Over the past week, two visuals have dominated US headlines. The first was a video showing a white police officer kneeling on the neck of a black American man named George Floyd as he repeatedly pleads, “I can’t breathe.” He died shortly after. The second is of police in riot gear aggressively confronting protesters who took to the streets across the US in the aftermath of Floyd’s death.
For Indians who witnessed the nationwide protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the proposed National Register of Citizens this past winter, the similarities between the events in the two countries are striking – as are the differences.
To begin with, there is a notable semblance in the repression facing Muslims in a Hindu-majority India with that experienced by black people in the predominantly white US. The protests in the US over the week have been fuelled by anger over a growing list of black Americans who have died from police brutality – among them, Eric Garner as he was breaking up a fight, Tamir Rice as he was playing in a park, Philando Castile as he was returning home from dinner and Breonna Taylor as she was asleep in her bed.
In December 2019, as the protests against the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens were gaining momentum in India, the police brutally lathi-charged a group of Muslim university students and tear-gassed libraries and study halls in New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia. The nationwide protests against the current government’s citizenship initiatives erupted against the backdrop of growing violence against Indian Muslims in recent years, sometimes directly by the police, at other times enabled by the silence of the authorities.
Along with the shared recognition of police brutality in India and the US, there is also a shared sense of collective resistance The protest imagery coming in from the US, of crowds surrounding police vehicles and powerful graffiti on the walls, is being posted on social media platforms in India with the slogans “Jai Bhim” and “Hum Dekhenge” – rallying cries of the anti-caste and anti-Hindutva movements. In both countries, there is an undeniable affirmation of the possibilities of collective resistance against a violent and discriminatory state.
However, there are three striking differences in the social contexts of India and the US.
First, unlike in the US, where the considerable majority of white Americans oppose the injustices experienced by black Americans, a much smaller proportion of India’s Hindu majority recognise and take issue with the discrimination faced by the Muslim minority. Even members of the marginalised Hindu castes who perceive themselves to be the absolute minority have sided with the Hindu elite in order to be included in the Hindutva-driven growth agenda.
This was made clear from the manner in which the Bharatiya Janata Party was able to consolidate its Hindu vote bank by alienating India’s Muslim community – a decisive strategy that helped it win the past two national elections. As new caste identities and alliances are forged, the question of who is discriminated against and by how much is continuously contested in India – a marked contrast to the relatively more consolidated social view of the marginalised status of black Americans in the US.
Second, the deep-rootedness of discrimination against Indian Muslims in social norms, abetted and normalised by the majority, means that the active role played by the state in maintaining the repressive status quo in India is of a different nature than in the US. While there has been an undeniable doubling down on anti-Muslim rhetoric and actions by the present government, historically the need for such explicit state-ordered violence has been lower. Instead, Muslim oppression – including physical violence – is maintained by Hindutva perpetrators bolstered by a silent state.
The US, on the other hand, has a rich history stemming from the civil rights movement in the 1960s that identifies and codifies discriminatory acts, not just in law but in social norms. This, paradoxically, necessitates a greater degree of state force to preserve white privilege. Black Americans are often isolated through false or petty accusations, to create a space that allows prosecution under the garb of law and order, and then attacked violently.
The past week’s protest cries of “stop police brutality” are an echo of systemic discrimination maintained by unchecked access of white Americans to the tools of state violence. This was evident in another video that went viral around the same time as George Floyd’s murder, featuring a white woman in New York named Amy Cooper. In the clip, she can be seen calling up the police and claiming that she was being threatened by an “African-American” man in Central Park, when all he had done was ask her to put her dog on a leash as the rules required.
Third, there is also a difference in the degree of how much police force is considered acceptable. India remains entrenched in feudal, caste and religion-based identities that exist alongside a tenuous set of fundamental rights guaranteed to the individual by the Constitution. Society at large doesn’t give prominence to the value of individual liberty in India in the same way as it does in the US. The space for negotiating civil rights for individuals is more constrained and therefore violence deployed to curtail individual liberty is considered more acceptable.
Given the weak civil rights framework and deeply entrenched discriminatory social norms, what can Indians do to create the space for resistance against repressive majoritarian politics? To begin with, we need a new imagination of political organisation – one that is comfortable with constituting and re-constituting unorthodox alliances of social groups and contradictory aspirations in the service of achieving higher ideals.
It can be argued that the significant scale of the protests against the citizenship initiatives in India was also a reaction to some Hindus perceiving a threat to their own freedoms: if citizenship could be threatened for Muslims in India, why couldn’t the voice of the Hindu middle class in the matters of governance and privilege be curbed down the line? Already, Hindutva groups associated with the ruling party, vocal about violence against Muslims, have been increasingly vociferous about curbing women’s rights. The visuals of the police firing tear gas in a university library in the national capital, served to further diminish trust in the government’s ability to maintain law and order by at least a faction of the majority.
These self-regarding motives do not have to be detrimental to the bigger project of building a more just society. If anything, they provide a political space to leverage different, often antithetical, identities towards equitable policy. Since the end of the Cold War, political entities around the world have offered a vision of a better society based on unbridled economic growth that is in harmony with humanitarian ideals.
But for the majority, this political rhetoric of liberal democracy has not been perceived to have brought an actual improvement in their material and social lives. Instead, it has paved the way for right-wing governments in the US, in India, and in many other countries, to come to power promising that they would not be “held back” by abstract values and would deliver real gains for the majority.
Against this backdrop, any emancipatory politics will need to look for pragmatic compromises. It must construct alliances based on lived realities and practical aspirations of people in service of egalitarian goals. It is important to recognise that in addition to the support by some Hindus for the protests against the citizenship initiatives led by the Muslim community, the other front of opposition came from the people in Assam and Tripura who viewed those moves as a threat to their livelihoods and identity.
While the Shaheen Bagh-style protests across India were characterised by liberal ideals, the protests in the North East were driven by suspicion of purported Bangladeshi immigrants. Protestors argued that indigenous communities would be undermined and public resources would be burdened if so-called illegal immigrants were allowed to gain Indian citizenship under the Citizenship Amendment Act.
Despite their incongruent motivations, a pragmatic alliance forged between the two groups of protestors could provide the political opportunity to subvert the anti-Muslim design of the government’s citizenship initiatives.
Aiming for higher ideals
But such an approach to uphold minority rights must also be prepared for a kind of tenuousness that comes with flexible group identities and potentially contradictory motivations. The North East and Hindu groups that opposed the citizenship initiatives along with India’s Muslims may be at odds on other issues, sometimes even to the detriment of emancipatory goals. But that is an outcome that needs to be anticipated and addressed by seeking new alliances. The BJP effected this kind of social engineering to change the course of Indian politics. So can others.
In the past few days, many Americans on the right side of history have taken the knee to protest George Floyd’s killing; reclaiming the very imagery of his death. That is the need of the hour: to take tools of oppression and turn them into resistance. The opportunity to build a better, more equitable India, lies in leveraging the numerous fluid identities of its people, resolving any discrepancies in group aspirations as they emerge on the way to achieving higher ideals.
The author is a development professional based in New Delhi. Views are personal.