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India’s protest culture: Rooted in Dharma

African Americans and native Indian tribes have been fighting a long battle against systemic injustices meted out to them in America. Affirmative action by itself has neither assuaged these wounds nor set right the injustices that they have faced.

The protests in America after the death of George Floyd have turned violent with the destruction of property and large scale rioting. Protest groups have taken down statues of colonial and racist figures such as Christopher Columbus, Confederate General Robert E Lee and slave trader Edward Colston. The protests have also spread to Europe where protestors have sought the removal of imperialist and racist icons that have adorned public spaces such as Robert Clive, Baden-Powell and Winston Churchill. Unfortunately, even Mahatma Gandhi’s statue was not spared for the views he held during his formative years in South Africa. 

Rights-based protests Vs cultural re-awakening

African Americans and native Indian tribes have been fighting a long battle against systemic injustices meted out to them in America. Affirmative action by itself has neither assuaged these wounds nor set right the injustices that they have faced. The protests after the death of George Floyd turned violent with many protestors seeking immediate recourse. Protests in western democracies are rooted in a “rights-based” culture where the emphasis on being denied a fundamental right (in this case a right to life) trumps the duty one has towards the state. It’s rare for American leaders to emphasize one’s own duties towards the state – President Kennedy was one such leader who did so in his inaugural address. 

In contrast, India’s fight against colonial imperialism can be traced to cultural re-awakening, increased awareness of one’s heritage, and a greater assertion of one’s identity. As a result, it has been rooted in dharma and hence the awareness of one’s duty and responsibilities in its interaction with the state. This is one reason for most issue-based protests in India being peaceful. The freedom movement against British colonialism was won through non-violent movements led by the Mahatma. However, of late, we have departed from this dharma based framework towards a more “rights-based” framework. The need for immediate results coupled with low state capacities has led to violence slowly seeping into India’s protest culture. 

Ghosts of colonialism

India reclaiming its past from colonial imperialism doesn’t stop with us exorcising the ghosts of British colonialism. The New York Times, in a 2011 article titled “Population Control, Marauder Style”, carried a graphic depicting the loss of lives caused by wars, the savagery of despots and institutionalized oppression. Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb’s 4.6 million murders was ranked at 23. Indians do not need such names to adorn public spaces and to have the road renamed after former President APJ Abdul Kalam was a befitting tribute to one of post-independence India’s great minds. 

Figure 1: Snippet from New York Times graphic on Aurangzeb’s purge  

Neither does India need to recognize tyrants who killed their own populations just because they “fought the British”. The atrocities of Tipu Sultan are well documented and the Karnataka government’s decision to not celebrate Tipu Jayanti is a welcome decision. The irony is not lost on us when one needs to change at Bakhtiyarpur Junction to reach Nalanda in Bihar. Bakhtiyarpur is named after Bakhtiyar Khilji who was responsible for the destruction of Nalanda – one of the oldest universities in the world and a seat of high learning. 

Figure 2: Bakhtiyarpur Junction showing change to Nalanda. (Image Courtesy: Organiser)

Colonial mindsets and practices are so deeply entrenched that reversals are always a long drawn out exercise. So far, the Narendra Modi government’s rootedness in dharma has led to an institutional approach in reclaiming our heritage from colonial imperialism. This approach is a befitting tribute to our ancestors who adhered to dharma when the odds were stacked against them. Violent protests and toppling of racist statues may seem like a short-cut but eventually, end up as a zero-sum game that India cannot afford. 

(Y. Satya Kumar is the National Secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party and served as the Officer on Special Duty to Vice President Shri M Venkaiah Naidu. He tweets at @satyakumar_y)

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