No Indian needs to be told that our democracy has been under lockdown for almost a year. The Covid-19 pandemic has only made it starkly visible. This political lockdown is mostly a product of the inability of the opposition parties to offer any resistance, leave alone an alternative narrative. Energised by its electoral success, the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah regime is seeking to build a political universe of perpetual photo-ops, lubricated by sycophantic praise, with no trace of the constructive friction that principled dissent produces in a true democracy.

This project has almost succeeded. The metaphorical Ashvamedh horse sent forth by this regime has trotted unchallenged throughout the realm with only two exceptions. One of these spaces of resistance is the university campus, and the other is a political movement – the campaign against the Citizenship Amendment Act and its complement, the proposed National Register of Citizens.

Pandemic conditions may have forced it to fade from public memory, but the political significance of the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act movement cannot be exaggerated. At a time when Modi and Shah believed that they had no worlds left to conquer, a challenge suddenly emerged from the unlikeliest of sources – Muslim women.

Unflagging moral stamina

This unique movement – symbolised by the Shaheen Bagh site in New Delhi – remained steadfastly non-violent despite repeated provocations. It was dignified and unapologetic in its Muslimness, but insisted on speaking the language of secular citizenship, foregrounding the Constitution. It managed to evoke a response all over the country, appealing also to large numbers of fair-minded non-Muslims who watched silently.

It was an informal and inclusive campaign that surprised everyone with its unflagging moral stamina. It endured months of deliberate disregard from elected representatives and fended off continual attempts to discredit it. It could only be disrupted by the orchestrated violence that merged seamlessly into Delhi’s state-condoned riot of February 2020. And then the Covid pandemic arrived like heaven-sent relief for an authoritarian state, enabling it to muzzle all public protest.

The challenge posed by university campuses is older. For all its successes in silencing opposition and moulding opinion elsewhere, the regime has struggled to capture campuses. Even where it wins student elections, it does so with faceless candidates forgotten as soon as they are elected. Right-wing ideologues attribute this to leftists monopolising positions of power in universities and keeping out other ideologies.

Protestors in New Delhi demand the release of Kanhaiya Kumar, a Jawaharlal Nehru University student union leader accused of sedition, on February 18, 2016. Credit: Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters

If vice-chancellors and deans could manufacture movements and create charismatic leaders at will, the last six years would have produced an unprecedented rightist renaissance. Instead, the ruling regime has been on a collision course with campuses across the country and the alphabet – in Aligarh, Allahabad, Banaras, Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Mumbai, and Pune, for example.

But it is the close connection between campuses and the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act movement that has alarmed a regime newly accustomed to total domination. However popular student leaders may be on campuses, they have been easily defeated on the electoral battlefield. But the association of student activists with an unexpectedly successful movement – one that was both deeply political and self-consciously non-electoral – presented a new and unsettling challenge to be suppressed at all costs.

Hence the recurrent witch hunts against student leaders with viable connections to larger movements, from Rohith Vemula and Kanhaiya Kumar to Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal now. Hence the need to present all links between students and social movements – so vital for our democracy – as sinister. In the relentless drive to break this link, no lie is too shameful, no allegation of conspiracy too far-fetched, and no procedure or law too sacrosanct to be bent or distorted.

How to respond?

What can the targets of such a drive do in response? Faced with the mighty state machinery, backed by political impunity, a brazenly biased media, and a mostly malleable judiciary (with honourable exceptions), there is little that law-abiding activists can do to protect themselves. The constitutional right to legitimate political activity is no longer available to opponents of the regime, who are now being threatened with indefinite incarceration under draconian laws, with the collateral damage of the harassment of relatives, friends, and colleagues.

The crowning irony here is that most of the student activists involved in the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act movement were also at the forefront of rescue and relief work after the riots, and later they have been on the frontlines of the coronavirus lockdown relief work. The activists being hounded now as conspirators have been doing the state’s work of providing relief for those whose lives have been devastated by the lockdown.

It is pointless to ask if those in power feel any shame at the fact that one branch of the administration is seeking daily reports on these activists’ relief work to claim as its own, while another branch is fabricating cases against the same activists for the imaginary offences that they will then be coerced to confess to.

An age of alternative facts

These are our best-educated young people in the truest sense – they have tried to internalise and act upon all the pious sentiments that every policy document on education foregrounds. This is part of an established tradition of hypocrisy, where everyone knows that social sensitivity, community service and thoughtful engagement with civic issues are meant to stay on paper, in textbooks and exam answers.

At best, they may rate a token effort for the sake of decorating a resumé or job application. Those who take these things seriously are invariably punished if their political beliefs diverge from the beliefs of the powerful.

We are being asked to believe that our best young people are really terrorists.

When power depends on controlling narratives, the distinction between truth and falsehood is deliberately undermined. But living in an age of alternative facts is no excuse. We will be judged tomorrow by what we choose to believe today.

Apoorvanand and Satish Deshpande teach in Delhi University.

The views expressed here are personal.