When the dust settles on the events of Republic Day, one conclusion will be palpably clear. The logic of the state’s political strategy is to find any pretext for social division and state repression. The immediate elite reactions to the unruly and shameful scenes in the wake of the farmers’ protest in India’s capital, especially at the Red Fort, were two-fold. The first was to feign shock and horror, and to channel everyone’s inner nationalism and get them to rally behind the cry of order. The flying of the Nishan Sahib flag at the Red Fort, as inappropriate as it was, was treated as an existential threat and national desecration. The second was relief that the unruly scenes now delegitimised the farmers’ movement, broke the momentum of the protests and would protect the agriculture bills. India’s problem is solved.
But this attitude should not disguise the fact that we were all trying to find a respectable way of expressing our deep authoritarianism and unleashing another round of repression. The leaders of the farmers protest will be targeted with all the national security arsenal that the state has used in previous protests, from Bhima Koregaon to the Citizenship Amendment Act. This includes using the National Investigation Agency (NIA), detention, state harassment, and encouraging mobs to target legitimate protestors. For instance, Yogendra Yadav is already experiencing this at more levels than one can imagine; it is remarkable that people like him, our true patriots, still keep the democratic faith. The real perpetrators of disorder will not be punished while those exercising the right to democratic protest will be demonised. States like UP will unleash their arsenal of state lawlessness in the name of law and order. But the worse is: We will all cheer for authoritarianism.
The scenes at the Red Fort may have been disturbing. But the real darkness on the horizon is not the protest, or the turn it might have taken. It is the turn Indian democracy is taking, almost as if it is on the road to perdition. For almost two months, the farmers’ protests were not just peaceful but a model of disciplined civic expression and cultural articulation. Dozens of farmers died in the cold. There was no outrage anywhere compared to the outrage we saw on the flag. They were demonised. They were subjected to the standard argument of the state, that they were secessionist Khalistanis. The NIA was freely used to hang a sword over them. All the institutions of the state that could have acted as redressal mechanisms, from Parliament to the Supreme Court, abdicated their core duties. But the farmers were not provoked. You may argue that the protest is still largely by farmers from Punjab. You may also disagree with some of their positions. But the government’s position has been even more of a travesty. Even if the movement is largely based in Punjab, we know that it is a deep and genuinely state-wide movement. Does deep existential discontent in Punjab need not be constructively addressed, and in good faith?
Instead, what we have got is the usual pattern of the BJP’s “heads we win, tails you lose” political strategy. First, take an intransigent position that does not address the core of the grievance or contemplate reasonable constitutional solutions — wear the movement down, use the existence of the movement to shore up your credentials as a strong state. But when the time comes, use the movement as a pretext for further crackdowns, strengthening the arbitrary powers of the state, and position yourself as the custodian of nationalism against all powers. Find the perfect occasion for doing so. In every movement, this script has been followed.
But the most disturbing part of the Republic Day was not the events; it is the way our repressive instincts were channelised. The media acted as nothing short of the unquestioning cheerleader of the state, hiding behind pieties of the flag and feigning concern for the frontline policemen. If they were genuinely concerned about the sorry condition of the frontline policeman, they could have asked tough questions — like why do our political masters, including the home minister, put frontline policemen in an impossible position by not doing their political jobs? There were no tough questions about the circumstances that may have led to the disorder. Was there an element of state collusion, a false flag diversion? These are questions that need to be asked. There were complete double standards. Let us for a moment grant that elements of the protest went unruly; youth groups joined it that were not the core of the movement. But if this unruliness can delegitimise the legitimate grievances of farmers, then Hindutva — a movement that has led to more intentional blood spilling, collateral damage, and vigilantism than anything — should have been delegitimised a long time ago. If a few unruly scenes can delegitimise Punjab farmers, put in abeyance any rational discussion of the real problems of agriculture, one would have hoped that lynchings and violence would be more than sufficient reason to put “love jihad” laws and cow protection laws in abeyance.
The language of order, and the pieties of the flag in which it is wrapped by the state and the media, is not about order at all. The language of order is partisan to the hilt. It is weaponised to crush dissent. It is used to empower repression. It is used to desecrate the spirit of constitutional values. But it gives even the supposedly most liberal amongst us the perfect pretext to rally behind the government once again. It gives a pretext to appease our consciences that we can ignore the systematic repression of civil liberties, the runaway crony capitalism, and the frightening communalism of the state, the criminalising of dissent, the desecration of federalism and the collapse of institutions. It allows us to ignore the fact that the most influential and powerful sections of society from legal professionals to academics and media, from owners of capital to bureaucracy, have connived in creating the conditions of disorder, by closing off legitimate channels of democratic deliberation, and actively supporting authoritarianism and communalism. The government may have won the battle of perception by playing on a disingenuous language of order. But the open wounds it has created will fester and create long-term problems. The cycles of repression, protest and more repression will continue. The real desecration did not happen at the Red Fort. It happened when we created a country where jokes, acts of love, and democratic articulation are all deemed anti-national. As Thomas Paine said it in his classic put-down to Edmund Burke: “We pity the plumage but forget the dying bird.”
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 30, 2021 under the title ‘The read desecration’. The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express.