Dissent and new rules of engagement

The response of the BJP government to people’s movements indicates that it is no longer a Government “of the people, by the people and for the people”. Instead, citizens are manipulated to work for it

Dissent and new rules of engagement

Samir Nazareth

India’s present political leadership has tried very hard to promote the martial past of the subcontinent, marked by the rise and fall of successive dynasties. But despite such efforts even as it ignores integration of the Mughals and centuries of colonisation, the sub-continent has actually had a rich history of peace and peaceful protests.

The phrase ‘Ahimsa Paramo Dharma’ (non-violence is the highest virtue) is ironically repeated many times in the Mahabharata. Peaceful existence remains a core tenet of both Jainism and Buddhism. There are instances of non-violent protests even before the Gandhian freedom struggle. In 1730, 363 Bishnois (a tribe in the Indian state of Rajasthan) were massacred by the King while peacefully protecting their sacred trees from being felled. These aberrations, when rules of engagement were violated, have now become the norm.

Post-independence, there have been examples of people coming together to demand change or stand up to the government. Launched in 1951, Acharya Vinobha Bhave’s Bhoodaan movement – was instrumental in persuading landowners to gift land for redistribution to sharecroppers is one example. There have also been non-political movements led by individuals. The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) movement against the construction of dams along the river Narmada shook up India and made international headlines. Both remained peaceful people’s movements.

The Ram Janma Bhoomi movement in 1990, though launched as a peaceful movement, ended in violence. The partly religious but wholly political movement was led by right wing Hindu organisations, and politicians like LK Advani - one of the leading lights of the erstwhile Bharatiya Jan Sangh. It culminated in the destruction of the Babri Masjid and was followed by riots, murder and mayhem. Not wanting to appear anti-Hindu the central and state governments were in a quandary on how to deal with Advani’s Rath Yatra. Nor did successive governments accede to the demands of the Narmada Bachao Andolan.

Though non-violent protests remain part of India’s socio-political discourse, there has been a marked change in how it is perceived. The right wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has rewritten the books of engagement with the express purpose of projecting an image of a strong leadership unquestioningly supported by the citizenry.

Unlike earlier governments, the current dispensation has more than just laws to deal with protestors. The brute Parliamentary majority allowed it o amend the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) empowering it to label individuals as terrorists and detain them without trial. Thus, the proclivity of the BJP government to brand all dissent and dissenters as anti-national has grown. Many who critiqued government policies and action found themselves charged under UAPA, NSA and sedition laws.

The present government has also not been shy of using religion to malign those who stand up to them. For example, during the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests, the government, including Prime Minister Modi, instigated the majority by alluding that the protestors were Muslims and hence, by implication, suspect. In the ongoing farmers’ protests, the government falsely claimed that the protestors were Khalistani separatists. Public discourse on the arrest and incarceration of young climate activist Disha Ravi, who was charged with sedition for supporting the farmers’ protest, was steered to ask whether she was Christian.

This government has also handled the media differently from its predecessors. Past governments did try to muzzle the media and succeeded for temporary periods. But the BJP government has instead corralled the media and controlled the narrative. In fact, a recent central government committee made up of cabinet ministers, right wing ideologues and pro-government journalists came up with elaborate recommendations on how to control the media and neutralise the anti-government media.

Blocking access to the Internet and crackdown on social media have also been part of the government’s strategy. In Kashmir the government blocked internet access for 17 months and 4-G internet services were restored just before Prime Minister Modi and President Joe Biden spoke. The five-month long Farmers’ protests demanding the revocation of the three farm laws is another experiment for the government to perfect its warped methods of dealing with dissent. It is bringing together tried and tested methods and coming up with new ones.

In the handling of the Farmers Movement, the world is now witnessing the coalescing of lessons learnt. The government’s ability to let its supporters do the talking while ignoring the repercussions of its diktat, use of religion to garner support and accentuate divides, manufacturing Machiavellian narratives to justify the abuse of authority and having the media amplify them, and denying protesting farmers access to internet have been evident. It has also been successful in preventing news of the protests flooding social media by targeting social media companies. In PD James book ‘The Children of Men’ Rawlings a member of the State Security Police says “It’s taken governments a long time to realize that you don’t need to manipulate unwelcome news. Just don’t show it.”, something which the BJP government has perfected.

Unfortunately, the government is impotent when it comes to controlling the narrative abroad. Tweets from Rihanna and Greta Thunberg had the government in a tizzy. Heads of state like Canada’s Justin Trudeau commented in support of the protests. International media have been ruthless in criticising the government’s mishandling of the pandemic.

The response of the BJP government to people’s movements indicates that the ideals of a government ‘of the people, by the people and working for the people’ is mutating into citizens ‘of the government and patronised by the government’, working for the government’.

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