of a legitimate movement with the help of another legitimate one. What is crucial is legitimate politics do not necessarily play in an equal playing field. It is the liberal bout of nation-state that makes two legitimate voices irreconcilable; it is the liberal bout that makes politics of India proper legitimate while making Assam and Tripura illegitimate. 

Even international reporting seems to understand the bigotry of BJP. We have also read the opinion about how the Muslims are fighting a lone battle considering NE’s refusal to take them. The underlying meaning is how NE is the prick in India’s secularism. Media representation in India or abroad carries the same inequality where Assam is suppressed in the service of an inclusive India. Sufferings of the region are mere because they are in the periphery of the Indian nation because they suffer daily. Their suffering is illegitimate because NE does not qualify to be Indians. Don’t Muslims suffer? Yes, they do. It is not a competition. Today, India apparently stood up to protect its secular ethos that BJP is trying to destroy. Indian secularism is the problem for the NE. It is its secularism that makes NE untranslatable and illegitimate. 

NE has to look for an escape. Escape to where? Escape from the Indian binary that only strengthens the Indian ideology. This time around, many from NE have unapologetically rejected this binary. Perhaps, it is where the hope for the region lies. 

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Thongam Bipin has Ph.D. from University of Hyderabad and he can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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