When the graveyards and crematoriums in India were overflowing from the casualties of the second wave of the pandemic, the construction of a 2.8 billion Central Vista redevelopment project was deemed as an ‘essential service’ by the supreme court and allowed to continue. The project, a matter of pride and significance for the ruling government drew bleak comparisons of India with Nero’s Rome, where the ‘emperor’ fiddled whilst Rome burnt. India’s modern-day Nero, PM Narendra Modi has abdicated from his responsibilities whilst his party continued to peddle a fake narrative on self-reliance and nationalism making a mockery out of an entire country.
This is only one of the many ways in which the Indian government became the people’s worst enemy during the pandemic. The right to dissent is the hallmark of a free and functional democracy. As the pandemic exacerbated the existing inequalities and systemic failures of the political institutions, resistance stands as the only way out of the state’s Orwellian viewing of the citizens fundamental rights. While the ensuing pandemic placed restrictions on organising social justice movements, fascist and autocratic governments around the world utilised it as a perfect opportunity to crush vocal resistance. Through two case studies this article examines how social justice movements in India have developed in the backdrop of fascism and autocracy within the context of the pandemic. Understanding the emergence and progress of such movements amidst multiple deterrents helps us throw light on the new(er) definitions of dissent, resistance, and solidarity that are becoming more relevant in the post covid world.
The façade of democracy
The imposition of lockdown and restriction on people’s movements helped the state to acquire vast unchecked power to strengthen its hard Hindutva stance. Secularism and democracy had already been under severe stress even before the pandemic and the lockdown and subsequent lethargy of the political institutions were a further impetus to decline towards a centralised rule as the principles of cooperative federalism were tossed away. From the national lockdown in 2020 that was hastily announced only hours before its imposition (without discussion in the parliament or with the states) to the government’s continued ignorance of the 6-month long farmer's protests, the State’s action has benefited only the huge capitalists of the country while the poor and minorities remain invisible in their priorities.
The doctrine of separation of powers and other checks and balances that intend to protect the sanctity of the constitution has been repeatedly bypassed in the last few years. The decimation of all opposition had led to the dwindling down of the separation of powers between executive and parliament. The supreme court is much too keen to cosy up to the Central Government and has blindly denied any of its dismaying failures. The media (with few exceptions) on the other hand continues to remain the government’s biggest cheerleader. All pillars of Indian democracy seem to be collapsing, aiding India’s democratic barbarism.
When the pandemic-imposed lockdown was announced, protest against the controversial citizenship amendment bill was in full swing. The government had passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that discriminated against and isolated the Muslim community in December 2019 which led to protests across the nation. In the absence of a worthy political opposition, civil society has risen to protect India’s tenuous grip on democracy. Consequently, communal riots that targeted Muslim communities had broken out in parts of northeast Delhi during February 2020.
As restrictions on gathering fractured social movements of resistance, the state began its witch hunt of activists and students who had actively protested against the CAA-NRC laws. While the real criminals who incited and engineered the riots went scot-free, several student activists (specifically from the minority communities) were arrested under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) which holds the convicted “guilty until proven innocent.” The Act was further amended in July 2019 under the BJP government to designate an individual as a terrorist without proper trial.
The government’s response to dissenters in all cases follow a similar pattern. As P.B Mehta wrote: “First, take an intransigent position that does not address the core of the grievance or contemplate reasonable constitutional solutions — wear the movement down, use the existence of the movement to shore up your credentials as a strong state. But when the time comes, use the movement as a pretext for further crackdowns, strengthening the arbitrary powers of the state, and position yourself as the custodian of nationalism against all powers”.
Furthermore, encountering justice in the Indian legal system is anyway a matter of chance. However, when it comes to the plight of the political prisoners, these lapses are a result of more than institutional inefficiencies. Dissenters are treated as enemies of the state while the judiciary’s stubbornness and apathy continue to deny them justice and dignity.
Building social justice movements in a pandemic
Even with the pandemic raging on, protests have taken place across the globe for the Black Lives Matter movement, the Israel Palestine Crisis, or Sarah Everard’s murder in the UK. However, when it comes to India, the protestors have to brave not just the virus but also a Government that seeks to criminalize the resistance and delegitimise their movements. Withstanding these deterrents, the farmer's sit-in protest that began in August 2020 has continued at many costs.
Three ‘reformative’ farm laws were passed by the Indian parliament with little discussion or debate. These laws were a death knell for the Indian farmers as they signalled the withdrawal of the State’s role leaving them powerless and at the mercy of the corporates. While the union government responded in its usual manner of discrediting the protests, the farmers sat through the harsh weather and the second wave of Covid. Their protest sites are luminous with displays of solidarity and resolve. Harsh Mander, a human rights activist, wrote on their model of resistance, “They have developed their idiom of resistance, combining Gandhian non-violent satyagraha with the pledges of freedom, equality, and fraternity of the Constitution and have woven into these the iridescent traditions of Sewa or service from Sikh teachings”.
Rihanna’s tweet on the Indian farmer's movement not only got the world to take notice but also raised the importance of online activism during the pandemic. Hashtag activism has come to the foreground to inform people and organize communities to build solidarities. Social media platforms such as Instagram and Twitter have helped in the active mobilisation of socio-political protest movements. Though activists and protestors can make themselves heard, social media is limited in its access and removed from those whom these movements are for. The detachment of the key stakeholders from the events and developments in the digital world means that their voices never find a space in the conversations in digital space. Furthermore, social media provides selective visibility to people according to their economic, social and political privilege. So, while hashtags have helped to garner support and demand accountability, the hierarchies of privilege built in our social world get interwoven into the online activism spaces as well.
Through twitter hashtags and street protests, after constant vilification and despite losing many of their own in these tough months, the farmer's movement is here to stay. Though the government suspended the implementation of the bill, the farmers are resolved to stay on the streets until they withdraw these laws and comply with all their demands. The protest sites that resonate with love, resilience, and courage are reminiscent of the anti-CAA protests organized only a year ago. Across time and causes, these protests reflect a similar commitment to the idea of solidarity and fraternity across religion, caste, and class identities. These movements epitomize hope, strengthen our resolve, and rewrite our allegiance to the constitutional principles of Justice, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.
Searching for hope
On 15th June, the Delhi High court granted bail to 3 student activists arrested for the anti CAA protests. The news was received with much joy, surprise, and a bit of hope. The court observed in the judgement, “In its anxiety to suppress dissent, in the mind of the state, the line between the constitutionally granted right to protest and terrorist activity seems to be getting somewhat blurred. If this mindset gains traction, it would be a sad day for democracy”. These blurry lines must be made stronger through our resistance. While we celebrate these small wins, we must also contemplate why we have been reduced to cheer at even the tiniest instances of justice which is our birthright.
There is a hope hanging around that the collective grief and loss we experienced as a country through the pandemic can serve as an equalising binding agent that forces people to see beyond themselves. Dissent must become a commonplace mechanism to resist fascist ideologies or the state would continue to see dissenters through the prism of political enemies.
Despite the hopelessness, instances of solidarity continue to help us breathe. Hashtag activism and street protests continue to merge in innovative ways to build solidarity to fight for human rights and navigate through a pandemic. Be it the student activists who led the CAA protests, the resolve of the farmer's movement, or the social media warriors helping to find medical resources for strangers, we are all tied to a common struggle. Destiny, after all, lies in our hands, the common people, and our actions. The choice to be dissenters or willing accomplices is ours.
Sivakami Prasanna (she/her) is part of تحریر // Tehreer, a 6-month writing group housed within The Rights Collective which supports writers who identify as South Asian to develop their own voices in writing about social justice.
Article co-edited by Huma Riaz Khan (she/her) - Lead for the تحریر // Tehreer 2021 and volunteer at The Rights Collective.