Over the past five-and-a-half years, we have seen an escalation of state violence, from campus troubles being triggered to the sections of the Constitution being dispensed with.
Parliamentary practice has been ignored as major policy decisions that have a profound impact on dignity, lives, security, livelihoods and survival have been rammed through the lower house with little discussion. The state of Jammu and Kashmir was disappeared and an entire people were blocked out from modern communication. During the demonstrations against the Citizenship Amendment Act, protestors have been shot and been threatened with having their personal assets being attached in order to compensate for damage to public property.
The police have invaded universities and student organisations affiliated with the ruling party have brutally attacked their peers. Justice has been elusive even as the mayhem spreads – impunity reigns supreme.
Though India has a comprehensive criminal law undergirded by the Constitution, we have witnessed a range of horrors: arbitrary detentions, extra-judicial killings by the police, Dalits on campuses being excommunicated, Muslims being criminally targetted; prolonged internet shutdowns.
The courage of conviction
Battling this ruthless state with unimaginable courage have been India’s young people, armed with the Constitution and the courage of conviction it bestows on them. While many of those sworn to office under oath of upholding the Constitution are ripping it into shreds in a hundred different ways, it is these people – the young, the students (of Aligarh Muslim University, JamiaMillia Islamia, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Hyderabad Central University, and countless others), the women of Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, the people of Kashmir – who school us all about what the Constitution tells us about who we are and what we ought to be as a people. It is they who teach us its fundamental tenets and demonstrate its power to us.
Clearly, the policemen who fired on unarmed people in Uttar Pradesh protesting against the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act and in Aligarh Muslim University and in Jamia Millia Islamia will never be investigated or charged. Clearly the Bharatiya Janata Party’s sister organisation, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, which invaded JNU on January 5 under the watch of a complicit police force will never be charged or punished.
Clearly, although this violence has caused concern around the world, the External Affairs Minister believes he has no need to address it. As he said at launch of this own book last week, “I can certainly tell you that when I studied in JNU, we did not see any tukde tukde gang” – a term used by some people to define a nebulous group they believe are involved in balkanising the country. What does this even mean? It is lumpen street talk that folds erudition into itself seamlessly. Clearly none of the other alumni who sit in ministerial positions in government deemed it necessary to demonstrate their solidarity with students and teachers wounded in the attack on JNU by affiliates of the ruling party.
Clearly the criminality of mass violence that we saw in Gujarat in 2002 and the derailment of law during the trials of the people believed to be responsible for the violence emboldens these current actions.
Who are the infiltrators?
As citizens of India, in the context of the struggles against the Citizenship Amendment Act, we need to ask, “Ghuspethiye kaun hai?” – who are the infiltrators? Those that swear by the Constitution, the sonorous chorus of “azaadi” rising to a crescendo their only weapon? Or those who run amok on campuses, bearing deadly weapons? Those who recite Faiz and the Preamble and draw sceptics into an ever-widening circle of democratic protest and civic engagement? Or those who threaten to hurt and maim in the name of “Bharat Mata” and “Hindu Rashtra”? Those who assert that their solidarity lies firmly with those who have been targeted in full knowledge that with this mere expression they risk great personal danger? Or those in positions of leadership who send out dog-whistles about who should be targeted in the next round of violence?
Recent events have reminded me of Telugu poet Sivasagar’s poem Statement of a Conspirator written in 1971 (“Devouring Bharat’s freedom is conspiracy, the ballot box is conspiracy…”). I also recalled Cherabandaraju’s poem Vande Mataram (You are the Bharati/ who stands patiently/while rats and bandicoots dig at theroots of crops ripe for harvest/You are the evergreen land that does not reach people’s mouths/Vandemataram, Vandemataram).
Like Faiz, countless poets who write as they should in opposition to a state that wages wars on its own people without respite. In recounting these poems and stories, this generation is memorialising a radical history of ideas and resistance as the wellspring from which the Constitution draws meaning and its life force.
The university has moved out of its securitised, walled and gated environs. Experience, as never before, now forms the basis of teaching and learning and theorising. The student-dissenter is the teacher – an unparalleled one. For decades some of us have struggled to free the constitution from the Blackstonian confines of courts, arguing that public constitutionalism is the only route to a robust assertion of equal citizenship. We only succeeded in fits and starts, in minuscule measure and even that made us euphoric.
Today as we watch day after day, the public reading of the constitution, the public schooling into citizenship on an unprecedented scale by people who are most vulnerable to assaults of terror and criminal labelling, and the steadfast reiteration of constitutional commonsense in the face of serious injury and criminal cases, a sense of healing returns.
Also flooding back is a sense of history. For across various insurgent ideas of freedom on the subcontinent, anger and resistance were welded to non-violent disobedience and a deeply ethical politics. Hope rumbles slowly deep in the belly – the raucous cacophony and utter dishonesty that accompanies these gruesome terror strikes in the name of deshbhakti will be vanquished. We have miles to go. But perhaps these are sightings of a hopeful future.
Kalpana Kannabiran is a professor and director at the Council for Social Development.