For cultural critics, nothing can be more enticing than the prospect of trying to make sense of the large-scale protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that seeks to define nation and nationhood. Such an endeavour brings us to the extensive disruptions by political parties, student organizations, Muslim communities and various identity and interest groups who claim to be resisting what they think is the making of a homogeneous and majoritarian nation. More than these groups, it is a motley of intellectuals and academics who have assigned themselves the responsibility of not just creating awareness about what they believe is an undemocratic and unconstitutional Act, but also have created a compulsory template to understand the current political culture affecting our understanding of India. Indian intellectuals never had it so good.
What these intellectuals argue will go on to mark the contours of future discussions on the topic, will fix its terms of reference and shape future debates around it. And that will outlive the current wave of protests and soon will pass off as ‘truth’ and ‘fact’ in books and journals. Though the violence of the protest will linger for some more time and will peter out in due course, what will remain is the way the Act and the following protests are framed by these intellectuals. I am not just referring to the writings of such intellectuals, authors and academics where they have articulated their dissent and difference, but their public performances as well, as in leading protests or making speeches or even physically disrupting something they do not agree with. Regardless of the absence of any internal consistency in the articulation of the position they have taken, they are united in their opposition to the Act. Let us identify the contradictions and spillages in the delivery of that dissent.
The Seduction of Lies:
It is a no-brainer that intellectuals do not form a class, nor are they united by a common set of goals. But there is a set of celebrity intellectuals who offer their generous services to advise the countrymen. They are pampered by media because the latter can conceal its intellectual inadequacy by associating with the intellectuals. Though in recent times their access to resources has been seriously curtailed and their credibility undermined, they continue to resurrect themselves as and when they see some protest and latch onto them to revive their fledgeling fame. Coming to the representation of CAA, specific media outlets absolved themselves of any pretension to truth and actively promoted unrest by commissioning articles from various academics and intellectuals, thereby creating a cycle of dependency and reinforcement. They also created a very romantic and utopian picture of these agitations and pitted the agitators against ‘majoritarian’ forces. The mutually reinforcing academic/intellectual/media complex projected the protest as spontaneous, an attempt to save the constitution or the idea of India etc. – all these variables cathected on to the catchphrase ‘speaking truth to power’.
But ‘speaking truth to power’ in spite of being a catchy expression has its sell-by date. In good olden days, truth seekers and truth-tellers were a lonely lot, always ready to take up the cudgels against the high and mighty. Fortunately, those days are past, except for places under authoritarian communist and Islamic regimes; the closest we came to that situation in India was the emergency period.
In a democracy, speaking truth to power is an anomaly because the governments are elected by people; thousands of media outlets and a robust and often activist judiciary make it virtually impossible to conceal anything from the public. After the present regime came to power in 2014, the desire for ‘truth’ speaking became the tool of instant fame and legitimacy in specific circles. But as it is said, innovation and upgradation of skill is part of any workforce without which existing skills become obsolete. When everybody is claiming to be speaking truth to power, Arundhati Roy’s imagination and creativity found an easy way to beat her competitors, when she asked students to lie about their names and addresses when they are asked by the officials to provide the same. Gandhi and satyagraha are too elitist at the present time of subaltern resistance; never before advising students to lie was cool. For Roy, fame and infamy are the same; both bring visibility. If mentioning Ranga-Billa (as Roy did) was a joke, on Freud’s authority we can say that the joke betrayed Roy’s unconscious desires.
A defining trope that describes the intellectual is that as a truth-teller he/she believes in akla chalo re philosophy and does not wait for others to follow, such is the courage of his/her conviction. But Ram Guha, being consistently in lime light, understands that it may not be a great idea to walk alone and so wanted more and more to join the protest. When Akash Chopra, a former cricketer, expressed his opinion, Guha was not content with that; he challenged Sehwag to join, hinting that Sehwag does not have Chopra’s courage. The fact that he was scouting for supporters or using CAA to castigate his rivals, established the vacuity of his political belief. Ram Guha has a special place in the pantheon of such intellectuals for whom dissent is a career. When he led street protests in Bengaluru and was arrested, our media went berserk. Times of India reported that the police personnel who arrested him did not know that he was an eminent historian. Nothing can be more jarring than this contradiction; class and elitism are thus protected even while protesting for the ‘poor’ people.
And if Guha comes, can Shashi Tharoor be far behind? The latter posted the picture of a conversation between Guha and a police officer, accused the officer of punching Guha and demanded disciplinary action. The reality was that the officer was trying to reach his breast pocket. Competitive intellectualism has its pitfalls, i.e. the easy temptation of performing as an intellectual at the drop of a hat. Though such intellectuals will refuse to admit that they have a herd mentality, their clarion call to students to join them in large numbers is precisely an expression of the same. In the desire to go beyond interpreting the world and being a compulsive change agent, they seek to replace party politicians in being the voice of the people. More students, more universities joining them is the same like more traction, more followers, more legitimacy, more cult-like status.
One of the ways the protests have been represented is their supposed spontaneity, meaning that the protesters are not affiliated to any party, that they are not manipulated and that they are spilling over to the streets with no intention other than saving the constitution. Thus, Karan Thapar said that protesters are trying to save the idea of India. If that be the case why do we see Muslim League, DMK or Bhim Army flags in the protests? Should we not ask who is sponsoring these protests, the conveyance, the food or the PR agencies at work?
Another lie being spread is that the protesters are exercising their democratic right in a peaceful manner, though the videos released by police show protesters vandalizing public property, indulging in arson, throwing stones and in some instances carrying guns as well. The fact that such violence impoverishes the moral foundation of these protests has not been acknowledged by the intellectuals. Yet Christopher Jaffrelot sees protests as Ahimsa at work and imagines vandals as peaceful protesters. Rajdeep Sardesai contrasted these peaceful protesters (carrying Gandhi’s photos and the tricolor) with pro-CAA rallies (where he saw people carrying the saffron flag along with the tricolor). Maybe he forgot that saffron is already part of the tricolor. He basically delegitimated one type of protest and sanctioned another, thereby creating a binary of Gandhi and saffron.
By harping on Gandhi and Ambedkar during the protests, intellectuals have systematically tried to project the protesters as non-partisan, progressive, inclusive and democratic. They have refused to accept that the protests have been hijacked by Islamists and intellectual revolutionaries who never believed in the Indian state, and in fact advocated its break up. A great journalist Ravish Kumar, trying too hard to be an intellectual, recognized that students are becoming communal in many places, but saw those very students as agents of democracy. The project of valorizing anti-CAA protest as secular and pitting it against the ‘communal’ pro-CAA activists is intended to delegitimate any mobilization that goes against their understanding. Since Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) fiasco, many swayambhu (self-declared) fact-finding teams have visited AMU and have castigated state violence. It is revealing that the AMU protest poster girl Ladeeda Sakhaloon has openly said that they will continue to chant Allahu Akbar during the protest and that nobody can stop them. Are the protests still secular?
Another interesting facet of the protests, something which has not been recognized, is the intellectual obsession with minority rights which intellectuals feel defines the strength of Indian democracy. The way minority question has been framed, it tells us that it is not the minority which needs Indian democracy and constitutionalism; it is Indian democracy which needs minorities to establish itself as a true democracy. Volumes of books and theoretical templates dealing with marginality have spoken about the need for minority rights against rampaging majoritarianism. When the CAA sought to grant citizenship to persecuted minorities from three neighbouring countries, it was immediately clear that the minorities are predominantly Hindus. And that is something intellectuals could not accept. As per their template thinking, minority means Muslims and only a Muslim minority can be a persecuted minority in a Hindu majoritarian state like India. They can’t accept that Hindus also can be persecuted minorities. Their rabid criticism of CAA may thus be seen as a defense mechanism to camouflage the fear of being caught by their own vocabulary. They are trying to say that their minority is the real one; Hindus can never claim to be a minority even if they are persecuted in Islamic countries.
We know that intellectuals often deploy students to disrupt everything they do not agree with. Students usually do the leg work of physically obstructing rivals; intellectuals find theoretical justifications for the same. But when we come to old school intellectuals like Irfan Habib, age is no bar. When Arif Mohammad Khan, the Governor of Kerala, was responding to some of the points raised by a few speakers about CAA in the Indian History Congress in Kerala, Habib not only disrupted Khan’s speech physically, but heckled him by going to the stage. Such muscular approach to prove a point was already prevalent in identity groups, but something unheard of among academics, more so among ‘eminent historians.’ I am not sure if Habib was saving the constitution by doing what he did, or other academics present there were protecting the idea of India. The way news-media sugar-courted Habib’s blatant physical disruption perhaps requires a reappraisal of what we have naively taken for granted, that media are the fourth pillar of democracy.
Author: Jyotirmaya Tripathy
(The author is a Chennai based academic and cultural critic)