Long before the current protests against citizenship laws, there was the Nav Nirman movement in the 1970s. These were fiery, often violent protests that tore through Gujarat. Over 100 were killed, thousands injured, buses were torched, public property destroyed and the state government toppled.
At the heart of the Nav Nirman agitation, triggered by students enraged by a hike in college mess fees, were the Jana Sangh, RSS and ABVP. And among the protesters was a young activist named Narendra Modi. These protests were seen as an expression of the peoples’ will and brought down a government.
But today, four decades later, the largely peaceful anti-CAA-NRC protests are in danger of being delegitimised altogether. In the week of Gandhi’s death anniversary, we need to remember that the father of the nation was also the father of non-violent civic protest.
Today a string of epithets is directed at those demonstrating against CAANRC: ‘jihadist’, ‘anti-national’, ‘Pakistan sympathisers’ et al. The Shaheen Bagh protesters in Delhi, for example, are accused of holding up traffic, inconveniencing commuters, of being paid agents of politicians and ‘enemies’ of the state. A Union minister has led a chant calling for violence against the protesters. Those who just a few months ago were extolling Gandhi on the occasion of his 150th birth anniversary, who have claimed Gandhi for several government programmes and posed with charkhas, have turned against the foremost Gandhian legacy: nonviolent civil disobedience.
Why are non-violent protests important in democracy? Because those who are democratically elected derive their legitimacy from the consent of the governed. Consent is key. Citizens’ freedom to give consent and then withdraw it when they think necessary is what prevents democracy from spiralling into majoritarianism and mobocracy.
The majoritarian mindset however believes that once a vote is given, consent can be taken for granted and dissent and disobedience have to be outlawed in order to preserve the pretence of perpetual consent. Yale historian Timothy Snyder warns that the first lesson we must learn if citizens don’t want to lose all their freedom is: don’t consent in advance. Don’t turn away or turn a blind eye if governments do things you don’t agree with, instead getting on the street and voicing noisy disagreement through protest is the best and often only way to safeguard your own liberty.
Individual liberty was crucial for Gandhi, who viewed state power with extreme suspicion. Gandhi constantly warns of the state’s boundless capacity for violence against individuals. He said: “An increase in the power of the state does the greatest harm to mankind because it destroys individuality which lies at the root of all progress.” The free individual is central to Gandhian satyagraha. Rigorous personal discipline and self-control confer moral stature on civil resistance. Gandhian disobedience is not anarchist or criminal violation of law, instead it’s about citizens struggling for just principles by being moral exemplars.
The non-violent protest, the dharna, the satyagraha are the parents of India’s democracy because it is in these mobilisations that freedom was born, and it is in protests down the decades that leaders have been created.
In more recent times, the JP-led anti-Emergency movement birthed several top politicians in power today. Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad cut their teeth in anti-Emergency agitations. Student protests have thrown up leaders from Sitaram Yechury to the late Arun Jaitley. Grassroots neta Mamata Banerjee was born through street protests against CPM in Bengal.
Even more recently, it was the Anna Hazare protest movement of 2011against the graft-tainted UPA which provided the platform for the Modi-led BJP to catapult to centre stage. The Anna Hazare movement also led to the emergence of an entirely new political startup, AAP. The political agenda of the Anna movement can be questioned now but it did provide a platform for public anger against corruption to be powerfully expressed in a non-violent manner. If Anna’s movement was valid in the eyes of today’s ruling establishment, how does the anti CAA-NRC protest become invalid for the same establishment?
How can the civic public protest be systematically delegitimised when it is the very womb from which politics began and from which leaders are born? India’s protest traditions have deep roots and deserve respect. The nationwide uproar against Indira Gandhi’s government between 1972-74 was seen as a legitimate voice of the people against an authoritarian regime. 47 years later, how can protesters also campaigning against perceived authoritarianism be targeted by sharp political rhetoric about their clothes?
To define a protest through a religious prism is a false and deliberate attempt to ‘communalise’ a ‘secular’ non-denominational agitation. For example, are the students of Nagaland, who have shut down colleges in that state, to be seen through any community labelling? What about the tribal communities of Tripura who have also hit the streets in anti-CAA protests? Even if a majority of anti-CAA protesters are Muslims in some parts of the country that surely does not make their protest unconstitutional.
A leadership committed to Ambedkar’s republican constitution and Gandhian values would listen to the voices of the protesters as citizens first, rather than boxing them into community pigeonholes for petty vote bank divisions. Gandhi would probably have gone to sit in Shaheen Bagh to initiate a dialogue. The ruling BJP has started a door to door campaign on CAA. In pursuit of winning hearts and minds, surely the home minister could visit Shaheen Bagh and interact with citizens there, as he is attempting to do in other parts of the country. Or are some citizens less equal than others?